Speculative Work Vs. Pro Bono

Posted Oct 26, 2007 & filed under Work, Opinion

I've had a couple recent conversations with local organizations about the difference between spec and pro bono. My point in blogging about it is not to bring attention to those situations, but to help clarify the difference. I do a ton of low- and pro-bono design work -- I believe it's a designer's responsibility to help in any way we can. As a new business owner, I'm in no position to give money (yet), but, I often donate my services to help causes I believe in (or good people I want to help).

Pro Bono
Simply put, this is when one donates their services to help a cause. It is common practice that the recipient agrees to help guide the process in order to make it as smooth as possible (and, hopefully, offer a little creative freedom to the designer). This situation is usually pre-determined based on the designer's work or reputation, and is a good collaboration for both parties involved. I've had a blast working on pro bono with some of my clients, and have produced work I'm proud of.

Speculative Work
It seems so harmless, but is really a bad practice. It's important to understand the position many organizations face. It's common for non-profits and volunteers to not know the difference between pro bono and spec (this is a fair point, and one worth noting). The goal of the arrangement is to get great design work at a low or no cost. Typically, organizations make the mistake of asking what designer "may" do if they "won" the job. And, even go so far as to ask for some ideas (or it may even be a "contest" or "competition"). These situations cross a line from harmless to harmful (in many ways).

Oftentimes, the goal of securing good design work shifts to gaining a large body of work to choose from (quantity, not quality). Worthy work comes from a relationship based in trust, clearly defined goals, collaboration, a mutual respect for the work, and solid decision making (not choosing the "best" one tacked up on the wall).

There are many common metaphors used by the design community to explain why spec work is a bad practice. The most common is a doctor or mechanic (any service-based business can parallel the scenario). Ask a doctor for treatment of an ailment and tell them you will pay them if you like the prognosis. I can't imagine that would have a great outcome.

In conclusion, there are a ton of very talented designers in Boise. I advise any organization looking for creative help to start by finding a designer based on their talent, personality, reputation, and references. Better yet -- find one that is passionate about your cause. When these situations come together, everyone wins.

Sidenote: AIGA takes a strong stance on spec work. Read more here.