AIGA Metro-North Panel Examines Spec Work and the Future of Design
Spec work is the Comic Sans of design-project models. Much like the hated typeface, spec work appears to spell death for design as a profession, not to mention contempt for the designer's craft. So last night's AIGA Metro-North panel discussion at the Ossining Public Library, whose purpose was "to explore if, why, and how spec work has a rightful place in the way projects are structured," had an apt title: RESPECT.
Speaking to an audience mainly composed of designers and brand strategists, John Gleason of A Better View Strategic Consulting provided crucial insight from the client's side of the table. "There is massive oversupply of designers, and a lowering of the bar on the client side," Gleason said. "When four hundred firms come to market, how is a client supposed to know [which one to choose] without having them do spec work?" He stressed the need for designers to learn how to have "business conversations" with their clients. "Both sides are complicit in the dysfunction. Designers need to be able to say what sets them apart. Articulate the value, and they'll move the money."
Also on the panel was Ric Grefe, executive director of AIGA, who surprised me with his nuanced take on the issue of spec work. Where I had expected fire and brimstone, I got downright Obama-worthy dancing between the two sides of the argument. After pointing out that AIGA has historically taken a hard stance against all spec work, Grefe said, "It's important that we not devote ourselves to protecting practices of yore that cannot be regained. The new norms are not the old norms. The question is: How do we ensure relevance for the design community? We can earn respect by responding to the marketplace." Grefe was not encouraging designers to do spec work, but asking the community to shift its competitive focus from other designers to management consulting firms such as McKinsey.
Panelist Brendan Murphy, senior partner at Lippincott, also advocated solidarity and eschewed attacking those forced to do spec work. He urged the audience not to "deride our partners in this industry. If I lost everything and had to move back to Dublin, I would do spec work in order to feed my family."
How, then, to ensure the survival of the design profession in what Jerry Kathman of LPK called a "relentless economic environment"? All of the panelists appeared to agree that designers in the USA need to accomplish an "upward ascent" in their professional identities, moving from craftsmen creating artifacts to overall brand strategists peddling "design thinking." "We don't think of ourselves as a project business, but rather as brand counsel providing strategic and design advice," said Murphy. Within his long-term relationships with clients, Murphy explained, there is even room for projects that look like spec work. "If a client calls me and asks for a favor, I almost always do it because it usually pays off in spades. Our existing clients will speak for us to help us secure new clients."
Could better PR be the answer? Grefe mentioned the Design Council of Britain's $2-million media campaign promoting the value of design. "Could designers in the US raise $1 million to launch such a campaign? We're not used to paying high rates to design associations," he said. John Gleason pointed out the irony behind the difficult situation currently facing the design community: "Designers are paid to brand their clients, but are terrible at branding themselves."
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