Spec Work and the Humanities

By Dana Solomon

As part of my own research on the use of information visualization in the humanities, I have become interested in the past and present overlap of graphic design practice and literary studies. In considering these and other overlaps between the practice of reading and interpreting texts and the labor involved in designing and producing them, I began to think about another point of mutual experience. It is one that impacts designers and, I would argue, many humanities practitioners, both on a practical and an existential level. It revolves around the practice of “spec work,” short for speculative work.

Founded in 1914, the “American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA, remains the oldest and largest professional membership organization for design and is now known simply as AIGA, the professional association for design.’” The AIGA defines spec work as “work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid.” In other words, spec work is unpaid labor performed by the designer at the request of a potential client. For example, a company looking to produce a new logo might ask a graphic designer to produce several logos and then choose to hire the designer and pay them for their work, or decide they don’t like the logos and continue soliciting other designers. The point here is that though the initial designs took time and effort to produce, in the latter scenario the original designer is not compensated for their work. The AIGA explains that spec work “diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives,” and even suggests the possibility of “legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.” This can occur if the company decides to tell the designer they are not interested, and then have the mock-ups developed in-house, again without compensating (or notifying) the original artist.

The context of spec work is not always this face-to-face scenario. With the advent of networked design communities, there are hundreds of design contests held each year by companies ranging from local businesses to major multinational corporations. The designer advocacy site, No!Spec, argues that “crowdsourced design competitions” present an opportunity for companies to solicit thousands of potential designs for free. The “winning” designer might be compensated in some way, though in many cases the prize is simply the company’s use of the design. Further, the hundreds or thousands of other designers may not even be contacted. No!Spec explains how “Visual Communication designers (graphic, web, illustration, etc) sell two things – ideas and time. Speculative presentations, by definition, require a designer to invest both their ideas and time without a guarantee of compensation.”

There are dozens of similar pro-designer sites, each of which essentially opposes spec work for the same reasons: it devalues the profession, results in lower quality work, and is exploitative and predatory, in that spec work often targets students and early-career designers under the guise of “portfolio building.”

In thinking about advocating for the humanities, a collection of disciplines similarly revolving around the products of “ideas and time,” I wonder what lessons we can learn from the problem of spec work in the graphic design field. The AIGA provides a letter template to designers solicited to do spec work that clearly articulates the mutually damaging effects of the practice. The letter also explains the unique value of the service designers provide, and gives concrete examples of how similar practices of contingent compensation would not be tolerated in most other fields:

“Just consider the response if you were to ask a dozen lawyers to write a brief for you, from which you would then choose which one to pay!) We realize that there are some creative professions with a different set of standards, such as advertising and architecture, for which billings are substantial and continuous after you select a firm of record. In those cases, you are not receiving the final outcome (the advertising campaign or the building) for free up front as you would be in receiving a communication design solution.”

I have participated in a number of discussions revolving around the topic of (variously) defining, defending, quantifying, qualifying, and/or justifying the humanities to college administrators, politicians, community members, and faculty and students in other disciplines. Though the comparison is not perfect, spec work, and the ways in which the design field has countered it, might serve as a helpful analogy for the ways in which humanities practitioners are asked to perform a variety of responsibilities without being compensated fairly, or while working from a contingent or precarious employment position. Have you experienced spec work in your various humanities roles? It would be helpful to collect and categorize instances of spec work in the humanities, even at the general (rather than personal) level: requests for unpaid office hours, hourly contract violations, etc. It might also be worthwhile to draft a similar letter template that articulates the value we produce in the humanities, and why it isn’t acceptable to ask for work or service up front, often under increasingly demanding and desperate conditions, without compensation.

[This was excerpted from a longer post; read the whole thing on Dana’s blog.]

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