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Why designers should consider tolerating spec work

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Spec Work has always been a controversial subject in the world of design. Why should you work with no guarantee of getting paid? Many designers claim that it signals the end of the industry. To me, however, it’s the future of the industry.

What is Spec Work?

Spec work, or speculative work, to refer to its full name, is the process of doing design work with no contract or any guarantee of getting paid – If the client likes it, he’ll use it and pay you for it. Often, spec work takes place in the form of design contests, such as on 99Designs.

Why it’s not as bad as you think

There are numerous complaints about spec work, many of which I will try to dispel here.

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Work without pay?

One of the most common arguments is that it doesn’t happen in any other industry – You wouldn’t go to a hairdresser and not pay him if he didn’t cut your hair the way you wanted. However, there are numerous jobs where spec work does happen. For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell. People starting up a business don’t know that it will succeed. It’s a calculated risk that you must take – If you feel that you can do a good job on a design brief, then take it on and hope that the client will like it. If you don’t feel you can do a good job on it, then don’t do it, and leave it to people who can. The same should apply for any work, whether or not it’s on spec.

Designing for money vs. Designing for passion

In relation to the example of the artist, he doesn’t create art purely to make money, that’s merely a beneficial side-effect. He does it because he’s passionate about art and enjoys what he does. The same should apply to design. If you’re in the design industry purely to make money, well, you’re probably in the wrong place. Design should be enjoyable, and you should take pleasure in doing it. I mean, you didn’t start your design career making money straight away – You must have been doing it for fun in the first place. These days, you can do it for fun, and have the chance of making a little money at the same time.

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Sometimes, if you’re guaranteed to be paid at the end of the project, you might not do quite as well as you can. Often, this isn’t a conscious thing, and you may not realize you’re doing it at all. However, if you’re in a contest, you have to do your best in order to make sure you impress the client. In other words, you have a lot more stimulation and motivation to excel, rather than take everything for granted.

To research or not to research?

As part of a paid, contracted design job, the designer will often go and do lots of research on the company and its industry. Whilst this is a useful tool, and can often be very beneficial, in the wrong hands, it can result in an overly-analyzed and watered-down design. With design contests, you usually have a deadline of about 7 days, and therefore no time for research. This means your designs are often instinctive. I’m not by any means that research is bad, and nor is planning your designs, but sometimes, for some designers, going with your instinct produces great results.

More likely to get paid?

Although it doesn’t make much sense, you are actually more likely to get paid with a spec job. Almost all designers have a horror story about how a certain client has refused to pay. In these cases, they often have a contract, but the fee isn’t enough to bring the client to court over – They’d just end up losing money. However, with design contest clients such as 99Designs, the fee is already paid to the site, and although the fees are less than ordinary design work, at least you’re guaranteed of getting it if you win.

Experience is valuable

The final, most obvious reason, is that it’s experience. During the current economic climate, design jobs are becoming more sparse, so chances are that there will be times when you have no work. Why waste your time doing nothing when you could be working on spec, and having some chance of making money. Every time you design anything, you learn at least something, which in turn will make you better placed for winning further design contests, whilst also making you a better designer and more likely to attract “real” clients. If you win a design contest, the client might pass on your name to other potential clients who will come to you directly – Everything has a knock-on effect. Who knows, you could produce something good enough for your portfolio. But whether or not it has any instantly gratifying results, your hard work won’t be entirely futile, win or lose.

A call for tolerance

To conclude, I am by no means saying that every designer should go and create an account on 99Designs, but at least respect it as a source of income for others. I might prefer an expensive restaurant to McDonalds, but I still accept that fast food is convenient and does the job perfectly for many people. There’s a very evident arrogance in the design world towards many things. I’m guilty of that too – I would much rather use Gotham than Arial, Photoshop than GIMP. But we still need to remember that although it may not comply with our notions of what design “should” be, design is for everyone, and everyone is just as entitled to design as professional designers. Does that reduce the standard of design? No, it merely means that the professionals have to work harder to get jobs. If anything, it is raising the standards. So for that, spec work, I salute you.

What else would you add?

Before leaving, be sure to add your thoughts, concerns, questions, or rebuttals for the rest of us to read.

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About Conor ODriscoll

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  1. I don’t participate in spec work but I don’t begrudge those who do. In my view, it’s just another avenue designers choose to use to get work, experience, money etc. I certainly haven’t noticed the awe inspiring collapse of the entire industry that so many have predicted and I haven’t been hurt financially by those companies offering “design contests”. I still get just as much work as I always have.

    That being said, this is a touchy issue and I’ve never seen an article about it where the comments didn’t descend into bitterness and childish attacks. I hope you’re prepared for all the names you’ll be called and all of the attacks on your character. Good luck. 🙂

    • @Eric, it’s definitely not for everyone, and if you can get work without it, then all the better to you.

      Well, let’s hope that the standard of Millo readers are above that. And if not, well, so be it 🙂

      Thanks for the comment 😀

    • @Eric,
      Thanks for your kind comment. You seem to have prophesied the outcome of the comments of this article. I agree with you though, if it works for you, give it a shot. If not, don’t. Good luck in all.

  2. I like your article, thank you. However for me I stay clear of spec work. I love art, I have a passion for design, but I also need to provide and put food on the table. I feel spec work is great for kids in school who need experience, but other than that I am not a fan. My main problem with spec work is that if you do win, you don’t win their loyalty to YOU, they wont refer potential clients to you, and chances are you wont get future business as they will refer them to (99designs, designcontest, etc…)

    I have been in the industry now for 10 years, and just recently started my own company. 75 percent of my clients are repeat clients, and over 60 percent of my new clients are referrals. You just don’t get that with spec work.

    I am tolerant of spec work because it exists, but i just don’t agree with it. One more thing is with a well written SIMPLE contract, i have never had a problem getting paid!

    • @Dave, glad you like the article 🙂 I understand that it’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not the best financial option, but there’s no harm in a contest or two if you have a gap between jobs.

      Sure, the referral issue isn’t great, but it can happen. Often, if you win a logo contest, the client might need a website, and ask you first, because they know you’re good, before going back to the contest site. Referrals are less likely, but I wouldn’t rule them out completely.

      I’ve heard of enough stories of clients who won’t pay to know it’s an issue, no matter how good your contract is. Maybe not everyone will experience it, but there are plenty who will.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

      • @Conor, I agree at some point, i think EVERY designer at some point will experience the thrill of not getting paid for a job. For me it happened when I was first beginning, and not confident with my work, so i didn’t ask for a retainer. I lost every time and soon learned that if i want to make it i need a simple contract, one with a 50% retainer up front and remainder due at the end of project. No work starts till you get the 50%. Some say 50% is too much, I think its fair and have never had a problem. That way you can ensure you always get paid. Thanks for the comment back I enjoy your tweets.

    • @Dave,
      You bring up an excellent point that many designers who are considering spec work do not think of. Even if you are the best designer in the contest and win a lot of money, the chances that you will establish a long-term relationship with this client aren’t very good. While it could happen, the likelihood of it happening isn’t as high.

      Thanks for sharing.

  3. Spec work isn’t for me, but I can understand why some people do it. I’d have to agree with your statement that artists design for passion, “For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell…In relation to the example of the artist, he doesn’t create art purely to make money, that’s merely a beneficial side-effect. He does it because he’s passionate about art and enjoys what he does.” I am passionate about my designs, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t get paid for them (I know that’s not what you were referring to either). But each design takes time and effort, if you can crank out designs quickly, passionately and efficiently, more power to you, but spec work doesn’t do it for me.

    • @Bret Juliano, I fully understand that spec work isn’t for everyone – It’s by no means the ideal way of working, and if you can manage without it, then well done.

      This article was more aimed at those who condemn it as a means of making a few bob on the side, and say that it’s ruining the industry. I mean, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I wanted to provide a different angle.

      Thanks for the comment, and the kind words on Twitter too 🙂

    • @Bret Juliano,
      You bring up a great point, and I think that’s why people dislike spec work so much: it forces designers to “crank out” designs that just aren’t up to par most of the time. If you are relying solely on quantity of entrees, it makes more sense to do mediocre work on 50 contests than excellent work on 5 contests.

      I see where you are coming from. At the same time, if you have to make a few bucks, perhaps mediocrity is something you have to live with.

