Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?

Is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?
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Uh-oh… I feel a rant coming on, and it’s not one of those brief ones either. It’s long and full of my own custom brand of “bitchiness”. I typically don’t address the issue of “spec”. It’s a boring topic that has been debated on countless occasions. Something recently arose, however, that demanded a response.

The term “spec” is short-form for “speculative work”, meaning a job in which the client requests work samples before agreeing to pay for them. Most designers aren’t fond of it for simple reason: it’s nice to get paid for work. Nevertheless, the industry is haunted by spec. In large part, it’s a result of some folks thinking that designers just “make pretty stuff”, and should be happy doing so in squalor. “Want to get paid? Then put down the crayons and do some real fucking work!”

Unfortunate as this is, it’s a misapprehension that many hold. As a result, spec-work and design contests will likely persist. In the same vein, herpes may always exist, but that doesn’t make it any more desirable. To the point though: This past week, author/blogger Tim Ferriss stirred the waters a little, with either a naive blunder, or – more likely – a deliberate effort to gain publicity for his upcoming book.

The scoop

Tim’s known mostly for having engineered a book success through his social media efforts. The overriding theme of his blogging and book is concentrated on the Pareto principle (or the 80-20 rule). I haven’t read the book, but have perused his blog posts. Tim is clearly adept at managing his online persona. He’s a smart guy and has achieved success by telling stories people want to hear.

Recently, Tim started a contest to design his new book’s cover. He’s awarding $250 each to the creators of his four favorite designs. All those who enter the contest waive their rights to their submission, but may receive “cover credit, fame and glory, and … the possibility of a follow-on agreement” as he describes. As Tim sees it, creating the cover design would only take a “few hours” and the “upshot” makes it worth considering. It’s also worth noting that the publisher has a team working on this project already, and that his offering of $250 is representative of a “good faith gesture”.

Why this is a problem

“So what?” you ask, “A lot of people do this sort of thing. Why are you picking on Mr. Ferriss?” Well, I think Tim knew exactly how he’d rattle cages by doing this. I’m speculating here, but I think he’s picked a topic that will create a little buzz without reflecting on him too badly. (It’s not like he’s biting the head off a harmless dove or anything.) Sure, some will get cranky and write meandering posts about it, but really, so long as he responds politely with a general “Aww, shucks, what’s the problem, guys?” little harm is done. In fact, he might even seem like the “good guy” for affording designers the opportunity to express themselves. Meanwhile those snobby designers do little but whine about the whole thing.

Sure, on the surface, Tim’s foible – or stunt depending upon how you see it – is pretty harmless. As he notes, “If you don’t participate by submitting, it is impossible for me to exploit you.” I argue this to be rather simplistic though, sort of like an advertiser saying, “Hey, maybe our ads are sexist, but if you don’t like ‘em, don’t watch ‘em.” Tim’s supposed “raison d’être” is to help people live their best lives through efficient use of time; yet, with this action he individually squanders the time of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people. Additionally, he perpetuates a much larger problem that shouldn’t be ignored.

Contests are fun!

I’m not a real “contest” kind of guy; still though, I can understand why people enjoy them. Perhaps you like to see how many pies or hot dogs you can stuff in your mouth at the county fair; or, maybe you like to get your buddies together for office hockey-pools. Whatever it is, a contest is generally about “fun”. Your livelihood probably doesn’t depend on inhaling plates of blueberry pie, which makes doing so mostly an indulgence. A lot of people apply this same sort of reasoning to design because our jobs look like fun.

It’s easy to understand why people see our industry this way. The output we’re responsible for seems colorful and ostensibly more pleasurable than more traditional seeming vocations; nevertheless, it’s work just like any other. There are good parts, challenging ones, and some even downright boring tasks. Ask most designers what they did all day, and they’ll likely to tell you about meetings, strategy documents, or coaching someone through a problem. The amount of time we get to “play with our crayons” is actually quite limited.

So now, look at your job, and ask yourself: How would you feel if your work was reduced to a contest? I’d guess you’d find it rather insulting. As an accountant, could you imagine meeting a potential client who wanted you to do the work first with the possibility of them “maybe” paying you after the labor was complete? Or, perhaps we could have a “steel fabricators contest”, in which hundreds of companies would design and build “spec” bridges with the best ones getting “credit, fame and glory”. Some will argue that I carry this too far. Spend a year as a designer though, and you’ll find yourself equally fed-up by how often you’re asked to work for free.

An industry-wide epidemic

If this were an isolated incident, we’d all probably let it go. Sadly though, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even at our firm we’ve had multi-nationals approach us with the same sort of nonsense. The misconceptions surrounding design are far-reaching and have a deep impact on the industry, resulting in countless wasted hours.

This is perhaps best evidenced by such groups as SpecWatch and No!Spec. Additionally, groups like the AIGA have formally drafted policies surrounding these practices. The need for such protests and policies is in itself testament to the gravity of the problem. Just think about how absurd this notion is: Designers need to concertedly ask to be paid. Can you imagine such a thing with any other industry? (Just think of the American Dental Association having a “position on spec-work”.)

Of course, this is a preposterous notion; dentists don’t work for free. I, and many others, believe that designers shouldn’t either. Tim argues that he’s not making anyone do so and that the choice rests with the individual. Although this is technically accurate, the truth of the matter is that these contests trivialize the work of designers. By having allowed them to persist as we have, they’ve become even more socially acceptable. Meanwhile, for whatever unpleasant circumstances they may face, someone’s always willing to work for less than they should.

Who’s really affected here?

This brings me to the people who are really impacted by Tim’s contest and others like it: Those who have few other choices. You see, smashLAB doesn’t take-on projects like these and I’m similarly hard-pressed to think of another firm or practitioner who would. Although a few hobbyists might try their hand at this, the likelihood of Tim entertaining one of these options is negligible. (Besides, for someone in their basement with a copy of Photoshop, this probably is a “fun” little exercise.) They haven’t invested anything in gaining even rudimentary design expertise, and can return to their jobs as lawyers, mechanics or pharmacists the next morning—where they will be fairly compensated for their time,

The people who really get hit by spec-work are the recent graduates of design programs who are desperate to build a portfolio. I meet a lot of these young designers, and am continually inspired by how badly they want to practice their craft. (Some seem like they’d chew through a log just to get a new project in their portfolio.) I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not take advantage of these people. It surprises me that someone like Tim would.

I’d be remiss; however, to ignore the current economy and the sorry state it leaves a great many in right now. I know a number of strong designers (and even art directors) with decades of experience that are currently out of work. These aren’t normal times and options are limited. I have to wonder how many of these folks – who would have otherwise made a reasonable living from their work – are now forced to bid on speculative work in hopes of rattling anything free. These are people with real-life demands, families, and bills. It’s still bad out there for a lot of folks. Do you really want to be part of the reason that some end-up on social assistance?

Tim and those like him take great liberties by dangling a carrot in front of a great many desperate people. The worst part of this is that there’s an awful lot of stick, with only a tiny bit of carrot.

It gets worse

Just consider the kafuffle associated with the creation of the logo for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games—they actually had the audacity to ask participants to pay $150 just to enter the contest. The debacle went on to generate discussion in the national media. Most disturbingly, however, the Organizing Committee’s CEO John Furlong seemingly couldn’t even grasp why there was an associated ethical dilemma with their contest, noting “I would think that this is something [designers] want to do for the country.” Such a statement leads one to ask if Furlong might too work on a pro-bono basis with the same patriotic zeal.

This illustrates the gravity of this situation. It has persisted for so long that designers are labeled “cry-babies” for voicing their objections to such bad practices. To each rebuttal, designers are confronted by a number of vague and dubious promises, most often culminating in the maddeningly cavalier use of the term “exposure”. In this context the term becomes grossly abused, seemingly implying great hidden currency in such a thing.

From Tim Ferriss, such a notion may be indicative of his own hubris. Do you remember who designed the cover of his first book? No. Well, how about those Harry Potter books then? Those are a big deal—we have all been “exposed” to that designer, right? Know that person’s name? Nope? Hmmm… My assertion is that even few designers, aside from those specifically involved in crafting book covers, would be able to recount the name of any book jacket designer besides Chip Kidd.

Fortunes resulting from such exposure are hardly ever as forthcoming as promised by the one dangling the carrot. Exposure of this sort simply doesn’t matter. There are many fine ways for young designers to gain experience and build their portfolios. They can work on self-directed projects, barter services, take on internships that afford on-site experience, or even take equity in projects with limited budgets.

A lot of people will think that I’m a jerk for calling out Tim Ferriss on this point. I’ll take the barbs associated with that happily. In fact, I argue that each time a designer doesn’t protest spec-work they allow indifference to build around the topic. It’s not Tim’s seeming daftness on this issue that people like me take issue with; rather, it’s the indifference to the issue that perplexes us. Few other professionals need to make such great gestures around the issue of fair compensation.

From another vantage point

Some on Tim’s blog commented that those protesting were simply “dewhiners” (clever) and that such a thing wouldn’t be a problem amongst writers. I like that train-of-thought… in the interests of good fun, let’s apply this same arrangement to writing!

Let’s say that Tim offered up this same contest for “talented” authors who might take a stab at writing a chapter for his book. In doing so, he’d define strict criteria noting his expectations and personal preferences, and he’d allow anyone to submit their sample chapter. He’d commit to little, given that it’s always nicer when you have free-license to do what you will with all of that “creative stuff”. By maintaining all of the rights, he could keep or discard any aspect of the contribution—perhaps even casting-off how you wrote and just retaining the ideas he liked most. He would keep all of the profit too, but… he’d give you $250 as a “good faith gesture”. Oh, right… and that “exposure” thing.

Think about this: Tim doesn’t just get ownership of your work: he gets the right to do anything with it. Sure, a few people might go for it; but, does that make the request any more reasonable? Just because you can dangle a prize in front of a whole bunch of hungry people doesn’t mean you should. Incidentally, some will argue that it takes longer to write a chapter than design a cover. That’s probably not wholly untrue, but I don’t think the tasks are as different as some might think. Actually, I’m doing both right now, and I’ve spent about the same time on each.

Let’s get real

I say Tim wanted some free publicity – which he got – alongside some inexpensive ideas for his cover. He’s pretty good at seeming like a misunderstood nice-guy, which perhaps he is, but his actions might lead us to a different conclusion.

Some will say that I’m making too much noise about something that really doesn’t matter. Others will argue that I’m just another designer pissed that it’s getting easier to do what we do. Neither is really the truth though. Tim’s foibles in this matter have little impact on my life—it’s not as though I’m forced to enter contests to earn a living. That being said, reading his post made me feel like he was abusing his “micro-celebrity” status at the expense of those just getting started in their careers. Standing-by without saying anything seemed inappropriate.

I’ll drop it now, as I now have to work on the cover of my book. (I probably have less money than Tim, but I’m designing this myself, instead of bribing recent graduates.) If you want a copy of the book, you can pre-order one here. Tim, since you’re apparently short on cash, I’ll even mail you a copy for free.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Aaron says:

    Thanks for putting into words exactly what I was thinking. Great article!

  2. Hans Saefkow says:

    This project isn't really about 'design' anyway. I'll use your example of the Olympic logo... Oh, sure, people will become familiar with the logo and will also become attached to it, in the same way that you could love your ugly dog... Something to do with 'You're beautiful because I love you (or, you're in my house A LOT') These projects live outside the design world anyway, so it didn't matter if John Furlong chose a scan of his big toenail as a logo... the Olympic are going to sell, no matter what.. And I think these guys know that... Ferriss as well, It's about the act, the game, and those people who are ALREADY paying attention... The design (and in the case of the Olympic logo) is a side issue, so why pay the going rate for a designer?
    If you actually had to SELL people on the Olympic, I bet they'd invest the dollars.

  3. Stuart says:

    Good article on a good topic. As a hungry, young, just-graduated designer, I fall smack dab into the target market you've mentioned of Tim targeting. However, I'd say that about 10 times out of 10, I'd rather scrape by a living working part-time at Tim Hortons or Starbucks and spend my spare time creating my own briefs, projects and "campaigns" than ever doing something on spec. I hope most other youngsters feel the same way too. The only thing I'll do for free is anything for my immediate family; whether it's websites, little booklets, business cards, whatever. What I give up in money I make up for with some experience, creative freedom and the fact that I'm not going to be a hard-ass to my family. Contests, spec work, etc...virtually never.

  4. yo_daniel says:

    Yeah, good article. Clients who want stuff on-spec usually mean 'we don't have a proper idea of what should go in our brief' and 'we're hoping that by getting a pool of ideas we'll randomly hit on what we hadn't we realised we'd wanted'.

  5. Jeff Kew says:

    I'll accept one of those free book copies too, if they're available for review?

  6. Sorry Jeff--only for Tim this time. I get the feeling he has to save where he can!

  7. Matt Robin says:

    Point well-made Eric, an industry of skill and craft undercut by simple-minded morons who don't know any better and don't think they need to either.

    This sort of craporama keeps happening and it is one of the most annoying things (particularly within web design). I'd dearly like to see the 'Industry' ...if you can call it that, take this more seriously. More articles like this one are sorely needed. Maybe that's the point: other professions 'are' industries in the organised, structured and well-respected sense, while Design (esp. Web Design!) hasn't got there....yet. Things really need to change.

