The Dangers of Spec Work

Blog 20170417. Photo of frustrated designers.

Many a designer has encountered promises of great business in the future at the price of working for free now. The networking and portfolio-building opportunities for young designers are very tempting—but more experienced designers recognize spec work for the trap it may be. Designers must approach spec work strategically in order to create the best experience for both themselves as well as their clients.

What Is Speculative Work or Spec Work?

Many designers use “speculative work” or “spec work” to exclusively refer to working for free with the hopes of a future monetary payment. However, AIGA defines speculative work as work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid. AIGA further clarifies that other unpaid work also falls under the spec work umbrella. For instance, AIGA includes: design competitions, volunteer work, internships, and pro bono work.

Why Designers Might Agree to Spec Work

Many designers choose to participate in unpaid design projects for a variety of reasons. Internships and volunteering can be very educational. Also, both volunteering and pro bono can help one champion a cause with which he/she strongly supports. These are not bad things!

Yet, a designer should also agree to spec work for the right reason. Designers also have the benefit of acquiring experience and exposure through a variety of channels, many of which are safer. For example: paid internships, professional development classes, professional association courses and networkers, reducing the scope of work, offering a discount and/or payment plan, and much more.

Nevertheless, spec work has implications that undermine the designer, the creative industry, and the client as well.

When starting out as a designer, it may be tempting to undercharge, but by doing so you’ll find yourself working with clients who don’t appreciate the value of your work. More often than not, this will lead to hour after hour, day after day of revisions, where ultimately your client is the designer.
David Airey

Spec Work Hurts the Designer

Firstly, spec work costs the designer. It’s not simply the “free work” the client may pitch it to be.

The physics law of the conservation of matter states that an object remains constant despite any changes to its form; it cannot be created nor destroyed. Likewise, declaring a project to be “free” does not cause the cost to vanish! The cost that once would’ve been the client’s is now transposed to the designer.

Put simply, “Nothing is truly free.” If the client is not paying the designer, then the designer is paying the client.

It’s easy to observe such a transaction when a designer absorbs the purchase of stock images or leasing of software (such as Adobe Creative Cloud’s design apps). The transaction further occurs when the designer volunteers expertise for which the designer has invested time, money, and labor to educate himself or herself.

Furthermore, the designer accepts the opportunity cost of accepting spec work:

  • What future projects must be denied?
  • What current projects might be delayed?
  • Will this devalue my other work?
  • Is such a project bringing undue stress?

Spec work, then, costs the designer time, money, labor, and various opportunity costs.

Spec work impacts the designer’s future as well.

In the first scenario above, the designer seems to attract a bad clientele—for what the friends hear from the client’s recommendation is that the designer is cheap—obviously not the unique value proposition for which most designers strive!

In the second scenario, the designer risks a negative exposure, such as the reputation that one is cheap, if indeed any exposure is generated at all. While word of mouth can be a very beneficial, efficient marketing scheme, it should not be the only one upon which a designer relies.

Every designer should take charge of his or her brand. In the creative industry, one of the best ways is to let the work speak for itself. Build an extraordinary portfolio! Showcase case studies that will attract the right clients! Explain how the design successes helped the clients’ business succeed as well.

Finally, in the third scenario, the designer’s confidence is undermined, which may hurt the designer’s career. This is certainly not exclusive to the design community. HR bloggers share what the healthy mindset all professionals should have looks like in various articles, such as Liz Ryan’s “What Are Your Talents Really Worth?” and “Don’t Get Suckered into Working for Free,” or Alison Green’s “An Employer Asked Me to Produce Free Work as Part of the Hiring Process,” and “Should You Charge Family Members for Using Your Professional Skills?” AIGA sums spec work quite nicely: “it also diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s [sic] objectives.”

85% of freelance designers were asked to work for free in 2016.

Spec Work Hurts the Industry

Secondly, since a designer is a representative of the creative industry as a whole, the decisions a designer makes regarding spec work impact the design community too.

Indeed, Creative Bloq cites a survey from that a whopping “85% of designers were asked to work for free last year,” in 2016. (It’s worth noting that only 9% of those polled agreed to do so.) While one designer’s decision to participate in spec work may only diminish the economic value of design services marginally, the cumulative effect of designers everywhere may increase that much more so.

Similarly, Irish graphic designer and writer David Airey argues spec work is bad for both designer and client. He explains speculative scenarios chop graphic design down into only its final product—ignoring the research, skills, and experience behind administering the service.

This is perhaps most evident in design competitions, also referred to as “crowd sourcing” graphic design. The deadlines in such competitions often afford little to no time for the designer’s research on the client and their industry. As a result, the competitors provide low-quality work that fails to meet all the client’s needs, differentiate the client from competitors, or provide durability and flexibility for future growth in the client’s brand.