      I enjoy seeing both sides of this argument. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I, too, understand why some people do spec work, but like the other commenters here, I do not accept spec work for myself and will never sign up at sites like 99designs. Why? Because I need to earn a living. Designing logos takes time, unless you’re willing to just throw something together without actually thinking it through. Most logo projects pay about 1/10 of what I charge for an identity package, as do the Web projects. I’ve also found that, at least in my experience, clients who want spec work don’t really value the work or respect the designer, and they often are more demanding, require more admin/non-design time and are just overall more difficult to work with than clients I get by referral. I CAN crank out designs quickly passionately and efficiently, but like Bret, it’s not just satisfying work, and it doesn’t pay the bills.

    You mention that spec CAN lead to referrals, but in my own experience, they almost never do, and the referrals you do get are for others looking for design on the cheap. My sense is that most people who post projects on 99designs and the like are bargain hunters and will always place price above quality and the development of a good business relationship.

    • @Matt Meeks, Yeah, I agree with you that the standard of clients on these sites are far from great (in general, there are plenty of nice folk who are simply restricted to these sites by budget), and I’m by no means saying that it’s a good way to make a living, but nor is it the worst thing that happened in the design world since the creation of Papyrus.

      If you put in a lot of work and managed to win just 2 site design contests on 99Designs every month, with each of them valued around $2000, a salary of $48,000 a year is certainly acceptable. That said, it’s virtually impossible, but who knows…

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      • @Conor, you said: “If you put in a lot of work and managed to win just 2 site design contests on 99Designs every month, with each of them valued around $2000, a salary of $48,000 a year is certainly acceptable.”

        Overwork sir? Sounds like a sweatshop to me. How about value for your services and time? By the above reasoning our time isn’t worth much, and we just grind away until something from out of a sea of possibilities is selected to “win”. You could spend a fraction of that time to go through a full design cycle with a client and make a good living with less unnecessary work, ie: shooting in the dark.

        You also fail to grasp the benefits of a full design/development cycle to the client, one of which is that they may come to consider possibilities and realizations they never did before, learning new things about themselves and hence their own brand. You cannot put a dollar value on that.

        We, the designers, are responsible–in no small way, be it marketing, advertising, brand identity etc–for a company either raking in millions of dollars every quarter or going bankrupt. In my opinion that’s certainly worth more than having ourselves presented to prospective clients as beggars. No self-respecting designer or artist would or should partake in spec-work: it demeans and underrates what we do and our value to corporations and clients whose profit-margin hinges in large part on the brand-image and identity we help them develop and assert.

        And FYI: in the present economic climate $48,000 isn’t much to write home about, especially if you’re raising family.

        • @gfx, As I said, it’s virtually impossible, and would require a hell of a lot of work, but it’s theoretically possible to live on spec work. I know $48k is by no means great, but it’s not ridiculously low either.

          I think clients on spec sites know, or at least should know, that the standard of work you get on spec sites isn’t going to be as perfect as when you approach a designer independently, and those companies worth their salt will go independently. Because of this, I don’t feel it cheapens the industry, it’s merely a different kind of standard, and both are acceptable – Like a Dell Inspiron laptop and a Mac Pro.

        • @GFX. i know this is a year and a half old but your thoughts on this subject are dead on and i for one thank you for it. i have not read the rest of the comments yet and i may be repeating some thoughts but: we have a responsibility to our clients, the work, ourselves, our profession, our forefathers and dare i say to society at large to maintain and advance a standard representing a thoughtful, knowledgeable, skilled and reasonably compensated profession. let hobbyists enter contests. i wouldn’t even suggest it to novice designers who would be far better served working for lower pay cutting their teeth learning the hard and soft skills under experienced guidance. one problem i don’t see represented here is that you loose control of the work very quickly with spec work. the recent fiasco with the Spain 2020 Olympic logo—which was run as a contest—underlines this perfectly. if a designer wants to design for passion, then do so pro bono for a non-profit or charity, but do it under the same professional standards, responsibilities and legal protections of a paid contract.

        • laakbaar says:

          ‘Sounds like a sweatshop to me’. Indeed, but that is what this world is coming to. So I guess even designers will have to follow suit, eventually. In my country ‘zero hour’ contracts are being introduced more and more as ‘flexwork’. Which basically means we pay you when we have work for you, and you lose most benefits you had. How you survive, we don’t give a f*ck.
          And we had such a nice social democracy here, now we are under the international monetary fascism rule of the EU.

  5. I can see why some people do spec work, because they do not get real world projects that pay. They do spec work like you said because of their passion and also the hope of getting paid and feeling confirmation. They like the idea of coming out a winner from the multitude. However they can still get the same rush feeling from finding clients that pay well and appreciate their hard work.

    • @Behzad, yeah, that’s true, but I think you get it more so with spec work. The simple fact that it’s a contest means there’s more anticipation and therefore a bigger rush if you win. I’m by no means trying to convert anyone, but if work is drying up at any point, it’s certainly something to consider…

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • @Behzad,
      I’m not sure it’s fair to say that people who choose to do spec work “can’t get real-world jobs”. Just because you choose this business model as your way of making money, doesn’t mean you are any less successful financially than any other designer.

      While I don’t prefer the spec work method over what I do currently (find clients, work with clients, establish relationships with clients) I can certainly admire people who can make a living at it.

  6. Ahh, it was a pleasure reading about the topic from the other point of view.

    I don’t have much to add that isn’t already covered by the article and comments this far, though it seems that the line between what kind of designer will and will not is pretty well defined.

    • @Ted Goas, Thanks, glad you liked it. That was my intention with the article, to try and look at a subject which is so controversial and yet is only ever covered from one direction.

      Haha, yeah, there’s certainly no grey area in the subject, it would seem.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  7. I have to say that despite reading your article, spec work is still as bad as I think. I certainly understand why beginning designers do it because I did it when I started out. But I wouldn’t compare to McDonald’s, it’s more like dumpster diving: occasionally you find something good, but in the mean time you’re knee deep in garbage.

    I will never go back to spec work. I would encourage beginning designers to design with non-profits that they care about and get a day job if they have to. They will make more money and still get design experience.

    • @craig, I agree. I think spec work is harmful to the profession of design as a whole. Not only is it *extremely* hit-or-miss regarding pay and recognition, it encourages those who are looking for design services to simply pull something out of a pool rather than taking the time to tailor a project that will benefit them the most – be it a website, a logo, a business card, or an entire branding system. Not only is it random (at best) for the designer, it may not be the best for potential clients.

      • @Ryan Burrell, I totally agree with you Ryan. Although there are some very talented designers that delve into spec work as recreation, or for extra cash, the likelihood of the “client” getting a viable logo or other project well suited for their business is slim to none. Only when working directly with a designer that will ask the right questions, do the proper research, clarify the niche market and arrive at a viable solution to combine all of these, can a client come out ahead of the game and be ready to hit the ground running on their new business. Putting a face on a new business should never be taken lightly if the business owner is serious about making money.

    • @craig, I agree completely with you.

      Beginners: if you need to build your portfolio, get a full-time job and work with non-profits on the side. You WILL earn more this way while building a respectable portfolio.

    • @craig, I can see where you’re coming from, and I’ll admit that quite often, the quality of submission can be sub-par, but nonetheless, you often find some gems.

      For a designer starting off in the business, it can be very daunting to try and get a foothold in such a well-established industry, and even approaching non-profit firms can be difficult without some kind of prior experience of working with clients. Admittedly, it’s not great experience, but experience nonetheless.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • @craig,
      Excellent alternative suggestion. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I agree with Craig. I’ve worked for 30 years as a graphic designer. You not only hurt yourself but the industry as well. Just say no to dumpster-diving and spec work. It’s for bottom feeders.

    • @Jeff Kahn, I see where you’re coming from, and considering your experience in the field, I’m in no place to argue with you, but I fail to see how it hurts the industry – If you’re losing business to crowdsourcing sites, well you’ll have to work harder. Surely that can only be a good thing?

      • @Conor, When the prize is substantial… like a contest to design a building, it is worth it. Clearly not for the small fees 99 offers and the odds of getting paid. My value and integrity suffers by association when other designers give it away for free. I gain respect by saying no to spec or my clients will walk all over me. A client may say, “hey, you did that for free, why the big fee now?”

