Christina Leslie's Portraits

N.L.S., A New Local Space

Deborah Caroll Anzinger's artist run residency and exhibition space in Kingston


Leasho Johnson's Provocative Re-interpretation in 'Canopy Guild'

Light Sensitive

Marlon James' black and whites

Annalee Davis: ON THE MAP

Caribbean Political Documentary

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Art & Design Culture: Spec Work

The Huffington Post recently mounted a competition calling for entires for logo designs for their political campaign activities. This act created a backlash among designers who thought it was in bad taste for a rising media power like The Huffington Post to call for free design work via Spec competition or crowdsourcing
. This, I learned, is referred to as Speculative (Spec) work. One of the main groups against this latest call is called AntiSpec and in its campaign it battles the scourge of Spec work head on.

'Spec(ulative) work is a cancer within the design industry and all designers need to understand their role in fighting it.'
   - AntiSpec site
Why is this Spec Work so offensive though? Doesn't everyone win? Designers get guaranteed payment when they win competitions and companies get the best design right? I ask the question because while working in Jamaica in the mid to late 2000’s, I gained a little experience as a designer and commissioned artist and found this to be part of the general practice. Then after visiting the AntiSpec site and listening to their arguments I started to realize that I felt this way as well but also had one foot in the other system of crowdsourcing.
Many young creatives frequently participate in this crowdsourcing activity as I also did in my early art school days. At that time, there was a constant flow of competitions calling for new logos for government bodies and departments, banks, special events, publicity posters etc.- the usual fare. Usually the award was enough money to cover personal expenditure and cost of materials for a semester in school. It was always a chancy issue as I could win the money or lose the money.
This is where focus of the AntiSpec group's campaign seems to lie. For each design call more than one and sometimes hundreds or thousands of designers prepare and submit work. Even though its one design, if we add up each individuals time and effort that they put into doing the work, the hours and costs rack up. When I was doing this, those hours included researching the subject and the organization, brainstorming, conceptualizing and sketching ideas, rendering the design digitally or by hand, transporting the design to the submission offices and other details. This doesn't include the money involved in funding this venture such as your art supplies, printing and more. That was also time away from my studies and assignments. In total of all those perhaps 4-6 entries I took place in I was fortunate enough to win one. This however is
rarely the case for the majority of competitors.

By now you may be thinking that it was not forced and that I willingly participated. I calculated the risks and due to the cost of my chosen field and the extreme shortage of part-time jobs for college students in Jamaica, I decided to enter. After all there was the potential of getting returns on my hard work. I remember the point however when I decided never to enter another Spec competition. It was when I realized that the persons judging these competitions were not necessarily looking for the best design in an academic sense. Often there were no designers or like creatives on the judging panels. In finding that to be the case I concluded that it was essentially pointless to use my creative training to create these designs when that wasn't even a factor in assessing submissions. I then decided to focus on fine art as my outlet.

I had an option but what if you are deeply rooted in the industry as an independent pro designer or part of a team at a design firm and have to spend substantial amounts to submit designs for these competitions and you never get compensated? It may not have occurred to commissioners of designs don't really understand that they are asking for free work as the focus is on the fact that there is a winner and a cash prize, but what about the unsuccessful designers? Maybe this issue comes down to a simple fact of value. Companies could be approaching the issue as opportunity for the masses of designers but isn't that ultimately disrespectful of the design craft?... or like auditions are part of the actor's career, should it be accepted as just part of the trade? Maybe artists, designers, writers, performers are also allowing the value of their work and control they have to be eroded by doing Spec work.
And one last thought...if there is Spec work in 'Design' what about 'Art'. Are calls for proposals for sculptures, paintings etc. and artist competitions hosted by galleries also speculative?
What are your thoughts on this?
Oh by the way, The Huffington Post pulled that campaign.