Why web designers shouldn't work for free

Crowdsourcing design

Which neatly brings us to the most definitive form of spec work in the canon. It's becoming common practice for companies to put design briefs out for competition on dedicated websites. Sites like 99Designs and IdeaBounty boast posted projects where submissions can be counted in the hundreds.

Remuneration is usually well below industry standard rates. Even some designers who are philosophical about competition in other circumstances are uncomfortable with the practice. "Clearly real spec work is a problem," says Ryan Carson. "We're against the use of sites like 99 Designs and CrowdSPRING." Predictably, the companies providing this kind of service don't see it that way.

CrowdSPRING has argued that the folks complaining about its way of doing things are behind the times. "The internet has blurred the boundaries between professionals and non-professionals," writes Ross Kimbarovsky, co-founder of CrowdSPRING, at 37 Signals.

"The underdogs are challenging tradition in industry after industry. They are risk takers. They are true entrepreneurs. The underdogs compete on their ideas and their work, not education, training and fancy offices. They make things they like and hope that other people will like them too."

It's quite a rallying call, one that characterises the internet as a democratising medium, a meritocracy where book learning and experience count for less than the ability to meet a brief. You can be an experienced design agency, a student fresh out of college or a kid with a pirate copy of Photoshop. To CrowdSPRING, everyone's the same.

Fun for free

The final step in the spec work staircase is 'pro bono' work; work that's contracted entirely for free. The term comes for the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning 'for the common good'. The anti-spec work lobby's attitude to this practice might surprise you. "Working pro bono is an excellent, ethical way to boost your portfolio," say the NO!SPEC guidelines.

In its traditional meaning, pro bono work is undertaken when the client would not normally be able to afford your services, such as designing a logo for a charity or putting together a site for a community organisation. However, you might find a very occasional case where a prospective client with no charity or community qualifications will ask for similar treatment.

In May last year, the website for Channel 4 mentalist Derren Brown published a call for "professional designers only" to help revamp its pages "pro bono". The only reward promised was a chance to "raise their professional profiles". The resulting design, a regularly updated blog at Derren Brown Art went live earlier this year.

When we contacted Phillis Dallas, the winner of the contract, he sounded chuffed to have landed the gig. We asked him why an organisation that could afford to pay for professional web design would ask for work to be done for free? "Firstly, the DB crew wanted to see what was out there. Secondly, there needed to be an incentive for the designer to create something they would really own. To get an agency to manage a blog is very costly."

The main reward for taking on the task seems to be that it's a whole load of fun. "We've had so many nice emails and well over six million hits on the blog without any advertising, and sometimes we say, 'Oh yeah – look at us go,' and pull a He-Man pose. If money is the only reason you do something then go be a lawyer or doctor – they get paid far better."

Speculative market

A range of practices can be stamped with the spec work label. What you feel personally comfortable with may differ from the next designer in the food chain. Before you make up your mind, though, it's wise to consider both sides of the argument.

At the beginning of a career, there are few opportunities for young designers to build a portfolio; spec work increases that chance. "Being relatively new to freelancing, I have to look at any opportunity that presents itself," says Alex Blundell, who runs web design business Pixel Horizon.

"At the moment, 50 per cent of my time is spent working with paying clients and the other 50 per cent is self promotion. Hopefully this will all pay off and my business will grow to a point where I don't have to consider doing spec work."

Sites like CrowdSPRING and 99Designs say that spec work enables anyone to pitch for work regardless of their credentials. The work must speak for itself. It could also be said that speculative competitions give 'D-list' companies a chance to access a pool of design talent on the net. Some argue that it's those businesses at the low end of the scale that suffer most from the competition trend.


UNIVERSAL ACCESS: Anyone can pitch an idea to CROWDspring, even if you have no experience whatsoever

"Businesses are no longer creating long-term relationships with talented designers in favour of the spec-work route," says Alex Blundell. "They have a choice to either use the best work or the cheapest work, and usually it's the latter, forcing everyone to lower prices to remain competitive."

Conversely, once you get to agency level and can name your price, the costs of creative pitching are passed back to clients, says Paul Boag. "As speculative work is part of the sales process, they ultimately have to charge you for it. The web designer is forced to roll the cost of that work into the project if they win. However, it's worse than that. The web designer also has to recover the cost of speculative design done for jobs he didn't win. Paul also suggests that spec work removes collaboration from the process.

"Design is a collaborative process between the designer and the client. The designer may have the expertise in design aesthetics and usability, but the client knows their business and target audience."

The most damning argument is that spec work devalues the profession. Ross Kimbarovsky of CrowdSPRING counters this. "Experience doesn't always translate into great design," he argues. "Education doesn't guarantee great design. Fancy offices don't ensure great design."

While this may be true, experience, education and professionalism help make someone with good ideas into the best designer they can be. Ultimately, there's only one person who can choose whether working for free works for you – and that's you.