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Say “NO” to Spec Work

by John Coates  |  January 13/2011  |  , ,

Spec work (an offshoot of the broader term ‘crowdsourcing‘) has recently spread through the graphic design marketplace. In this kind of work, a company decides they need some type of design done, but they don’t want to hire a dedicated designer (or pay anyone up front). Instead, they put out a spec work order online where they detail the job and request that designers ‘compete’ for the contract. In short, if the company likes any of the submissions they receive, that designer will be compensated. As for the others, well…

Not surprisingly, the truth is, spec work is almost never a good deal for the designer. Not only does it typically involve a number of designers working for free, for a chance to be compensated for their work, this kind of work devalues the broader design industry and should not be considered by anyone serious about a career in the field. Below are the six reasons why we’d advise against spec work, unless you are desperate.

No Guarantee of Pay

The first, and perhaps most important reason you shouldn’t take on spec work is that there is no guarantee of pay. The nature of this work is to pit designers against each other to create a design. The fact of the matter is that the party contracting the work will only pay the designer for the work they submitted if in fact they intend to use it. If the project is big enough, designers are often in competition with hundreds of other eager designers (crowdsourcing and spec work website 99Designs reports that their projects get an average of 100 design submissions each) driving your chances of being compensated statistically lower. Sadly, the entire competition could prove to be a colossal waste of time for you, which leads us to our next problem with spec work…

High Investment of Time

Since spec work offers are often competitions between a handful (sometimes even hundreds) of designers, everyone wants to make sure they create their best work to beat out everyone else. But what about the opportunity cost? This internal motivation to win each competition, could very likely inspire you to work your butt off on a project you will, in all likelihood, never be paid for. And of course, this is all time and creative energy you could be using to build out your portfolio, hone your skills, or land a position at a paying firm.

It Makes You Appear Unprofessional

There’s an old business saying: “fake it ’til you make it.” This is to say you should think and behave like a big player in your field, because then others will treat you like one until you eventually make it. When you first start out in the design business, ask yourself if an accomplished professional with valid effective skills, would ever consider doing spec work. The obvious answer is no – he or she would spend their valuable time working for clients who have committed to paying them. This is the attitude of success, and the right one for all new designers to adhere to if they want to land a real job for a paying client.

Doing spec work is a lot like joining a pack of stray dogs fighting for scraps of food because they can’t get by any other way. If this is how you would like to treat your career, wasting your time on speculative projects and hoping that the client kicks you a few dimes for your time, how will you ever gain respect as a designer? The answer is that you won’t – the client won’t respect you because they’ll see your submission as just one of the hundreds of desperate designers sending them work, and other companies who see your portfolio full of spec work won’t see you as a worthy professional.

Your Portfolio Should Speak For Itself

As mentioned above, it’s important to be and seem professional, especially when you’re just starting out. That said, you should not have to be asked to “prove yourself” to a client before being selected for the position. Your portfolio should speak for itself–it should be a reflection of your style and ability.  If a client cannot comfortably assess and determine that you are what their organization needs without you doing free work for them, they’re probably not worth working for anyway.

In fact, this is part of the big myth about spec work. Very rarely does a company hire the winner of their design competition. Instead, they just snag the one piece of work, send the winner a quick “thanks!” and move along. Clearly, this is no way to build a solid career.

You Don’t Work With The Client

As an educated, professional designer, you no doubt understand the value of consistent branding. A single designer working with a client can create a consistent, unique visual language for that client that permeates through various media. Performing this effectively requires a thorough understanding of the client’s culture, goals and values. It also requires market research into the strengths and weaknesses of the competition’s design strategy.

Clearly, quality design is an involved process. What good design is not is a quick, one-off attempt to make something that looks “pretty” in a rushed competition. Spec work simply does not afford time to communicate with the client, nor the time to do the necessary pre-design research and fine tuning typically required to produce something of value.

There Is No Protective Contract

One of the biggest risks in spec work is also one of the most obvious: plagiarism. When joining a spec work competition, there is almost a 0% chance that you will ever be offered a protective contract. Instead, the work is done on the honor system where you just have to trust that the client will pick their favorite design, ethically compensate the winner, and discard the work of the losers.

Already some red flags should be going up here. Without legal protection it can be extremely difficult to prove that they need to compensate anyone. It can be even harder to prove that they don’t have the right to make a minor tweak to your work and steal it without notification or payment. Don’t take the risk or you could find yourself the designer of a very successful campaign that you are unable to provide ownership of.

What are other reasons you should say “NO” to Spec Work?


  • Danny Do Couto

    Great article!

  • Thomas

    Spec designing is here to stay and is going to get much bigger. Many talented designers in India love doing spec work and the Internet makes it possible. Most design work can and will be outsourced, just like programming was before it. Designers best learn to adapt to this situation.

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  • http://www.colbyshenkle.com colby

    Advocating spec work is like relegating designers to fruit salesmen in a bazaar or souq- constantly undercutting others at all costs just to win the contract.

