What is speculative design work?

What is speculative design work and why it is wrong?

So recently Carsonified launched a design competition. I posted a comment teasing them that it was speculative work. This is following the controversy surrounding the panel on the subject at SXSW.

It didn’t occur to me for a minute that anybody would think I was serious! How can people think a competition is the same as spec work? It showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what spec work is but also more importantly why it is wrong.

People think spec work is wrong because it hurts the designer. I think it is wrong because it hurts the client. I think it is time to clear this issue up!

Read ‘Why Speculative Design Is Wrong’

  • @Kuzushisan

    Oops… (O:

  • Was it Marcos skulking behind you Paul? ;)

  • I’d like to watch this (I follow @boagworld) but I can’t view videos without subtitles. I wouldn’t be so disappointed if you had at least provided a transcript.

  • Well done Paul.
    Thanks for posting this! Some of those comments made me want to shake people! Designers have to learn to have a bit of fun with competitions… As much fun as top 10 lists are, seeing some work that people do on this will be very fun.

  • Dylan Parry

    I think you’re right, but kinda wrong as well. It does affect the client, as you say, because they end up having to pay costs that you’ve factored in for having done spec work with other clients that they didn’t win contracts from; but I feel that it also affects the designer in that because they have to recoup the cost of lost contracts, their charges are artificially inflated and that in turn might cause them to lose other contracts, and the evil circle continues.
    Essentially, it’s bad for all concerned.

  • Dylan Parry

    Heh, forgot to add that I loved how Marcus cameoed in your video

  • john

    Agree with the fact that it is the client who pays. I also slightly agree that Carson’s competition is not exactly speculative design, nevertheless, as you almost said, but checked yourself, speculative design is about doing something for free in the hope that you win something/anything (it could be a contract or indeed in Carson’s case a free pass and some publicity).
    I think that this is speculative design in the sense that you may or may not win, but it is not in the sense of the client paying or indeed not getting the quality of work. I’m sure that Carsonified will get some well considered designs. And the process which you describe as suffering in a speculative pitch would never happen in this relationship.
    I think it really is a case of this being an opportunity for people to get a design shown and win a pass. What is telling is how quickly people want to criticise Carsonified; no matter what, even the smallest comment or action by them gets a lot of flack. If I was Ryan I’d be more than a little worried at why that is.

  • @Aneurin – The transcript is the linked article. 90% of what I say comes from that article.
    @John – Sorry I disagree with you. As a kid I sent a picture into a TV Art Programme called Take Hart. They showed children’s art on the TV. My picture was not shown. Did I do speculative work there? Of course not! It was a competition that I did not win.

  • I think you flatter yourself slightly to assume that it was merely your comment that started the furore surrounding this topic. Many others have also used their ‘minds of their own’ and said the same thing. Unfortunately your analysis of what does and doesn’t constitute speculative design work is flawed; the fact that this is a competition doesn’t disqualify it as speculative. In fact, if you read the FAQ over at NO!SPEC you’ll see that competitions like this are specifically mentioned.
    You’ve listed some of the (valid) reasons why speculative work is harmful to the client, but the reasons why it’s harmful to the designer didn’t get touched on. From my perspective, the most worrying aspect of competitions like this being promoted is that it spreads the notion of harmless spec work being something acceptable. Speculative work devalues design work as a whole, which affects everybody, and that’s why it shouldn’t be encouraged. It implies that the intrinsic value of the work being created is low (otherwise why would you do it for free?) and it sets a dangerous precedent in the minds of clients which, sadly, spreads around.
    You can see it in many of the comments defending Carsonified too, with individuals saying that designers are being too precious about their profession. I can only assume that most of these individuals are not freelance designers, or in any way actually relying on design work to pay their wages. I’m quite fortunate in that at the moment I’m a salaried employee working in-house, and so my clients are product people within the same organisation, but I would hate to think that should I some day decide to go freelance that the concept of spec work being an expected norm had set in the minds of all my potential clients.

  • So it is, sorry. :o) Off I go now to read things!

