Insults! Fistfights! Finally a panel debate that smoked! (SXSW day 3) 9

First of all, this post is dedicated to Live whose birthday it is today (still, our time, yesterday Norwegian time). Happy birthday from Kari & Synve!

Finally! Having attended three previous panel debates, I was hesitant about going to another one. However, the title “Is spec work evil? The online creative community speaks” piqued my interest. Although spec work is not such a well known phenomena in Norway, the market is getting increasingly global, and it may be more relevant than I initially thought. AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, defines spec work as:

work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation

So what is spec work?

Basically, a client might put a specification for a design up on a site like Crowdspring, and the providers on Crowdspring (designers or not) will then compete by actually making designs (by spec, hence the term “spec work”). The buyer then decides on which design to use, and that particular provider gets paid. The others, in the words of Anne Robinson, of Weakest Link fame, “leave with nothing”.

Spec work damaging professional designers?

The panel participants expressed widely differing views on this topic.  David Carson took a protective stance with respect to professional designers, wanting to quash spec work altogether, and seeing it as a threat to businesses who use it – stating that spec work is often so bad that businesses who use it may risk going bust.

Carson also said that any self-respecting designer would not submit his designs on spec work sites, as it could seriously backlash and damage his reputation.


Mike Samson
Mike Samson

From the Crowdspring site came Mike Samson, who took the brunt of criticism in this panel. However, kudos for actually initiating the panel discussion all the time knowing he would get a lot of flak. Samson took the commercial position, naturally, defending the existance of spec work and sites like Crowdspring.

He used the classic argument that there is a market for it, both among providers and buyers, and therefore it is a good thing. His more altruistic reflections, on how the competing designers actually discuss designs, teach each other and help each other, didn’t ring completely true, though.

But there is an issue there, that this kind of activity is just an addition to traditional design work practices, addressing a different segment of the market, e.g. small businesses that cannot afford to hire “proper” designers.

It’s here to stay, but it’s not for everyone

Jeremiah Owyang
Jeremiah Owyang

Jeremiah Owyang, the Forrester analyst and well known blogger, having researched the issue and made avail of some of the services, took the position that spec work is here to stay, so take it or leave it. Even though the designers promoted through spec work sites may represent a lower-tier set, they represent an inexpensive alternative.

Owyang pointed out that the downsides to spec work is of course that the quality on a lot of the work submitted is low and that the client therefore has to expend a significant amount of effort in wading through all the bad stuff before finding something usable. Also, it may be difficult for some clients to separate the good from the bad.

Jeff Howe from Wired moderated the debate. Olivia Mann from AIGA was brought into the panel only the day before the panel in order to present a more balanced selection of panellist. Although AIGAs position on spec work is extremely critical, Mann did not express as ciritical a view, and invited spec work providers within design to tell positive stories about spec work on the AIGA site, e.g. whether spec work had given them as designers additional work and more lasting relationships with clients.

Finally, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, from Threadless (and parent company skinnyCorp) got quite upset when Samson stated that Crowdspring was inspired by Treadless when starting up. Kalmikoff almost shouted that “If you think that you took inspiration from us, it shows that you have no idea what you’re talking about!”

So what does it all mean?

So what is my position on spec work after attending this debate? Well, I didn’t know much about this phenomenon before the panel, so I haven’t had time to think through it. But the panel did a good job in pointing out pros and cons with this way of doing design.

Among other things, the panel brought up the analogy of stock photo sites like, which started out as a community for photographers, and is now a fully fledged stock photo site for both buyers and providers. I don’t know if I’m now damaging my reputation by admitting that I use, e.g. to find photos to use in persona descriptions. But I don’t really see the analogy with spec work, as the client comes into the picture after the provider has made the product (the photo) available. Spec work doesn’t work that way.

I suppose I lean a bit towards Owyangs position, the phenomenon is here to stay, at least as long as there is a market for it. I don’t see that there is a way to prevent it, or eradicate it, as long as buyers use spec work.

And who knows, maybe it will actually drive more work to professional (good) designers – when you get fed up with wading through 90% crap, you may be more inclined to hire a proper designer who will actually try to understand what you want to achieve at your site, and with whom you can communicate directly.

Learning the American lingo – this was a kick-ass panel debate!

So yes, lots of heated debate, (near) fistfights, and actual insults were hurled across the stage, barely leaving room for questions from the floor. I thougt this panel was excellent – it brought out the different points of view well, the panellists were stoked and the audience responded to this. It really worked!

The Cowgirls 4 Ever Score (6 cows is best score)

Technical content:




Other presentations we attended

If you have any questions about any of the presentations we attended, or about the South By South West Interactive Festival in general, drop us a line. Or just follow us on twitter – &