Coty Gonzales brought up a really interesting debate in a very thorough blog post he made recently about a book cover design competition Guy Kawasaki is putting on. The basic premise of the post focuses on highlighting the grey area between what is and is not spec work in the design world, specifically as it relates to Threadless.
Before I move on, let me clear some things up and make sure everyone is up to speed. Threadless does not design their own shirts. They use a crowdsourcing model where thousands of designers create t-shirt artwork and then submit it to the Threadless site. Visitors to the site (which include other designers AND regular schmucks like me) then vote which designs get printed.
One more thing to clear up; lets go over what spec work is. Here’s how it’s defined by no-spec.com, an issue-position website that seems to be the most thorough resource for anti-spec designers out there.
What is ‘working on speculation?’ By Elisabetta Bruno of ThinkCreation
What is “spec?”
“Spec” has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis. In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.
What’s so wrong with that?
In a nutshell, spec requires the designer to invest time and resources with no guarantee of payment.
So as I understand it, spec work occurs anytime a client requires the designer to essentially deliver a final or near-final version of the work in question so that the client can see the work before committing to pay for it. The designer is speculating, or betting, that the client will accept the work, and it understood on both sides that the client may walk.
So here’s the big question:
Is Threadless Spec Work?
Of course it is. An artist can’t get their t-shirt printed by submitting a proposal, a paragraph on what their shirt would look like….they have to actually do the work, and they have to do it first with no guarantee of payment.
- Just to get consideration for acceptance of a design, the designer has to perform the exact same work that would have to be performed had they been guaranteed a print and paid up front.
- There is no guarantee of payment or acceptance of the design. Having performed the work to design the tee doesn’t assure any level of compensation or printing for the shirt. Some intangibles like name and style recognition within the group of people that voted to print a losing design could be present. This isn’t available in situations where designs are all submitted directly to a client for internal review, but is something publicly visible crowdsourcing models like Threadless can offer.
- If the client chooses not to accept a specific piece of artwork, the designer is still out the time and effort it took to create that artwork. By creating and submitting artwork to Threadless, the designer is essentially betting, speculating, that the design will be printed.
Designers, as far as I can tell, seem to hate spec work. I don’t blame them. What if after a day of work at my day job, my employer says “Look, it was pretty cool the way you completed XYZ, but we’re going to go with the way Dave did it, so that’s for your time, but we’re not paying you.” Hell, I would be livid, so I can see how a designer doesn’t want to do spec work generally.
So as far as I can see, Threadless is definitely spec work. The difference, is that it’s spec work worth doing, and it’s spec work that designers are glad to do.
There’s a HUGE difference between designing a tee for Threadless and designing a logo or website or whatever for some brand. When you design a logo, there’s really nothing else you can use that for. You can’t go offer that to someone else or anything.
When you design a t-shirt, if it doesn’t get printed at Threadless, you’re NOT out all the time it took you to design it because you can take that shirt somewhere else. You can hold onto it in your “completed” folder and wait for the right time to sell it yourself. You can take the artwork off the t-shirt medium and instead offer it on your website as an art print. You still own it, you can still USE it.
Let’s use another analogy here. You tell me and 2 other people that if we bake you a cake, you’ll check it out and might buy it. I bake you a chocolate cake, someone else bakes you a carrot cake, and the third person goes with vanilla. You take a look at all 3 and decide the carrot cake looks delicious, so you pay the guy that made you the carrot cake.
What about me? What about captain vanilla? Are we out a couple hours of time and effort? Definitely not, because we can still enjoy the fruits of our labor. I can take my chocolate cake next door and offer it to your neighbor, who might pay me for it. I could give it away, donate it to a charity bake sale or I could even eat it myself.
The risk-reward ratio of designing for Threadless is just…stupidly awesome. This is especially true for artists that aren’t established. You design a t-shirt (which is something you’re going to do anyway, and if it doesn’t sell at Threadless you’ll do something else with it) and you get to parade it around in front of prospective buyers. If you’re chosen, you get a shitload of money and a feather in your cap. You’re not just a t-shirt designer anymore, you won at Threadless, you’re good and you can take that to any brand you may design for in the future.
One could argue that it’s not spec work if it’s something you’d do anyways, without Threadless. I mean, if you sit at home and just kick out dozens of t-shirt designs without knowing where they’ll go, Threadless probably isn’t spec work to you. After all, you’re deciding after the fact to send it to them and the work’s already done at that point.
But if you sit down and say “today I’m going to design a shirt and try to get it printed at Threadless” then yeah, it’s definitely spec work. It’s the kind of spec work you ought to be doing because the risk is practically zero (you can get paid for that design, if not at Threadless, then somewhere else) and the reward potential is so high.
That’s what I think. What do you think?