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The Difference Between Spec Work and Pro-Bono or Open Source

What is Spec Work?

Speculative Work (or “spec work”) is work performed with no expectation or arrangement for compensation. Anyone who engages in spec work invests uncompensated time and resources with no guarantee of payment.

Ok I get it, but what’s the difference?

You might ask, “Well what’s the difference between spec work and say, ‘giving back to the community’, or ‘donating work to a charity’?”

I’m glad you asked. Let’s break down the difference between the three scenarios so you can see that, in fact, one of these things is not like the others.

Pro Bono says:
Professional work (i.e. design) is inherently valuable and can be donated as something that is of worth.

Contributing to the Community says:
Professional work (i.e. design) is inherently valuable and can be given to a community as something of worth that benefits the community.

Spec Work says:
Professional work (i.e. design) is only valuable if it is “liked” or “chosen” by a contest holder.

Notice the odd one out? The issue is the value, or lack of value, attributed to professional work, and by association, its industry. When you give a gift, the recipient does not view the gift as being worthless, they view the gift as being something of value that was given to them. Donating time or resources to an organization is the same as writing them a check. It is giving them something of value out of charity and they are receiving it as such.

It Comes Down to Value

The spec work mindset is detrimental to the industry. Those who hold contests to solely benefit the contest holder and one participant are devaluing the profession of all participants. Those who participate in such contests are devaluing their own profession as well as that of others in their industry.

Professionals should always be compensated for their work. Professional work is inherently valuable and demands payment. Again, if someone chooses to give something of value (e.g. design, time, resources, money) to an organization, that is the right and choice of that person to do so. Because the company is receiving a donation from the individual they are acknowledging the inherent value of the donation.

Donating design, time, or resources to non-profits is NOT spec work

There is no such thing as “donating” your time to a spec work contest. The nature of speculative contest work is built upon the misguided belief that professional work is worthless unless “liked” or “chosen” by the contest holder. If you think that you are simply “donating” your time to these “contests”, you are sadly mistaken and do nothing more than declare the worth of your work as having no real value.

Are Legitimate Contests Possible Then?

Yes. There are legitimate contests, and not all contests are evil. In order to determine if a contest is legitimate and not spec work, you must find out who is benefitting from the collective work. If the answer is the contest holder, then it is spec work. If the answer is the community or industry as a whole and the contest holder does not benefit from the work, then it can be a contest.

A prime example of detrimental spec work was Moleskine’s Logo Contest. Because the contest holder, Moleskine, would benefit from the unpaid collective work, it was not a contest; it was spec work.

Update: Thanks to the upstanding folks in the design community, our outcry was heard and Moleskine conceded, apologizing for disrespecting the design community. For this, they are reconciled.

In contrast, Unmatched Style’s CSS Off exemplifies the ideal legitimate contest. In this case, the community gets the benefit from this contest rather than the contest holder. The contest holder values the entrants’ work and releases the work to the public under the Creative Commons License for educational and industry-benefitting purposes.

What Can I Do to Help?

The most obvious way is to refrain from participating in speculative work. By standing up for the inherent value of your work, you retain not only your own dignity and establish yourself as a professional, but also the dignity and reputation of those in your industry.

A more proactive approach to the issue would be to get involved in the AntiSpec campaign and put your face with the group that boldly says NO to spec work.


Disagree or have something you want to say? Share your thoughts on the discussion thread.

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