Spec Work and Contests Part Two

October 31st, 2010 from The Driblet of an Aphorism

A Misunderstanding

I recently watched the open design session at the Ubuntu Developer Summit for Ubuntu version 11.04 Natty Narwhal.

I won't pass judgement on the session here, as it is likely the subject of another blog post. What I would like to do is specifically address what appears to be a very clear and deep misunderstanding regarding spec work and contests in our culture. There is another post in a similar vein, but perhaps greater fleshing out is in order.

While it appears that Matthew Paul Thomas and one of the fellows in the back[1] showed a little bit of sensitivity and insight regarding the issue, the powers that be clearly didn't understand what is at stake.

The Culture

This again, takes me back to the notion that the number one most important and critical aspect to the whole discussion is a question of culture.

What is the value in a creative culture? It speaks of a community that values diversity and craftsmanship. It values aesthetic judgement. It understands not just the what but the how and the why. It understands the value of creative context.

It is a culture that values people. Not users. Not APIs. Not electronic componentry.


What is Spec Work?

Again, this is apparently not clear. Spec work is short for speculative work. This is generally work that is solicited from a vast number of people with some sort of petty gain implied.

"Greetings community. We need an icon. Please submit and we will judge which one we want and we will use it on xxx site."

"Your work will be seen by millions."

"The winning entry gets 1000$!!!"

The above are examples of speculative work.

Some would like to make this a discussion about money. It has absolutely nothing to do with working for free / pro-bono.

Read that again: The discussion has nothing to do with working for free / pro-bono.

It has everything to do with valuing and commotiditizing the pixels output over the culture and people that it comes from.

How can one suggest that the value of the culture is higher than the value of the work?

Because it is only from a strong creative culture with diverse and ecclectic ability that brilliant work can develop. It has nothing to do with randomly throwing crap at a wall and hoping. It has everything to do with process. If you don't believe me, have a look around. Look at our own culture. Look at any of the long spec / contest / monetary reward 'design' sites.

Better still, look at the leading design-centric companies out there and try to figure out why BMW, Ferrari, Nintendo, B&W Audio, etc. aren't seriously engaging this wonderful technique?

Brilliant minds beget brilliant minds. It is the byproduct of those brilliant minds that we seek. Not the irrelevant mental masturbation offered up from some ego seeking self-promotional facade.

What Does a Culture Say When it Promotes Contests and Spec Work?

By promoting a contest driven and spec work culture, you are shouting out a very clear communication.

You don't value art. You don't value design. You don't value music. You don't value prose. You don't value illustration. You don't value craftsmanship.

In short, you don't value precisely what every single artist, musician, designer, illustrator, writer, and like creative archetype holds extremely dear. The very thing you are rejecting is in fact precisely what the creative culture worships.

Who Gives a Crap. Someone Else Will Do It Then.
"There will be people that recognize the portfolio building aspect of it." -- Ivanka Majic 26:45
Will they?

Is that personality your intended audience?

If you believe this for a moment, you have been fooled. Such a view is spoken from a place that, even if erroneously, appears to know exceptionally little about creative types.

One could make a strong case that anyone choosing to stick with their core creative belief structure over a lifetime's journey will not be likely to make concessions. They have honed their craft. They have studied it. They are a constantly swirling ball of input and output, constantly interacting and examining their environment.

More importantly, they associate. They talk. They discuss. They suggest. They debate.

With whom? Others like them.

So when The Gap implodes and offers up a speculative contest scenario, what is the byproduct? Is it an entire community of artists and designers that join and unite against the cause? If you don't think this was a real phenomenon, perhaps you should rethink your stance.

When you support spec work and contest driven cultures, you are shouting out something.

Is it what you wish to shout out to the world? Is that part of your new focus on supporting creative design? Do you want long term high level creative minds or short term myopic portfolio pushers?

Our Creative Culture is Dead

It saddens me when I read the Ubuntu Art mailing list and others like it. I often see a dead cesspool where excitement and discourse should be flourishing.

It is a dead culture.

We need a thriving culture. We need to start with a rich and fertile soil. That soil is unequivocally not one built out of spec work and contests.

Cultivate the youth. There are many times that a youthful member shows up to the list and, instead of being cultivated and engaged, they are lost to the ether. This is one less mind that, by way of chance discussion, may be led on a journey into a creative future. When the youthful appear, they are there for a reason. An interest. A shred of a starting point. A glimmer of an insight. It likely starts with embracing the opportunity to grow and mature those valuable minds into much more.

Cultivate a culture. The culture itself needs to thrive. We don't need a boardroom with all of the chairs pointed at a screen so that we can listen to someone discuss licenses. We need a round table interaction where literature, art, design, philosophy, psychology, and sociology can be engaged. We need a cross pollination of creative fields and studies. We need to have developer minds and creative minds becoming passionate and excited about alternate perceptions of the future. It likely starts with our collective mailing lists and forums.

Cultivate cooperation and understanding. We are all guilty. The very notion of Libre / Free software holds cooperation and community with such high regard you would think that we would be visionary leaders regarding the means and methods we use to collaborate. We are not. We seem to suffer from a collision of unity with diversity. How can we more greatly create a world of legitimate discussion regarding art, design, aesthetic, music, and other such diverse fields when we are so stuck on how much more consistent a damn panel looks with tripe 22 pixel icons of a given flavour? It likely starts with education and a long term commitment to a culture.

Closing With Hope

While I am loathe to offer up this quote because it tends to address that fruit laden company, I'd like to do it in the name of the potential audience that is reading this. That audience tends to value those ever slippery notions of "real world results." Real world results stem from the foundation.

Here it is. John Sculley on his term at Apple. Read this observation several times and let it sink in. In particular, pay close attention to the last paragraph.
"An anecdotal story, a friend of mine was at meetings at Apple and Microsoft on the same day and this was in the last year, so this was recently. He went into the Apple meeting (he’s a vendor for Apple) and when he went into the meeting at Apple as soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking because the designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO."

"Later in the day he was at Microsoft. When he went into the Microsoft meeting, everybody was talking and then the meeting starts and no designers ever walk into the room. All the technical people are sitting there trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design. That’s a recipe for disaster."

"The best creative people want to work for the best clients. If you are a client who doesn’t appreciate great work, or a client who won’t take risks and try new stuff, or a client who can’t get excited about the creative, then you’re the wrong kind of client."

John Sculley talking about his term at Apple
While Free / Libre software culture isn't a client per se, it has the same issues around it.

Think about the personalities that desire to work at an Apple, a Nintendo, a BMW, or such company. Think about why. Is it to build a portfolio or because they eat, sleep, and dream about the creative process at such companies? Each of those companies has a voice. It shouts it out to the world in much the same way that the Gap shouted out something entirely negative to a culture that they required.

Get vocal about spec work and contests. Ask people about what kind of culture they think they are breeding. Libre software projects can send a loud and clear message by actively seeking out artists, designers, musicians, writers and other creative people needed.

Free / Libre software culture has value. It has a reason. It has a revolutionary ideal behind it.

While our culture is diverse, it tends to be lumped under one banner by those outside of it.

Don't let our Free / Libre software culture inadvertently shout out the wrong message to the precise people we should be addressing. Don't let people that know nothing and care less about the subject erroneously mix up and confuse the terms.

This discussion is about cultivating seeds through to the wonderful harvest, not a short term yield.

If you truly believe in Libre / Free software, cultivate the culture through the people. Don't accept anything less.

Thank you all for reading...

[1] I'd love to know who it was. If anyone has information, please let me know.