Recently Tim Ferris of Four Hour Work Week decided to hold a contest to design the cover of his upcoming book. His post unleashed a pretty large wave of cranky comments concerning spec work and the maltreatment of designers the world over by the proverbial man. Mr. Ferris does a fine enough job defending his motivations on his site so I'll let you check that out and let him speak for himself. Yet the the issue of spec work still burns on, and the recent services like logoworks, and 99designs just muddy the waters for many folks.
So what's the real problem here? If I'm "Ma and Pa Bakery" why shouldn't I pay my hundred bucks, get my logo and move on with my life? If I'm "John Smith Design Company", what's wrong with supplying spec work in the process of trying to land a major client? If I'm 99designs, why shouldn't I pay a designer 20 bucks for a couple of logos with the chance at a little more (truly a little by the by) should they be chosen if the designer is willing? Well... Inherently there's nothing wrong with it at all.
While design is an aesthetic and artistic endeavor (often carried out by impeccably cool people dressed in all black), many of it's precepts being based on philosophy and history and psychology, it is still a business. And in business there are at least two people or organizations in the relationship.
Both of which are trying to make money or get something as cheaply as they can.
Does spec work degrade the profession? Probably. In a world where anyone with Photoshop can believe they're a designer it probably doesn't help that actual designers will willingly do logos for $20. That doesn't exactly help push the idea of design as a valuable service and resource. But frankly, I'm not worried about the profession. Because I'm not worried about working with clients that don't value design. Every business has needs, desires and abilities. Sometimes that includes investment in design, sometimes it doesn't. I'm more worried about the designers themselves. Doing logos for $20 bucks might be fine when you're in school and trying to scrape together beer money. But that's not a career. In the end you aren't helping a client be better at communicating. You aren't doing the work you are trained to do. And that can't lead to anything good. For the designer or the client.
The value of design is somewhat inherent. And good clients come to understand that (though it can take a while). But the value that designers place on themselves is all over the board. Confidence, business acumen, the general economy, personality all play a role in how they value not just their work, but themselves.
So listen close, creative types. People shouldn't worry about spec work destroying design, they should worry about it destroying designers.
Oh, and if this cover is any indication I'll shield my eyes from the upcoming book for fear that my face will melt away like the Nazi's in Raiders of the Lot Ark.