  8. Vic Stapel says:

    Although I don't agree with your "F_ew" word in the title and the text I fully agree with you. :-)
    Youe post is to the point about it to me is the following.
    I'll start commenting about it's latter paragraphs such as Harry Potter etc easier to recall.
    Book covers if organized by publishers are rarely ever designed by the author or his pals or spec Designers. Publishers decide and assign Designer they have on record for specific types of books. As Designer myself, still working on publishing some books I have stumbled against these practices on and on again. I have written a Children's book and want to publish it. Publishers always "insist" on the illustrations being done by someon else. Having an Academic Art degree myself I find this frustrating. The Graphics actually represent my primary talent much more than the story that many others could have created.
    Self publishing is the ONLY ways that would allow an author to chose his own cover and the designer be it his granny or mummy or who ever on "Spec". YACK do I hate that word.
    Having workded years ago for " An A grade Design Agency" a UK Design Guru's identity" I was flabbergasted how many times, large wordwide Corporations expect work to be done "on spec" with the hope to catch the golden egg.
    Why is that? Easy, corporate giants (some that may have shrunk by now FINALLY) always thought than lesser household name Design Companies should be "GREATFUL" to find them self allowed into the whole grail by being asked to do "Spec" work first for a Corporate ID etc for them ..
    I take as practical example:The "livree" new logo green and white with a "Feather wing" for " Cathay Pacific Airways " the Hong Kong national Carrier was designed by the appointed the world great Corporate ID Design company for what the news papers then said was 4 Million $.. An Friend of a friend of mine in UK did the actual Logo work for less than 15.000 $ and Spec was part of it all the way.
    I have designed the Uniforms for some of the BEST five star Hotels in the world and they are on my public resume including Airlines etc and still get three and other five stars WANTING to see "Spec work" or participate in a biddgin contest to see if my sketches come in cheaper than the competition. So what credit does this give to one Style, Design, Direction, Reputation? I clearly state my site Thanks but no thanks to this kind of work. I can not afford the time and mental state they create. I leave this to those willing to lower themselves on the Designer goods supermarket shelves. ( We know the cheapest stuff is always on the bottom)
    Do I sound sarcastic? So sorry my apolygies. Maybe yes, but I rather keep my pride as long as it feeds me.
    I always potential customers for the opportunity and refer them to my website and Resume and wish them luck in their endavours.
    I do enjoy looking at some of the post creative results as they show again and again how much
    of scrap money has gone into the making of some of the flashiest properties worldwide.
    The biggest often pay the least, that is why they are the biggest. My Grand Mother a Viennese Aristocrate always told me "One can only learn to save from the rich" even her family had lost it all in he 1st world war. Her saving habits were remarkable and I am sure many of you may have witnessed the same with your older family generation. From matches to plastic shopping bags etc.. they were on the way to "green" thinking already. I see it that way.
    I rather sit sipping Apple juice ( it used to be Champagne) in our garden. Hard times you said
    Yes. I wish many of the Top Creative would come together and create some new entities as creating a new creative force does not cost much. Just the will power to unite and share.
    ( Anyone out there ?)
    Even in very hard times such as now Designers should do everything in their power not to give into exploitation.
    Since the first spiral engraved into a rock millions of years ago NOTHING EXISTS in this world that was not DESIGNED beside the people filling the plantet and that is starting to change also soon with cloning on the way.
    Someone I know here has lost his senior corporate job here in Vancouver many month ago and was offered a new position through an third party that days before starting the work agent with a world wide corporation cleared for much less. He will be working on contract for the agent and they'll cash in nearly 40% of the what he should get paid.( If he wants the job who does't, take it or leave it.)
    That is "Spec" seen from a more vicious angle. One ends up being the slave of a worldwide Employment agency that through times, thought lets be the employers slave drivers and force employees into contract work that will make us richer and lift the burden of the employer who uses pawns from someone else game.
    Eric I want your book on "Spec" please ! I never read one of your books before and this blog.. well it's just a dam good blog but still it's no book.
    Go on the net and check out how many websites when your register and they ask for your credentials do offer the choice of ticking off
    the career called " Designer" and I am not pushing it ...there are MANY types of Designers
    95% of them do NO list our creativity!
    But Accountant and the dull 9-5 everyday jobs are always listed.
    Only the Canadian Gov job search engine when one registers, lists way to many Design categories options. There is not one for Fashion Designer that one can click on that because they want to know if you are a shirt designer or belt designer and the list is endlessly funny I would say totally OTT .
    If you did . Thanks for reading this far.

  9. Vic Stapel says:

    would you enlarge your REMARK window a bit ?
    It would be nice to see more than 6 -8 lines when one writes a comment while writing it and can you give us the option to edit with say X minutes to do some spelling correction . Like here I can't go back and fix the typos I made. Thanks Eric

  10. The basic problem is that working in art doesn't look like work to people in other professions. I think it's safe to say that we do (on average) get more joy out of our work than people in many other lines of work. Some of that is the difference between a job and a career. Some of it is that if we do a good job we get a beautiful artifact that makes people happy, and we get patted on the back for it.

    I think a lot of people were raised with the idea that a job is what you do to fund the rest of your life. Work won't make you happy, but it'll pay for that amazing vacation in a few months. I have a suspicion that to many people their salary is compensation for suspending your happiness during work hours. Hence the notion that it's important to draw a line between your work and your life. Which I never understood, because I love my work and I want to do as much of it as possible.

    All this is just to say that most people look at what we do and categorize it not as "work" but as "fun." Along the lines of "You're so lucky to get paid for your hobby." So it's a short step to thinking "Wow! You get a chance to design a book by a famous author, and your name's gonna be on it, AND they'll give you $250! How fun is that?"

    Now, I know for a fact that my doctor and my CPA enjoy their jobs. They love what they do, and they have that sparkle in their eye when they get to show off their skills. But I doubt very highly that anybody would invite them to a competition. "The person who gets me the biggest tax refund without triggering an audit gets $250 and a mention on my blog!" Or maybe that's the solution to healthcare! "Whoever comes up with the best, most lasting, least painful cure to my disease gets a $1,000 gift certificate to Banana Republic and an article in the Lancet!" Such great exposure!

    I don't think people mean us harm by starting these competitions. They just don't understand how we do what we do. And I'm not sure any information campaign will ever fix it, either. There are people that were close to me for years, who watched me bang my head against the wall when I was stuck, who saw the "work" part up close... and they still thought "What a lucky bastard you are for not having to get a job!"

    Miraculously, some people do get it, and I want to support them in any way I can, in the hopes that they'll become CEOs of huge corporations and take us all along with them.

  11. Joann Sondy says:

    Spot On!

    Why is the concept of getting paid a fair wage for work performed so difficult to comprehend? A meager $250 to a finalist?

    I'm reading Mr Ferriss' book and I like the idea of a 4-hour work week; but frankly his methodology is difficult to accept.

  12. I don't think it has been debated enough, Eric, because it still flourishes. It's baffling to get the reactions one does when you confront a person about asking for spec. They are aghast that there would be any problem. Not sure why the very simple analogies don't get through, but my theory is that your "box of crayons" idea is the culprit. I'm ust not sure why the Lego® and Junior Science sets don't illicit the same reaction.

  13. I love the analogies you've used — really puts things in perspective for non-designers. Love the zinger at the end.

  14. Mindy Nies says:

    Great article. Keep fighting the good fight Eric. We (designers) are our own worst enemy when we participate in contests like this one. My hope is, if you're a designer and you do spec work and you read this article, today is the day you will make the choice to stop.

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  16. Great rant Eric. One little error though. VANOC did not charge $150 per entry into their logo contest. This is an urban myth that keeps getting repeated! There was no fee for entering. There was a "inspiration conference" that they put on that was prefaced as the "briefing" for the project and that was $150. It was actually a fantastic conference with various Olympic designers presenting their work, plus everyone got a huge book with case studies on all the Olympics, itself worth $100 I'd imagine!

    That said, the contest itself was pretty insulting and the GDC http://www.gdc.netmade its views very clearly known with national media coverage. With great effect as well, as all future 2010 design commissions have been done properly through RFPs and shortlisting of appropriate firms, and then paying shortlisted firms to present concepts. The mascots was likely the most successful example of this, but they did it for the Paralympic logo as well.

  17. I've worked spec on three occasions:

    1) For a small convention.
    2) For an elementary school.
    3) For a town carnival.

    The convention stuff was fine, as hey, I won, I got to enjoy it while I was there, and a couple of t-shirts and things is small payment, but payment nontheless. The others? Bupkis. (well, okay, Bupkis AND the insult of having to compete with -- and be beaten by -- small children, who were "obviously" the intended target of the contest. One of them gave me the "honorable mention" poster they used as a display at the event itself, which was fine, but still meager.)

    Those experiences was more than enough to turn me off at the idea of spec. This just confirms my belief.

    Mr. Ferriss is neither a local gathering of friends, nor a public school, nor a municipal function. He is as corporate as corporate gets, and corporate folks need to pay corporate rates.

    He's not a brand new writer who's self-publishing -- he's proven himself to be a perfectly capable book-peddler for a publishing company. He can damn well spare more than $1000 on a proper designer / artist, so he SHOULD go and find an artist and pay them the proper money. Yes, it's expensive, but dammit, he can afford to pay it.

    I'd be glad to make him something for $1000 -- less, even! -- and I'm sure plenty of other folks would too, so it's not like the bar is set high at all here. But I'm sure not about to make him art and waive my rights in the process in advance for a "chance" at $250.

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  19. I completely agree with Eric's views and concerns (and AIGA) about spec work. I've never participated in spec work and never will.

    The only concern I have is that the backlash on spec work may cloud the judgement of some designers (I'm speaking from experience) who may have the opportunity to volunteer their skills for pro-bono work for local non profits that normally couldn't afford the high end services that many of us can offer.

    I don't think that all non profits are entitled to pro-bono work and I don't think that pro-bono work is a good fit for all designers who want to give back to their community, but I think it can be a rewarding and educational experience for all parties when done properly.

    So down with spec work but be open to the possibility of volunteering your unique skills in your community.

  20. Well said! Pro-bono work that runs through a sound design process can result in an effective design solution for the client, and a healthy experience for the designer.

    There's nothing wrong with having a limited budget. Most designers will find a way to work with a client who's interesting, has a meaningful project, or needs a hand.

    But, of course, that's a two way street. Spec, however, rarely is.

  21. Carolyn Wood says:

    People who don't "get" the problem with spec work (design or writing) are shortsighted. They don't see the potential effect on the industry as a whole.

    Let's look at my husband's business. He's a residential painting contractor. When he's bidding against other professional painters, he has a good chance of getting the job. Their prices are likely to be in roughly the same ballpark and so they're judged on references, previous work, attitude, compatibility, good listening on the part of the painter, expertise that's evident during the first meeting with the potential customer, advice, etc. Sound familiar?

    Along comes the person who is inexperienced, or doesn't pay taxes, or doesn't manage their business well, or shortcuts (cheats) the customer by not delivering what was promised, or underpays his own workers, or lies, or has substance abuse problems and is always short of money. They, of course, offer to do the job at a much lower price. They, of course, may not be in business when problems arise, despite any guarantees they make at the time of the bid.

    The smart, educated customers know the difference. They know they are being undercharged for a reason. They hire the better painter even if it costs more.

    The average customer, however, doesn't know the difference, is bewildered by the contrast in price, hasn't the time to do the research, and chooses the lower-priced painter. Over time, more and more of the good painters, the craftsman, are forced to lower their prices in order to stay in the game. It hurts them, it hurts their families, it hurts their work, it hurts the general quality of what customers expect and receive. It becomes more difficult over the long run to make a living wage. Some go out of business because they are fighting a losing battle.

    LOW-BALLING BIDS AND SPEC WORK HURT THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE. No, it doesn't happen overnight. Yes, some people will be spared. Absolutely, these practices have a cumulative effect and hurt the industry, affecting the income and success of the better and best designers, writers, and other workers on the Web.

    I write for the Web, and had one very large company ask me to write a sample page (I was in competition with two agencies) and I just said no. They'd already seen my work. Perhaps spec work was just part of their automatic process. I got the job. No matter what contribution you make in creating web apps and sites, I want to add my voice to those saying "Just say no to spec work."

  22. This is such an important issue to be talking about. Just last month (and countless times before that) I had a potential client ask me if I would "present some concepts" along with my proposal for a job. I politely told her that I can't do any design work until contracts are signed and I've received a deposit...and of course, another "designer"—I'm sure who presented concepts up the wazoo and then charged half what I would have got the gig. It happens ALL the time, and it is incredibly frustrating, but I absolutely refuse to work for free, and I believe that designers who do are gravely hurting our industry. Even if you are a student or a recent grad—pick up a copy of the AIGA Salary Survey or the Graphic Arts Guild Pricing and Ethical Guidelines or The Designer's Guide to Marketing and Pricing...figure out your hourly rate and charge what your work and your time are worth. You are not served, nor is your client (work done resentfully for no $ doesn't come out terribly well), by working for free. GET PAID!

  23. Alan Bucknam says:

    Great article. Spec work and "contests" are a cancer/open sore/bunion on the design industry. The AIGA and individual designers should more strenuously oppose (and voice their opposition against) such practices.

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  25. MoneyEnergy says:

    Great article, indeed. You're right. It's unpaid labor, and it's done under great misconceptions about the nature of that labor. I'm not sure what claims we can make about Tim here, though, except to say that he's a classic example of what goes on elsewhere in the industry. Some of this discussion reminds me of academia and how often intellectual labor is not recognized as such either (e.g., you're not in an "office" 9-5 so it can't be real work if you're at home... an academic's job goes FAR beyond the 3-9 hours of classes they might have to teach per week - that's just the only publicly visible/understandable part).

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  27. bg says:

    It's been this way forever.

    The problem though goes beyond misunderstanding what it is we do to how things are charged for. Clients who don’t understand the value of design approach the process in too business-like a fashion. For them, design is just another commodity, something to get the lowest price on.

    What this mindset misses though is that a flat rate that they offer (or that you're willing to do the job for), is at odds with how designers bill most things, or at least should. Bigger projects like logos or identity programs can't be based on an hourly because you'll always get screwed.

    It takes as long as it takes to do it right. Four days. Four hours. Whatever. It also took a lot of years to get to the point, and that's what clients should pay for in your project estimate.

    Then there's basing the cost of the project on what the value is to the client's company.

    There's a reason an Olympics logo cost millions. It represents a global event that generates millions in profits, and you're paying for a major design firm's vision—good or bad. Using Vancouver Games logic, the London Olympics shouldn't have had to pay that much though.

    Clients who miss the true worth of good design would balk at paying $5-10K for an identity system for even a small company, let alone what they should really pay for it. (If it's a labor of love, then you can charge what you want.)

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  29. Doug Fuller says:

    Well said, Eric! I recently was asked to participate on a logo project where the invited designers would get $150 for their design and the "winning" designer would get to complete the project for an undisclosed fee. I politely replied that I could not in good conscience participate, but would be happy to meet with them and show them my work.

    The worst part of this is that I was referred to this client/project by another designer. We are our own worst enemy!

  30. Great post, I completely agree!

  31. The Devil's Advocate says:

    To present a different argument on this subject, I'd like to point out that whilst I am very much in agreement with what you all say, it is worth noting that many (most, even?) designers are, to put it bluntly, not great and their design output quality is very hit and miss. Finding a great designer (irrespective of whether or not they charge the earth) can be quite difficult, particularly given the output that some will still happily label "design work".

    If companies felt that paying for a design was a safe bet, you'd probably find less of a problem in the spec work department. Naturally the top design companies shouldn't have this problem as they have proven portfolios and therefore I agree that it would be insulting to have spec work requested of them.

    For those needing design work though, knowing how and where to find a designer who can reliably produce quality design work that actually meets the client's specifications and match the target audience's habits rather than just being a gratuitous exercise in "making something pretty" (yes, this is a VERY common problem), can be very difficult.

    I should say that I believe that it is hard to find good designers that have an idea about the psychology of design and also know how to produce high quality, slick design work employing modern design trends and that such designers should be paid and valued accordingly. As you go down the scale though, the work produced by the middle-to-lower tiers of the market (and this would be 90%+ of what is available in the designer pool) becomes quite unreliable in its output.

