The NEA Asks for Spec Work

Well… um… OK.

This was brought to my attention by a tweet from Jeff Fisher at Logo Motives. You can read the original RFP here. 23 pages of legal-speak that could probably be condensed to 5 pages if it wasn’t written by the government. Thanks for the heads-up, Jeff. I found it particularly irritating that the design they are seeking embodies three different ideas, one of them being that artists (or designers) are a real part of our economy. Yeah, but not enough a part of the economy that the NEA will pay them for their work.

Anyway, this stuck in my craw enough to write an email to the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts not the National Education Association) telling them what I thought of their RFP. I took the AIGA spec letter and edited it to fit what I was thinking and sent it to the name on the RFP (, BUT ALSO CC’d it to the NEA Chairman (, his assistant (, the Senior Deputy Chairman (, her assistant ( and the Chairman’s Arts Policy Advisor ( You can find those addresses and more right here in the NEA directory.

UPDATE, 2/2/10: Not only did NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman make this announcement yesterday, but he made it at a Miami area high school which is a magnet school for design and architecture (known as DASH). So not only has the head of the NEA told these future design professionals that it’s OK to work for free, the school has tacitly endorsed the idea of spec work. Ugh.

The text of the email I sent is below. If you haven’t already, feel free to copy my text and change it how you see fit to let the NEA know what we think about spec work. Send it to the above addresses and any more you find in the directory, if you think it is appropriate. Always remember to be polite and courteous when writing email of this nature. It does no good for anyone to be rude and hurl insults.

Dear Ms. Harris,

I have read your RFP for the “Art Works” logo design and, if I understand the RFP correctly, the NEA is requesting logo design submissions prior to awarding the contract.

I am concerned that your request includes a solicitation of design concepts to be produced on a speculative basis by the professionals you are considering. The approach you are pursuing is one that compromises the quality of work you are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide.

AIGA, the nation’s largest and oldest professional association for design, strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.

There are two main reasons for this position:

1. To assure the client receives the most appropriate and responsive work.

Successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics. Design creates value for clients as a result of the strategic approach designers take in addressing the problems or needs of the client and only at the end of that process is a “design” created. Speculative or open competitions for work based on a perfunctory problem statement will not result in the best design solution for the client.

2. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process.

Requesting work for free reflects a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design as well as the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. This approach, therefore, reflects on your personal practices and standards and may be harmful to the professional reputation of both you and the NEA. There are few professions where all possible candidates are asked to do the work first, allowing the buyer to choose which one to compensate for their efforts. (Imagine the response if you were to ask a dozen lawyers to write a brief for you, from which you would then choose which one to pay!) We realize that there are some creative professions with a different set of standards, such as advertising and architecture, for which billings are substantial and continuous after you select a firm of record. In those cases, you are not receiving the final, or nearly final, outcome (the advertising campaign or the building) for free up front as you would be in receiving a logo design solution.

From the NEA RFP text:

3. “Art Works” is a reminder that arts workers are real workers who are part of this country’s real economy. They earn salaries, support families, pay taxes. Artists are also entrepreneurs and placemakers, who revitalize towns, cities, and neighborhoods – both the economies and the ethos of them.

If the NEA believes the above third meaning of “Art Works” to be true, then how can it solicit work without providing fair compensation to those it deems to be part of this “country’s real economy”?

There is an appropriate and ethical way to explore the work of various designers. That is to ask designers to submit examples of their work from previous assignments as well as a statement of how they would approach your project. You can then judge the quality of the designer’s previous work and his or her way of thinking about your organization. The designer you select can then begin to work on your project by designing strategic solutions to your criteria while under contract to you, without having to work on speculation up front. My belief is that many top designers and agencies will not make a submission simply because many professionals refuse to work for free under these kinds of circumstances. I’m sure you would feel the same way if your supervisor asked you to work without pay this week.

If you would like to read further, I would suggest you read AIGA’s official stance on spec work as well as three articles at No!Spec. Why We Don’t Make Speculative Presentations, Why Speculation Hurts, and Ten Reasons (Spec Work is Bad). There are also Guidelines for Competitions published by the Graphic Arts Guild (which, ironically, produced the guidelines with the help of a grant from the NEA).

Thank you for taking the time to read about the design profession’s views on spec work. My hope is that this education will help the NEA seek help for its’ communication needs in a more ethical fashion and result in work that is more effective and memorable.


Rod Roels

8 responses to “The NEA Asks for Spec Work

  1. Excellent! I sent off an email to the NEA chairman this morning.

    • I figured you did, Jeff. I thought I would make sure the Chairman wasn’t the only person to see mine. The more the merrier…

  2. Jeff, Rod,
    Thanks for circulating this. I’ll send my own version of the letter to the NEA tomorrow. I’m also going to see what our local arts organization thinks considering they are supported by partial funding from the NEA.


    • Good work. Spread the word on Twitter and elsewhere to get the word out. If a government agency thinks it’s OK to ask people to work for free, then it’s time to really send a message.

  3. Thanks for the tweet and the great letter. Nice to see so many people in the creative industry take a stand. I know I sent my letter to the chairman and the contracting officer stating my anger and disbelief at the irony drenched RFP almost immediately after getting wind of it.

    Let’s keep it up though, there are too many designers that still do not think that there is anything wrong with spec work and see only the possible $25,000 fee. Which if you read the RFP closely is NOT guaranteed even to the winning respondent.

  4. Pingback: The Logo Factor Design Blog

  5. Read the AIGA response and letter to the NEA Art Works logo RFP for spec work here:

    You can also leave comments on the NEA Art Works web site to voice your opposition here:

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