  • Dan

    Good points, Paul!
    You appear to have recorded a video that echos my own point of view exactly (See my comments on the blog post in question).
    But I do have a criticism to make. Next time could you get a bit closer to the camera? I couldn’t quite see what you had for breakfast.

  • I too had a picture featured on Take Hart, and submitted many an entry to Blue Peter. You’re right, Paul, this isn’t spec work. It’s not because children aren’t professional designers, and it’s not a competition soliciting professional responses.
    Not all competitions are spec, and admittedly, this one was right on the edge.

  • mlok

    I’m sorry Paul, but I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one when you say a competition like this isn’t spec work. In fact, it’s worse because nobody gets paid at all! You still get a lot of entries where people are trying to impress you, the work still gets thrown away, there is still no brief and there is still no collaboration with the client.
    I think you’re spot on with your reasons why speculative work is bad for the client and that if the designer wants to do it, then fair game to them. But we can’t forget that speculative work takes a few guises, and a “do something we’d normally pay people for” competition is one of them. This is different to sending artwork to Take Hart because the producers wouldn’t normally pay for this (and the whole point was to encourage children to draw and to show off their work :-) )
    And yes, you may have said it in a disparaging way but you did request speculative design work too when you ran a logo competition :-)

  • Tim Print

    You have a very strange shaped head in this video Paul. It may be a lighting issue or you may be an alien imposter.
    Other than that good post!

  • Another thing i’d like to throw into this is the use of the abbreviation “spec” for “speculative”. “Spec” to me means functional or technical spec (specification). It took me ages to realise that you were talking about speculative design – I though it was a debate about whether you should provide functional/ technical specs free of charge (no).
    No to speculative spec work!
    No to spec = speculative!

  • Mark

    Bloody well said!
    If anything that comp is a good chance for all entrants to gain benefits – Flickr display an all!

  • Totally agree, its simply a competition!
    On a thoroughly more disturbing note, who wants to tell Paul that someone has stolen his beard !

  • I think Carsonified’s big problem is that a lot of people dislike them.

  • Go Paul,,, bit ranty today are we? haha
    And hi marcus with your cup of coffee

  • Steve D

    Mmmmmmmmmm. I think judging by the original post (and it’s hard to say 100%) it looks as though Carsonified backtracked somewhat by offering the passes after they had originally posted the competition up.
    If that was offered in the first instance I don’t think there would be as much of a kerfuffle as there has been. Even the end of year student awards all have prizes (which it has to be said students are encouraged to enter), yet Carsonified seemed to think that letting someone do it for no prize seems a bit stingy to be fair.

  • john

    I think the problem here with what is speculative design is confusing because one also needs to consider “what do you get paid for doing” (i.e. what is your job). Paul, when you said you sent a painting into take hart you were not doing design on spec because that wasn’t what you did for a living, you were simply “having a go”.
    For those of us that get paid to design, doing design and not being paid is not really a positive business model. Of course there are times when you will do work for a non monetary gain, but often the benefit is defined such as charity work etc.
    Yes, this is a (take hart) competition style event, but the truth is, if you are paid to design, if that is what pays your mortgage, then you really would need to weigh up whether the chance of a gain from doing this work was really worth it for your business. And that is where this steps into the grey area of work on spec, because potentially you could be rewarded for your work/effort/time, but in this case you are not. You are speculating on a potential differed benefit which may not be given to you.

  • john

    I am running a competition at my home for plumbers to come and install a new bathroom. I can do this myself, but hey, I thought the world of plumbing needed a boost. They get to work in my lovely house in the country, they must, of course do it for free, but the winner, to be chosen by me, will be advertised on my website and will get first use of the toilet. I will also run a story in the local newspaper which is bound to result in loads more work for the plumber. It’s win win!
    Please don’t all apply at once . . .

  • Your voice is cool, Paul. I plan to bring you people who you can cooperate.

  • You sent a picture to (the late and great) Tony Hart. That is awesome!!!
    Kudos to your sir!

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