Furthermore, the distance causes the designers miss out on developing long-standing client relationships. The losing designers receive no compensation, or even recognition for their work. Furthermore, the losing designers still may lose all rights to their creative concepts too.

Graphic design is the sum of all its parts. Focusing on the design’s final end product ignores the strategic decision-making process that produced it. Yet this is exactly what spec work does to the design industry.

# of Graphic Design Jobs

# of Automotive Mechanic Jobs
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Handbook 2014

Therefore, the design community is plagued by the belief that design requires little expertise. Mayhem Studios shares a designer’s response to Craig’s List ads requesting spec work, adding such harsh witticisms like:

“In this country, there are almost twice as many neurosurgeons as there are professional illustrators. There are eleven times as many certified mechanics. There are SEVENTY times as many people in the IT field. So, given that they are less rare, and therefore less in demand, would it make sense to ask your mechanic to work on your car for free?”

“It is not clever to seek a “student” or “beginner” in an attempt to get work for free…Would you have taken that job at McDonalds with no pay, because you were learning essential job skills for the real world?”

“Anyone who will not/can not pay them is obviously the type of person or business they should be ashamed to have on their resume anyway.”

 Spec Work Hurts the Client

Finally, spec work ultimately harms the client. Yes, it even harms that the client that requested it!

The most apparent risk is the compromise of quality. Research is curtailed, so decision-making is uninformed. Designers also appreciate time to explore options. So designers in turn might offer the client a selection of ideas and concepts. This allows the designer and the client to consider the full realm of possibilities. Yet, spec work often skips this process as well. Finally, the designer most likely brushes by on testing when completing spec work. That might mean a logo design fails to reproduce faithfully at small sizes or on limited color palettes, or a website design breaks into pieces when switching mobile devices. The limitations of spec work force the designer to give a less-than-best product. As a result, the client ultimately suffers from all these shortcuts.

In addition to the compromised work quality, the relationship between client and designer is also damaged.

Requesting for spec work is, as one can imagine, insulting to a designer. Thus, it damages the client’s reputation—now they are the cheap ones! The client receives negative exposure acting so unprofessionally. Word of mouth may work against the client in this regard. Designers may steer clear from working with the client and encourage their network to do so as well. Just like clients may determine designer fit by the use of language and the nature of work, so too do the designers scrutinize the client in their work requests.

Clients should understand that there is an ethically “right” and “wrong” to request spec work. Certainly, it is beneficial and fair for a client to request samples of work to learn about the designer and determine whether he or she fits the needs. However, one may reach such a determination based on previous examples of similar work.

It is unfair to require the designer to produce custom work for free.

As another alternative, a conversation with a designer can prove very insightful as well. For instance, the kinds of questions the designer asks also convey the level of experience and expertise the designer offers. It is still socially acceptable for a client to request free work. However, the scope is much, much smaller than an entire brochure, poster, or final mock-up of any kind. Clients may reasonably request the designer to complete a small exercise that takes no more than one (1) hour of time. Alison Green above comments on this issue, “Employers also should think about how much time they’re asking candidates to spend on an exercise—an hour is reasonable; a weekend is not.”

Whether the client actually profits from the designer’s spec work, spec work incites unethical, bad practices regardless. Consider this conversation between a designer, Michael Laborde, and potential client, Donna [original link inactive, but a copy of the conversation can be found at David Airey’s website documenting the same “conversation about spec work”] posted on Graphics Creativity.

Donna assumed “spec work” and “speculation” are the same thing, when as Michael pointed out, they are not. Certainly, neither situation requires exact specification, but it’s doubtful her construction company sends miniature models with every proposal response. Yet, she expected Michael to provide custom vehicle vinyl prints—on his own time, dime, and mind—in a much shorter deadline than what even her industry honors. This creates a parasitic relationship, one that hardly encourages devotion to the client.

AIGA and the Graphic Artists Guild encourage designers to strongly consider the risks of spec work. Ethics in Graphic DesignNo!Spec, and Adweek actively campaign against it.

Professional Policy on Spec Work

The design community has taken strong stances on spec work. Leading institutions and professional associations such as AIGA and the Graphic Artists Guild encourage designers to strongly consider the risks of spec work for all the same dangers outlined throughout this article. Others, such as Ethics in Graphic DesignNo!Spec, and Adweek actively campaign against it, and several designers agree.

On the other hand, a few designers see no danger in spec work. Conor Odriscoll at even encourages spec work. For instance, he cites pursuing passion projects, profiting from design competitions, and gaining valuable experience. Nonetheless, there are safer avenues to achieve those same results than spec work.

Passion projects are a wonderful thing to prevent creative burn-out and return to causes that a designer most appreciates. However, passion projects are just that. “Ars gratia artis”—art for the sake of art—describes such passion projects. Artists may choose to participate in art-making as a means of self-expression, exploration of the medium, or inventing new trends.