        • @Jeff Kahn, You’re so right Jeff. It’s kin to having a great neighborhood with million dollar homes and the one home adjacent to them looks like a heap and is bearly livable. It’s suitable for the one underemployed worker, but it just doesn’t fit in with the higher standards of the other property owners who worked to make it to that higher level of living. The two just don’t make a good fit.

      • @Conor, It damages the industry because it changes client’s mentality of what they should expect and how much they should care about design and their own design needs. The next time they or someone they refer might want to hire a designer they will ask for the same. Cheap, fugly and fast.

        And seriously, I’ve had some of these clients coming to me and when I present them with great ideas they say they rather something more… shiny… and show me crappy designs that come from these places as examples they would want to have.

        They think that since they are paying us we are just tools to execute their ugly ideas or they simply won’t pay us anymore, it damages the industry because it places us next to anyone who will do anything for a few coins. Even if it’s not good. It makes us look as beggars and simple workers.

        I didn’t spend 4 years in college or getting a masters to get that treatment. Just like that. 🙂 Great article btw.

  9. “You wouldn’t go to a hairdresser and not pay him if he didn’t cut your hair the way you wanted.”

    – Huh? Of course you wouldn’t pay if it’s not right!

    Spec artwork is how I get most of my work – good way of drumming up business – anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot.

    • @some guy, Well, exactly, that would be my thoughts too, but apparently the design world works differently.

      Glad you use spec work, and it has worked for you. I think that once to use it enough, it can be very beneficial.

      With regards to drumming up business out of it, one thing I have noticed on occasion is when a contest holder sends you a message asking to participate in their contest. That annoys me. If you like my work, contact me independently.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • @some guy,
      Thanks for sharing. Sorry you couldn’t divulge your identity since people here would have attacked you for using spec work. 🙂

      I see spec work as a platform for marketing that some designers can use very successfully. If it gets you more business, it gets you more business. Simple as that.

    • Cheryl Dapsauski says:

      @some guy, when you have worked for as long as I have, you’ll learn that working smarter is not working longer. You might also pick up the tidbit that calling designers “idiots” doesn’t win you points in the industry. For the record, I have boxes and boxes of print samples of my work…and I don’t work on spec. I earned my portfolio the old fashioned way, through respectable accounts and by building a career in real jobs for agencies, which by the way, looks pretty nice on a resume. Is “more business” actually “business”? Or is it merely “activity”? I need some clarification in numbers as to how well spec work has garnered actual earnings for you in order to believe it’e effectiveness.

  10. Thank you for your post Conor. I agree with your call for “tolerance”. I don’t engage in spec work, but will use design contests for certain clients (as I don’t design logos). It’s affordable and whilst it may have lost the average designer a fraction of clientèle, it probably created new clientèle through the price-drops, ease of use and accessibility. Not to mention, you may get less price-sensitive & need it now clients.

    I agree with Craig though on working with non-profits, that’s what I do and it’s not as lucrative as spec work, but it ain’t far 😉



    • @Noel, it’s by no means for everyone, and your idea of using it for clients sounds pretty good.

      Non-profits can also be good, but I suppose there’s nothing stopping you doing a mixture of the two.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • @Noel, I would worry about the originality of the logo.

      • @Behzad, part of the compromise I guess. When you go shopping for black dress shoes, if you choose prada or dockers, neither will be reinventing the wheel. Same for a small business looking for a logo, just want something “nice” and “functional” to appeal to the local target groups. I don’t go on a contest site to buy “art” for my clients, but to buy something that visually represents their company.

    • @Noel,
      I’m glad someone understood the point of Conor’s article. It’s a call for tolerance. Design, as much as we love it as an art form or a matter of expression, is still a profession. If people want to use crowdsourcing to make money, more power to them. But let’s stop giving them a hard time for it!

      All you uppity designers who complain about spec work, you wouldn’t want the clients that go to crowdsourcing sites anyway, so relax. Am I right?

  11. This is ridiculous. Are you invested in 99designs or something?

    Artists create work for a variety of reasons. Many pieces of art are created for the artist’s own benefit. This is not akin to spec work. If I as a designer wish to express myself, I’m not going to do it by creating a logo for another person’s company. Artists don’t base their independent work on someone else’s brand guidelines, nor do they accept criticism from a third party. They create art, and if it sells, great. The only reason for an artist to create work according to another’s vision is if they are commissioned to create the piece, in which case, they are working in the exact same way as a designer with a contract.

    Research is a key part of any design job. Imagine spending a week working on a website for a Real Estate office. You sketch out ideas, work on wireframes, lay out a mockup, and build out the site. Your finished product looks phenomenal, and you bring it to the client confident that they will love it. But when you show them the finished product, they show you their closest competitor’s website, which happens to feature the same color scheme and layout as the site you laboriously created. Or, you created a site designed for high-end clientele, only to find out at the meeting that the client works exclusively with industrial manufacturers. Not only is this unprofessional, but it costs you money in the end when you have to rework the product because you didn’t do the legwork.

    And as for “More likely to get paid,” that is the most insane thing I have ever heard. In all my time working as a designer, I’ve never been stiffed by a client. I always work with a contract, and haven’t had any problems. Sure, maybe someone will someday, so let’s say I don’t get paid 5% of the time. On a contest site, I won’t get paid 99% of the time, and when I do, what do I get? $100? How is that a fair price for the hours of research, sketching, creating and refining? What sounds better to you? Getting paid $50 to mow a lawn? Or having a 1% chance of winning $10 for mowing the same lawn?

    I agree that every designer needs experience, but there are far better ways to gain it. Find a local non-profit that needs some help. Build them a website, create a logo, whatever they need. At the end, you have a nice portfolio piece, you feel good about yourself, and if you get an invoice for the donation of your time, you can even take it off on your taxes.

    Spec work is bad for this industry. For those of us who rely on steady clients for our paychecks, planting the idea that a logo “only costs $100” or a website “can’t cost more than $500” can be disastrous for our livelihoods.

    A professional product demands a fair wage.

    • @Erik, Well said. 99designs should be 99cents.. because that is what you end up being worth. Not me brother. I have and always will say no to spec.

    • @Erik, Cosign 110%

    • @Erik,
      That’s like saying Wal-mart takes customers away from Nordstroms. Not necessarily true. While I don’t necessarily support spec work or prefer it as a designer, I certainly have no problem with other designers who prefer to use it. They keep annoying, low-paying clients out of my hair.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • @Erik, I agree with you.

      The entire branding experience does not begin and end with a logo. You CANNOT make a logo and swap it in/out with another one. This idea hurts the overall user experience and its the same approach companies like 99designs take. This process can give a novice designer a very skewed idea of the branding process.

  12. While I can see where you are making some of your points, I think you are missing a lot of the damage this stuff does in expectations and client perception.

    First, if you are a professional designer, you do it for a living. So working without the security of being paid is actually very demoralizing. I do all of my best work, when I am being paid. It doesn’t have to be tons of money, but without guaranteed payment it forces stress over other things like rent, food, insurance, bills.

    In terms of money vs.passion: Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean that it isn’t time consuming, intensive and difficult. My major problem with spec work is that it devalues the hard work that goes into design. I could love doing construction work, but that wouldn’t make it any less of a valuable or tough job. The point is good design is not always fun, its still a stressful and full-time job.

    For research, I agree that designer can over analyze a project but a forced deadline is not a replacement for understanding what you are doing. Design is about solving problems, not just making cool looking pictures.

    I don’t know about it being more likely. Honestly, I bet you are just as likely to get paid then with a regular client.

    Honestly, I do not completely hate spec work in general. The major problem with spec work is when clients expect speculative work as if designers aren’t real professionals.

    If a designer decides to do the work and send it to a client with the potential to get work, that’s one thing. But, it really becomes hard to charge a client how much it costs to produce something when they think that there is no value in what they want.

    The other problem is that it makes clients think its cheap to be a professional. My overhead is more than most freelance designers, because I run a firm. However, a good computer, legally bought design software, file back-up, phones, internet,etc cost a lot of money.

    Spec work encourage people that are probable leveraging clip art, illegal software, etc. It really makes it harder for clients to understand that that what we do is valuable and requires tangible amounts of money, time, and skill to do it.