    It devalues the talent of PROPER designers.

    Those who advocate it are in effect saying that they lack the real talent, portfolio or salesmanship to win a contract the proper way. It’s like cutting corners for instant gratification, while the long-term value of design work plummets. Think about the future India.

    Do not pander to a client that wants an unreasonable price for good work. You’ll regret it in the long run as that same trait will manifest itself later in the relationship.

    Why not go into an Apple store & say “Thats too much for a Mac Pro- I’ll give you $400″. You will be laughed at or ignored- and rightfully so. Why should it be any different for our services?

  • Alex

    apple sells products. designers sell a service. big difference and as an end user that has gotten great work from India, i must say that 1st world designers are in trouble en masse. there might be the occasional american that can make a go at it but the market is too crowded and the tools for creating a great looking logo or whatever are continually getting easier to use. globalization + lower barrier to entry + crowded marketplace = lower prices.

  • Matt

    The mere concept of spec work makes my fucking skin crawl :(

    Edit: I think it is important that we all do whatever we can to try to stop this shit devaluing our profession.

  • http://www.essaylet.com John

    Nothing wrong with spec work as long as designers are ok with it. Think of 99% of other people who don’t care much for their graphics design as long as they get it off their checklist. Plus, rookies get a chance to practice their skills.

    Since you are comparing designers with a pack of dogs, let me remind you that only the strongest survive, so there is nothing wrong with working in a highly competitive environment as long as your effort is properly exposed and gets you attention of potential customers in the long run. If you are a good designer, you are eventually going to be booked for months ahead. But if you suck, no work ethics justifications or articles like this one will make you a better designer. It is simple as that. Good luck!

  • Mara

    Hi there! Its indeed a competitive world, spec works give newbies an avenue to practice their skills and get them ready to sell their work better in the outside world. Designers will have to adapt to spec works – for its here to stay. Lets just all be competitive and show everyone what we’ve got!

  • http://www.everythinginkonline.com Mike P

    Wow – talk about hitting a sore spot.

    Crowdsourcing could actually be the death of a huge number of small design studios – placing more people on the unemployment line. To those of you that are outsourcing overseas to get work done – think about the impact your actions are having on the local economy. The only reason that 90% of clients are going overseas is to try and save the almighty dollar – which as a small business owner I understand but would never do.

    Crowdsourcing may be here to stay but some of the top-dogs in the crowdsourcing market are getting a bad reputation as of late. They are charging less and less for designs and some of the top designers on these sites are starting to get the point that they are being ripped of.

    If it’s cheap labor you are looking for run an ad in the local paper or on kijiji. There are college and university students that are looking to build their portfolio and will do the work for next to nothing. If you say that the quality of designs from a crowd are better then you really haven’t done your research. I spent some time at the start of my career on a couple of the “spec” sites creating logos – 50% of the designs are poorly executed, 30% of the designs are copyright infringements, and of the other 20% left nearly all of them are using techniques that are going to cause issues for the logo owner if they decide to go to print.

    Use it if you must – but I would say that spec sites are truly the Walmart of the design world.

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  • http://www.freshwebservices.com Eddie

    I’ve witnessed this my field of computer programming. I regularly see jobs offered at $10 per hour, whereas in the UK you would expect to pay 10x that to a well qualified PHP programmer, for example.

    The rage for offshore outsourcing has declined somewhat, however. This in part is because managing remote projects is difficult, in part because of cultural differences, etc. The trend is now to “inshore” – bring in cheaper programmers on work visas and so overcome the remote and cultural issues.

    So, as a designer you will have to arm yourself with compelling reasons why client should look locally rather than “offshore”. I’d suggest that you emphasise quality over cost at every opportunity, because you can’t compete on price.

    You also have to emphasise those “soft” skills and cultural awareness that global suppliers just can’t offer. You will know the client & environment far better – you have the cultural and sociological capital that will help differentiate you from the cheaper competition.

    Best wishes

  • Patrick

    Accountability should be the number one reason we don’t crowdsource. The only one winning in crowdsourcing are the brokers.

  • Richard

    Advocating spec work is like relegating designers to fruit salesmen in a bazaar or souq- constantly undercutting others at all costs just to win the contract.

    It devalues the talent of PROPER designers.
    Get over yourself! selling fruit is an honourable occupation as are most (all jobs). Do what it takes to look after you and yours.

    Working on spec simply shows a faith in your ability, and a willingness to go the extra mile. Yes it can potentially lead to exploitation but no potential pain, no potential gain.

  • Elizabeth

    It is important that designers respect the ethics and standards of the industry and not provide spec work. I recently lost a big RFP b/c the client asked for spec work and I didn’t provide it. However, I gave a nice detailed reason why I do not provide spec work. Explaining how it’s not fare to the client or the designer. At the end of the day the client didn’t know or care about our design ethics. Which was sad! I’m bummed that I didn’t get the contract, but happy that I didn’t go against the ethics of my industry. I ask that everyone do the same.