    Given that the the lower 90% still produces worthwhile output some of the time, I can understand why the phenomenon of spec work and crowdsourcing exists. People simply don't have confidence that their money will be well spent.

  32. Adrienne says:

    Agree 100%, people are always asking designers to do work for free because they "think it's fun" - it's bs and it should stop

  33. Dave says:

    Well, it seems to me that the only context in which this kind of "contest" makes sense is: the winning cover for the Ferris book will be made in a 3rd world country (not to name names), and/or include badly pasted previously-copyrighted work.

    No rational person will do work that doesn't pay off for them (one way or another), so the compensation offer invites participants for whom $250 + whatever value you assign to the "fame & fortune" will be a good return on effort invested.

    Two obvious examples: a designer from a country with a monthly salary in the few hundred dollars range, or a "designer" who invests about 10 minutes in the work.

    In the former case, they have my full support and best wishes, since they are doing meaningful work. I hope they strike it big, and create a better existence for themselves through work they love.

    In the latter case, I am tempted to encourage hundreds of them to apply for this particular position, since Ferris' behavior deserves them - if it will get both them and Ferris sued for copyright infringement.

    In the third case - that is, a person paying more than $100 a month for rent and actually investing some actual work in an offer like this - I encourage them to wise up. In a few years they might learn that a market economy (or life in general) doesn't treat naive people well. And it's not the economy's (or life's) fault.

  34. Brad Cole says:

    Personally, I really don't appreciate that exposure is used time and again as a "selling tool" to entice designers to do spec work. As far as I can tell, this kind of exposure only seems to help design buyers perpetuate the practice of devalueing our services and serves to reinforce the idea within the business community. Pashaw is all I have to say about the idea of designers gaining exposure through engaging in spec work.

  35. Vic Stapel says:

    Devils Advocate.
    Kindly revise your opinion the 90% of all Designers R U part of the 10% above?
    Beauty and suitability is in the eye of the client. A barber shop on the main street in some country side town ordering a logo for his window is not necessarily serviced by one of the 90% pool.
    There is someone for every one in this business and I am sure most Designers know their market brackets and always work towards accessing the echelon above. Beside that , great post also. Thanks.
    Thank's Eric I love this subject.

  36. Pingback: Respectfully Asking for Designers Opinions on our Logo Contest - DesignersTalk

  37. Pingback: AIGA President Debbie Millman on spec work | David Airey, graphic designer

  38. Excellent, excellent article saying all the things I wish I could put into words so eloquently. Thanks.

    Great comments from the readers too.

  39. Eric, Great rant.

    Congrats on promoting Tim's book with tons of exposure that you were not paid for. Isn't this long blog post which obviously took a lot of time the same thing as doing a cover on spec?

    As a professional speaker, I get several inquiries a week from conference organizers who say: "We can't pay you but you'll get lots of exposure."

    My response: "Thanks anyway, I'll pass. But I would be happy to speak if you want to pay my fee."

    Tim's ploy is he only gets volunteers. Successful people like you can just ignore him. Early in my speaking career I happily said yes to free gigs.


  40. Pingback: Creative Wolverhampton » Blog Archive » No Value In Working For Free

  41. Peter Sutton says:

    The sad fact is free pitching has become trade practice
    in the creative industry. The is only one way to put an end to

    We have to stop doing all together, all at once.

    If we don't we shall all be reading posts like this for decades to come.

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  43. Tim Ferriss says:

    Hi Eric,

    This is very well stated. I appreciate the opposing point of view and am glad to have read it. The contest was a first-time experiment of this type for me, and--while I understand the controversial nature--it was done in good faith. This much I can promise, though I don't expect everyone to believe this.

    Hopefully time will prove this to be the case, but I could just was well come to your conclusion.


    Tim Ferriss

  44. Drew Davies says:

    Thanks, Erik, for extremely well articulated thoughts on a complex issue. We most certainly need more people like you speaking up and fighting the good fight against disrespectful and damaging spec work. Brilliantly said.

  45. Rob says:

    Once again, great post. I would not pigeonhole it as a rant. It was a well thought out and written post.

    I see spec work catching a lot of young and hungry kids. In all creative fields, illustration, comics, design, animation. It my be the mysterious creative process, it may also be that kids are intimidated. I think most of the higher education institutions that focus on design and creative arts are not preparing them for the work world. Especially as the market is changing a lot.

    They come out of school as these little balls of creative energy. When your stuck pulling shots of espresso all day the idea of a design contest must seem like a golden opportunity.

    I mean there is no one way of fixing this, or helping to alleviate, I think the best way is to educate the juniors and seniors at school. And Im sure some of the schools are. Mine didn't, for my wife or me.

    It was about figure out our business model(the business of ourselves, as freelancers we have to be aware of our "brands") ourselves, after getting burned by a few companies out of school.

    But as I said before, great post Eric. You should get into teaching if you feel so inclined. You have a great sense about the industry that a lot of people do not have.

  46. Hi,

    I'm reading over all of your comments again thinking "awesome"! It's just so exciting to see such good discussion underway!

    I'd love to respond to everyone individually for all of the great comments. That said, I worry that saying "thank you" over and over again might start to make this comment thread somewhat tedious for you to read through.

    So, I'll just say it here: Thanks! I love that so many of you are sharing your stories, feedback and insights!

    My one fear with this topic is that it's so closely linked to what we do daily that it stays right here: in our studios, at lunch with peers, and on blogs and forums. In order for anything to change, however, I believe this issue has to be brought to others, who don't understand why it's an issue.

    I had this talk with my cousin last night. I explained that spec is a little like posting a job opening, meeting with 30 candidates, and then asking all of them to work for a week, offering to pay only one for having done so. He responded with a clear, "Yeah; that sucks."

    So, here's our opportunity to open this thing up. Want to take the issue of "spec" to the masses? Give the topic a digg, and let's see what happens! You can do so here: http://bit.ly/MlzAB



  47. alice says:

    Great post Eric. I totally agree that "competitions" and other types of spec work are a really, really bad idea.

    Tim Ferriss, if you read this, what does "it was done in good faith" even mean? If you honestly understand the "controversial" (I think the phrase should be "degrading to the design profession/industry") nature of your contest, why did you hold it? Surely your publisher can afford to pay a reasonable price for your cover design.

    Also, Stefan G. Bucher's comment = perfect.

  48. Mike Rohde says:

    Eric, I've been thinking about this contest and spec work in general the last few weeks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and examples as it has helped me process this discussion.

    The reason spec work continues to happen seems simple enough — there is a huge pool of design "talent" as varied as it may be — willing to participate in contests and spec work.

    If there were only 100 designers in the world, why would any of those 100 bother taking any spec work on? Supply in that case would be very limited and demand high.

    But when art and design schools graduate thousands upon thousands of designers every year with very few openings, that pool grows.

    When there there are others from varied backgrounds, countries and situations getting into design with relatively inexpensive tools and software, that pool grows.

    There will always be a certain percentage of designers in that huge pool of varied talent that's been created under the current conditions, willing to give it a go in the short-term for fame and glory and a shot at winning the golden $250 prize.

    I don't like spec work. I agree with Carloyn Wood that spec devalues the professional design industry over the long-term (as so well stated in her painting business example above). I think professional designers should avoid spec and encourage other design colleagues and up-and-coming designers to avoid it, for the good of the design profession, long-term.

    But realistically, with so many designers being minted on a daily basis, to stop it completely is difficult, if not impossible. Even if designers were "authorized" (which opens another whole can of worms) the pool of willing "unauthorized" participants will continue to exist and grow and participate in spec and contests.

    In my view, the best way forward for professionals is to take a stand on the principles of not taking spec work, encouraging as many other designers (including student designers) to do the same and explain to whomever asks, why spec is a problem (such as your post).

    And in tandem, designers need to put extra effort into explaining to business owners why a professional designer, with a well-planned process, communication and experience is the best choice for solving their design challenges when compared to contests or spec work competitions.

  49. So no moonlit walks for you and Tim in the near future?

    Yes, spec work is a bane on the creative industry. And contests like Tim's, and like the lifeblood of sites like the god-awful 99designs.com, commoditize our work product and elevate the amateur (or, more accurately, reduce the professional to the amateur's level).

    But, with due respect, it comes off as a bit of artistic chauvinism when a creative professional thinks of their counterpart across the business table and declares, "They have no idea what it is I do!" or "They don't appreciate how much work goes into a project like this!" True? Sure. Productive? I don't see how.

    So 0ur clients don't get it. But perhaps a more effective long-term strategy than commiserating about the issue would be to address it head-on: particularly in an era when user-friendly tech tools can make anyone feel like/seem to be a designer to those who don't understand the profession, its standards or its rigors, doesn't it make more sense for designers to commit, individually and collectively, to educating the people who sign the checks on what goes into a creative task (and a creative career)?

    Of course having to educate a client (or an industry) isn't an ideal position, but it appears to be the one that most of us find ourselves in. If it's what it takes to convince them that our time isn't free and that asking for spec work isn't in either party's best interest, then it's high time we got started.

    I would respectfully invite you to jump in as the standard bearer, Eric. You clearly have the passion, you have the platform and the audience, and you have our attention.

  50. To Mike Rohde — you make excellent points and some fresh ones to boot. In your scenario, we maintain open discussions like this one to give professionals the rhetorical tools to shepherd our clients into an understanding of why spec doesn't work. Thanks for this.

  51. I am a book designer and man I would really love the recognition I could get from designing his book cover. Unfortunately I was too late to submit my design. Here it is. http://twitpic.com/dmcmn

    The trim is 8x10. Thats an odd size for a book. Is he printing this at Kinko's?

  52. Eric Torres says:

    Thanks for taking the time to articulate your thoughts on this topic. I must admit, I don't always agree with your perspective, but this time, I believe you hit the nail squarely.

    There's a bit of division line being drawn right now, I think, between those who spec and those who refrain from it. In the long run I think this will create a separation within our own field between those who adhere to professional standards, like those set forth by AIGA and those who view design as a commodity and want a quick buck.

    Recently, my advice to students and colleagues has been to join AIGA. It's a guild. It sets us apart. It says we stand for a specific way of practicing the business of design.

    In the long run, I think organizations like AIGA will make all the difference in the world. In my view, it's too bad the design professions are not certified. For now though, AIGA is one of our only hopes for communicating the true value of our trade.

  53. Buz says:

    You can replace designer with artist , musician, author or pretty much any other creative art. The problem for the client is that maybe I pay you an hourly rate and get crap. Maybe the design is not what I want and I can't effectively communicate that to you or in the case of some our visions clash. It is difficult for a consumer to risk that much when many have no idea what they will receive.
    The argument that people should pay us more because we need it is not really a good one. Designers who consistently deliver can do very well as can musicians and other artisans.

  54. @Buz: That's the difference between amateurs and professionals. Those who have appropriate training and expertise are skilled in leading clients to effective solutions--even when the client can't articulate what they're looking for.

  55. This is a great article. Thanks for being an ART WARRIOR even if by default. I admire that you were specific regarding the exploitation of young artists. The fact that anyone in the visual arts is not considered in a "real" business or profession, albiet that an artist's talent is a gift and rare, in the USA. ART gets little respect and that is the "problem" not spec work.

  56. Here Here! I agree with you wholeheartedly. I haven't read all of the comments, so I apologize if this is redundant in any way.

    Two things:
    1- I do donate my talents to cause contests, which i think is a bit different because for me it's kind of like donating the money I'd recieve, and because I really believe that many non-profits could really benefit from better marketing, so I hope I'm helping their cause indirectly. I realize this is outside your point, but it might be a follow-up consideration.
    2- Thank you for saying this so professionally and eloquently. I do freelancing via craigslist and ifreelance.com while I'm finishing up my degree, and I cannot tell you how infuriated I am by the number of rude designers I find on these boards. I understand their frusteration, but being rude to potential clients is not going to help the situation, it just makes us all look less professional. Thanks for saying what those guys obviously don't know how to say.

  57. Peter Sutton says:

    Eric Torres -You hit the nail on the head.
    I'd hire you - No spec required.

  58. Peter Sutton says:

    Eric can you change above post to 'Charles Brock' not
    'Eric Torres' Thanks

  59. Selby says:

    hear hear!

  60. ameL says:

    I never knew who Tim was until today although I did see his first book "4 hour work week" in the bookstore one time. I almost had a nosebleed at the thought of this grandiose title.

    I just checked out the blog of this productivity porn star and some of the things mentioned on there definitely make you feel cozy if you are a classic psychopath.

    I'm not sure whether grandiosity, superficial charm or high levels of self-importance are making my monitor overheat.

    Who says stuff like...

    "I’m not doing one-on-one training or coaching at this time, unless there is a budget with 5-7 zeroes (before the decimal point). Unfortunately, until my 15 minutes of fame are up, this Dubai-like pricing is necessary to reduce the number of inquiries."

    and then

    "...My sincerest apologies that I cannot do more".

    but then

    "...Tim primary occupation is writing a first-class blog, an activity that earns his an annual salary of $0."

    This is guy is the most socially irresponsible person I've seen lately. There's so much self-promotion that it is hard to figure out what this guy actually does. His roster of credentials doesn't list anything useful expect for oneself. A typical by-product of illusionary celebrity culture we live only good at self-promotion. Become superhuman (a.k.a. God) -- while everything around you is crumbling -- is his delusional mantra. Than has the balls to say "I’m not a corporate type, but I have to play nice with my publisher" while parading the term "lifestyle design" which exceeds vagueness even in corporate circles.

    Since it's useless to design a book cover without reading the actual book the only appropriate image for his book cover would be Tim kissing a mirror with a title "Becoming Superhuman" set in something bold like Gotham. I'd pay him money to design that for his cover since he claims that he doesn't make that much.

  61. Jonas says:

    That is one articulate rant. I've ranted the same thing several times before, and I'm sure my girlfriend appreciated it.

    However, in the end I think you get what you pay for. Business, graphic design or otherwise, is about the relationships you generate and what you accomplish engaging and working with people. If you can generate enough cashflow and profit to keep stakeholders happy, you can keep participating.

    The above contest model overlooks the relationship and therefore misses the point of good business and good design.

    Keep it up, Eric. I look forward to your posts and your book.


  62. Walt Kania says:

    I agree with Peter Sutton here.

    The problem isn't with the people who ask for spec work, but with the people who do it.

    I can't blame buyers for trying to get work for $42, either. If they can be satisfied for $42, well, our indignation won't get the price up to $4200.

    I figure, if a client can't see any difference between my $3800 web content, and the 'elance special' he got for $96, it's really my problem.

    Maybe it's just market reality. There's a vast market for $100 logos. A much smaller one at $1000. And a rarified one at $100,000.

  63. @Walt: I agree that we have to consider market realities. So, let's look at this from the client's perspective.

    You'd probably agree with me that many often confuse price and value. A few people that buy a $100 logo will be just fine. Others, however, learn the hard way that such bargains come at a cost.