  13. Jason Jones says:

    I also must agree with many of the other voices here in that I don’t do spec work. I did some very low cost work in the beginning of my career and I still do pro-bono work for non-profits, but I don’t crank up my creative engine for free. I don’t think crowd sourcing spells the end of quality graphic design, but I do think it sets client expectations to the wrong ideas of cheap work without serious design consideration. I think it weakens the industry, even if it not mortally. I think spec work cheapens what we do. Not trying to be elitist, but we have skill, and talent, and qualities as professional practitioners that get ignored and belittled by an over abundance of spec work and crowd sourcing.

  14. What about the home builder who builds 200-300K spec homes?

    I think people need to simmer down. If spec work doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. If it does, go for it.

    • @Tyler,
      Ahh. The best comment left here today! I totally agree. If you like it, do it. If not, stop raining on everyone else’s parade. Do what works for you. Thanks, Tyler.

      • @Preston D Lee, I mean really? We go through this as a community every time there is a major crowdsourcing event (see @GuyKawasaki).

        The only question that is valid is, “does it hurt the industry?” and I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to this yet. To date, I haven’t heard of a design agency citing crowdsourcing as a reason for going out of business. Who knows, crowdsourcing could just be a trend.

        But, arguing about this topic is as pointless as arguing whether Mac or PC is better. Do what works for you. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. It’s pretty simple.

    • @Tyler, I would like to second what Preston said. That was the whole point of my post – I’m not trying to force it on anyone, and nor should anyone try to force people not to use it.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • @Tyler, That statement alone makes me doubt that you’re a designer. While you can compare home-building to say the act of ‘developing’ a website (coding HTML, CSS) or the using the pen tool in Illustrator to draw a bezier-line, there is something to be said for INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, the creative and conceptual process. It isn’t just a mechanical one. There’s a reason why when a creative CREATES a design or artwork, he/she automatically is given copyright over said creation/design in just about every international copyright law, from the Berne Convention to US Copyright Law. A bricklayer/homebuilder doesn’t have such, nor should they. That’s the same reason a good architect earns way more comparatively than a good bricklayer/homebuilder does.

      Bad comparison.

      Second, if you cared about the industry and took pride in what you do then you would care about the false (and negative) perception spec-work gives prospective clients of the design-industry as a whole. The only thing is for you to decide which side of the fence you’re on.

      • Peter Themand says:

        That’s some great advice coming from a “designer” who’s web domain has expired. Stop bashing people and fix your web site.


        • @Peter Themand,
          Hey now, Let’s remember to keep our comments constructive. We all have unique opinions about this subject, but “gfx” is entitled to his as much as anyone else.

        • @Peter Themand, First off, I haven’t resorted to ‘bashing’ anyone here and will not stoop to your level. Now, not that I have to explain it to you, but my domain isn’t expired: I PULLED my website because a big relocation (international) interrupted my rebranding: as you can clearly see from my twitter status. A simple WHOIS check will show it’s still registered. You do know what WHOIS is right Priyatham? How about making a more intelligent contribution than mere name-calling.

          Thanks for moderating @Preston.

      • @gfx, First of all, just to clarify, I am employed full-time as an interactive designer for a large PR firm. I am very passionate about design and the design community, else I wouldn’t be participating here.

        Secondly, comparing a designer doing spec work to a home builder building a spec home is a perfectly legitimate comparison, if nothing else, from strictly a business perspective.

        But, let’s be honest for a second. No one on here is complaining about intellectual property, they are complaining about money. Assume you are doing non-spec work. When the project is over, you forfeit the rights to whatever it was that you created, maybe with the exception of using it in your portfolio. None of the companies I work with each day would allow it to be any other way. They’re paying you to create content for them that ultimately they own. Why should it be any different with spec work?

        Furthermore, with the most popular crowdsourcing websites, creatives own all rights to their intellectual property unless it wins. Consider the policy of the site in the debate at hand: http://www.crowdspring.com/help/faq/who-owns-the-intellectual-property-for-the-work-su/ or 99designs: http://99designs.com/help/how-is-copyright-handled. So, the intellectual property argument carries no weight. A good architect gets paid more than a good brick layer because there are fewer architects in society than there are bricklayers, not because of the value of what he creates. On the other hand, a good bricklayer gets paid better than a bad brick layer because of the value of what he creates.

        What people are really upset about is the idea that they may not get paid for their design. If that’s the case, then you should not be doing spec work. There is assumed risk in spec work in any industry and it’s your job to be aware of that risk, just like the home builder who builds a spec home. He’s probably done some research about the location and what home buyers are looking for. He thinks he has a pretty good idea of what to build, but he can never be 100% certain that someone will come along to buy it. If they do, home builder FTW. If not, he should have been aware of the risks before building it, or not built it at all.

        I’ll always be on the designer’s “side of the fence”, but I can’t defend behavior that defies logic. It’s really cut and dry: If you believe your time to be more valuable than the possibility of getting paid, don’t do spec work. You know (or you should know) the risks. -OR- If you’re really passionate about design, approach spec work as it being strictly for fun or knowledge or portfolio building, and if you happen to win some money on the side, pat yourself on the back.

        • @Tyler, I see you point and concur on one thing: to each his own. However I think you are mistaken as to what designer’s beef is with regard to spec work: it has less to do with money and more to do with the perception it gives of our profession and industry to those who aren’t. I’ve taken on projects pro-bono. Lots of designer’s have, so it isn’t just about money. That it cheapens our value, the value of the the design process to the client’s brand and hence profit margin is beyond dispute. Personally, I’ve had some responses to my quotes like “but I can get it for $100” or more recently “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just look for it on the internet”. That’s the overall impact of subjects such as spec-work: our worth, our value is diminished. That’s what the designer’s beef is. Can you imagine anyone getting a bill from a dentist and responding “No, I’ll give you $200, that’s what it seems to be worth”? And yet that’s what some designers hear every now and then.

          With regard to passion, we design and doodle, we even get in on contests on sites like DeviantArt. We post to Behance, Flickr or CGChannel for critique from peers…and we do it for free most of the time. And there’s are dozens more examples I could give. There’s nothing wrong with entering contests at all, or even making some money of it. But engaging in it within a venture that hurts the perception of the industry, a venture founded by people that may or may not be designers themselves but instead just looking to make an easy buck off your sweat–now that to me is just wrong. But as you said, to each his own.

  15. Uh, no. I don’t work for free and articles like this are part of the reason clients and contests expect you to.

    • @Designer,
      Not sure that’s necessarily true. I think clients understand that if they hire a professional designer, they will get professional work and if they use spec work sites, they will have mediocre work. Thoughts?

  16. “For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell.”

    You’re conflating two completely different disciplines (most are familiar with the somewhat stereotypical image of an artist painting away in some drafty loft). The spec work you’re discussing here is commercial graphic design. used to brand companies, sell products and advertise services. On a personal level, it’s comparing the doodles and sketches from a sketchbook that I do for my own benefit and expression, to a logo design requested by a commercial entity, to brand and promote their company. Apples and oranges.

    “If you’re in the design industry purely to make money, well, you’re probably in the wrong place.”

    Using the word ‘industry’ actually does refer to the business of manufacturing and selling of goods. Just because it’s the design ‘industry’ doesn’t change that basic principle. Lots of people enjoy their work, originally trained for and entered their ‘industry’ due to a love for the field (think vets, doctors, landscapers, etc, etc). That doesn’t mean that by billing for their now-professional services they love their field any less. Nor does it mean they shouldn’t be paid for their time.

    “Sometimes, if you’re guaranteed to be paid at the end of the project, you might not do quite as well as you can.”

    This statement doesn’t make any sense, nor, I would suggest, is it even close to being true. The amount of plagiarism, stock art and improperly licensed artwork that gets entered into spec contests (particularly logo design contests) is extraordinary. The only possible reason for this is that people entering try to shave the amount of time spent to as little as possible, while maximizing the number of contests entered.

    “Although it doesn’t make much sense, you are actually more likely to get paid with a spec job…However, with design contest clients such as 99Designs, the fee is already paid to the site, and although the fees are less than ordinary design work, at least you’re guaranteed of getting it if you win.”

