"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

On The Ethics of Knowledge Work

Recently I tried out the service "99 Designs", largely with good results. However, this got some pushback from peers of mine in the web development community, which prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the various ethics and contingencies of Knowledge work and Digital Labor. So, here goes.

First Principles

I'm sympathetic to the "No Spec" movement, especially when considered in the historical context of design and creative as a profession. To this day, much of the business of design involvs doing the work first, "on spec", and then only getting paid if the client liked it. If you're a fan of Mad Men, you've seen this. Don Draper forces Peggy and the gang to pull an all-nighter in a desperate bid to try and land a big new account. It's a staple of the show.

At its most extreme, the spec work process requires a completely finished product before payment, and a buyer will solicit this from several different individuals or firms, ultimately choosing only one to get paid. Or in the ultimate dick move, choosing nobody and "taking the campaign in-house" — which usually means stealing the best ideas and assets but handling the final execution internally, without paying anyone.

Clearly, this is no bueno: as one of my internet heroes Mike Montiero says, "F-you, pay me".

But, It's Maybe a Little More Complicated

Things in the modern market aren't much like they were in Mad Men, or really even 10 years ago. The rise of a globally distributed "creative class" and the potential for frictionless instant collaboration and commerce via the internet (buzzword buzzword, but for serious) means there are 10s of 1,000s of individuals and firms out there that are willing to do work more cheaply and under circumstances (like spec) that more established designers resist. This is a fact of life, and only going to become more true over time.

For instance, I have a 13-year-old nephew who hacks iphone apps for pocket money, and it's only because his mom caught him that he's not raking in a significant income selling his skills online. I think that's the right choice by his mom (could get sketchy), but it goes to show what the broad universe of this "creative class" is. It's not bearded San Francisco hipsters doing Ad briefs for artisnal coffee boutiques. It's gold farmers and everything up from there.

And, this is not entirely a bad thing:

Spec work isn’t going away and no amount of complaining will stop it. There are a TON more educated... designers with inexpensive tools and an internet connection then there ever have been and this opens up markets that wouldn’t be possible otherwise (crowdspring, threadless, online contests). Of course, these things drive prices down. This is happening in almost every creative industry out there. The internet, inexpensive tools, and free training (my fault) are making it a level playing field for everyone...

Artists should have the choice to participate in spec work. If no artists participate, then there is no spec work. Simple as that. But, people DO participate. Most are glad that they do. There are no lies being spun or promises that aren’t kept. The rules are put out there and people choose to participate.

In a world with open access to tools and knowledge, simple(r) tasks and products will become cheaper and more commodified. As the field becomes more open, it also becomes more crowded, it's harder to break in, harder to get noticed; though hopefully there's also more opportunity than before as well.

There's a latent potential for a classic capitalist "race to the bottom" in this type of scenario. I'm not too worried about that, but I'm well aware that every "level playing field" argument has this trap hidden within. More on this later.

There's real backlash against this. In the programming field you feel it whenever people talk about "outsourcing" — that's a potential threat to someone's livelihood. It creates tension.

But, at the same time, it's the basis for someone else's livelihood too. Some of the arguments against spec work take on a kind of bullying tone:

In a nutshell, this is what you’re asking for if you work with these guys... a royal slap in the face from folks like me and other real designers.

That's not a really awesome sentiment when it comes down to it. That "real designer" attitude stems from the same place as teamsters beating scabs, and ultimately part of why I don't subscribe to the anti-spec hard line. Seems to be reactionary, protectionist, and kind of elitist in some ways.

My Own Position Is Ticklish, Part 1 - Design vs Development

Boris Mann, who I met in my very early days in Drupal and respect a lot, was disappointed to hear I was using 99 Designs. He had an interesting counterpoint:

That's an interesting question. In many ways, code is even more of a commodity than design. While all businesses need a unique brand, few really need unique code — which is a big part of why open source is such a practical success. But we don't see a marketplace for "complete coded solutions". Why? I think it's in part because the complexity in particulars doesn't support it in the same way as dashning off a quick design. It's too involved to support a classic spec process, except maybe in a baroque Mad Men style scenario, which we in the biz call "sales engineering" (building something to close a deal).

We do, however see open source. I'm a fan. I've given 10s of 1000s of dollars worth of my own labor away for free over the past ten years. Partly because I wanted to and I enjoyed the labor itself, but also partly because I received esteem from a very high value peer group, which lead pretty much directly to professional and commercial success.

I also have the experience of hiring developers, and while I'll never make it a requirement, it makes a huge difference evaluating a candidate if they've got some code up on github or Drupal I can check out.

While this isn't precisely the same as a "write a solution to my problem and I'll pay you" proposition, it's also not totally dissimilar from the spec process either. It's "I will hire you if I can first see evidence that you can do what I need." Any employer that wants to hire a developer and looks for "open source contributions" is in effect asking for that person to do work related to the employers needs, gratis, prior to being hired, or at least favoring those who do.

It Takes Work To Get Work

And that's not wrong. It can be wrong, but I don't believe it is a-priori because that's how creative work... works.

I've been in business for myself for over 15 years — side note: holy crap I'm old — and I've never landed a piece of work without doing some work myself to get it. Sometimes its easy and you land a gig based on your track record, connections, portfolio, etc, but more often than not you have to expend effort speculatively (which is where "spec" comes from) in order to get paid to expend even more effort.