    A new client came to us a few years ago very frustrated. They had created their logo "on the cheap". The person who made it for them sized it wide (10:1 aspect ratio), so it was hard to use in most spaces. Meanwhile, it was full-colour and low contrast. As a result, they often couldn't print it using conventional means, and when they did it turned out to be very costly.

    When they finally had "reached their limit", they were forced to re-print their exterior signage, stationary, collateral, car signage, golf shirts... and the list goes on. I estimate that the real cost of the bad logo was in excess of $25,000 as a result. (Full-color signage on a large building ain't cheap.)

    Some will respond, "So what? They got what they paid for!" Such a notion may initially feel gratifying given the nature of this blog post; however, the truth of the matter is that these guys had been duped. A rank amateur pretended he was a designer, and as a result they were out many thousands of dollars.

    Now, consider this in a different setting. If you found out that your doctor had no medical training or expertise, but performed your bypass surgery anyway, how would you feel? (Aside from "dead".) It would be outright unethical, right? Buyers of design have the right to professional services and proven knowledge. The reason this isn't clear to the public is largely because we haven't come together to spread this message effectively.

    Some will say that all you need to be a designer is the software. Such ramblings are limited to those ignorant to the fact of the matter. Their logic is akin to saying that all one needs to be a singer is a microphone.

    We're the professionals in the room. As such, it's time to take control of the situation and stop feeling like we're being defensive in doing so. Meanwhile, it's our responsibility to maintain sound professional practice and clearly articulate where the value in good design (and process) lies.

    That's just good business. :-)

  64. Mondo Jay says:

    I think you guys are making this overly complicated...
    it's like the Joker says:
    "If you're good at something, never do it for free."

  65. @Eric

    Well said on all accounts m'man. I totally agree that Spec work is shite. Like you said, when an international comes walking in looking for spec, something is totally wrong with the picture.

    As a filmmaker I see this many times. One of the biggest things I hear is this. "Can you do up a storyboard so I can take it to the board to get approval?" Ouch. Yes. Let me work for a week on this on the off chance that I'll get your contract. Insane.

    How about "This project doesn't have a lot behind it but the next one is going to be great. Not sure when that will be but it's going to be great. " Yep.

    Thanks for bringing this up dood.

  66. @Mondo Great point.

    I'd like to add that manifestos, guild rules and demonizing designers isn't the solution (speaking about complicating things). The solution is to teach individual designers (good lesson for people in general) to have enough self-confidence to attach value ($$$) to their own work and contributions.

  67. An amusing little story to share: the collision of spec and bad PR.

    I received this message today:


    From: Bryan E. Muir [mailto:bryan@yola.com]
    Sent: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 2:59 PM
    To: Eric Karjaluoto
    Subject: Fwd: Win $2,000 with the Yola Makeover Challenge

    Dear Eric:

    I thought this might be of interest to your network. The Yola Makeover Challenge (yolamakeover.com) is now open to designers. The winning designer will win $2,000 but it's a great marketing opportunity for everyone because our 2 million users will vote on their favorite designs and select a slate of 10 finalists.

    Many thanks in advance!



    Bryan E. Muir
    Director of Strategy


    I responded, "You don't actually read my blog do you?" (I had a hunch he didn't. Who would send an email like this, given the rant I had just posted about design contests?)

    Then I offered to spread the word with a comment at the "bottom of the most recent post". I thought he might take a moment to read the post. I guess he didn't, as he thanked me for lending a hand. (Sadly, some folks really don't get it.)

    What do you say gang? Anyone want to enter a website design contest for ACE Hardware @ Cedar Park? ;-)

  68. Dinu says:

    Wow...I'm seriously speechless after that one.

  69. Thanks for this article, it is very well put. I don't know that spec will ever go away, seeing as it's been around forever, but we should shine a light on it and take a stand wherever we see it. Ignoring it will only make it worse.

    Young designers should not be tempted by spec. Nothing good will come of it. There are so many ways to expand your portfolio, many of which have been mentioned here.

    Design professors should be talking about this issue more in design classes. That's where I learned about it way back in the late 80s, early 90s. And that's why I teach my students about it now. You should value yourself enough to require to be paid for your work.

    Spec wouldn't be a such a problem if designers didn't participate. Unfortunately, there are professional designers who think it's good for competition and keeping one "fresh." Sadly, there are big firms who also engage in spec, trying to win the business because they can afford to have their employees working on unpaid projects, and employees in those situations may not care because they're still getting a paycheck. When something hurts the industry at large, everyone will eventually be affected.

    We are our own worst enemy. http://twitpic.com/36zol

    Anyway, I RT'd your post.


  70. Adrienne says:

    That is so funny...if he actually read the post, he would've crushed the thought of asking you for a "lending hand"

    I work with many designers and I sent them your ranting post and all of them agreed. They get asked to do SO much free stuff (everything from friends wedding invites to logos for a friends running club - people think they just want to sit and draw/design/create 24/7 because "it's such fun work")

  71. Chris says:

    I enjoyed this article, which I found from a tweet from Brain Clark of Copyblogger. This is very interesting. I hate the spec thing too. As a writer, I see this kind of thing all the time.

    I imagine that Ferriss did this for a little bit of publicity from the creative world, but I also think (and I think this proves your point) that he actually thought that designer would leap at a chance to design the cover of his book--for the, you know, exposure and I think he thinks people would be grateful. But it seems a miscalculation, as you pointed out, that anyone would care who designed a book cover. It's not like you're going to base a career on that.

    Maybe he's trying to do a sort of marketing 2.0-ish kind of thing where the community "gets involved."

    Maybe he just wants to see what happens and what kind of art he gets. I'm sure there would be a future chapter in a future book about his experience "reaching out to the people," but I don't know.

    The kind of people who are Ferriss' audience are young-ish creative types--the types who want to be their own boss and often run their own companies or work freelance. This is his audience.

  72. Geoff Teehan says:

    I look forward to paying full price for your book.

    FWIW we occasionally do spec work (for RFPs, not contests) when we think it's appropriate. Usually, to illustrate a thought or insight to a client where descriptions, discussion, bullet points or diagrams won't do a good enough job.

  73. Glenn Hilton says:

    Great post Eric (apart from the title). In our early days at ImageX Media, we did some spec work trying to build our portfolio and get exposure, but those we did it for, often left you feeling used and unappreciated. Since then we've turned down all spec opportunities and have encouraged others to do the same, but the carrot can be very alluring, so I'm really glad you've addressed it this way and will be pointing others to your post in the future.

  74. Clint says:

    I would say that the problem is that it is way too easy to call yourself a "graphic designer." Unlike other jobs, which are limited by the cost of equipment or licensing, (hell, plumbers have to buy a truck and tools and get licensed.) designers don't really need a degree, a license, or much equipment, just a computer and enough persuasion to convince someone to pay them for design work.

    So, the market is flooded with people claiming to be designers. Therefore, buyers are in an advantageous position and can get work for nothing. True, it might be shoddy work, but I there are also plenty of good designers forced to take peanuts or nothing at all.

    Also, the overabundance of "designers" means that principled stands on things like spec work only mean that the work will go to those without principles.

    Ask yourself, if you were Mr. Ferris, would you rather pay thousands to a reputable design firm or take advantage of some up and coming kid for a couple of hundred bucks? Would the expensive work's quality justify the expense? Maybe for Coca-Cola, but for some gimmicky book?

    I think the writer's complaint that "people think design is so easy that anyone can do it" is misplaced. That may be the truth in some cases, but its not the reason why most designers don't make much money or have to do free spec work. It's because there is a glut of "designers" out there.

  75. horuskol says:

    Totally on your side here - I'm not a designer myself, but a developer, so while I don't know exactly where you're coming, I do have the ballpark (I've also written the odd article and fiction).

    The jobs we do are perceived as "easy" - partly because the tools of our trades are accessible to most people, and also because we do the work well enough that outsiders don't grasp the years of training and education that are the lynchpin of our ability.

    All that said, I wouldn't have a problem with Ferris' competition except for the big gaping hole where ALL entrants give up their rights to their submissions - that there is a big "HUH?!". My work is my work until you pay for it (and pay industry rates) - and I'd really expect anyone else out there to get that - especially if they've grown up in a similar discipline/industry.

    Unfortunately, there are a huge number of desperate kids wanting to make their mark at any personal cost, without even a thought that their actions are causing a problem for design/development as a whole and, ironically, hampering their future success.

  76. Jonas LaRance says:

    So, problem solvers, what’s the solution?

    We can frame suggestions economically.


    • Limit supply of cheap graphic design services through participation in a no-spec professional standard, guild, or coalition.

    • Limit supply of spec participants through early education

    • Limit supply of amateur graphic designers by increasing the barrier to entry to graphic design field by requiring a license or certification for graphic designers; like doctors, lawyers, financial planners, and even personal trainers


    • Increase demand for good graphic design by educating clients and consistently providing value.

    Is that it?

    What other ideas are out there?

  77. Pingback: Is Author Tim Ferriss Fanning the Flames of No Spec Debate for Publicity? |

  78. ::stevie:: says:

    is there a difference between design association sponsored design contests and the spec contests mentioned above? IE: aiga poster design competitions

  79. Monika says:

    Great post Eric - but Tim has now got what he wanted - more publicity for his new book!!!

    He has managed to stir up controvesy yet again for his own benefit and eventual financial gain.

    Unfortunately this is happening with all high profile people in that they put forward a proposition to, for example, a writer to write a book for them for free and the writer will receive 10% of the profits (should the book be profitable!). These high profile people coach up and coming new business owners to do the same. Yet these same high profile people brag about how wealthy they are and their luxury lifestyle. It's all very very sad. They would never work on a pro-bono basis.

  80. Vic Stapel says:

    SPEC or NO SPEC is the question.

    I just LOVE and agree with this comment in one of the post above and I quote:
    " A typical by-product of illusionary celebrity culture we live only good at self-promotion. Become superhuman (a.k.a. God) "

    Since the last decade there seems to be a new type of business that thrives on the fears of non achievement, insecurity, addictions, defeats that personalities address with their books that actually no one really needs. I love the latest on TV that calls it self "The Cure" against Alcoholism how daring is that God who must have written it. I pray many will read it and stop drinking soon after. Will they?

    A few years ago a documentary research on BBC showed quite clearly that "self help books" end up as stacked up waist paper (thanks god with many paid for Designer covers).
    The majority of their wishful thinking "in the need" and the urgency of the moment buyers take in dust of homes/offices.
    The only thing I could compare with is the NEED for slimming machines created on TV for the 6pack desperado, most of them end up on Craigslist or the classified for a fraction of their price because the never really help to achieve the goal. Sin Sin for my own AB ....lounger that has become a nice "lounger" for http://www.freecyle.org ( Ok let me at least advertise for something free here and do a green deed).

    I am not saying shame on you if you ever did read one of those books. In the beginning I myself caved in a bought a few ( it must have been the Designer cover for sure ) united to a title that triggerd my need.

    But did we read one all the way through? I never did and never will.

    Did we need "coaches" 20 years ago (of the mind) not the sports type. Surely not . But then who needed a shrink before Freud ? We humans create our needs and it never ends.

    There I return to the subject. We Designer are willingly or not part of the machinery that visually conveys the "need 2 need" a service, an object, a fad or anything related with the Design.

    There isn't much "free" Design left. Unless my grann'es water colours she used to give as X Mas gifts.

    So our mice, pencils, thought (the creative mind) are entangled into the capitalistic machinery that makes our world go round along one leading religion "$".

    When did we not create something, that for a second we consider would be nice to turn into something billable?

    I haven't read Tim's book, Don't know who he was till I stumbled on this blog. I will not and am not interested in buying his or any book anymore of that type as I know it will not solve my not so dramatic Designer issues.

    Many of these book (and their paid for covers) fuel the income of creative thoughts of another type who make money (in a clever way I must say) as they have nothing else to show for.

    The more the economy or the mind of humans is unsound the more books telling you how to overcome the fact or matter will surface.

    The title only already tells me this is one of those.

    Only I can help myself and those around me to achieve what is needed for a prject or I want or need for myself.

    Eric I guess some of the material posts will create a base for an probaly most interesting for you maybe called
    "2SPEC or NOT 2 SPEC is the question"

    PS: Originally I am not an English speaking person so forgive my maybe not so eloquent language.

  81. Vic Stapel says:

    Sorry some clever people already are trying to make money off the name here is the working link http://my.freecycle.org/

  82. Marjorie says:

    Excellent post. And to clarify, writers have the exact same problem. A number of freelancers have tried to publicize and protest this very point, but sadly my field is still divided on this issue. I stand firmly on the side of No Spec and believe that if your writing is good, regardless of how much experience you have or don't have, you deserve to be paid. I've never written for free, save for a couple of small pro bono projects for a one-person nonprofit that I believed in, and even she eventually started paying me.

    I've seen so many would-be "writers" on Craigslist who dangle the prospect of a "sure-fire bestseller" in front of possible collaborators, who of course will be paid "a percentage of royalties upon publication." Oh, and the collaborator will also be responsible for finding a publisher, too. And an agent. And a publicist. And do all the marketing. All for the privilege of working with such a worthy lead "author."

    Unfortunately, the explosion of foreign designers and writers and other creative professionals who haunt sites like eLance.com and Guru.com and are willing to take literally pennies for their work ($10 for a 500-page , well-researched article on SEO!!!) have made it even more difficult for those of us who must make a living out of our work here in the U.S., where the cost of living is obviously much higher than in, say, India or the Philippines. But again, I believe that good writing, good design will be rewarded, and employers who'd prefer to fork over something like $5/logo will get just that: a five-dollar logo.


  83. As a "recovering journalist," I'm very sympathetic with people in EVERY profession in which there is dramatic upheaval.
    Clay Shirky likens "journalism" to "driving." Not every driver can master the skills of a Formula One competitor, or a long-haul commercial trucker. Not every journalist can do Pulitzer-quality investigative work.
    But you don't need to be a Formula One driver to get the car to the grocery store, and you don't need to be Columbia-trained to live-tweet an event.
    Not every design job requires a trained, experienced, credentialed specialist.
    I've paid top dollar for professional work. I'm typing this while in a meeting where a professional artist is demanding $22,000 for a job I'm willing to pay $7500 for.
    I don't need a Formula One artist for this job, and maybe Tim doesn't need one for his.
    It's a new world. Every job doesn't require the top-credentialed people.
    It's up to the client to decide what level of work is required, and to pay accordingly.
    It's a difficult adjustment for professionals in many fields, but new forms of communication and the ability to solicit competitors worldwide have changed the game forever.
    You can refuse to participate in spec work, but you can never get everyone to join the boycott.
    Every professional was once an amateur.
    You may decry Tim Ferriss, but he is a reflection of today's reality. Author Byron Katie in her book "Loving What Is" encourages us to accept what is true and work with that.
    Can you accept the new reality and use your creative genius to get what you want and need?