    Not true. There are several civil actions a designer can take for non-paying clients (collection agencies, etc) but the spec designer is completely at the whim of contest holders. The number of refunded and abandoned contests (regardless of whether they’re guaranteed or not) is as high as 50% on some sites. Others pay a token ‘kill fee’ that’s a fraction of the originally promised ‘prize’ or ‘award’ (while BTW, their listing fee is non-refundable). To suggest that working on spec somehow makes payment more ‘guaranteed’ than working with a client one-on-one is ludicrous.

    “There’s a very evident arrogance in the design world towards many things.”

    Expecting designers to get paid for their work is not arrogant, elitist or ‘snooty’. Commercial design is like any other professional business. Most professional designers want to treated like professionals. That certainly doesn’t happen in the dog-and-pony spec work free for alls. In a series of tips that tells contest holders how to get the most from their spec design contests, here’s what a leading ‘How to Crowdsource’ website has to say:

    “Take advantage of designers riffing off each other. The best entries will emerge from general comments you offer and specific feedback on each entry, allowing designers to see clearly what you are looking for. These suggestions and ideas to designers are followed by other designers. Designers might not like this, but it is great for a client who can see multiple designers.”

    I’m going to let you read that and let it sink in. ‘Riffing’ refers to copying. And while the writer realizes designers ‘might not like’ others copying their work (a major issue with crowdsourcing sites right across the board) he still suggests that contest holders take advantage of it. That’s what these cats think of designers. And that, is the kind of attitude you foster each and every time you ‘tolerate spec work’.

    • @Steve Douglas, Nuff said….anything I can/would say is summed up here.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Steve.

    • @Steve Douglas, thank you for your words, I totally agree with everything.

      I could only add that designing with passion, for me, do not represent simply the design part. I love to drown myself into the companies need, research their competitors, work closely with the client to only after, design knowing that I will use my time for something that I’m sure it will work. Being paid is actually not only good to pay the bills, but to know that the client valorize my work, and me in return, embrace the client’s project, and with all my heart want him to succeed with the work I delivered.

      If I know my work is good, I’m sure I will not need to resort to this kind of business, to “passionatly” do a design, for someone who is not passionate enough to pay for a serious and well thought work..

      I agree with @shena that maybe it would be good for students, although I still think it will only improve color and taste skills rather than brand design itself.

    • @Steve Douglas, Very well thought out and stated. Thanks Steve!

  17. I’ll consider giving my work free to a charitable cause, but for nothing else. Let’s face it, it diminishes our business and the entire field of expertise. When was the last time your dentist, doctor or even your plumber gave you free “spec” work? I like to think my extensive education and 30 years of experience is worth paying for. For those who disagree, fine, have fun working for people who don’t respect your talent and skill enough to pay for it.

  18. hhmmmm the subject of spec work…well as a designer trying to make a living out of this industry and as a member of 99designs my personal take and experience is that last year i won about 13 contests over at 99designs in a 6-7 months period and obviously happy as hell, there was nothing comming any other way and the fact of the matter is that i was able to take care of some major bills at home thanks to -literally- a couple of hours a day doing logos (sometimes 10-15 per week). However, since the beginning of this year, none, zip, not a damn thing, so, my whole perspective on it has change somewhat, now i feel like Im just throwing things at a wall & see if it sticks, while the “client ” goes for something my 2 year old could’ve done, while I wasted hours and quite frankly from what i’ve seen, there’s even the chance of a “fellow” designer might end up just flat out copying your concept, not to mention what the whole process will do your anxienty levels. Bottom line to be honest, it has giving me the chance to build a decent portfolio over the last year and change, and a what was a financial lifesaver at the time, but I guess I’ll be slowly pulling out little by little, I know there’s money to be made and might get sucked in when i see a contest “theme” that i think is cool or i simply like because it has potential for me to come up with something really cool to add up to my portfolio -besides it’s practice and exercise for the brain- but not like i used to, honestly, i just wish i had the clientele to bring steady work and not to have to rely in that type of sweat shop enviroment. But sometimes money is king.

    • @fabio, Think about all the time and effort you spent for little money. That time would have been better spent if used to create marketing for yourself and for networking to find more appropriate clients. Some times it’s better to look ahead to the bigger picture. This is not withstanding if you were about to be thrown out of your home for lack of funds.

  19. All of the comments are great… especially Steve from the Logo Factory… well said!

    One other thing I’d add as an observation…

    If I have the solution to your pressing pain problem in this box on my desk here… that has a value to you. We can discuss what that value is, and if we come to some agreement then I’ll give you the contents of the box.

    Now, if I give you the contents of the box first and you prod them and discuss them and reverse engineer them and who knows what… and THEN we discuss the price… has there been a shift in the bargaining power? Am I still able to get the same price or do I have to take whatever you offer?

    After all, I can’t go back and “undesign” it, can I?

    I’m looking at the Preston D Lee logo at the bottom of this site at the moment. It’s a clean san-serif presentation of the name with a yellow box next to it.

    That might have taking days, and many iterations, to complete. It probably did.

    If it was done on spec then I can almost hear the “client” saying “but it’s just a simple yellow box… surely that can’t cost much”.

    =) best wishes

  20. NEVEERRR, well maybe for beginners

  21. I have to say as a designer I don’t like the idea of spec work, but that’s not to say it’s not right for some people e.g. students looking to build a portfolio, designers who have spare time to compete and earn extra cash etc.

    It’s a great way for companies to receive multiple designs for very low costs, and my only worry is that in times of recession like we are experiencing now where every is looking for the most competitive price, we are going to see more sites like 99designs popping up all over the place – offering companies design solutions for ‘next to nothing’ prices. I am worried that this will gradually take over and become the norm and the need for designers and design studios will slowly decline!

    Then we’ll all be out of a job 🙂

    • @shena, So true, the trend has gone that way, what makes it worse is overseas companies setting up shops here in the west and selling for next to nothing. An average person does not know a good design from bad, nor can they tell a conterfited design from an original concept, but that is for the next article 🙂

      • @Behzad, I completely agree with you there! These designers and ‘factory’ like companies in the east are really hurting my business and opportunities. I mean how can I compete for a project when the client can get a logo design for $30 elsewhere?? And you’re right about a lot of people really know knowing the difference between a good and bad design and a template/copy from an original…

        I suppose all we can do is try to keep up to date with the latest technologies and trends, find new niches to branch out into and hope for the best! 🙂

        • @sheena, cater your work to high end companies. High end companies will not buy cheap design. But you have got to have the goods (portfolio) to prove that.

  22. Some heated discussions going on here. However it brought back life into this site. I always like subjects that raise interest and bring about clash of opinions. Although i am against this kind of practice yet it is good to know where people come from. Keep up the controversial topics going.

  23. Cher Davis says:

    Thank you so much for this article! It is reaffirmation for me as I have just completed spec work for a non-profit client that was referred to me by a friend. The impetus for me to provide work for this organization’s website was that I am a problem-solver, and I felt I had a good solution for the client’s needs. I did wrestle with the idea that I would not be getting paid, but I thought, who knows? It is quite possible that my work will be sought-after by other people who will see and like what I’ve done and need a solution to a problem of their own.

  24. I just wrote a whole bunch but then realized Steve from Logo Factory pretty much said it all. lol. So, I’ll just say this…

    There’s only one instance I’d ever consider spec work:

    When the reward would greatly, greatly justify the risk. Like if I’m going after a big banger of a client, and I know I can top whatever they’ve currently got. But that’s it.

    And I’d do it knowing full well it might not get accepted. But by going after such a big client, and really putting my heart into it, I’d grow in my abilities, expertise, and mindset for the effort. And if I got the gig? Even better. So I’d only do spec work for the same reason that artist paints the picture without knowing / caring if it gets sold:

    for myself.

  25. The dark ally of spec work is basically the ‘Red Light District’ of our industry. I’d rather do work Pro Bono then Hoe myself out with the hopes of getting paid.

    Reality is Graphic Design in general is a prostitution industry. Prostitution of our creative ideas. Some of us are prettier than other. Some of us work for upscale escort agencies while others become 2 dollar crack hoes.

