Spec work

Just thought i’d pass along some useful info I recently found.

I was approached recently by a company looking for spec work (ie. you provide designs and they pay if they like it). While I knew this is generally bad practice, I sought out some confirmation of my instincts and good text to politely reply.

Found this site-


Lots of info here, on handle to handle spec requests, why spec is bad, etc.

While it was fairly easy for me to turn down the spec work as I’m busy with paid work, spec work is often “attractive” to students who feel that it’s a good risk to take.

some highlights-

Ten Ways Spec Will Hurt You In The Real Worl> d
By Erin Harris from Sanguine Theory

  1. You set yourself up as someone who will work for free
    Spec work requires visual communicators to devote their time, energy, and creativity to projects that they may never be compensated for. Even if you do manage to get compensation, it’s highly unlikely that it will be in line with the resources you put into the project. Your ideas, time, and skills are how you make your living. Participating in spec work means that you are willing to give those away to anyone.

  2. You risk your professional reputation
    When you are a new graduate, you do not have the award winning book that will open doors for you. Because of this, your work ethic and professionalism are extremely important, in addition to your portfolio. Professionals do not participate in speculative presentations because it takes away resources from paying clients. To be taken seriously when you are just starting out, you want to act in the most ethical and professional ways possible. Participation in spec work does exactly the opposite.

  3. You reduce yourself to someone who “makes things pretty” rather than a skilled communicator
    Successful design relies on adequate research into your client, their competitors, and their industry. Because spec work is usually done in an extremely short timeframe, proper research cannot occur, and your work is reduced to decoration, rather than an effective communication solution.

  4. You become a “yes man”
    Spec work is highly dependent on the “I’ll know it when I see it” mentality on the part of the client. So rather than working with you to create a communication solution that will best reach the target audience, you cater to the whims of your “client”. A client who is more attached to their own ideas instead of what is best for their business only wants someone to perpetuate that mindset, not a visual communications professional.

  5. You become part of the problem instead of the solution
    Because spec work projects are often “one-offs” and not based on any real strategic plan, you help contribute to inconsistent branding. This does not help the client, nor does it enhance your skills, portfolio, or reputation.

  6. You don’t learn how to work with your client
    Since spec work is often done in competition form, with little to no interaction with the client, you don’t learn how to work with the client. You don’t learn how to listen to your client, and the client doesn’t learn how to provide the necessary information to motivate appropriate communication solutions.

  7. You undervalue your own work as well as the work of your peers
    Participating in speculative projects promotes the idea that this kind of work is acceptable both to the visual communications industry, as well as for those seeking the industry’s services. The “carrot” of potential future work makes spec work look appealing, even though it is highly unlikely that you will ever be compensated for this work. If you are, it will be well below industry standards.

You are not an ad agency
Spec presentations are often used in the advertising world to pitch to a new client. These pitches usually include fleshed out creative work. However, in advertising, agencies have a much greater chance of recouping the time and resources put into those pitches. Agencies’ compensation often includes media commissions – originally, that was the only way agencies made money. Designers, on the other hand, do not have the same chance to gain compensation for the effort they put into spec work. Especially when you are working on your own, the amount of resources you put into spec work are always going to be far greater than any compensation you might receive.

  1. You get no respect
    Clients who request spec work often do not understand the visual communications industry. They do not consider the importance of what our work does for their business, and have not budgeted appropriately for it. Likewise, a client should be wary of a designer who chooses to do spec work. What value are they getting? Would a professional designer engage in spec work? If so, why? If a professional designer has enough time to engage in spec work, a client should wonder why, since there is no guaranteed payout to the designer.

  2. You risk losing your rights
    Since spec work is almost always done without a contract, it can lead to a very tricky situation. Without a contract, there is no agreement between the designer and client as to who owns the right to the work created, nor is there a record of who is expected to provide what or what timeline the work is supposed to be created in. (Normally, a contract would also detail payment schedules, spec work usually does not involve payment.) There is nothing to stop a client requesting spec work from taking the ideas of one designer and taking it to another, cheaper designer for production, or do it themselves. Either one of these situations is a violation of intellectual property law, but without a contract, a designer is hard pressed to fight this in court. The trust between designer and client that is essential for a good business relationship is absent here, and the situation does not lend itself to creating such a bond.


Spot on…

I came across no-spec through “Be a Design Podcast”

I know they talk about no-spec and spec work in general in many of the
episodes, but I know this is one that covers it. Spec-work seems particularly
rampant in Graphic Design.


This podcast is primarily around Graphic Design, but relevant for ID (and other design fields too I’m sure) in many ways too. Awhile ago they changed the name and broadened the scope to create the Reflex Blue Show.

I know I’ve seen posts on here about it before, but it seems many contests or competition these days can really blur the line of “spec work.”

My dad (an architect) said the best quote on this kind of thing,
‘Some people think design is a hobby and they don’t want to pay for it.’

Lets not encourage them eh folks?

Thanks for the info. As a student with two years left who’s looking for freelance stuff, it’s good to be aware of pitfalls.

i don’t see the problem. if you don’t want to work for free, don’t do spec work. if you got a portfolio to build, do it. i really can’t see the point of making this whole website about it. its a free market, folks, get over it.

Well tell us what’s the point of building your portfolio if spec workers are lowering wages?

let us all know how that works out for you when you build your portfolio, go looking for a job, only to find someone else is doing it for free.

bottomline, you’re only worth what someone is willing to pay for your work. if you give it away, your work is of no value, and those looking to hire you in the future will quickly learn that.