  84. Vic Stapel says:

    Your YOLA mail story is too funny ( I guess we were on the same list) especially they touted earlier about receiving a 5million Rand investment. Thas is +- 500.000$ in South Africa lets say equal 5Million US$ in proportion.
    They used to be called Synthasite and were I would say " A good start up concept".
    But as soon as the BIG investors come in, call it YOLA ( ridiculous Ice cream name, did they pay someone 5 $ or got that name generation on "SPEC"? )

    So much from someone who spent 10 years in that gorgeous country full of starving Artist and Designer where 2000$ go a long way.

  85. My favorite part of the Yola site is that they speak disparagingly of "black-framed-eyeglass-wearing graphic designers" and then email asking for my support.

    Fine enough--they're free to say whatever they wish. But my feeling is that such slights might keep one from asking said designers for favors. ;-)

  86. There is no moral or ethical dilemma involved in spec work. And, there is no point arguing for or against spec work outside of specific project merits. The only real consideration is strategic.

    There is no need to crack down on spec work and crowdsourcing, they both reflect an inherent attribute of capitalism. Free market forces work to retain the most value and expurge the ineffective. No socialist call to action against such a relentless mechanism is likely to hold water for long. Crowdsourcing is only going to get more sophisticated and better at harnessing real value at an appropriate price.

    Design is generally misunderstood and over-valued. Savvy clients don't buy design, they buy value added content well formed. Gone are the days of design consultancies. Brand consulting is far more effective. Design is completely subject to branding. Design is not sacrosanct, it is a given in branding. Form-giving on its own cannot be bought because design in the absence of value added content is of little value. It is the extent to which design adds value that has been highlighted by crowdsourcing.

    If content and/or technique is commonly held then the value of either, or in combination will be low. Content provided for speculative work is generally not formated to provide the opportunity to develop said content significantly beyond the form in which it is offered. This insight alone should be enough to put creative people off speculative work, including clients.

    And so, we should assume that Tim Ferris doesn't expect much from designers, he appears to view them as form-givers exclusively. He also appears to treat insights valuable to his project as commonly held and therefore, perhaps unwittingly, of common value.

    Albeit in part, crowdsourcing is the strategy Tim Ferris has chosen to deliver his content. This is entirely his prerogative. It is a decision that will have a lasting impact on how his content is perceived. I expect his content warrants this kind of treatment as he has aligned it with crowdsourcing, irrevocably.

    I think design is being commodified into an appropriate place by crowdsourcing and spec work. Too much value has been attributed to design recently, particularly in light of the success of brands such as Apple and Ikea. Design as an activity needs to be cut down to size and put into perspective – relative to the process of branding any product or service.

    Crowdsourcing should be celebrated for identifying the limits of design. Let the crowdsourcers crowdsource, they get the value they deserve.


    Permalink: http://bit.ly/kZtWA

  87. Peter Sutton says:

    Mr Sabatier, I take it your not a designer.

  88. Mr Sabatier,

    I commend you on being able to find a way to inject "socialism" into this debate. I know its a fun and trendy word to toss into a discussion these days but I don't really understand how it can be useful when debating AGAINST the idea of designers being paid for their work.

    I'll also share with you a little secret (Just between the two of us.) I think if you take the time and dig a little deeper on how spec work is managed and created... you'll actually see that its in direct conflict with your "values" manifesto that you exhibit on your very own site.


  89. Adrian Livesley says:

    I couldn't agree more. Some years ago, Ray-Ban held a poster-design contest for the Barcelona Olympics. It was targeted to art schools, and our design instructor incorporated the contest into a school project. The result was that Ray-Ban received more than 100 posters to choose from. The prize? A pair of sunglasses. Yes, a pair of sunglasses.

    The whole thing taught me an ugly lesson, especially since I didn't win. But you could say it was a brilliant move on Ray-Ban's part.

    Andrew, no socialist call to action is needed, no. Spec will continue-evidently to your delight. However, a young designer might read this article and think twice about entering a dumb contest. There's value in that, no? And if your argument about capitalism is right, then why won't my local restaurant cook me a free meal so I can see if I like it?

  90. Dear Monsieur Sabatier ( Does sound so French doesn't it ? Therefor your slightly socialist inclined attitude? How do you manage to live, function and Design in this royalist UK of yours, or has UK adopted you?

    As EX Design Director for CONRAN DESIGN LONDON you have me laughing out loud at your statement and I quote:
    "Design is generally misunderstood and over-valued. Savvy clients don't buy design, they buy value added content well formed. Gone are the days of design consultancies.".

    I bet this was not part of yours sales pitch at Pick n Pay in South Africa that I am sure was not cheap
    The PA of the CEO is a family member of mine..I hope you have not over valued your Re Branding concept. Lol. The world has become a very small place..

    Wake up comrade, you are welcome to "rebrand" Design what ever you want it 2 B as long as it fits "your website ambition" 2 B more inspired, That is fine with me.

    Abracadabra Abracadabra Abracadabra it's STILL DESIGN and I am still gay.

    Your post is very well written (I wish my English was that eloquent but being Austrian Italian where Design was born or was it ? But lucky as long as a good copy writer is part of the service Design is all about visual, touch,feel and perception and those are all universal language so my English grammer never stopped me expressing what I had to convey.

    To my taste your post is a bit blunt, its missing all sorts of spices, but one. The one that tries and succeeded for my part to you look at your own Designs, Brand Identity Designer (gosh did you write Designer..... how “passe”) http://www.andrewsabatier.com/index.html (Thanks for the link :-)

    Although I wish I was young again, you “probably” weren't born yet when we used titles like that so to my knowledge that days aren't gone at all . If your were shame on your for trampling over Design in such a way. Go on sell your Design under what ever fancy facade but please do not even try to tell anyone that Designer consultancy days are gone.

    As you state on your site
    I actively manage my reputation by showcasing my work and participating in online discussions about brand identity.

    Holy cow, you sure do, other wise we would not find you in this blog commenting. Bravo.

    But still check out http://www.conrandesigngroup.com
    Oh why be humble, check out the link in my blog to see my Designs of many facets.
    I 'd like to say that experience taught me. The simpler the words the easier the clients are to be won over. Serious clients do not care for fancy wording in presentations they may listen to it but when it comes down to the $ we all know its the simple words that seal a deal.
    What is most important is to talk to them in their language and understanding their markets so having lived and worked in 13 countries on 4 continents I feel super charged.

    Thanks Sir Terence Conran "my Design Guru" for allowing me to fly my own company since having been part of your Design Consultancy. Having Designed with 14 Medias 37 Designers and previous to that Designing many clothing ranges such as Jacadi France etc.

    Wake up Andrew, Design consultancies are flourishing whether you call it Branding to stand out

    Pleeeeeeease your own website needs an antiperspirant as it sweats “Design” every pixel all the way .

    Your can't deny that your day start most probably using toilet paper that has been Designed and finishes for you I presume cleaning your teeth with every thing Design and then you go to bed with someone gorgeous I hope, that is all about Design. Did I say surround. Oh forgot safe sex Design Leader Durex.
    So please give the trade skill and work description called "D" with a capital "D" some credit .

    So welcome to my new Blog standing up for a capital “D” as in Dsign this minute onwards.
    Have an inspiring branding Designer Day


  91. Kyan Blue says:

    You used the example of writers to illustrate how bad a deal this contest would be...

    I know for most reputable literary magazines, if they reject your work, you are free to submit it or use it elsewhere - they claim no rights on it. If your work is published, they usually only have the right for first-time publishing rights in North America, or something. If you respect the professionals you're courting, you should give them the rights they deserve.

    People have this perception that designers should be grateful of an opportunity to practice their craft. Well, we love what we do, but that doesn't pay the bills. If you apply spec work to any other profession (mechanics & dentists are two common examples) it doesn't make any sense, so why should it here?

    Something Stefan G. Bucher brought up way up there is that creative professions are not as respected as others. That + the starving artist perception turns what would be an insult for any other profession into an 'opportunity' for designers.

    I'm a little angry right now just thinking about it.

  92. Pingback: Link Love // Industrial Design Magazine for Australasia // Design Droplets

  93. henry says:

    not just in the designer industry only, all creative works falls under professional services that is equally as valuable as the advice you get from your trader to buy a particular stock.

    its not all just pretty colors and fluffs

    thanks eric:)

  94. navin harish says:

    As a start up, we have done online projects for free. Sometimes in the hope of getting paid projects and sometimes as a gesture of goodwill towards the client who have retained as an advertising agency.
    Recently I was told that the talk in the agency is that me and my team have an attitude. One of the reason for that is our refusal to do free or underpaid work.
    Can you imagine a company with a turn over of billions of dollars came to us for the redesign of one of their website and when I told I will prepare a cost estimate for the same, I was told "The client wants the design, not the cost estimate. They have contacted 10 agencies to design the website and will go with the one that will does the best job.

  95. Do I sense total frustration? A Billion $ Agency there aren't many that size (can we guess) that does not have an INhouse Webdesign team to do initial concepts? That tells you and all of us , as I insinuated earlier. The bigger they are the bigger the bull and the more the subcontracting to take 100$ and pay 10$ or feed for free of the hungry, desperate geniuses they hope to unearth.
    If you are a genius, you should not be hungry and pass on this kind of treatment. Thanks but no thanks would be my answer before sending them off their racketeering search.

  96. It would be fantastic if somehow he added "...and 5% of the gross sales revenue from the book" as added incentive. We all know how important covers are to the sales potential. Totally insulting, the whole thing.

    Designers need to quit playing this game. Just quit playing!

  97. Tim Ferriss comes across as glib, defensive, and thoughtless, and you, Eric, as articulate, professional, and caring. Eric: 1, Tim: 0.

  98. Thanks Sigrid,

    I appreciate the support, but I'd like to argue this notion.

    In all truth, Tim's been quite eloquent and well-spoken. (I'd actually say that I'm the more noisy and rude one.) Part of this seems "by design". Tim's good at rattling the cage, and then responding in a fashion that deflects criticism.

    I can't attest to Tim's character as an individual, and I don't intend to undermine it. The problem I see is with something he did, not him as an individual. Truth is, many have done what Tim has, and will continue to.

    The reason I felt Tim's blunder was worth remarking on, however, is in-part due to his mandate of using time hyper-efficiently. He's a semi-public figure with an audience. I felt it was important to challenge him on the contradiction found between his message and actions.

    I hope that makes sense!


  99. Roger Yang says:

    Design spec work sucks. In the modern age getting a feel for a designers style/skill is but a few clicks away. A client could/should then narrow the candidates to a few designers and PAY them for some spec work.

    The real shame, however, is that this is a case of EXPLOITATION - a designer exploiting designers (actually a big shot exploiting other designers). The fact that the (most likely) purpose is to generate publicity is just plain sad.

  100. Roger Yang says:

    Karj -
    I guess you can delete my comment as perhaps "Lifestyle Design" is not the same type of design that you are writing about."

  101. Dinu says:

    I noticed that Tim Ferris had written an "afterword" on his blog-post. Kudos to him for responding. However, he seems to be brushing the issue aside with a statement of "...if you don’t participate by submitting, it is impossible for me to exploit you.". In short it seems that he thinks he's such a big deal that any budding designer/ad-agency would love to work on his next bestseller book.

    The post also contains a line saying

    ...That said, the publisher’s in-house design team, a few freelancers, and I have been working on tons, and I mean tons, of different cover options....

  102. Leslie says:

    Being exposed as a designer who works for free smacks of desperation instead of professionalism. Not the type of publicity I would like. BTW, love that cover design Charles.

  103. To be more clear and with the aim of drawing meaningful and better considered responses to the position I've proposed, crowdsourcing has forced a re-evaluation of design.

    No bleating about spec work is going to change the value of design. This certainly won't stop hordes of previously disadvantaged people from discovering the joys of mass market design tools and offering to work for nothing to learn about a poorly understood medium.

    Most people assume to know design, particularly designers. Many designers and clients fail to realise that design doesn't carry the weight they assume it to have. Design-buyers have good reason to hold design with suspicion becasue no one has defined it adequately. Ironically, it is generally obfuscated in ignorance by those who promote it – the designers themselves.

    Design is not art, design is not creativity and design is certainly not an all encompassing approach to life. Design is form-giving... exclusively.

    Form-giving only has meaning when the content it describes enables greater intervention in the world. Design is one of many factors that enables content to be effective. It is not the source of the effectiveness or the reason the content is brought into existence. Design is closely associated with content and content may be generated with the aim of applying design to it. Creative designers may generate content but design as an activity has nothing to do with generating content.

    Value lies in effective and meaningfully directed content. Crowdsourcing is unlikely ever to be able to add this sort of value where it really counts.

    Potential clients are either under the same spell about design as designers and they take chances in confusion hoping for the best or they exploit designers because they have identified the achilles heel of the design industry. Creative people should know better than to engage potential clients on this basis. Over-value and exploitation go hand-in-hand.

    The emperor has no clothes!


    Permalink: http://bit.ly/kZtWA

  104. Indeed, the emperor has no clothes, Mr. Sabatier, but I'm afraid you may be the emperor. "Design is not creative". Maybe not the way you do it, but myself and all the designers I know and admire are extremely creative on a daily basis.

  105. Peter Sutton says:

    The responses to your post, Mr. Sabatier, seemed both meaningful and considered- they just didn't agree with
    And neither do I.

  106. Mr. Sabatier,

    Can you please give us your definition of creativity? Actually, how about your definition of design as well. Maybe then I'll be able to better understand your position. Personally, I find it hard to separate the concept of creativity from design or many of the other problem solving jobs and tasks people engage in.

  107. "D" for Design had shaking fits, violent outbursts, hallucinations and "bouts of wailing during the night", it has been claimed. It took Demerol! We are told. awaiting confirmation from Dr.Murray.

    Man this is Bcoming my breakfast bitchery :-)

    ERIC please change the subject we have a someone showing worse qualification than the one your described as Tim's. A Form giver,
    for god sake.

    Actually he is God. It's a sect. I may have to move closer. By now I know it. I can feel it . I have been touched by the " Form Giver" himself. I am drawn to his kingdom of freaking D.E.S.I.G.N! that he peddles like we all do under the mirage of words that aren't in the DXionary but clients love the mumble jumble he soups up for them as we all do. Admit it.

