"Spec" is short for "speculative". While there are many types of speculation the one that designers should be watching out for is the prospect of doing hard work for the hope of getting paid.
What sort of insane fool would do hard work for only maybe getting paid for it?
That's a fair question. The answer is, regrettably, rather a few (refer: "LogoWorks") . And it's not due necessarily to any moral failing on the point of the participants but, perhaps of the desperate desire to "get one's work out there" coupled with a healthy dose of good old American "gettin' soemthing for nothing".
Design is a serious business. Sure, designers get to do fun things and play with fun toys (maybe that's why so many people want to be one these days) but it's all toward a serious end: communication. Designers solve problems, and they've acquired specialized knowledge to do this.
One of the most egregious ideas of recent time is the "logo design competition". While there may indeed be times and places for such a thing, a trend has been emerging toward larger operations who should know better opening a logo competition as part of, say, a corporate redesign. Replete with the promises of "getting your work 'out there'" and "practical portfolio pieces", and the possiblity of a payday, such competitions gather work from hard working and hopeful designers the world over.
All these designers take time (a non-renewable resource) to come up with what is hopefully a stand-out design. And in the end, the client (the group running the contest) gets what might be an able design without the headaches of paying an hourly amount to a designer.
Here, for further edification, is a short list of the losers:
- The losers. You might think this observation rather obvious, but think a little deeper: not only did the losers lose the competition, the effort, whatever research they did, and most importantly the time–all important things that professionals quantify and bill for–are lost, and everyone knows you can't get back lost time.
- The winner. Sounds kind of insane? Think about it though; professionals bill by time, effort, and resources expended. The prize, while welcome, seems, by my informal watch on the field, likely of a value less than the money that would have been made by billing professionally. But, hey you do have a memorable piece right? Well, no maybe not. More on that in a paragraph or two. And do you have rights to your design any more? Maybe...maybe not.
- The client. But the organization got a good deal, true, and they now have a well-designed logo, don't they? Well, possibly. Will it survive with the company? Maybe, maybe not.
That contest oriented company might re-engage the designer to do futher work, but it's presumably likely that, having learned the lesson that if they need professional design work done, all they have to do is announce a contest and take the pick of the litter at a discount, they'll simply hold another contest. Whatever history of knowledge the previous designer had will simply not be accessable. The result of this is a company that undermines its own brands with a design strategy that is a hodge-podge at best. With branding, perception is reality, and if your public can't make a connection between you, your brand, and your brand's history, they won't remember you so well. There goes that good will.
Trust me on this: the layman may not "know design", but the layman certainly senses when they're not getting your best effort, and they act accordingly.
This begins a sort of circle of devaluation. Clients in search of a deal undermine the professional approach to design by creating a competive arena where desperate designers compete for work like gamecocks in a fighting ring which in turn convince clients that that's the best they'll expect or have to go out for.
We support professional design. We support stable, defined business relationships between designers and clients, which provide benefits for all. We support inspired and insightful design that adds value.
We cry NO!SPEC.
Epilogue: Memorable Great Logos
Saul Bass and Paul Rand are two names who have had a lasting, decades-long impact on not only American design but also the look and feel of popular culture. Between those two names have emanated the most memorable and influential logos in American design history, whether they are still in use or not. They have likely influenced and started more trends that can be counted.
Saul Bass created the following and well-known or remembered marks:
...and those are just three; he created the United Way logo, Celanese, and a host of them. The AT&T logo bears special mentioning; when it was still the Bell System (before the divestiture) his reductionist interpretation of the Bell logo was recognized by over 90% of the American public, and while AT&T has recently redesigned thier logo (check it out here) it still pays strong homage to Bass's own landmark redesign.
Now, I give you Paul Rand:
Classics, all. We all have reactions to seeing the ABC and IBM logos; they are as recognizable as the American flag, and timeless enough to have each survived decades of use. The UPS logo has recently updated as well (check that out here) but the shield shape is still there; Rand didn't design it, but he left his mark.
All those designs were created by paid professionals who knew what they were doing, without a hint of a design contest about it.
Something to think about.