WEB Advent 2012 / The Anti-Spec Movement Is Going Too Far

As a designer, I have nothing against the anti-spec movement. Created in response to speculative work (i.e., work commissioned with the possibility of payment but no guarantee) and crowd-sourcing (e.g., design contests which reward only one winner), the anti-spec community has been protecting designers’ right to be paid for the work that they do.

However, the movement has been going too far — expanding to cover every kind of design contest and groups where design and art are created for fun, not just profit. Anti-spec is detrimental to community and social good projects, and it hurts more designers and artists than it saves by going too far.

Anti-spec is hurting pro bono design

At Brooklyn Beta 2011, Todd Park of the US Department of Health and Human Services spoke passionately about the need for designers to work for the public good, to spend their free time building and experimenting on current public issues. He called for designers to take the massive amount of health data released by the government and use it to build public solutions, and he specifically mentioned that, yes, the government could pay one individual or studio a massive amount of money to find one solution, but that the most amount of innovation and creativity comes from the community.

Recently, The Designer Fund and the White House presented the Health Design Challenge dedicated to redesigning the electronic medical record. On the TechCrunch coverage, The Designer Fund co-director says, “There are so many meaningful problems in the world. Healthcare, clean energy, environmental issues, city design. We feel like we’d be able to make a much bigger dent in these problems if designers went at them.” Of course, there were anti-spec responses such as this:

The US Government crowdsourcing designs? I can't wait to work for free! —Razmig Getzoyan on Facebook

The Designer Fund and the White House could pay a consulting firm to create a solution for the electronic medical record, but like Todd Park mentioned, the greatest amount of innovation and creatively comes from a massive amount of designers working together — more innovative, cost-effective, and interesting solutions will always come from a community project such as this rather than one paid consulting firm.

Anti-spec is hurting open source, design collaboration, and education

Being a designer jumping into development, I would have been completely lost if it wasn’t for sites like Stack Overflow, where people can post problems they’re having with development and get answers and help for free. The free advice and help from Stack Overflow made it easy to jump into development. So many people are looking to jump into design, but huge communities for design help like Stack Overflow are lacking — Stack Overflow for design isn’t big enough and Dribbble exists more for sharing small details. Large communities don’t exist due to the stigma against asking for design help for free.

For developers, open source development has lead to innovation on the Internet and online products. I was able to build my startup using a programming language called Python and a framework called Django, both of which are available online for free, even though they represent thousands of hours of work. The developers worked for free, in their spare time, to build something to help others. It’s worth noting that it would be odd to have anything but free programming frameworks and plugins — developers in the open source community embrace working for free in order to build free resources for the benefit of others.

What if designers were more open with their free time? What if we embraced opening up to others, embracing community? A huge issue in the open source community is the lack of design help — poor UX and UI design on open source projects which hinders adoption and understanding by non-developers. Designers should work with developers to further promote and aid adoption of great open source projects, which, in turn, helps nearly everything we use on the Internet today.

Anti-spec is hurting community

Moleskine, the popular retailer of artist notebooks and sketch pads, decided to hold a design contest for their online blog, the Moleskinerie. The Moleskinerie is dedicated to sharing art and stories around the Moleskine brand, so it probably seemed natural to use their current community to help design the logo for the Moleskinerie. The anti-spec work comments poured in:

“I am shocked and dismayed that Moleskine is running an unethical contest like this. You are expecting thousands of artists to work for free.”

“Like a lot of professional creatives, I am very disappointed by the fact that Moleskine actually helps devalue our profession and potentially tries to get rid of a lucrative part of its user demographic, instead of making a fist against crowd-sourcing or any initiative involving speculative work for that matter. I'm quite sure that I'm not the only one who won't buy Moleskine products anymore.”

Moleskine had already built a community through design and was just further developing that community by having the headline piece of the community (the logo) built by the community. Moleskine wasn’t redesigning their brand or any piece of their company that is distinctly for-profit. We shouldn’t discourage designers using their talents for fun to help and build upon something they love.

The anti-spec movement needs to embrace pro bono pursuits

The anti-spec movement can be productive, since bad spec work still exists — there are still employers making potential employees work for free with the possibility of a job (bad), and there are still companies running spec contests for logos and branding (very bad — I’m looking at you, 99Designs and Crowdspring).

However, we should never discourage designers and artists from using their art and design skills for fun and public good. These pursuits don’t deny designers jobs, nor do they lower our wages. As designers, we should contribute to open source projects, donate our skills to important public projects such as the Health Design Challenge, and embrace art for fun — not just profit.

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