    A Supermarket brand "Form Giver". 3663 how ingenious is that. I bet you somehow linked it to South Africa where he knocked off the numbered campaign of Mandela cell number and resold it.
    For "D" sake who is Zishi ? Sure not Vodacom or phone.
    His 1st round posting of brand babble was clever and raised awareness about him and his website 4 those wanting to know. Bud puppy breakast curious like me. I beats Mrs Obama "wearing shorts" news.
    He seems in "infancy, Stretch" if you get my web drift? I know his website by heart now. Who is "Mbuqeo" ? A Nigerian run Supermarket in Russia ? "Equate" Ja Gott , was ist das? High Perfomance translations from Deutsch to English & vice versa. Good news you are guaranteed staff that isn't sleeping yet. Another way how to branch out, after being a Banker for 14 years and having most probably lost his job. "Eksmo" ...Russia, who's that you may wonder. Well it's the "brandmark" (note my adherence to my new life skill) that literally represents the turning point, made up of two dynamically intertwined lowercase "Es" . That is ONEe and ANOTHERe. I should say A.se, two kissing cheeks creating that hole in the middle that the more he writes stuff to us about the death of Design the more you will stand for being one. .And it goes on... that read in both directions for Russian and English audiences...I am sure the KGB is lining up for a internationally readable "Brandmark ".
    That isn't a word in the English Dictionary. But then the east loving "Brandist " is working on it's rewriting.
    The brand mark is a design element, such as a symbol (e.g., Nike swoosh ), logo (e.g., Yahoo! graphic), a character (e.g., Keebler elves) or even a sound (e.g., Intel inside sound), that provides visual or auditory recognition for the product.

    Brand mark the element of a brand that cannot be spoken, often a symbol or design (264)
    Brand name that part of a brand that can be spoken, including letters, words and numbers (264) ...

    Brand Mark - the part of a brand which can be seen but not spoken; the logo, symbol or design that forms part of the brand. See Brand Name.
    Brand Monopoly - a circumstance in which a particular brand dominates a market.
    It's written in two words and it's still D.e.S.i.G.n!
    brand mark
    The brand mark is that part of a brand name that cannot be spoken. It most commonly is a symbol, picture, design, distinctive lettering, color, or a combination of these.
    brand name ...
    My My byDubai... ByDubai.com .. is what? A city with such wonderful skyscrapers of the finest make and a PO BOX as an address. Mr Chairman how can you?
    So after checking in while eating my Designer Cherry Strudel breakfast at http://www.byDubai.com I learned all about Swedish massage sorry, a Beauty Psychologist Aesthetics, Growth, Fun AND offering any Designer to Become the New Queen, with Eliazon! How Xciting !
    Not too gifted by Nature I must say. Gosh and that rabbit biting photo. A dentist would have a field day. Sure the "form giving" work of the Brandist himself. Ja .
    So there I had a little more time to enjoy my Strudel so I Skype a bit to my own Design partner in Europe who tells me that he is not aware of LOT Airlines wearing your Telephone book pattern "PJ prin Livree" http://www.lot.com your Corporate ID Design.http://www.lot.com/Info/EN/aspx/Content__LOT_Artwork_History.aspx Oups did I say "D" for Design ? Peddling the skill of a trade that does not exist anymore. My apologies. I missed the funerals of my "formgiving" skill.
    And how about this "K" for Krap for Kerling at http://www.andrewsabatier.com/portfolio/live/featured/Kerling.html no need to Klick I give your the synopsis.
    Vinyl Chloride production is responsible for toxic byproducts so the manufacturing process requires careful management to ensure long-term sustainability of the business and of the environment. A "K" for Kerling ( with should be a capital K Mr Andrew ,watch your online grammar) is a tall solid piece of oak that supports the masts of viking longships.(capital "L" for longship..you are not listening) The "B" for Brandmark ( if you already make up words put a capital start for god sake) is a phonetically related curl but more importantly the spiral form (thanks for telling us that the spiral is a form! The Neanderthaler knew that already.) found throughout nature and represents environmental awareness and sustainability for Kerling.
    How green is that ? Toxicity has been give a new form. Green Designers or Form givers do not take such jobs.
    So your Mercedez Benz Concept was it chosen by JCDecaux or did they drop it into their the latter of their list of Add supports (bus shelters, kiosks, newsstands, automatic public toilets) and flushed ?

    BUT NOW...thanks for writing the script for potential new movie. Dumb and Dumber and Dumbest.

    Abracadabra You'r still are (and I quote your glorious altar of Design )
    a freelance corporate identity D.E.S.I.G.N.R (oooh no, he does not live what he preaches) available for short and medium term (pregnancy..that's how your post feel) contract at a senior level D.E.S.I.G.N.E.R !
    I am sure you would crawl on your 4s for a long term say 5 year contract at Saatchi & Saatchi , won't you?
    They are good at saying it as it is like you. as per their site: and I quote" You might expect a mission statement at this point. We don’t have one. Instead, we have a Purpose, with these components: etc" very form giving.
    Anyway it was fun 4 me at least, thank's for the inspiration for a future post on

  108. Kevin Ashburn says:

    Any applause at this point in the discussion would get likely get lost in the din of the crowd, so I'll just say "well played." Indeed, the mass cultivation of spec work and crowdsourcing are alarming and downright scary trends for the design industry. While people have made it quite clear in these posts that they dislike the practice, nobody has offered any real solutions—and that includes you, Eric. I'd offer that this is the kind of runaway train that eats complaints for lunch, even ones as eloquently presented as yours. You do a great service in calling attention to the matter, but if the solution is launching a blog rant against any company or individual that solicits spec work then be prepared to watch the world outside these walls not give a rat's ass.

    I would ask this: What are the industry leaders and owners in the design business prepared to do? Are they ready to add clauses to their new-hire statements that exercise full prejudice against any candidate who has previously engaged in spec work? Will they set up spec-work monitoring systems and keep the names of offenders posted online for all to see? At the end of the day, what will the industry do to protect itself if not as a united front then as individual firms? Are they ready to go McCarthy on someone's ask or just shake a finger in disgust?

    You give good rant, Eric. But it may serve the larger argument to ask what are you -- what are we -- prepared to do about the specter of spec work that makes a practical difference in the real world?

    Maybe that's a good jumping off point for another post.

  109. That probably would be an interesting post, but it might have to wait a little while. I'm sort of "talked out" feeling when it comes to spec-work. ;-)

  110. I wanna close my ranting with this funny craigs list post of today
    Poster removed for confidentiality

    Re: Book Cover Design Art... (Van)
    Date: 2009-08-25, 5:22PM PDT

    You've gotta be kidding!

    50 measley bucks for a book cover?...and you wanna see samples?

    Here's a sample of a 5 year package of powder cool-aid (cherry flavour) mixed with milk, and thrown against a piece of masonite, then photographed for your book cover.

    That'll be 50-bucks please!

    Get it?


    * Location: Van
    * Compensation: fifty smackers in pennies... count em!
    * This is a contract job.
    * Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
    * Please, no phone calls about this job!
    * Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

    As I see this post has gone to rest so will I .
    Thanks for the opportunity Eric

  111. Carolyn Wood says:

    @Keith Ashburn

    I think that Eric's post and many of our comments have formed part of the solution:

    1.) Saturate the design world with arguments about how spec work helps an industry deteriorate. Spell it out. New designers graduate or arrive on the scene constantly and therefore the message must be stated again and again. Say no to spec work. (We've already clarified that we don't mean special cases or a penniless charitable organization, etc.) Point out that despite the promise of future amazing benefits, pro bono work for people who are making money off our work (whether we're writers or designers or in any related field) rarely if ever lives up to the promise. Don't give away your work. Charging less hurts the industry, etc.

    2.) Saturate publications (in articles, interviews, any chance we get) with this message so that the better businesses see the folly of this route. Lesser organizations won't hear the message, but they ignore a lot of great messages. We're not talking to them. But we should be stating and restating what standards the better designers and other web workers hold to, so that business people know what to expect from the better workers and even see it as a sign of superiority.

    3.) Provide support, through reason and writing, in posts, forums, lists, organizations, comments, friendships, tweets, conferences, to those in our business who waver. Have plenty for them to turn to when they are thinking of giving away their work. Share our experiences, embolden them to say "No." Tell our success stories when we say "No."

    In short, be, together, a constant wave that pushes back against the tide of businesses intentionally or unintentionally abusing talented, hardworking people in our industries. Hold, together, a high standard and help others to aspire to it, regardless of what others do. This is how most change happens anyway, I'd guess. I don't have any interest in forcing issues, firing people, establishing laws. But, there aren't only two choices: legislation/practical steps versus silence. In-between we find the mighty forces of changing mindsets, altering expectations, defining best practices, and strengthening opposition to practices that would be considered ridiculous in most other industries.

    Many businesses haven't given a "rat's ass" about a wide range of elements in the web world, and many businesses over time have changed their minds, because people kept pushing the message. People didn't give a rat's ass about web standards or countless other battles we've won over time while serving the kinds of clients we want. Will there still be people looking for $90 logos? Of course. Will there still be people undercharging and then going out of business eventually? Absolutely. But what is the industry standard?

    Rather than thinking that Eric's "rant" is just a weak first step that lacks any merit without adding on stringently followed action plans, I'd say that hearing this sort of rant every month in different venues, from different voices, in varied presentations, is exactly what we need and we should never stop.

  112. Mark Stout says:

    I'm sure Tim won't mind if we all try his book on spec, and if we like it we will pay him for it. Provided of course we get the expected results from it without having to do anything!

  113. Kevin Ashburn says:

    @Carolyn Wood

    Eric's (self-described) "rant" was anything but weak, and I think I praised him accordingly. I agree: Doing this very thing is an integral part of the defense plan -- in fact, you're right to say that it's the most important part as the pen... er, keyboard... is mightier than sword. Mostly I was trying to open up the conversation about "what to do?" by bringing to bare some of the more distasteful options in our current wild-west scenario. I'm glad that it yielded some excellent suggestions from you. Frankly, I think "rat's ass" really brought out the best in you. It has that effect.

    But why knock the idea of an action plan? For example, if the design community made it an action item to persuade (most) the country's design programs and institutions to actively teach the folly of spec work wouldn't that be progress? How about if those same institutions were lobbied to openly rebuff design "contests," they being a very targeted venue? A few rules here and there might just complement the sharp minds in our world that convincingly make their case in with words.

  114. Carolyn Wood says:

    Reading your comment it did seem that you were finding fault with Eric's rant as something that would only result in no one giving "a rat's ass." Thus my use of the word "weak."

    At no point in my comment did I "knock the idea of an action plan." I called Eric's post and my suggestions *part* of the solution, right in my first sentence. I simply found the sort of solutions that you were offering in your earlier post to be unhelpful and perhaps sarcastic. So, I was responding to what you wrote. Regardless of your opening compliment to him, these quotes: "Are they ready to go McCarthy on someone's ask (sic) or just shake a finger in disgust?" suggested that you sarcastically wanted us to "go McCarthy" and that Eric and others were "just shaking a finger in disgust" —an impotent finger at that, if you'll allow me an alarming mixed metaphor. "Rat's ass" is all yours. :)

    Most of what you've offered in this most recent comment, in your second paragraph, is suggested by my comment in point #3, so we seem to be in agreement (and you seem like just the man to fill in the details and move us from the sort of lists I was making to specific plans).

    I'd say a non-sarcastic, sincere request for the community to invent action plans as an adjunct to frequent educational essays on no-spec (and all of my other suggestions and those of others here, which include the involvement of organizations) would be a better way to "open up the conversation." Clearly and sincerely amplifying some of the suggestions you hinted at in your later post would be a great start, as would working with the No Spec site.

    Meanwhile, I loved Mark Stout's suggestion. Much more on target than my comments or yours, and immediately actionable. ;)

  115. Kevin Ashburn says:


    Yes. I found both title of the post "Is Tim Ferris acting like an asshole?" and the often acerbic (and fun) tone he employed invited some sardonic word play. I meant Eric no disservice, and I don't see him reacting to my post with any defensive or negative feedback. Maybe he got it (Eric?) Fine, so you called me on my tone, but I'll say once again that finding a foil in me helped focus your position. Hey, I don't mind being called out if it serves the greater good. In this forum, you might say our personality types even compliment one another.

  116. Wayne Jordan says:

    Spec work?!
    Yes I agree that one should get paid for work. However what if that work sucks. What if this designer is not proven, what if they are starting out. Spec work is nothing more than a sales rep working on commission. Sales reps work on "spec work" all the time, especially when proving themselves. They do this until they do not have to anymore and can command salaries, monthly fees etc.. Designers, I have found, can be a bit too sensitive when it comes to competing for a job. Once a designer is in a position to no longer "work on commission" or spec work, then the issue is not longer an issue for them. However, for those needing work, spec work, again, should simply be seen as working on commission... Basically prove yourself that you are worth the client's money. Many designers are simply not willing to prove themselves unless they are paid to. Well, the business world simply does not work like that. As both a client of designer services and a designer myself, I can say that as a client I have paid way too much money for designers that ended up providing poor work. As a client, I love spec work when my budget does not afford me the benefit of hiring a proven designer. As a client I would, however, never ask for spec work from a proven designer that I have already worked with or that has a portfolio that I can see would benefit me. As a designer that has worked on spec work many times, it is a great way to compete and get in the door when you don't stand a chance otherwise....especially when you are new. Botton line, Spec work is not evil. There are industries that lend themselves well to spec work/working on commission and others that do not. Design is one of them, sales is another. Let's figure out ways to leverage this fact and make spec work benefit us designers instead of fighting against it.

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  118. Mahesh Sabharwal says:

    Hey Eric

    Cool down. This is not as bad as you make it out to be. Contests give unestablished designers an opportunity to showcase their work. They also stimulate thinking in others who may not even submit their designs.

    Do you think athletes participate in the Olympics because of the money that is given to the winner? AFAIK, they are paid NOTHING. Do you think athletes do not deserve to be paid for their skills? Are athletes allowing people to trivialize their skills by allowing events like the Olympics to exist?

    There is a lot to this then just this one-sided view of things. The arguments and logic you have used to support your points does not hold. You are comparing physical structures like steel equipment with creations of the mind like designs.

    You say - "Tim’s supposed “raison d’être” is to help people live their best lives through efficient use of time; yet, with this action he individually squanders the time of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people. "

    I find this line of logic laughable. If a person writes a book it does not mean he is responsible for EACH AND EVERY ACTION of the readers. Also, how can you assume that the time is necessarily squandered? In creating the design the designer may learn something useful even if he/she does not win the contest. Do you think that the only one to gain from a contest is the winner?

    Have you heard of the joke where a person watching the races asks his friend - "Why are all these people running?." The friend says - "The first person to cross the finish line wins the prize." To this the person asks - "Then why are the others running?"


  119. Jacob Covey says:

    Eric, this was time well invested in spreading the word on exactly what's wrong with this era of crowd-sourcing.

    Mahesh, an author is not responsible for every action of his readers and I think you're being coy. A businessman is responsible for the consequences of his business practices and that is what we're talking about-- not the author, per se.

    Ultimately this whole system of crowd-sourcing is cynical and puts total faith in the 100 monkeys-on-typewriters theory of visual communication.

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  121. Venkat says:

    STOP WHINING! That was a brilliant idea! God! That saves him money!