    Lets not fool ourselves, we all got into this industry to make money. Else we’d be starving Illustrators/Painters making art on our own terms, not catering to a client (john/Jill)

  26. I think doing spec work highly depends on the back stability of one’s income. If one’s income solely doesn’t depend on it then I guess it’s okay as another additional source of revenue. Whether design for money or passion, there is no right answer. Ultimately it’s up to the designer if he/she feels comfortable with the process.

    • A hot topic and still hot 3 years after your post!

      I actually agree in some part with the premise but disagree with the delivery of the points.

      Spec work is a dangerous trap for many, however the design industry is heavily saturated with providers and that is making it a buyers market which is not ideal for the service provider. However it is important for designers to recognise the difference between working to get paid and working for free…

      Good luck!

  27. I’m not a designer, but if I were there is no way in hell I would ever do spec work. Plenty of potential customers already have zero respect for you guys or what you do and by giving them what they want for nothing you are essentially telling them that they’re right. By your own actions you are telling them your work has no value. They don’t have to respect you while you give your work away for nothing.
    And for heaven’s sake surely you realize there are plenty of dishonest people who will take your spec work and never pay for it, not even the paltry fees mentioned above?

  28. Oh yeah, and the argument that you’re all designing out of passion is absurd, unless you think passion will cover the rent, be accepted as legal tender at the grocery store and pay your car insurance. There’s nothing shameful about expecting to be paid for your work, and accepting payment does nothing to diminish the strength of your passion.

  29. Paul Sanderson says:

    To ask designers to work for nothing suggests that design has no value. It demeans the profession. No one would ask any other professional to work for free, no matter the circumstances.

  30. Whoever says that designing for free, participate in competitions or do speculative work out of passion for is dead wrong! and should not be a part of this industry.

    I can’t think of any other profession that would do it or even suggest spec work…imagine auto mechanic, cook, cashier at the supermarket, hair stylist…asking them, please would you do something for me for free, so I can find out that you can actually do it and if I like your work MAYBE I’ll buy it. Sound ridiculous? Well, in design world it’s a harsh reality
    thanks to people that started this trend, we are perceived as pushovers, starving artists someone that plays with computer all day etc.
    Working for free doesn’t lead anywhere, doesn’t bring new clients or even leads or referrals, it’s not ethical and it’s just completely wrong!

    Watch this video…http://www.vendorclientvideo.com/

    Lastly – does anybody have the same experience? I ran into crooked employers that ask job hunters at the interview to either redesign or code their company’s website as a competition with other candidates (whoever does best job gets the position). I have done it once, because they tricked me by showing me my “future desk” and showing all indications and interest in hiring me. So I have designed a landing page for a a local client – a large business (thinking it was just a dummy test). In about 3 months I have discovered they used my design idea for that particular business, elements and color scheme as well. I didn’t get the position. Get the point? NO SPECS EVER!!!!

  31. Design work (for a specific client, for a specific need) is not the same as artwork. An artist makes what he wants to make, then tries to sell it – or more often is forced to sell it to make materials costs/rent/food/drugs/what-have-you. Else, the artist works on commission.

    A designer uses many of those same skills, but how many people do virtual ad campaigns for diapers in their free time?

    Just like coders in the free software movement. Not a lot of them code account-receivable programs, and most of them try a game or two. Why? Because one is fun, and the other is work.

    Work is a four letter word, which is why you get paid for it.

    The laborer is worth his daily bread.

    We’re not even going to talk about spec work where the best ideas get stolen and taken to another designer to implement. (Which it appears 99designs at least avoids).

    Now, if you wanted to talk about base-rate and bonuses… that might be worth talking about.

  32. Giovanni says:

    I have 20 years in the industry and I believe in having the drive, the motivation and the passion for design, otherwise you are clearly in the wrong industry.
    However… You, as a designer must respect yourself and your craft before anyone can respect you. – You set your standards.

    My view on Spec Work.
    I believe that “Spec work” should be done by those who are in the infant stage of their career or by the casual graphic artist who does it purely for fun.
    For those in the infant stage of their career: to gain the valuable “real-world” experience and knowhow, which you might not otherwise get at an entry level position. – at the same time start or improve your portfolio.
    The other reason if you are solely a casual graphic artist without a specific aim of where you want to get to and just do it for the fun of it. Then spec work is for you, and you might make a buck on the way too.

    Unfortunately, for many people designers have become the same thing as waiters and waitresses claiming to be “actors but nonetheless are waiters/waitresses”. – Nothing wrong with doing honest work. However, the perception you give is the standard by which you (most likely) will be measured from that moment onward in your client-designer relationship. – and whatever referral you get, will have to be just as cheap if not cheaper, with higher expectations to outdo your last job.

    Everyone has a spark of creativity…
    As stated on your blog… I don’t believe that the professional designer has to work even harder and the bar has been raised. On the contrary, I believe that the standards (and the perception) for graphic designers/artist has been dramatically brought down by those doing work for a little bit of nothing, while calling themselves “designers”.

    Ironically, the more designers with lower standards about their work and worth, the easier it is to get the serious clients wanting to work with a professional designer.
    Regardless, you will always come across the shady client that would take your design, say “no thank you, I did not like it”, and have someone else reproduce your art with minor variations. So watch out for those and don’t invest your time (which is money) and effort without an agreement of payment on your efforts.

    Learning to design for clients takes time, dedication and effort. – and that is part of what you charge.
    It’s not about your expression because you felt like it, it’s about congruence with the business or brand your design will represent. It’s about listening, giving and learning from your client; because ultimately your design is representing your client and it is also representing you.

    As for me… Thanks to the many people who sell themselves short (cheap), makes it even easier to differentiate myself and my work from them. Plus, I am able to filter out clients who are not good for me.

    Rule #1: If you can do it for fun and somebody needs it… You must get paid for it, and paid well.


  33. Phil Roberts says:


    I am sorry but this is really bad advise in my opinion. Professionals should NEVER give their work away for free under any circumstances. I know that it sounds stingy but you should always get something for your trouble otherwise you will get a bad reputation that could destroy your career. The good news is charity does not require a signature.


  34. I’ve read about half the comments on this article now and haven’t found one positive comment in favour of spec work.

    I’m not a graphic designer but I work with many providing the back-end technology behind websites and so my focus here is my experience with web-sites rather than graphic design more generally (and I’ve never used a spec site!).

    I think these sites are really a symptom of the lack of professionalism in the industry. Anyone can put together a web-site. It can have awful SEO performance, load slowly, meet no accessibility requirements, have poor usability and a host of other problems that are invisible to the client as long as it looks good. How is the client to choose between two people where the visible element is comparable, in which they have no experience of their own and in which there are no standards?

    One of my answers to low quotes is to ask the client how much time they would expect the designer to work on the project and how much they think a reasonable rate is – then ask what they think they can expect if they pay someone one-tenth of that amount. If you pay peanuts……

    I’ve been a software engineer for around 30 years now. When I started out freelancers were the exception and those that existed had many years experience – they were generally the gurus of their speciality.

    Now many graduates fail to find work with established companies – they don’t learn their trade and instead immediately set up as a one man band. The internet enables them to present a professional image and spec sites allow then to build up impressive looking portfolios from unsuspecting clients. Because there are no real standards they can ‘appear’ to be good. But actually they don’t know anything. Coming straight from Uni these people think £20 is a lot of money. However at some point they will want a mortgage, a family, a car that doesn’t breakdown once a week – but they have effectively trashed the market for a quick buck. They can never charge more because there’s another bunch of eager graduates coming along behind them that will also think £20 is a lot of money.

  35. The only criticism I have of the article is the constant referral to ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she’.

