Spec Work and the Pixish Debate


Earlier this month, a site called Pixish popped up on the radar of illustrators everywhere and has ignited a lot of criticism and debate.

The problem? Spec work. When I first heard of this website, it was the first thing to come into my mind. But Pixish has denied the claims. I’ve waited to write anything about the subject so I could do the appropriate research and really gather my thoughts, but after all that, I’ve found that my original gut feeling was not too far off.

I know many of you readers are students and amateur illustrators. If you do not know about the issue of spec work, I would encourage you to take a moment and familiarize yourself. In this article, I’ll give you a little review, and also let you know why Pixish worries me so much.

Spec 101

Spec work is work done “on a speculative basis.” No-Spec.com explains that this means, “any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.”

Warning signs

  • Any project offers a “great opportunity” and/or “free exposure” for your work instead of a paycheck.

  • Any project that won’t pay unless the work (e.g. a picture book proposal) is successful.

  • A “contest” or “competition” where artists have to create a new design/illustration/logo for a company, and only the winner is published/paid.

  • A project where the publisher asks the artist to come up with a few ideas, from which they will pick the best one. But they don’t mention that if they don’t like any of them, they won’t pay. Or worse, steal your ideas.

Sometimes spec work crops up merely because the person/company proposing it is ignorant of the ins and outs of the illustration business. Lots of artists and designers fall into its trap – spending hours of precious time on a project that leaves them with empty pockets in the end.

But what’s wrong with a client having a few options before they buy an illustration? As an illustrator, you are not only selling the image, you are selling the idea. Part of your service is coming up with the design and concept, so you should not be creating anything new for free. As a publisher, if they really want to see how the final art might look, they should look at the artist’s portfolio. They can also request sketches, and if they don’t like the way it’s turning out, have the option to kill the project for lesser pay. If they want options, they can hire several illustrators to come up with ideas – but they must be willing to pay them for their time.

The Trouble with Pixish

This is how Pixish describes their service:

“Say you’re a magazine. You have a story that you need an illustration for. Your options are to find an artist for a custom job (time-consuming and expensive) or spend all day trolling microstock sites to find the perfect image (cheap, but just as time-consuming, and very frustrating).

Pixish is a middle path. With Pixish, you can create an Assignment that asks for what you want. Pixish peeps can submit their work and collaboratively vote the best up. All you have to do is pick the winning entry!”

Sounds a whole lot like spec work to me. However, Pixish founder Derek Powazek has had a few things to say to fight against the “spec” label. Here are some of Pixish’s claims and why I’m still a little uneasy about the whole thing.

The arguments against Pixish

Pixish claims: The traditional methods for finding artwork are too time-consuming and expensive.

My thoughts: Pixish advertises their site as a way for publishers to get art “cheaper than hiring a pro outright.” I don’t like what that implies. Sure, this could simply mean that cutting the time and resources it takes to find an illustrator would incur less costs; but it could also mean (and I think most viewers and publishers will translate it this way) that Pixish is a place for cheap art. The few jobs that are available on the site reflect this theory: Three illustrations for online AND advertising use for $50? Black line drawings for $10 each? If you’re unfamiliar with pricing standards in the industry, I’ll make this more clear – these are pretty measly.

I think it all boils down to one widely misunderstood idea: that amateur artists or students deserve less money for the same type of illustration from a working illustrator. That’s just not true. If a person puts a certain amount of work into something, they deserve a set amount in return. If there is any change in the pricing structure, it’s to pay the working illustrator more, just to have the security and benefit of his experience. But a certain base price should be kept, and publishers should be encouraged to do so. So far, I don’t see that happening on Pixish.

Pixish claims: Pixish is “not meant for everyone” and is geared toward amateurs and novices that are not yet working steadily as illustrators.

My thoughts: Not everyone will participate, but it still affects the entire industry. The website is currently structured by having participants create new artwork and give clients “options” without pay. This devalues the work of illustrators everywhere. When publishers see artists doing their work for free or low prices, it makes it harder for other illustrators to get a fair deal elsewhere.