  122. Pingback: Spec work and crowd-sourcing for design is unethical – designers beware! : Dew Lilly Design

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  124. Andrea Coutu says:

    I had the same thoughts. But I wanted to add that this goes on in all sorts of creative industries. People want writers to work on spec. They want marketers to work on spec. I've had people call me up about business consulting and ask if I'll work for a percentage of what revenues my work generates, as if I'm going to have complete control over implementation, all aspects of their business offering, transparency in their financials, control over their liquidity, etc. I'm vehemently opposed to spec work.

  125. My advice to anyone wanting to create design portfolios when design clients aren't available:

    Consider creating projects for your own use (or even for non-profits you support) but are publicly viewable. Your best showcase could be the design for which you were the client.

  126. Dennis says:

    I am not a designer. I would agree with just about everything on this post. When I see what Tim did I think of croud sourcing which is becomeing very big. Getting fans in the action of adding to a product or company. Also I like to fidle with design stuff and enjoy it, never been paid to do it, but make my own stuff (which I never use). And I thought this would be targeted at people like me. It a hobby and I do it for free all the time, why not try and make 250 buck. ( I won't be trying by the way)

  127. Benny Z says:

    I get where you're coming from, but assuming the rest of your article doesn't talk about this (you lost me at No!Spec) and that other commentators haven't either, I think you should consider another angle.

    There are many people out there who aren't graphic designers but who have talent and thoroughly enjoy doing this sort of work.

    Yesterday my mother delivered to me a book of poetry with a front cover that I designed about 14 years ago. This is the seventh edition with that same cover. I am not a graphic designer, but I get massive enjoyment seeing one of my lesser-used talents continuously being exhibited.

    There's a book called Crowdsourcing that I think you should read. Basically it shows how a sense of community, and not money, is driving the Internet Era.

    I've read Tim's book, and, I'll be honest, it's changed my life. One of his points was try and get away with whatever you can and apologise for it later. Now, I don't think his intentions were insincere in this case. I just think he's trying to generate buzz. And he shouldn't be castrated for that.

  128. I am an accountant and 100% get this. Great blog, great rant. I came upon it with Tim's tweet today: tferriss still the most thoughtful critique I've seen - Is Tim Ferriss Acting Like an Asshole? http://bit.ly/15vl2I Thx, @karj, for making me think.

  129. Scott Smith says:

    Indeed, this was one bitchy column that far outweighed the alleged infraction committed by Mr. Ferris.

    If it's spec you don't like, turn your back and take a hike: don't participate! Getting free ideas, even without attribution is a fairly common practice from what I've seen. Outright stealing is also condoned through legal practices such as "We have more money and lawyers than you do." This was an actual quote from a large company representative explaining how a contract can be broken illegally.

    So, bitch if you will but realize it's the smallest of peeps in a sea of screaming self-important brand experts. Sorry, but I felt a rant coming on.

  130. Ben O'Grady says:

    Eric, great post, I read every word. I used to be a designer (now I'm in sales for a tech company) and I know exactly what you're talking about. I have done spec work several times in the past and admittedly, it didn't bother me that much. I think that's part of the game of establishing credibility (and a portfolio) in this industry. I do copy writing also and its largely the same. Blogging is very much about writng "for free" and giving in order to receive exposure. My guess is Ferriss thinks of design in this same context, that it's good to give away, just like blogging is.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  131. Any time I hear someone say that a price isn't fair, a little bell goes off in my head, because by definition, the only "fair price" is the price at which a buyer and seller are both willing. Even if it's 0. There is no other definition of a fair price.

    I think you make a valid point about design being undervalued, and Tim taking advantage of his micro-celebrity.

    However, at the root of it it's simply supply and demand. There are too many designers for the amount of demand to warrant higher wages.

    The reason dentists don't work on spec is that they don't have to to get work. There is also a higher barrier to entry to become a dentist.

    If you love design, then you should do it. But I don't expect the economics of it to change any time soon. In a way, this is the message of Tim's book - that if what you love doing isn't paying well enough then automate your income through other means so you have time to practice your love without regard for money.

    Anyway, well written article...thanks!

  132. A. says:

    I find in interesting that professionals complain and bitch about contests. Why? You lose your value if a young up and coming designer out designs you and gets the job. But it hurts the industry and the designer is being taken advantage of. Well I think it would be alot easier to get work with a NY Times Bestseller book cover as a portfolio than say Ad Class Project from a community college. You might not like it but it is the right of the customer to seek the best quality for the price. If that is for $250 then it is not his fault if a designer chooses to submit a design. It is the designers discretion and choice based on his value. Don't like it don't submit. Chances are your submission won't be missed as there are plenty of young designers happy to replace you.

  133. Rob Cubbon says:

    Great well-written post. And, as a small business owning professional who does something along the lines of design, I always politely turn down the requests for spec work. The people who ask are usually not the sort of people you'd like to work for.

    But, if a Tim Ferriss (or any micro- or macro-celebrity) offered me the chance to gain some exposure in return for a free or poorly paid piece of design. Yes (God help me) I'd do it. I'm not too proud. I'm fairly confident that, in Tim Ferriss's case, one link from his blog or one mention in his book would result in more business.

    Isn't this the law of the jungle or the law of supply and demand. Yes, if people (youngsters, usually) are prepared to do spec work it will put a downward pressure on prices. It probably already has. But, so what, that's life! If you don't like it you can always re-train to became a solicitor or a banker!

    People have always put their prices down in order to get work that they've considered useful for their careers/profiles/futures. And, as Vic Stapel mentions above, agencies regularly used to do free pitches for potential advertising campaigns.

    In our business the point is that those that go down the spec work route quickly realise it's a damn stupid idea and stop doing it. So the "harm" it does to the industry is limited in my opinion.

    And as for the Tim Ferrisses of the world. Rich people get quality freebies. To those that have, shall be given.

    But I don't think designers are dewhiners. We just have to put up with a lot of time-wasters!

  134. What the.... says:

    You had me until the last paragraph, where you offered your book for sale. At that point I realized you were doing the same thing for which you were blasting Tim. You used my interest in your post to advertise your book. I guess you could say well you didn't have to read it in which case your arguments for Tim hold little water. Come on, really, act so self righteous and then your true colors show. You could care less about the topic, you were using Tim's "micro celebrity" and riding his coat tails to get free publicity for your book. There is a word for this, what is it? Oh yes Hypocrite. By the way I have nothing to sell so this is just my real opinion with no agenda.

  135. Tony Wright says:

    (disclosure: I know Tim but I'd probably comment on this post anyways)

    Great/thoughtful post. Definitely makes you think. Below are a few points that hopefully will do the same. Note that I'm a UX designer/entrepreneur who used to be a graphic designer (though I've never been a great one).

    Thought 1: This isn't just design-- it's EVERYWHERE. Sales is expensive. Services businesses write elaborate proposals (written by expensive salesfolks supported by expensive designers) in the hope that the proposal gets the nod. The best firms don't HAVE to do this (they can pick and choose their clients from inbound leads). The more competitive the market, but more you should expect to invest in the sales process. Low-end design is incredibly competitive, which is how it's come to this.

    2. Supply/Demand. There are lots of designers at all levels, worldwide. With lots of supply, you get people who will work for cheap just to get their feet under them. With this kind of supply, you get people who will work for free. I guess that's not really news, but I just got back from a wedding in India, where we probably took 20 total cab rides that added up to less than the ride home from the Seattle airport. For a rural Indian designer, entering 10 contests and winning one for $250 might be a huge win (and he doesn't have to write a single proposal). And that designer might be damned talented. How different is this than a services business investing $500k in sales effort on 10 different $10m RFPs and ultimately winning one? In fact, isn't this just a different sales investment than costly networking, proposal writing, advertising, etc., etc?

    3. The nature of design. The best work general comes from seasoned professionals who engage in a deep discovery process, run through a lot of iterations, and work closely with the client. That being said, you can see flashes of brilliance without all of this. Some of the stuff on 99Designs is GOOD. For a logo/book cover (especially for a smallish business) the quality difference between a $30,000 engagement and a $300 contest might not be worth $29,700. In fact, the contest might (on some occasions) yield better results faster. Even if it doesn't, it's CERTAINLY faster. From a purely economic point of view, rolling the dice with a contest is a quick experiment to run that might yield exceptional results. I could design a good from-the-hip book cover in a few hours and it MIGHT be great... Design can be random.

    4. The buyer side. As a business, we try to be as fair as possible with vendors, but we're in business to be profitable. If I look at the winning designs on 99Designs and I generally like them more as much as any designer's portfolio, is eschewing the cheaper option really the way to go?

    5. If you answered "yes, as a matter of principal" to the last question, how do you feel about internships (unpaid or crappy pay)? How do you feel about buying sneakers that were made in a Chinese factory with awful working conditions? How do you feel about the fact that the average Google employee generates over $1m per year in revenue but gets paid less than 10% of that #? Shopping for the best dollar-to-value ratio generally means that someone gets screwed (even just a little bit)... Though are Google employees really getting screwed?

    Just some thoughts. As a designer, I've never done spec work. As a business, I've never asked for it... But from either side of the table, I'm not sure I have an ethical problem with it.

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  137. Scott Clark says:

    I think that one thing that needs to happen is the creation of a search engine for design - where the results are presented in a ruthlessly consistent manner.

    As it stands, businesses are simply unable to do "visual searches" for work like what they have in mind. It's a clumsy combination of Googling and avant garde portfolio sites which require the visitor to surrender 10x the amount of time they want to in order to find designs.

    If you look at the spec sites, they've come a long way in making it easy to see the work of designers with few mouse clicks. It's actually a pleasure to use them.

    Where's the non-spec equivalent of that?

    I posted on this ... "Could an Open Source Approach Help Designers" at http://www.buzzmaven.com/2009/12/spec-work-debate.html

  138. Thanks, Eric, for this interesting post. At the risk of fanning the fire that Ferriss has (interestingly, the day prior to his new edition's publication) decided to retweet, I need to add onto something said in one of the late comments.

    @Tony Wright: Your point (#5 in your comments) about internships is intriguing.

    When students have to impoverish themselves for DECADES to get an education--yes, "even" at a state school--it's appalling that internship experience is becoming more and more of a requisite for the college graduate who wants to be competitive in any job market.

    In many fields, it's exploitative on both ends: low to non-existent pay for students to do what experienced professionals are paid relatively well to do; and the threat of low to unpaid "replacements" waiting in the wings to do a good-enough job for the business to make its number.

    Internships may well be critical to developing the kinds of workers needed in today's workforce. Fine: let's reduce the standard length of an undergraduate degree from 4-5 years to 12-18 months.

  139. Just finished reading this post, funny I found it because Tim tweeted it. You bring up some great points and I agree....I'm not a designer, but I love how you articulated the 'exposure' myth. So true, so true....

  140. briddick says:

    this reminds me of Logotournament.com. Another contest site that does exactly what you described.

  141. Jason Ford says:


    Your viewpoint clearly brings to light a problem that every designer I have ever met faces. None of them, however, have been able to articulate as clearly as you have. I'm passing this on to the designers I know so that they can reference it next time someone asks them to work for free.


  142. Chip Green says:

    ok this may of all been said already but I'll day it just to make sure.

    first of i agree it is annoying at best that designers have to pull teeth to just to get anything like a decent wage.

    but, i am one of those new designers fresh out of college and 99 designs it the only chance i have to get any work in the design field. in the world i have dealt with they want me to pop up with 5 years experience minim and they would weather i had an associates degree then a bachelors. so exposure and the prize "experience" and recognition is. example if i do design for a high school's band shirts then in that area i have some standing but if i go to a new state they could care less, but if i designed a product know nation wide then i still have value. also you state many ways for us new kids to gain experience but none of those pay anything if your lucky you get the money to cover gas and lunch while working for them.

    if you have had a different experience I'd love to hear about it. if for no other reason then the hope it would give me as i work to be a great designer.

  143. Hi Chip,

    We all face the same thing at one time or another. Until we have a good book, it's hard to get gigs; but how do you make a good book until you get a gig?

    Believe it or not, it's easier now than it ever was. If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job in a good studio—no matter how crummy the tasks involved were. It’s okay to take on grunt roles, even if that means preparing banner ads or doing production. Just being around good people will help you grow.

    Then, I'd take every spare moment to work on self-directed projects. You'll have to skip parties and ski trips to do so, but you'll gain a real venue to practice your craft, and often these are incredibly useful for showing off what you can do. If you make some good stuff, you might attract the attention of another potential employer, or your existing one might see that you have drive and passion. (That will make them want to invest in you.)

    The nice part these days is that you can create these things and seed them on the web. When I started, doing so wasn't nearly as feasible.

    Best wishes in your career!


  144. Jon Dittert says:

    Found this post through Tim's twitter, actually. I'm no designer, but I am a professional musician. We have a very similar problem with people thinking we'd love to work for free just because our jobs seem like fun (and my job is fun!). If I had a dollar for every gig or recording session I've been asked to do for exposure or "all you can drink," I could actually afford to play and record for exposure and beer.

  145. Charles Brock says:

    Chip, I'm sorry if you think spec work and 99 designs is the only way you can break into the world of design. You are mistaken and you are headed down the wrong path. If you are talented, personable, passionate and professional and persistent you will have much better luck finding a job that will be more rewarding. All of the designers we've hired in the last 4 years have been straight out of school or have had less than two years experience. We hire based on talent, personality and passion. If you aren't already join your local AIGA chapter and your local Art Directors club. Network. Contact designers you respect and get advice. Spec work is not the way to find a design job. Even if you were to design a cover for Mr. Ferris's "NY Times Best-Seller" it doesn't guarantee you any recognition or respect. As a creative director for a studio specializing in book design, the fact that it was a best-seller alone would not impress me. Most NYT bestsellers aren't what I would consider top notch design. I've designed some covers for a couple of NYT best sellers including a #1 and no one has ever mentioned it to me. So if you are putting all your hopes and dreams into winning a contest, I think you will be disappointed. If you don't value your time and talent, no one else will. Best of luck.

  146. Hi Chip,

    One thing to always keep in mind is that a lot of job descriptions are copy/pasted and created by people who aren't directly involved with the day to day grind of the design department. I'm sure that 5 years experience and knowing every coding language and application in the world are typical things seen on job postings. Ignore all that stuff and go into interviews with confidence and a "can do attitude" and I'm sure that the template job details will be ignored. A friendly personality, a willingness to learn and work collaboratively will most always trump the other personal stats.

    Also, you should consider doing work for non profits. Their budgets are usually small but they will be more open to your creative explorations. And in almost every case they are extremely grateful. Not only is it important to have a good book but its also important to have a foundation of good experiences.