  36. I have read most of the comments here and I agree with the common saying that spec work just ruins the market. I am a graphic designer and I have been with that title ever since I graduated from University 8 years ago. I have browsed pretty much all freelance sites and I pretty much just hate most of them (not all, have to clarify that). They disrespect our profession. The worst are the crowd sourcing ones. I just find quite sneaky the fact they have this project which a lot of them look appealing and they want lots and lots of people designing for them for free. In most of the cases they do not care for design they just care for the looks and any designer knows our profession is way more than that. Most of the creative people there are not really professionals. I mean you don’t need to have a degree to have talent but even then if you really want to call yourself a designer that means you are creative, you at least have read and had taught yourself about what other professional designers have done over the years and why they came up with their graphic solutions. In other words you have to know the basics. If you need to build your portfolio cause for any reason you are starting out, well you can start designing logos, brochures, business cards, websites, t-shirts, posters for your friends, the friend of your mom, your dad, your dad’s friends, your cousins, your siblings, your aunties, your uncle, your neighbor, your dog and even yourself! Who knows you might even get paid for that work without damaging the industry.
    I read a comment here that says that when you go to the hair dresser and they do a bad job you do not pay for it. Well I am sorry that is such a bad analogy! First of all when you do go to the hair dresser you do not ask several hair stylists doing your hair at the same time just to see which work you like the best. If you want to try different styles you might go to several hair dressers and try different styles. You might not like all of the do’s on your hair which are not necessary bad work is just not what you are looking for. But even if you are not pleased with them you will end up paying for each and everyone of their work. You are not shopping for shoes, you are shopping for services. And if you want to see what designers can do for you before hiring one that is what portfolios are for.

  37. I cannot begin to express my deep disgust at yet another article defending the so called merits of spec work. Spec work and crowd sourcing are in fact killing this industry. How? By convincing designers that we have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, just to get a job. Designers are highly trained, highly skilled, and highly intelligent professionals and as such, we deserve the same respect that any other professional would expect. By agreeing to spec work, we are creating a negative image for the industry as a whole and a bad name for ourselves as individual designers.

    Let me break this down point by point:

    1. Work without pay?
    You used the example of the artist creating art and not knowing whether or not it will sell. This is true with any business, any product, any service. However, the business owner (and yes, professional artists are in fact independent business owners) maximizes their chances at success by hustling! They rent booths at art shows to peddle their art. Fine art photographers set up e-commerce websites selling their prints (they get the money up front first, before fulfilling print orders). Artists meet with gallery owners, corporate collection curators, and antique shops ( a great way to get exposure and sell on consignment). Bottom line, they sell themselves and their work, and they put themselves in a favorable position to get paid and create proactive win-win situations for both them and their clients. They don’t simply rely on hope.

    2. Designing for money vs. Designing for passion
    Oh where do I start with this one? As a designer, let me put this right out there in the open:

    I’m a designer and I do it for the money!

    Whoever said that making money at what you love to do is somehow subordinate to the love of merely doing it. Quit bullshitting yourself! You’re a professional designer, which means you do it to get paid. Merely loving what you do does not pay the bills. Do you think professional athletes play only for the love of their chosen sport? If that were true, then why do they hire agents to negotiate multi-million dollar contracts for them? Why? Because they want to get paid! It’s important to love what you do because that creates the passion that drives you to do better, but make sure you get paid well for it. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker said in Batman: The Dark Knight, “If you’re good at something never do it for free.”

    3. To research or not to research?

    Very rarely do designers design based on instinctual gut reactions. The idea of the designer discovering that perfect idea from a dream they had from last night’s slumber; that clever concept that popped into their head, while showering; or inspiration falling from the sky and landing into their lap is a myth. Successful design is a process and extensive research is an important and integral part. Brainstorming is also part of the process, but only after the research phase. The true definition of design is to plan. Would an architect build a building without proper planning? No! Would a surgeon perform open heart surgery with following a tested process? Again, no! Just because designers work in a creative profession, doesn’t mean that research and planning will water down a design. In fact, research + planning + creativity makes designer better (notice how I mentioned creativity last).

    4. More likely to get paid?
    While it’s true that the client pays the negotiated fee upfront to the crowd sourcing site, it doesn’t mean that your design will get chosen. Think about how many designs you have to submit before you actually land one. Think about all the time that you spent. Your time is worth something. Put a price on it. Value it! If you don’t nobody else will. Consult with an attorney, draw up proper contracts, and negotiate a percentage upfront to at least cover your expenses. It’s basic business management 101 people! Furthermore, when you do get paid, most of these spec jobs pay an amount that’s akin to what a sweatshop worker would earn assembling sneakers in a Malaysian factory (in fact, many times the sweat shop worker may get paid more).

    5. Experience is valuable

    Yes, it is, but how you gain that experience is just as important. Whoring yourself out (yes, I said it and I don’t apologize for it) to the lowest bidder is no way to make a good name for yourself. It cheapens you and the industry as a whole. A designer’s mind and expertise is valuable intelectual capital and should be treated with respect. Again, if you don’t show it respect, nobody else will. If you do decide to do a job on a pro bono basis, make sure you get some benefit from it. Creative autonomy, trade services, etc. Remember, anything worthwhile has value.

    6. A call for tolerance?

    I added the question mark because there are certain things in life that should not be tolerated and spec work should not be tolerated. Spec work does not raise standards. A big part of high standards is establishing a good working relationship with a client. In order for that to happen, the client must be educated on the importance of how design will help their business. In order for that to happen, clients must develop a close one on one relationship with their designer. The same is true when financial advisors manage your money or how your gardener plants your rose bushes. Spec work and crowd sourcing tells the client that it’s okay to treat us as an anonymous number. And no, design is not for everybody. There is good design and bad design, and the good design is for those who put a high value on it and the individual who creates it. Is that arrogant? You’re damn right it is!

  38. Agree with so many of the comments. I want to create long lasting relationships built on loyalty and trust for my company, not for 99Designs. I’m passionate about the process – so much so that I documented the way we do it here http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/seedrcreative/gs-rebrand-pres – and fear that for me that extra value is is undermined to a greater or lesser degree with spec work.

  39. “However, there are numerous jobs where spec work does happen. For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell. People starting up a business don’t know that it will succeed. ”

    That’s not a fair comparison. I can paint a picture and sell it anyone, but I can’t design a logo for “Bob’s Bar” and sell it someone else if Bob doesn’t pay.

    I don’t mind doing (very) rough sketches of ideas for clients for them to decide if they want to go with me but to put together a finished design and then not get paid. That’s hours of work. And I end up with product I can’t sell to someone else.

  40. Wow! I’ve read several articles on spec work, and paired with my own issues with the idea, I have been reluctant to take on any design spec work. Recently though, I’ve begun to think more about it. Your article makes some very valid points, not to mention it gives a reasonable sounding voice to the ‘other side’ of the spec work argument. Thanks for writing it. You’ve given me a lot to think about and consider.

  41. The problem I had with the 99designs website, is the customers seem to get ripped off. There are customers paying for the gold level designers and getting the same quality as some one that pays far less for a design. I believe that once a designer reaches gold status they should have a cap on how many competitions they can compete in under their level. I am not a great designer nor talented I am in the learning process, if I was a client that needed cheap design I would pay a student like myself. Although for a little bit of money they are getting seasoned designers that compete at the upper echelons of the 99designs competitions.

  42. A lot depends on the kind of spec work you are talking about.
    If its a pitch for the account of a reputable company than yes of course its worth doing.
    However what I see a lot of these days is some unknown person asking designers to submit ideas. I say never join in in that situation. First do some research about the client, ask them who they worked with before, are they well known? etc. But in all honest do you really want to work for somebody who doesn’t want to pay for initial ideas but has found away to get a load of them for free. Its extremely bad practice and its not something I would ever recommend. Joining in only encourages con men to con. The time you spend producing free ideas would be better spent finding decent honest clients.

  43. This is ridiculous! Do not in any way participate in spec work!!!

  44. This quick video (link below) pretty much says it all, from a creative veteran in his respective field. The reality he describes is totally transferrable to the design world and the shadowy, unfortunate reality of spec work. To that I will add, the fact that this topic even appeared on Millo and was given even a hint of credibility makes me question how much I have valued this blog as resource up until now. Really Millo? Yes, students will always need a way to break into the field beyond internships, but any relevance beyond that to the professional world of design is lost on me. Further, I am an artist who got into design specifically to commercialize my work and make money. This is a job, not a hobby I engage in for pleasure, and that does not mean I am in the wrong place. If I have spare time, it will be to make pyre art, not give away my professional services.

  45. Bah autocorrect — “pure” art. Yes, there is such a thing. Cheers all, lets hang in there together, but not bring down the value of what we all do if you can challenge yourself to seek better sources of income than spec.

  46. Justin Miller says:

    I will not do spec work at all. I did it once when I was young and didn’t know what I know now.
    I will do a limited number of pro bono projects a year, if its a cause or organization I support and the exposure is good.