This is true in most creative/knowledge fields at most levels. It's true for the B2B world too. I've personally participated in multiple scenarios where there's a "proof of concept" that comes before the actual project is awarded. At my current gig, we speculatively give away a ton of things — technical support, free accounts, etc — in the hopes of winning customers business.

There are actually many cases where people labor for free (or pay to labor) in the hopes of getting gigs. Unpaid internships come to mind, as to "Developer Bootcamps" which charge an arm and a leg with the promise of having some kind of marketable portfolio at the end. You could say there are entire "academic institutions" devoted to the notion that people looking to break into a field need to do a bunch of work for free, and maybe even pay out of their pocket for the privilege.

It's a spectrum, is what I'm saying, not a question of absolutes. But it's also easy to see how this can turn abusive. What I've observed is that the bigger the eventual prize — the bigger the project or account — the more free work a prospective customer will try to get. At some point this crosses a line to become exploitative. From what I can see, if or when this line gets crossed is mostly down to the ethics of the buyer.

The question for me is, where do I fall?

My Own Position Is Ticklish Part 2 - Professional vs Personal

I came to use 99 Designs because I had a personal side-project and I wanted to get a logo made up quickly. It's not a business thing, and it will never make money. It's something I'm doing with a few colleagues for fun.

As such, we don't have a lot of time or money to devote to it. Our resources are slim. I don't expect an involved process or anything that will blow minds, but I would like to get a neat logo made up that I can maybe get printed on some stickers, and for that I am willing to pay a few hundred bucks out of pocket.

To be honest, I really don't know that my alternatives are. I tried contacting a few artists via portfolios, but never heard back. Not that I blame them: given my constraints none of the designers I know personally would be able to invest real time or attention. They all have better and more lucrative things to do.

In my field, it's a given that there's a shortage of talent. Hiring is a struggle, and I know many clients who have ended up with shoddy work because they went with a vendor who was overcommitted or didn't have the track record to really deliver the goods. It's an unfortunate state of affairs, but so long as you're the "in demand" piece of the equation, it's not a bad place to be.

But it's another thing to find myself on the opposite side of the table, looking to buy and without anywhere really to go. And it does seem to me that the future of crowdsourcing, taskrabbiting, or 99designs'ing has a place in this emerging market. There will always be people like me (or even small businesses) that don't have the time, the energy, or the budget to attract a 1st class vendor. Should we then go without design? What is my other realistic alternative given my resource constraints?

Lowering the Barrier to Entry Is Not a Race to the Bottom

And to me that's the crux. In the critique of 99 Designs I linked to above quotes another critique saying the following of the mindset of a 99 Designs buyer:

Hmm. Yes, by all means, we want to avoid the time and consideration professional designers offer and go right to the lowest common denominator of grade-school dropouts whose portfolio's crown jewel is a logo for their dad's wholesale llama manure clearing house. We definitely do not want any in-depth communication. We do not want any understanding of the company, the brand, or the direction and aspirations of the organization.

Mean-spirited snarky tone aside, my answer is "Yes! That's what I want! And thank goodness there's a service where I can get it!"

I guess my point is that as long as you know what you're going to get as a buyer, and you know what you're getting into as a designer, 99 Designs has the potential to offer value.

I wouldn't recommend it for any serious business or startup where the stakes are high and/or the design process is going to give you real insight into your business and/or a competitive edge. Just like I wouldn't recommend hiring random firms in Asia to do your development work if you need your technical product to be sound.

You don't go with the lowest common denominator if you need excellence. People looking to make a serious professional career in the field — those who want to start the next "insanely great" new company — should be (and usually are) focused on relationships and long-term value with creative professionals, whether that's designers, developers, writers, or analysts.

But lets be real. Not everyone needs or can afford excellence, and there's something very real to be said for lowering the barrier to entry. There are a lot of "wholesale llama manure clearing house" scale operations that could really put a better foot forward if they had a little design help. Their alternative is to use whatever clip art comes with MS Office or some other cookie-cutter template.

I think making design work accessible at the price (and time investment) level which mom and pop operations can engage is a long-term win: it gets them thinking about design, meaning they're more likely to use more of it later. It also creates a lot of small engagements for up-and-coming (or overseas) designers to get exposure, experience and build a portfolio. Arguably this is a net positive.

Ain't Got Time For Wasting Time

The one thing that's undeniably not deal about spec — especially as set up in the context of a "contest" like 99 Designs — is that it leads to wasted effort. Designers in my contest took time out of their lives to make a submission, and received no compensation.

The worst case scenario is one in which the buyer works with many designers and pushes them all through the final rounds, ultimately selecting one final iteration as the winner. Maximum wasted effort.

In reality I doubt it often goes this way. My experience was that I could eliminate several designs immediately since they didn't get my concept (and others did), and after one round of iterations I knew who I wanted to work with to iterate towards a final design. The bare fact that it takes a lot of time and effort to communicate guides buyers to narrow the field sooner rather than later. Still, there's something a little troubling about a process that specifically has wasted work built in.

In the wider professional services world, there's a reaction against wasted work in the No RFPs movement. Their goal is not to eliminate wasted work — which is arguably impossible — but to minimize it while also providing better outcomes more of the time for service shops and customers. It's an interesting idea, and it's interesting to me that nobody uses language like "exploited" when talking about it, though it's basically the same kind of critique.

This is something we're still figuring out though, and maybe someone will come along with a better iteration on the "design contest" concept of 99 Designs and knock them off the block. Until then, and beyond, the one thing that's certain is that the ways in which people arrange, perform, and get compensated for knowledge work will continue to evolve.

(minor edits for grammar and clarity)