    Good luck,


  147. Ian says:

    As a former wide touring comedian of ten years, I learned early on that contests are for those holding them. Every minute you spend focused on a contest is a minute you aren't working on a paying project or trying to get a paying project. And usually you won't agree with the winning selection, often because you have different parameters. For example, in comedy, NBC might not be looking for the funniest person; rather, they are looking for the funniest housewife, etc, but that is not something they are going to tell contests ahead of time, because it limits the exposure of the contest.

    That being said, everyone has to start somewhere. Somewhere doesn't mean giving up your rights to your work in a contest, though. It means getting exposure. It means starting for low money or poor gigs. You are far better off if you offer to do a brochure cover for a charitable event for free, where you can keep the rights. Of course, I had to do open mic when I started as a comic. I kept my material, though. That exposure landed me early, sometimes poor, gigs--like $100 to drive 8 hours one way and have to sleep in my car after the gig. Had to be done to hone my skills and I got gas money. (This is back when gas was like $1.18 per gallon tops, mind you.) Later, as I got other offers, I could turn down the crappy gigs. (Tim recommends this himself in his book, advising people to give a free speech they can tape and then sell later on their site, etc, to get the ball rolling. The key, again, is they keep their rights.)

    Johnny Carson put it best for all entertainers and artists when he said that, "Most don't understand you have to have f$%k you money. You have to have money put aside so when someone offers you a bad gig, you can say, 'f$%k you.'" Such money enables you to force the money to go up or force the gig to hire weaker talent. If everyone practiced this, as Johnny noted, the quality of pay would go up for the entire industry. Since many people are willing to get on stage or show their art or whatever because it is often their dream, they can be exploited by someone with more savvy. This keeps the bar for money and gigs low.

    You really have to decide for yourself. For any decision you make, simply answer 4 questions: What do you need, what's important to you, what are your responsibilities, and what are your limitations? If working in the industry is important to you, a contest is probably a poor way to go. If you don't want to work in the industry and it's just a hobby, a contest is probably a good move.

    I believe people should always be paid for their work, whenever possible, as long as they behave in a professional manner. I've wanted to do a series of children books (first novel series; think "Mouse and the Motorcycle") for a while but could not afford an artist. I wanted to submit the first manuscript to publishers with artwork to help them envision the completed project. (Already having a book out, I realized publishers need to be shown end results as clearly as possible. They'll change a lot but they still need to see that end result to have the best chance of the project coming to fruition.) I talked about it one night while hanging out with my coed hockey team at the bar. Turns out, I had an artist on my team. She wanted some exposure and I needed an artist. She was willing to provide work for free but I declined. Instead, I sent her a short chapter with a description of the main character. She sent me a quick sketch of her vision of the character. It was quite good, so we went to work. I paid her a small stipend and we both signed a contract, contigent upon what happens with the book--does the publisher stay with her artwork? Go with one of their own artists?

    In this manner, she has been paid (underpaid but paid) and is exposing her work to any children book publishers and agents to whom I send my manuscript. She is very talented and I wouldn't be surprised if she got other gigs from her work for me.

    Additionally, I just finished putting a site up for the book (again to help publishers envision the finished project), which will help her gain further exposure as I invite friends, my manager, colleagues, etc, to check out the site and share their thoughts, so that I may make changes for the better. (www.superflaws.com; of course, feel free to chime in, check out her work, etc.)

    This is the best way for talent in different realms to work together and assist each other, in my view. If you treat yourself or your work unprofessionally, you will be treated unprofessionally. No one is responsible for your happiness but you. In short, as far as this particular contest goes, it's not Tim's responsibility for you to get the best deal for yourself; it's yours. Tim's responsibility is to get the best deal for himself. Why did I, then, work out a deal with my artist (Ellen) when I didn't need to? Am I just a nice guy? I worked out a deal because her work merited it and because I saw enough talent in her that I knew I would very likely want to work with her again and see her get gigs with other people, as the more she is working, the more she is honing her craft. While that's good for her, it's also good for me. This is "professional respect." If I took advantage of her, would she want to work with me again? Would she say good things about me to other professionals?

  148. Steven says:

    I have to disagree with your view of spec work, for a few reasons. First, its not analogous to other fields such as accounting, because you are less able to quantify design work. In principle, the best way to prove the value of your work is to show the numbers, and the second best way is to show a positive review from influential people. Credit for designing a NYT bestselling cover may not help one get a job at a design firm, but it should: prospective clients will appreciate that referral, because they will associate the design work with the success of the book. Rational or not, thats how our heuristics operate.

    I would also disagree with the conclusion of the writing analogy. While writing is similar, I would argue that this contest would be just as popular if it was applied to writing: after all, how many amateur writers are expressing their ideas everyday as bloggers? Tim (or anyone else) can take from these ideas with little repercussions; a contest offering some compensation and credit would at least make the theft a little more palatable.

    Its easy to criticize a contest that encourages free work, and it must be unsettling to be in such a field. But as Chris Anderson's book Free suggests, this is the direction a lot of creative work is going.

  149. Liz says:

    tried reading 4HWW, but never finished it -- got kinda bored with it, but understand it's appeal for many people. Tim is an interesting guy though... i'd like to get a copy of his new book for free... if it appeals to me, I'd then be happy to give him the cover price, as a sign of good faith.

  150. Thank you for writing this!

    You articulate a problem for designers with clarity and punch. This is exactly the message that needs to be spread. And way to go calling Tim out on (a fraction of) his bull.

    Did he remove the contest from his blog? I couldn't find it there.

  151. Charles Brock says:

    "Also, you should consider doing work for non profits. Their budgets are usually small but they will be more open to your creative explorations. And in almost every case they are extremely grateful. Not only is it important to have a good book but its also important to have a foundation of good experiences."

    Exactly Shawn. If you want to do free work at least do it for a cause or someone who will appreciate it. One of the main reasons well established professionals do work for nonprofits is because they have greater creative control. This would be a great way for a young designer to gain experience and also create some nice work. Plus as someone who hires designers, if I had two students in front of me and one had a book full of student projects and the other had real projects for non-profits, I would be more impressed by the later.

  152. Adam H. says:

    First of all, I want to commend you on your blog and writing. I have always appreciated it immensely; it has been an insightful look into an area of work/life I have little expertise in. I think the key concepts behind this topic fall into my personal wheelhouse and thought I might provide my perspective. I hope it is not so unwarranted. If it is, I apologize.

    I see the practice or business situation of what you call "spec work" as completely logical and reasonable. I believe this all comes down to one’s conception of risk.

    Break down the meaning of speculative. This is commonly described (at least in my area of work) as accepting risk (of time or capital) in return for a payoff with a much larger, wider, and positively skewed outcome distribution. Yes, speculators eat the upfront cost of development (but every business has some sort of sunk costs) and 6,7, or 8 out of 10 times lose those costs; but if you are prudent and calculated, the successful attempts should more than cover the losing ones (% chance of success X payout if successful = expected payout).

    This seems to be one of the many risks a design business faces. You all seem to want to completely mitigate this risk in your businesses, which is great! To each his own. Only you can decide what are acceptable risks for your enterprise to take, and if this is a prudent and strategic decision, you will prosper because of it. However, I do not believe you have the right to bar a common industry practice from doing so. Why should another industry participant who might feel more comfortable with said risks be disallowed from doing more speculative projects? You are in effect deciding for him/her what legitimate business decisions he/she can and cannot do, which in my opinion is wrong. My key point: In the long run, Prudent Risk Taking = Reward. Always has. Always will.

    Remember: Business is and will always be about relationships. Every relationship requires a first leap of goodwill (whether it is in dating, faith, business, etc...). This is not some sort of sacrificial lamb statement; if you are a smart and talented designer, the risk you take will pay off in the long run. It also does not mean you always have to be the one making that first leap of goodwill. However, it does insinuate it is arrogant to assume everyone should always take a chance to do business with you with little assurance they will be satisfied with the end result (leaving them with all the risk in the equation).

    It seems to me the problem does not lie in the structure of the deal, but instead with your conception of your customer (whether it be true or false makes no difference) and the requisite subtle and subconscious effect that can have. To follow the dating correlation I made above, just because you might have taken the risk of asking a very snobby, stuck up girl out and she blew you off doesn’t mean the whole practice of dating is flawed. Only do business with those you at least mildly respect and can attempt to trust. Trust me, this honorable way of treating people will be recognized and valued by your customers in the long run (think Zappos and the success they have had by trusting and honoring their customers enough to take that speculative leap of faith).

    I hope all is well. Merry Christmas.

    -Adam H.

  153. eddie quest says:

    C H O M P ! ! ! !
    But very well written. I see why TF thinks highly of this rant.

  154. Ed Doss says:

    Yea it started out to sound like a rant but the more I read the more I realized how true your thoughts are. I can't speak to Tim's intentions but I couldn't agree more that people who expect spec work are doing nothing more than asking for a freebie. I noticed Tim's comment and it sounds like he agrees with you. Cuddos Tim. Great post.

  155. Eric Zentner says:

    Hear, hear!
    I just want to have my name on this, because I believe so strongly in it.

    Try going into the GAP and telling them you'd like to wear some of their clothes for a week, and you'll pay for ONE of the sweaters when you decide. OH, and you'll keep the rest of them too.


  156. This has been around a while now, but it's a brilliant illustration of the issue. If you're on the inside you will realize how true it rings. If you're on the other side... well you just sound ridiculous.
    "The Vendor-Client Relationship, in real world situations."

  157. Yes, that one is very well done (and awfully funny too)!

  158. Steven Moody says:

    @Eric Zentner: That's a perfect analogy because it shows why the post is mistaken: you can't go to GAP and ask for a spec because they already have an established brand. You can, however, get free clothes from many designers who want the publicity of celebrities wearing their clothes. The reward to them outweighs the relatively small cost (time and, in this case, fabric).

  159. Charles Brock says:

    It's not exactly the same thing Steven. You can't name me one designer that's career was made because they designed a NYT Best-Seller. Most authors, publishers and designers could not tell you who designed any of the Best Sellers out there. Anyone know who designed DaVinci Code? Anyone know who designed Sarah Palin's new book? Probably not. The payoff isn't the same. Clothing designers careers can be made by having a celebrity wear their clothes.

  160. Steven Moody says:

    Charles, you probably can't name one movie star who made his/her name getting paid to design book covers :) How many actors started working for free? How many actors, already getting paid, take non paying jobs with a potential for a higher payoff.

    Without knowing the full economics of book design, I can't disagree with you with a straight face. But I think its worth pointing out the analogy to ghost writers: you don't know who actually wrote the last five biographies you read, but the people who hire ghost writers probably do, and they won't stop to ask how much they were paid for their work.

  161. I hate to jump in here Steve, but I feel I must.

    Even out of high-school, the fast food place I worked at paid me. It was a crummy job, and they paid me the least they could (by law), but they paid me.

    I don't ask young designers to work for smashLAB for free. Regardless of how badly they might want the work, doing so wouldn't be ethical. I could get people to do it, but that wouldn't make it any more OK.

    Then of course, you seem really committed to people not getting paid. For you, I make a special offer: You can be our runner for a week if you'd like. We won't pay you anything, but you can tell people that you worked at smashLAB.

    Tempting, isn't it?

  162. Charles Brock says:

    Steve, I'm not talking analogies here I'm talking about book design which is where this whole thing started. All I can tell you is as a designer it's not the path to take. If you work for free or cheap you typically get stuck there unable to move up. I've done plenty of pro bono work and work for non profits, I've also done my own projects for the purposes of promotion or to show my talents. I don't ask anyone to work for free. My point is that the supposed payoff for designing Mr. Ferris's book is a falsehood in the world of book design. Also as someone who specializes in book design and runs a blog about it. Very few people who weren't a part of the project could tell you who designed the book covers I mentioned.

  163. Charles Brock says:

    In my 13 years of designing I've learned that people who approach you to work for free or with the promise of a payoff if it's successful are people who don't value what you have to offer. It is more often than not a bad experience and the end result is not anything you would want your name on or would want to be associated with. My policy now is to politely say no and that we would be happy to quote them a price if they would like.

  164. Steven Moody says:

    Eric, my dream isn't to be a human-cog at McDonald's, so they would definitely have to pay for me to work there.

    As for your offer, I have to decline for geographical reasons, but if you know of any San Diego agencies with a disposition similar to yours, I would be interested in the non-monetary benefits of such an offer.

  165. I am not a designer, but I find this debate utterly fascinating.

    I would ask all of you that are designers to ponder this question:

    No one cleans toilets on spec, no one fixes cars on spec, no one flips burgers on spec. Why is that no one is willing to do those things on spec, but there are people willing to design book covers, logos, and websites on spec?

    I intend nothing mean-spirited, and I propose it with all sincerity for your consideration.

  166. Stephen A. says:

    Tim's not an asshole, per se, he just wants to drive wages for ALL professions down as close to ZERO as possible, that's all. And if that means outsourcing every single job in America to slave-wage nations, then by golly, that's what we'll have to do - according to Tim.

    If that's what qualifies as "evil" then yeah, he's acting like an asshole, but just like the rest of corporate America.

  167. Choc says:

    I'm fine if you want to rant on Tim Ferriss for sponsoring this context. It is your perogative. But did you post the same rant when Guy Kawasaki did the same thing for his book entrepreneurism, The Art of the Start?

    I think this idea comes up in the entrepreneur genre. You may not want to enter the contest, but you may end up getting paid to adapt someone's submitted design. Is it so bad that you might help a new designer launch their career or, heaven forbid, actually use your technical skill to make a rookie designer's work printable?

  168. No, I didn't do the same thing when Guy wrote his book, but it's not like I wouldn't have.

    It's just that (contrary to what one might believe) there's actually more to my day than just writing articles about spec-work.

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  171. Kelly Nelson says:

    Here where I live this practice has become epidemic. The local "cool" French bakery,located in my largely artistic neighborhood, hosted a contest for the privilege of selling their merchandise with your design plastered all over their shit. My routine response has been quiet disapproval to these contests has now been replaced with public disdain. I've been met with much the same response as Tim's. The 'ole, "great exposure" response has my mind flashing with images of Dick Cheney and seeing a rather menacing shade of red.

    The motivation is pure and simple.... greed and no true appreciation for work. I've begun asking these businesses for spec work (e.g. cook me a specific custom cake at which point I'll eat and decide if I want to use your recipe so I can sell it myself.)

  172. Chris Yakimov says:

    Awesome. Designers should NOT be working for free.
    Thanks for nailing the thought down hard.

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  177. Yadgyu says:

    The real question isn't if Tim is acting like an asshole. The real question is "Why is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?".

    He is doing so because he is important. Important people can act like assholes. People enjoy it when important people act like assholes. It is a great form of entertainment. I have never been entertained or fascinated by a person that was incapable of acting like an asshole on occasion. Life is just too short to be kind, humble, and uncontroversial.

  178. Perhaps. Or maybe you're just a moron.*

    *Why be "kind," right?

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