Covid-19 and Spec Work

The silver lining: How the Covid-19 pandemic can empower recent design graduates and new designers alike

In a design landscape littered with requests for unpaid work, Covid-19’s sinister reach has even managed to further contaminate the already unethical wound of speculative work.

Lurking just outside the boundary of professional conduct and having a proclivity to neglectfully blur the lines between value and service, speculative work – specifically, the request for it – simply put, is creative work performed without fair compensation. ‘Spec work' ostensibly presents itself as opportunity and often stands parasitically adjacent to the recent design graduate and new designer. It's the shiny object mistaken as a career opening or possibility, the unpaid service masquerading as business development, and if completed exceptionally well, gratis work sometimes comes with the alluring false promise of future revenue. Spec work is also deeply frowned upon and universally condemned by the Graphic Designers of Canada, RGD, SDGQAIGA, and ico-D (International Council of Design).

Enter Covid-19.

The most recent pressure weighing on the new designer’s shoulders isn’t the onerous student debt, the jitteriness of publishing a website in an attempt to secure work in the graduate's respective field, or having to navigate the wilderness of the DIY creation culture. No, under the guise of doing their part, today’s design graduate is additionally solicited to work for free to 'help get the economy back on its feet’. 

From isolated rooms in our homes, we’ve all seen and discovered them: from free online fitness and yoga classes, to business training offerings, to counselling sessions, to the 6, 8, and 20-tile-wide Zoom dance classes. Let it be said, these pay-it-forward services – now ubiquitous in the perpetual zone of curve-flattening  – are just what many of us have needed, and in their own way they have brought us closer together, or shall we say ‘as close as can be’. Herein lies the new designer's predicament: because last night’s fitness class on Zoom was free, solopreneurs, small companies, and even non-profits have assumed they can request unpaid creative services for social media strategy, website, or logo design. Frozen in fear is the new designer. 

But here is the pivotal question: with the plethora of new, and ‘free' online services provided during lockdown, how many were actual businesses before the crisis? If the new service wasn’t charging full fare in March 2020, then it’s not an apples to apples comparison, right? Consider that Mastercard reduced its interest rate to help soothe some of the economic strife, that a countless number of retailers are offering discounts on goods, and further incentivizing the customer by offering free shipping, or that thousands of employees are taking salary deferrals or pay-cuts. Reduced, discounted, deferred. But not free.

Nobody is suggesting new designers be exempt from the new economic protocol. But unlike Mastercard which will up their borrowing rate when they see fit, or the free parking meter that will inevitably revert to its original revenue-producing state, the new designer agreeing to spec work forgoes price point maneuverability. How does one bridge a gap that started from an hourly rate or value based fee of zero? 

Here is where cold truth and personal responsibility meet. Consider the primary reason prospective Clients or employers believe they can request creative services without compensation is because too many creative providers (still) agree to this. What’s more, design has not only been complicit with the ask, it also sometimes plays the victim in this exchange. Rather than neutralize the problem, the design industry often prefers to play the infected party, or to acquiesce. Because spec work is not illegal, and design has effectively stripped itself of any real agency to mitigate the issue, its only recourse to remedy the attack is to ‘educate the wrongdoer'. Only in the creative profession will you find the injured group ‘politely admonishing’ its perpetrators.  

But here’s something to boost the mood. Speculative work, after all, is a binary exchange, and new designers being canvassed or tempted by such activity should be reminded of their individual ability to influence and not just react to that request. Further, new designers can take comfort in knowing that when they’re on the front line saying no to spec work, their move to avoid this is backed by codes of conduct from all major international design organizations. You’re not alone.

Tactically speaking, when dealing with an assuming customer’s petition for free creative services – under the pretence of the pandemic – recall the straightforward logic set out by our good friends at credit card companies. Determine an hourly rate for your services, or a fixed value for all deliverables. In the spirit of assisting the economy, consider offering your services at a reduced rate – call this a 'special or circumstantial discount’. For example if ‘A’ is your hourly rate, consider offering A minus 30%. Be sure to highlight the savings being passed on to your Client as this communicates the actual value of the service. This is key for when you return back to 100% of your billable value.

Graduating designers of 2020 and new creative professionals alike are not only completing their programs in irregular fashion, but unceremoniously landing in a market and time when the buyer may tap them on the shoulder for unpaid work. These aspiring designers are the future of the industry. That’s a pretty big ask. On behalf of the design industry at large, our sincere apologies for not yet having a complete antidote for this. 

This said, and because the disruptive and unforgiving nature of the pandemic has given us all pause, perhaps it can be submitted the interruption is what we actually need – a means to recognize past collective behaviour, an opportunity to own the problem and take responsibility for the unceasing issue that is speculative work. The take-away for the new designer is to remember that manipulation has to have consent, that your skill, critical thinking, and ideation has inherent value already, and while there's no “I" in ‘team', there is one in ‘ethics'. The call to action is to go on offence, to authorize oneself to say no, to collectively ensure you and your peers are inoculated, to keep a safe distance.

Dennis Boyle CGD is the Design Director at Boyle Design Corp., and both the National VP Communications and the BC Chapter Ethics Chair for the GDC