Odriscoll also adds that passion remains an important motivator for designers: “If you’re in the design industry purely to make money, well, you’re probably in the wrong place.” Again, however, some assumptions are made: “Sometimes, if you’re guaranteed to be paid at the end of the project, you might not do quite as well as you can.”

One assumption is that the temptation of money thwarts the efforts of passion and instinct. While that may be true on occasion, designers also implement contracts that protect the interests of both designer and client. That is to say, a client may seek early termination if the design is unsatisfactory. It would also be quite unusual for a designer to receive full-payment upfront as well. So, most likely, the money motivator is always present in addition to the passion.

A designer risks that a client may terminate; that a client may run without paying; or that a lower number of working hours receive compensation than what was given; or that endless revisions delay the final products and its complete payment indefinitely.

In sum, both passion and money remain constant motivators of the designer.

Additionally, profits obtained from design competitions may shrink in comparison to the profits of working for market-value, living wages.

Designers receive winnings from competition only if the client chooses his or her design; the losers receive nothing. However, landing deals with real-world clients not only a much higher probability of receiving a wage but also higher wages.

For example, the article cites a $200 winning from a contest that lasted a week. It further offered the intangible benefit of public exposure (assuming the designer him or herself remains accredited). On the other hand, an entry-level designer earns about $20 an hour in the DC Metro area. Assuming a designer works 35 hours at that hourly rate, he or she may expect $700. The breakeven point then, of the two scenarios, is 10 hours of labor. Certainly, depending on the scope of the competition, the number of competitors, and the skill of the designer, a 10-hour project may indeed win $200…but is such a pace maintainable, given the variables?

Lastly, gaining valuable experience has multiple avenues of success not confined to spec work. These methods include the paid internships, professional development classes, professional association courses and networkers, reducing the scope of work, offering a discount and/or payment plan, etc. cited at the beginning of this article. Those methods have the added benefits of establishing relationships, networking, increasing salary, and teaching several new skills.

What Designers Hear When Asked to Do Spec

Screen capture. Twitter. Chewy Designs. Instead of promoting & accessing a proud Canadian industry @JustinTrudeau @melaniejoly chose to upholad a #specwork contest... #NoCanada150
Screen capture. Twitter. Kate Bevan: Or hell, you could stop being exploitative dicks and pay a professional desinger. #StopWorkingForFree - Response to: Privacy International: We're looking for a gifted graphic design volunteer to build their portfolio on exciting privacy projects!
Screen capture. Twitter. Sean Stickle: Sometimes I get good results from @99designs. Sometimes I get wretched design plagiarism. Sort of a crapshoot right now.
Screen captures. Twitter. SpecWatch: Mycroburst $199 logo design contest. 21 entries. Contest is closed: "Contest holder has withdrawn the contest". | Mycroburst $99 logo design contest. 72 entries. Contest is closed: "Contest holder has withdrawn the contest". | Mycroburst $299 logo design contest. 22 entries. Contest is closed: "Contest holder has withdrawn the contest".

Responses to Spec Work

Certainly, pursuing whatever project remains the designer’s prerogative. Nonetheless, best practices are encouraged, because they protect mutual interest between parties. When encountering a spec work request, consider the costs of accepting such a project. A designer may choose to agree to all terms, or perhaps modify the scope of the project. On the other hand, a designer may choose not to pursue the spec work at all. It is important, however, for a designer to remain professional and facilitate a positive relationship, even when confronted with spec work. Like any other professional, designers should educate clients on best practices.

A designer has several templates for declining spec work:

While perhaps self-vindicating, a designer should avoid David Thorne’s famous, humorous approach to spec work regarding posters for a missing catDavid Airey’s role reversal letter may similarly produce humorous effects.

In Summary: The Costs of Spec Work

Designers have a responsibility to uphold safe practices and to protect the interests of all parties they represent, including themselves, their creative industry, and their clients. Spec work presents a challenge to those protections. Designers should stay informed and educated on this design trend, and in turn, bear the responsibility of educating their peers as well as their clients on spec work. Namely, designers must acknowledge the various risks spec work presents:

  • Unnecessary cost absorption
  • Increasing opportunity costs
  • Decreasing competitive advantage
  • Generating the wrong kind of exposure
  • Attracting the wrong kind of clientele
  • Devaluing the economic contribution of design services
  • Compromising the quality of design work
  • Alienating the end product from its valuable creation process, and therefore devaluing it
  • Harming the reputation of both designer and client

Handled strategically, spec work’s threat is diminished. Whether a designer decides to respond to spec work by accepting all these risks and embracing spec work; or compromising with the client requesting spec work; or simply declining the spec work, a designer is nonetheless empowered with this knowledge. If this knowledge spreads throughout the design community as well as to the clients, everyone can make smarter, safe design decisions that help everyone to grow.