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Say “NO” to Spec Work

by John Coates | January 13/2011 | crowdsourcing, know-your-worth, spec-work

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?


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