I’m all about free markets (check some previous posts for my take on unions and the such), but spec work is a different ballgame. It’s not about a free market determining value, but rather the determination of value for the profession and work as a whole. make sense? Not to mention the key point in the above post and site that most spec work doesn’t enable the best work to be produced because the project ultimately is about “the client” (accepting/paying for the work), rather than the “need” (market/appropriate solution). So not only are you doing the profession a disservice, but also the client and your own understand of the needs in design for a particular client.

All that (and more as above) being said, if you want to do spec work, suit yourself. There is no spec-police, but in the end, and in retrospec, I guarantee you will think otherwise.


i see it as freeing up the market. spec work represents a greater flow of ideas than no spec work. if design work declines in value because of a greater flow of ideas, then it was probably overvalued to begin with. ok so maybe as designers we should look at it from the angle of we got a nice little racket going and we should protect our turf, but my feeling is this is impossible. hey man, its the internet, everything is changing. adapt and survive. how do you think sign painters felt about large format printing? now we have GD. how do you think blacksmiths felt about foundries and factories? now we have ID.

anyway, looking at it another way, i doubt spec work is viable for much more than small business logos, and extra ideation help for big business in the long run. Who picks the winning design? if they don’t have design experience, they’re gonna pick something crappy. if they do, they’re likely to just be a designer in a different role. it will not take long for people to figure out if this stuff works or not.

what amuses me about the no spec website is that it tries to make the case that spec work is equally bad for designers and for businesses. dude, if this is true, why does it exist? if designers don’t want to work for free, and businesses want something more than half ass student work, it won’t threaten anyone.

anyway, all i see this doing is reducing the role of connections, BS, and goofy raybans in design. and that’s good, right?

There exists a middle ground. This is where the business mind comes in :sunglasses:

Agreed, some company’s business models revolve around spec work. There are entire industries where spec work is status quo, like exhibit and event design for example. Exhibit houses and event companies can afford to roll the dice on these projects because there is no shortage of business opportunity. Think about an exhibit design firm that has a 70% close rate. Assume it costs them 5k to provide a spec solution and they do 10 projects in a year, 50k. Now assume each project won is 50k in profit and you win 7 of the 10. I’ve freelanced for event companies that would spent 25k on a proposal because the business would garner more than 5 million. It’s risk vs. reward and of course this model doesn’t work in every realm of design. On riskier projects you can propose a shared design fee agreement with the client so you can recoup some of the losses.

This type of spec work is required by pretty much any company look for an exhibit or event plan, and i’ve seen it range the gamut from 10 person companies to fortune 100’s. So I’d say it’s viable.

It can be incredibly frustrating to spend that kind of time and resources and lose the project. And yes I do agree that spec work can de-value what it is that designers do if they simply fire it off and don’t get the opportunity to present the work, email spec work is shameful. And yes it is painfully common that the decider in a spec project is not design educated, but it is up to the designer to shed light on the solution in a way that a client can comprehend so that they see the value in it.

I strongly disagree that spec work represents a greater flow of ideas. Anyone can come up with ideas, professional idealists are called artists. The value that designers provide is that they solve (and recognize) problems and have a great array of skills and tools to communicate their solutions.

it’s like this (in my opinion).

Companies who ask for spec work don’t understand the value of design. If they would they wouldn’t ask for it for free (for the designs that don’t get picked). Nobody would ever consider going to a doctor on spec (i’ll pay you if I like how my brain surgery turns out). By definition, it asks for the lowest common denominator.

Designers who do spec work only do so because they can’t compete in the real free market of paid design work. These are often un-trained students and those on the bottom of the skills/experience set.

From my perspective, it’s a match made in heaven for the most part if it’s spec work between these two groups. Companies who dont value design get poor designs, and deisgners who don’t have skills get to play the spec lottery which may have a better chance for some of getting paid then actually doing work worth something.

In this scenario, no, spec work doesn’t hurt anyone involved.

What is different however, is the often predatory nature of some companies looking to take advantage of recent grads, (or even professionals), who don’t know better, or how spec work can hurt them (see above). THIS is the reason I raised the issue in the first place.

It’s not about asserting a higher than market value to work, or protecting designers in some sort of union way (i’d adamantly against unions of all sorts). it’s about protecting your own worth as being defined by what you accept. If you work for free, of course your work has no value, and it’s a slippery slope to be on. Plus, as mentioned in the links, it does nothing to help you improve or learn design. This is the danger of spec work.


ok hmm i think we may be talking about different types of spec work here. what i’ve been talking about is these “crowdsourcing” logo design sites. they seem to be springing up all over the internet, and i think that these are what the graphic design community is all up in arms about. they seem to be used mostly by mom & pop businesses and internet startups. these people are not looking for a $50,000 branding strategy. alot of businesses in my area have truly horrible logos, probably designed by the local sign printing shop or web design monkeys. these businesses would greatly benefit from a “spec work” logo contest.

if you google “design contests” and check out the sites, you will see that most of the winning logos are of a professional or near professional quality. i suspect that most of the people entering these contests are not even designers at all, but just hobbyists. they are willing to do it for free or for just the chance of a little money because they enjoy it.

you can say what you want about companies not respecting designer’s “creative energies” and the designers being “low on the skills/experience ladder” but the fact is, companies are getting quality work for a low price and the designers seem to be happy providing it. now if all the designers get sick of it or start wanting more money, things could change. but until then, the whole thing seems to be rolling along pretty smoothly.

fact is, if you do something for a living that alot of other people do for fun, you better be providing something extra too. putting some goofy no!spec site on the internet isn’t gonna change a thing. who moved my cheese etc.