    Other professionals plumbers, doctors, consultants, contractors etc, get paid for their services, creatives should too. I agree this is not a hobby, its how we make a living.

  47. Michael Ward says:

    Sorry to disagree but I see much to disagree with here. Subject by subject-

    Work without pay-
    Your comparison to people starting up there own business is apples to oranges in my opinion. Startups are most often investing in their own brainchildren and not really creating a financial partnership with a designer They assume the risks of their vision and the designers/artists are for hire, like construction workers. They may or not deliver like anyone else hired for the project and develop a reputation based that.

    Designing for money…
    Welcome to the real world. We all work for money. I’m passionate about design and illustration but I didn’t get a degree so I could do it for free.

    To research…
    I’ll take the research. I love inspiration but no one gets paid for making a “cool design”. It has to be appropriate.

    More likely…
    That’s a bold claim. Many designers have more than one story of little to no gain with spec work.

    “Why waste your time doing nothing…?” Who says people are doing nothing? Better to get your act together and look for in-house positions in related fields (pre-press specialist, print operator, photography) and make money there AND develop the reputation and resume.

    For me, spec work is a sad irony. The client wants inspired, professional, timely work delivered for free? Not in my universe.

  48. Stephanie says:

    Personally as my own opinion and as an aspiring design I’m in between. I think spec is bad because whatever everyone said in the comments. But at the same spec contest is ok when learning a new technique, or as a practice> To build your portfolio when you’re starting out. Like instead making up projects it’s helpful to do. I would do contest as a form of income because i think the old fashioned way. But i’d use contest as a practice when learning a new skill or something. To have fun with the risk.But when you have enough in your portfolio to show to real clients I’d move on and go look for clients.
    It’s also fun way to enage in a friendly risky competition. Not for freelance or money. But just for goofs.!!

  49. O.K., you know what? Screw spec work. Simple as that. As a designer who has more than paid his dues, I find it offensive that folks would expect you to do some work for free, to see if they like it or not. My theory is this: Look at my work. If you like my work and want to employ me on a project of yours, great – let’s do business. Sign a contract, get out your checkbook and I’ll do some work for you. Otherwise, don’t waste my time or yours. Period, end of story. Spec work should NOT be tolerated and driven out. Any time a potential client asks you to “come up with some ideas”, you should set up a contract for design development. And hold them to it. I also understand the position of young designers just out of school. Every designer had to start somewhere, and you take projects where you find them – seek and you shall find, and you will build from there – but the notion of doing work for free will not get you the clients who will reward your efforts appropriately. It is an insult to our profession. This little video brings it right to the point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsstOs-K7gk


  50. Conor,

    You’ve been treated with much more respect here than you deserve. Judging by what you’ve written, you should never have been given a forum for your thoughts on a design-oriented site, much less sincere rebuttals to the points you’ve tried to make. I seriously started reading this expecting parody, and my stomach’s been wrenched from the realization that you’re actually sincere.

    This article is shameful. I hope someday when you’re further along in your life and in your career, you’ll read this back and feel that shame – and I think you will. I’m ashamed for you now.

    Anyone who’s been around for a while has done things they’ve regretted. If I knew you personally, I’d try my best to persuade you to have this article taken down as soon as possible. That’s as much constructive feedback as you deserve.

  51. Instead of bringing standards down for everyone by participating in all these price-driven, quality decimating contests, I’ve always found that it’s much, much more effective to just work on personal projects. If your main goal is building a portfolio and experience, and it appears it is, that seems like a much better use of your time.

  52. Professionals should not have to submit work on spec to people who are in business to make a profit (I’m not talking about a hobby magazine). This article offers bad advice.

    Clients and freelancers both experience equal levels of risk regarding a freelance project. Hiring an employee is always a risk. The freelancer is also taking a risk on getting paid and on getting more work from the client.

    Clients can minimize the risk of hiring a freelancer in many ways. Here’s my advice:

    Shop around. Find a freelancer with a portfolio of work demonstrating that he or she has completed projects that are similar to yours. Ask for a telephone or Skype consultation to discuss the project in detail. Ask if the freelancer is willing to revise the work if you are not satisfied (most will!). Draw out a contract with specific terms before starting the project. Assign a small project at the start to test the waters. Or, offer to pay a smaller fee for a “test” sample that will allow you to determine if the freelancer is a good fit. Most freelancers are only too happy to offer a small custom work sample at a reduced rate so you can sample their work.

    There are many ways to “test the waters” if you are fearful of hiring a freelancer but none of them involve begging for free work from professionals who are working to pay bills.

    When companies hire a freelancer they are already saving a HUGE amount of money because they don’t have to pay for heating or maintaining the freelancer’s office space or their computer equipment. They don’t have to pay for health insurance, vacations or holidays off, pension plans, unemployment, and so on.

    Plus, why would people buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?

  53. Absolute rubbish! “For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell.” This is a completely irrelevant comment. Artists create art for arts sake. There are commercial artists, but they consider the audience and will create work that sells because they know the market. That’s how it works. I’m an artist and a graphic designer and never think of them as even close. We’re talking about business here. How many graphic designers would create brochures for companies hoping they would sell?
    I never do spec work. Ever. That’s it. No argument.

  54. I had a design friend who worked for a “logo factory.” The conversation became awkward when I told him how I felt about spec work. He had the above reasons for doing what he did (as a student he needed the money and experience), but for me, those reasons only justify, say, working for smaller fees. No one should ever work for potentially no money.

    Recently I was told to take my newborn into the ER because she was acting a little lethargic. Within minutes after she was admitted, I could tell there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. My husband had just lost his job, and we had almost no savings. I started crying as I realized the bills we would have to pay since we hadn’t met our deductible on our crappy health insurance. The ER doctor was sympathetic when he came in and I told him she was fine and we just wanted to go home. He checked her records at her vital signs and agreed with me, then sent us on our way. When we got smacked with almost $1000 worth of bills, I tried to dispute that I should pay them. He didn’t DO ANYTHING. But pay I must: because the trained, highly skilled doctor had spent time looking at my daughters information, he had offered a valuable service that I must pay for. Doctors are HIGHLY respected for what they do because of their years of training and knowledge, and because the demand it. For someone to take advantage of their time and not pay is not acceptable. It’s the same with lawyers, accountants, technicians, massage therapists…Graphic designers have a responsibility to other professionals in their field to establish and maintain the same form of undisputed respect. Every time someone does spec work, it hurts our field tremendously, causing serious pain-in-the-butt client situations (especially for freelancers). If you need experience, do a free logo for your mom or a local non-profit. If you really need money, do several jobs for a small amount of pay. But step it up quick and start charging what you’re worth. And if the quality of your work ultimately isn’t worth much pay, try another career path. One that you respect.

  55. Now a comment directly to those designers who are reading this article and agreeing with it: Please get out of our field. We designers respect it, and rely on it to make a living. Please go do something else and stop muddying the water.

  56. Interesting post!

  57. I honestly couldn’t disagree with you more.

  58. Very informative Post.

  59. Spec work is for amateurs.

  60. “However, there are numerous jobs where spec work does happen. For example, few artists create artwork knowing that it will sell. People starting up a business don’t know that it will succeed.”

    These are not examples of spec work. One is a craftsperson, making a product for sale, the other is someone taking a calculated risk for themselves. In neither case are they prompted by a speculative party to produce work, speculatively, for that party, for free.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Preston D Lee, InspirationOverload. InspirationOverload said: Check out my guest article at Millo: Why Designers Should Consider Tolerating Spec Work: http://bit.ly/cdd5m8 As always, RTs are appreciated. […]

  2. […] it here. Suffice it to say, it can really hurt your career if not done properly.Some argue that spec work is good for novice designers with little experience, but you can lose time and work by participating in […]

  3. […] argue that spec work is good for novice designers with little experience, but you can lose time and work by participating in […]

  4. […] argue that spec work is good for novice designers with little experience, but you can lose time and work by participating in […]

  5. […] argue that spec work is good for novice designers with little experience, but you can lose time and work by participating in […]

  6. […] argue that spec work is good for novice designers with little experience, but you can lose time and work by participating in […]

  7. […] even though we’ve talked about why designers should consider tolerating spec work on this blog, I mostly agree with […]


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