When is Speculative Work not Work on Spec?

When is speculative work not “work on spec”?

This dilemma came up over lunch today with a friend, PhD and New York university marketing professor.

Back Story

Many years ago, R.BIRD developed a service offering called, “Off-the-Shelf.” The premise was simple. For a small, fixed fee, we would take a look at an existing product package design and develop one design-improvement response with rationale for the approach.

We believed this offering would open up a largely untouched market: Smaller companies or teams with limited budgets or planning that might, otherwise, not begin to move forward on any degree of change. In other words: Off-the-Shelf would be a quick-fix, low-resistance solution from a proven resource.

This offering turned out to be wildly UN-successful. Zero interest. No takers. But… there was one completely unexpected side-effect.

We had arbitrarily chosen “Jiffy Mix” as the model we used to illustrate the potential results of the offering. Shortly after publishing the offering on our web site, we received a call from Howard “Howdy” Holmes, President and CEO of Chelsea Milling Company, the makers of Jiffy Mix.

That phone call resulted in a mutually-beneficial and rewarding relationship that still continues nearly a decade later.

Fast Forward

While discussing new business development in present time with aforementioned marketing prof, he made two observations:

  1. Many creative people, including prospective client contacts, resist the idea that an outsider should come in and change things, and
  2. They are visual people. Proving our expertise via case studies with other clients is abstract. Wouldn’t a visualization of what we could do for them, specifically, be more intriguing?

Both ideas hit home, as I recalled the Jiffy Mix experience with Chelsea Milling Company. In that very successful and accidental situation, we had:

  1. Not suggested any immediate need for change, but
  2. Demonstrated, visually, an opportunity for incremental improvement

Proactive Audition

I’ve been a design professional for 35 years now. I’ve always refused any client or prospect suggestion that we show them something up-front without compensation. Never done that. Never will. In fact, I am an early adopter and supporter of the AntiSpec.com community.

In my “Off-the-Shelf” example, there was no client. There was no brief. There was no need or call for solution. Most significanly in the end, the result was extremely positive for R.BIRD and for the “unsuspecting” prospect.

Absolutely: If we take a request from a prospect to “prove” what we can do without compensation. It will never happen here. That’s not going to change, ever.

I expressed this to my marketing PhD friend. He was surprised, but offered the term, “proactive audition,” as a metaphor. When actors react to a call… an audition, they prove themselves with a quick, off-the-shelf performance. It’s not the real script, stage or audience. But, it’s the real you.

Academically Speaking

“The Dieline” claims to be the most popular destination in the world of package design. A good part of its content is “speculative.” Student works. Designer musings.

If a student speculates on what they believe Pepsi packaging could or should be, no one is going to fault them for the effort. But, is that Spec Work? Or is it, “Proactive Audition”?

I think the latter.

The Question

When is speculative work not work-on-spec?

There are 4 comments so far | Post a comment

James said:

Hello Richard,

Where do you draw the line between “Proactive Audition,” a honest showcase of talent, and “Spec work”, like the exploitation on 99designs? When a newly-graduated design student can’t find an internship or job due to his lack of portfolio, experience, and connections, where should he or she start?


Richard Bird said:

Thanks for the question, James.

For students and new entrants to the field, I think the line is drawn over one important concept, that is always ignored:


If you freely present ideas, they are indeed, FREE.

  • Before you show anything “Proactive,” make it clear (and legal) that nothing you present can be used for any purpose without your permission or compensation.

By default, this excludes the terms of most crowdsourcing situations.

Richard Bird said:

Students: Feel free to present your ideas to further your career. Look at “The Dieline” web site, for example. Much of the works shown there are pure concepts.

Be sure to identify yourself as copyright owner of your concept, as well as acknowledging ownership of other properties you did not create.

Yes, it gets complicated, but, you asked.

James said:

Hey Richard,

Thanks for your reply. I think legality is a good line to draw between exploitation and audition. While there are other problems with 99designs, handing over creative rights without getting paid is absurd.

Post a comment




(you may use HTML tags for style)

Remember Me?

Comment Notice:
R.BIRD & Company, Inc. reserves the right to monitor content posted on the Service, and to modify or remove any messages or postings that it deems, in its sole discretion, to be abusive, defamatory, in violation of the copyright, trademark right, or other intellectual property right of any third party, or otherwise inappropriate for the Service. Notwithstanding the foregoing, R.BIRD is not obligated to take any such actions, and will not be responsible or liable for content posted by any subscriber in any forum, message board, or other area within the Service.

About Design is produced by R.BIRD, a corporate identity, branding and packaging design firm with more than 30 years of experience. more...