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Little Orphan and Me. Is creating spec art worth your time?

Garth Gerhart
Sep 3, 2020

Is there’s any protagonist more deserving for redemption (and compensation) than an orphan? Admit it, when Oliver Twist pleas for more or when Little Orphan Annie runs into Daddy Warbuck’s arms, you get a dopamine rush that the rebel spirit is alive and that maybe — with hard work and a little luck — good things can happen to those who deserve it.

Spec art, in the design community, is much like the downtrodden tales of an innocent child just trying to find a loving home. For those not familiar, spec art is the Kobayashi Maru of the design business - a no-win senecio exercise that is used to test the resolve and humble integrity of a wayward dreamer. At its core, spec art is taking a risk at designing something, for somebody that they may like at sometime. It’s seeing the potential in a client and their venture to dedicate your time (and money) to show them what they are missing. It’s an exercise in futility that no one ever wins.

Designing something for an established client is a lot like co-parenting. You wake it up. They brush its teeth. You dress it for school. They pick it up and do the homework. You both put it to bed and have a few cocktails. Time passes and you both watch it pack up and leave. It goes into the world and survives because it was nurtured by a mutual love and dedication. 

Designing something for nothing and no one is like getting knocked up at prom. Sure, it’s fun at the time, but you’re in for some heartache down the road. Without a paying client, an advocate on the inside or a partner that shares your vision, it’s all on you. The Single Parent Designer.

If contracted design work is an act of mutual love then making spec art a selfish, narcissistic study on watching our id run laps around a field after a Mountain Dew binge — which is exactly why we do it. There is no second date or walk down the aisle. It’s an impulsive need to create something because it needs to be created. Once that initial impulse is satisfied you’re left with this “thing” that has no where to go but you send it out anyway. Cold. Naked. Alone.

Honestly and unashamed, I have fathered quite a few orphans into the design world. I too felt the immediate urge to create something, nurture it and send it packing. One could ask “Why?”, but to a designer (or any other artist) we say, “Why not?”. The truth is that spec art is still your child and deserves a shot at a good life. 

My most recent orphan came a few months ago after passing a local golf club. Every time I pass it by I have so many ideas about how I would change the outdated logo. Most days I pass it with  my real children, who are fighting over who got the most French Fries or if “Moana” or “Frozen” is the better theatrical representation of following your heart and becoming the person you’re truly meant to be. On this particular summer day, I wanted to take a “swing” at rebranding this golf club.

Mountain Branch current brand
My rebranding concept
New ad concept

I spent the whole day coming up with a new look and sample ad that would show the direction and ambitious angle I wanted to take. It was a clean and fresh look that used modern messaging and unique branding. It was sure to get my foot in the door. I did my research and found the person I needed to approach, crafted a fine email and waited. 

And waited.

A few days had passed and the prospective surrogate responded to me. It was an open and honest dialogue and in the end she liked the idea, but couldn't afford my services. C'est la vie. This isn't a knock at the potential foster client or a jab at what another designer had done before. Sometimes the wallet or the heart just isn't ready for change.

The result of having any design denied is painful, but for passion projects and shots in the dark, there is no sharper bite. So, away it goes. In the dark recesses of a digital orphanage. Luckily, there is no Miss Hannigan guarding the door and the orphanage can always be visited “tomorrow”. The work, insights and elements that you have dedicated your free time to can easily be presented to another client in the same business as “new” or modified to fit the look of another client altogether. Revisiting old ideas in your portfolio and investing fresh eyes and new hope can bring your old spec art the home and love it deserves.

Invest in your ideas and take a chance on showing a perspective client something that they never knew they ever wanted. After 15 years in the business, I have NEVER sold a spontaneous piece of spec art, but the lessons I’ve learned, the chances I’ve taken and the orphans I'v made have always led to some other happy ending.

Garth Gerhart
A creative spirit living in a material world.

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