  • Vic

    As mentioned above crowdsourcing is not going anywhere. The design industry has for a long time been one of the toughest ones to use for small and medium businesses. In my experience building many businesses, the design group that is good for one business is not for another.

    The process of finding, evaluating, and vetting (usually only through the initial work which is on your dime) is costly and especially exhausting for an entrepreneur. Most “design firms” are highly overpriced for what you get, and many of the talented freelancers out there are difficult to find and reach efficiently.

    As an alternative, having the ability to ping a vast universe with a set of specs, and very quickly identify those who appear to appear to be close is invaluable. Whether product packaging, a logo, diagram, or Web design, I have found the concept to be incredibly useful. At the same time, as I buyer, I expect that I will get 80% mediocrity and 20% worth looking at.

    I do agree with the point of it being unfair to designers who invest time through multiple rounds. I am very surprised that the “brokers” who run these sites do not do a better job of ensuring at least some level of compensation for what usually comes down to a set of finalists. I find it interesting that you say many “grab the design and run” without hiring the designer for more work. I have never done that. It seems crazy to do that after investing in a designer who you obviously like.

    Agreed on the fairness issue. As buyers of services, we should be interested in the fairness to the designer and take up that cause when evaluating/using these services. Given that spec work is not going away, that is the more practical approach than saying “NO.”

  • Cassandra Bryan

    Just say no!

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  • Richard

    “Advocating spec work is like relegating designers to fruit salesmen”

    Both to me seem perfectly honourable occupations!

    Have a reality check.. the world and his wife, (and children) all claim to be designers nowadays, cheap computers, cheap software, hooky downloads all make this a breeze.

    A “designer” is what exactly anyway? We simply supply a service which may or may not end in a product and a sale.

    The fruit salesman buys the fruit and sells it, thereby taking a risk, the designer may choose to work on spec to make a “sale” also taking a risk.

    It’s called business! If you want to live in an ivory tower, go into academia or politics, otherwise you have to swim with the sharks i’m afraid.

  • George Curnew

    Just as FreshBooks offers an alternative to using high-cost, inefficient accounting service firms, members of the creative community need to find effective ways to provide their services to the local community. The tired agency model doesn’t work for small- and medium-sized clients, nor does it work well for creative professionals…costs to the client are exorbitant, and processes are geared toward generating as many billable hours as possible for the agency to cover overhead for trendy space, high owner draws and lifestyle-enhancing perks. Most staff – especially juniors – are paid serf-like wages for the privilege or “learning the biz” to the degree required to land one of the few well-paid gigs or start another cycle of the model by hanging out their own shingle. The “spec” model swings too far, devaluing the skills required to build and execute a complex project, much less a campaign, and doesn’t have much traction outside the realm of one-off piece work. There are other approaches that would allow creative pros to source good work, maintain their independence, and make a decent living. Think some form of “Freelance Alliance” where sales, PM, research and other skill sets are offered alongside the “normal” creative services, effectively replicating the breadth of the agency construct but flattening the compensation matrix so everyone gets fair compensation for services rendered. Admittedly, the challenge with this approach is that folks who are good at sales and biz dev most often think they deserve to be king of the hill, and creative types should be content to work in a hierarchical structure that they own. Concerns about the spec model remapping the industry are likely overstated, but it’s acceptance in some quarters as a reasonable way of doing business in some quarters should serve as a wake-up call. Maybe it’s time to apply some creative mojo to re-inventing the supply-chain model so clients can get what they’re actually looking for: quality work, efficient processes and reasonable prices.

  • Samantha

    Just another casualty in our “race to the bottom” on the global market.

    I have partaken in these just to practice skills in areas outside of my specialty. I know people who have used 99 designs twice and didn’t care for the result either time. I said “you paid $700 and didn’t even like what you got–you could have had a designer dedicated to you for that price who would make an effort to get to know your brand” and I realized they didn’t even really know what they wanted. That is often the case with some of these looking for designs–it’s fun to sit back and watch potential logos in various versions paraded in front like a beauty contest and pick them apart without really doing the work of building up and understanding your brand.

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  • http://topicsimple.com Topic Simple

    Here’s a short animated video that explains the ins and outs of Spec Work. Please use it next time you need to explain it to someone:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsstOs-K7gk

  • PK

    Awwwwww…..poor designers. Maybe doctors should stop taking insurance because it devalues their work. Lawyers shouldn’t work on a contingency basis, they could end up working for free. Really??? Get over yourselves.

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  • Anna Filina

    As someone who held contests on 99designs, I must say that I’m disappointed in the quality of designers there. I paid the winners, even though I wished for better candidates. After a few attempts, I ended up hiring a small local firm that was referred by a friend.

    All the good designers work for money. They can’t use discarded spec work in their portfolio anyway, so there’s no point. Designers who start out can design for a friend, a family member, a good cause or just for fun. Working for free for a wealthy company does, in fact, ruin the industry.


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