Pixish claims: Pixish is a place to practice your skills for being a full-time illustrator and will get you published.

My thoughts: Many new artists believe that getting published is like getting the gold medal at the Olympics. It scares me that Pixish is offering a shortcut to this goal in a way that, so far, undervalues and underpays the work.

There are many ways to practice your illustration work. You can create your own self-promotional pieces and build your portfolio. You can participate in community sites like Illustration Friday or Mojizu.

Pixish is different because it gives you the chance to do this type of work for an actual client, but in the real world there is more to illustration than just getting the work; you have to deal with client feedback, learn business skills, hand in sketches. If you want to get real-world experience, I would suggest you work pro-bono for a not-for-profit, or get small work from local businesses.

Other Questions

How is Pixish different than other art-soliciting sites?

Many compare Pixish to Threadless, which gathers submissions for use on t-shirts. Artists submit designs, share their work, and get feedback and votes. The winners get to be published.

On the surface, Threadless has a lot in common with Pixish. What bothers me about Pixish however, is that the clients are making calls for specific needs, and the artists are creating new work to fill them. This is a service that is usually paid for.

But Pixish is just a conglomeration of illustration contests. That’s okay, right?

Well, no, because the problem is a lot illustration “contests” are pure spec work. Most legitimate competitions will only require you to submit work that you’ve already created or published, which is not so on Pixish.

The benefit of the doubt

  • The idea has potential. Sending out postcards can be hit and miss; it would be great to have a place where you could look and see which publishers are looking for artists and what kind of art they are looking for. Pixish may offer a great marketing strategy for illustrators.

  • Pixish is different. Many portfolio sites are pretty much one in the same – an online portfolio and a set of networking tools. Pixish is trying to break out of the mold a little and close the gap between artists and publishers.

  • Publishers will get what they pay for. If a publisher goes to Pixish looking to get cheap art, that is probably what they’ll get.

  • Copyright of the art remains with the artist. The publisher gets no rights to the losing entries.

  • The site is still in beta. Pixish is still open for change and revision.

Unfortunately, they’re going to have to change A LOT to really earn my support. If Pixish really wants to fight against spec work like it claims, they really shouldn’t be striving to become a collection of sub-par artwork and cheap clients.

Suggestions for an illustrator-friendly site

  • Higher moderation and better price control.

    Pixish claims that the prices on jobs will be determined by artist feedback – if no one likes the price, no one will submit their work. But if the site is geared toward novices and amateurs, I find it hard to believe that the artists will have a good idea of what a fair price should be.

    In terms of moderation, Pixish recently stopped accepting design work like logos and blog headers, and instituted an “assignment review process”. However, after glancing over the assignments being listed, I wonder what their criteria covers. For example, I found one listing for 2 “Chapter Page Illustrations” that said,”Negotiation for paid compensation TBD upon initial reception and sales. (Meaning, if we make it big, I will talk with you about getting you a cut of the pie!).” Listings like that are just scary to me, and the epitome of spec work. Pixish will have to get a lot more picky to really make this a fun, safe place for novice illustrators.

  • Stop soliciting new work.

    Given their current structure, this would completely change the concept of the website. But I really can’t ignore it as it is the definition of spec work – creating work for a client without any guarantee of pay. Artists should be able to link to their current portfolios or only submit work that has already been created.

  • Encourage publishers to respect the services of the illustrator.

    The spec-like structure and contest model works against this. Make it easy for publishers to find an illustrator, but don’t make it cheap.

Pixish has a great opportunity to be a great tool, but they have to work past a lot of obstacles to turn the site around. If they can create an environment that is more fair for the artists, they might be able to escape, or even fight against, spec work. But as it is, they are failing miserably in my opinion. It’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to the early criticism.

Update: Read Derek Powazek’s most recent comments, where he mentions some of the issues in this article: http://pixish.com/news/7

Read more:

What do you think? Are you worried? What would it take for you to use Pixish? Let me know in the comments.