Do You Do Spec Work?

By Alyssa Gregory
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spec-workOne of the hot-button issues in the design industry is spec work. The masses are split, and the most resolute seem to be the most vocal. This is a look at spec work and the pros and cons that make it an issue.

What is Spec Work?

Speculative work is work performed for a client before any agreement on terms and payment is made. It’s a test drive of sorts that gives the client a chance to get a glimpse of the final product before paying or committing to pay for the work. It’s most common in the design industry where projects are visual and can be very subjective.

One popular form of spec work is design contests where a company creates a contest for a design project. Designers create a design to enter the contest and only the best design (or the one chosen by the company) receives payment. This type of spec work is also known as crowdsourcing.

The Cons of Spec Work

According to NO!SPEC, a group of designers adamantly against spec work, “spec work devalues the potential of design and ultimately does a disservice to the client.” Some other reasons the group claims spec work isn’t good for the design industry include:

  • It creates a relationship based on distrust.
  • It diminishes the value of the designer’s experience.
  • Designers aren’t provided enough time to research the business, market and industry.
  • Spec work tends to be more about style (the designer’s sense of style) and less about relevancy for the company.
  • It’s an unethical business practice.

The AIGA’s long-standing position on spec work has been against it, but in 2008 they stated that their stance may need to take into account the frequency of open source work and how that plays into the industry. They have a Spec Work Task Force exploring the issue and they will be reporting to the AIGA board this month.

The Pros of Spec Work

Those in the pro-spec work camp have an equally compelling set of arguments. Some of the benefits of spec work include:

  • It gives new and less experienced designers a chance.
  • It’s inspires competition, which can result in higher quality.
  • The designer gets a chance to get their name out there and find more work.
  • It’s good practice and a portfolio-builder.
  • It gives designers a way to make quick money.
  • It presents the possibility of ongoing work if your design is chosen.

A recent article in Forbes, The Creativity of Crowds, says that crowdsourcing is a compelling concept that levels the playing field. The article claims that this type of competition model essentially helps freelancers feeling the burn from the down economy.

A post last month here on SitePoint, by Josh Catone, talks about the spec work debate, and points out some additional benefits, including the fact that design contests are the only practical option for some companies facing budget constraints, and that they are a part of the future of design. Some of the comments to that post argue against these factors, reinforcing that this is certainly an issue of contention.

I, personally, have not done and probably wouldn’t do spec work, but I am not against the idea as a whole. While it doesn’t support my business model, I think there can be tremendous value for designers and companies who benefit from it. And it encourages competition, which makes us all better at what we do.

So, do YOU do spec work and if so why or why not?

Image credit: Sanja Gjenero

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  • Bill Kracke

    I fully agree that Spec is not in the designer’s best interest. I do not respond to “invitations to submit an idea” as a rule of my own business. I do occassionally “join a contest” when things are slow, largely for the creative exercise of creating something off of a brief — an exercise I would do with or without the contest. (The contest just means I can focus my creativity on the design, rather than the brief) However, this is a skill development exercise, not a revenue stream.

    That being said…

    I do not see a future without Spec. Design Contests will always exist. Sites that use design contests as a business model will always exist. Why? Because there will never be a 100% boycott of Spec. (And let me tell you, if everyone but Joe dropped out of Spec Work, I would jump in — because my only competition would be Joe)

    I tell anyone who asks me “Say No To Spec”, but I am not about to take up arms in a “holy war” over the issue.

  • dougoftheabaci

    Never. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Also, many of your pros are redundant.

    While it is true that it gives a less experienced designer a chance to submit their work to a client it does not inspire competition of quality work. The work you put forward to a client in such a situation shows them that you can make something pretty. That is in no way the same thing. Visuals are but a fraction of the final product.

    Also, the third point is redundant to the first point and the fourth point is true of ANY design work. As for good practice, I disagree. It teaches young designers bad lessons. It teaches them that it’s OK to make work that just looks pretty. Quality of code and user experience be damned.

    The fifth point is null and void as not all spec work is for pay. Sometimes clients will go, Design me something and I’ll decide if I’m going to use it or not. If I do, I’ll pay you for it. It’s not unheard of and such the pay point doesn’t count. Besides, if you really want quick-pay then do freelance work on small, quick jobs. You don’t need spec work to do this.

    And then there’s the final point… Yes, you may be chosen. But all your work to date would be useless as you’ll likely have to start over when you find your design doesn’t serve the needs of the user. That creates friction between you and your client. Of course, if you’re not chosen you just waisted your time and the clients on work that neither of you can use. Best part is you did it for a discounted rate so you didn’t even make a decent amount off of it.


  • Rod Roodenburg

    I am not sure how you can reconcile anything unethical (one of your stated ‘con’s’ of spec work) with any other statement of a ‘pro’ and feel the jury is still out on the matter. Spec work takes advantage of desperate and usually unprepared younger designers, rarely pays well or quick enough to be worth the risk, puts virtually all of the liability on the designer – and the ‘competition’ it creates is typically measured by organizations that have little or no knowledge of the design process; or they wouldn’t embark on such a crap-shoot to being with. Canada’s GDC ( also takes a strong stance against such abusive practices. No ‘business model’ as you put it would support spec work considering these facts, so I don’t see where the value lies. Crowdsourcing has little place in the design process, aside from collecting data and used as a research tool perhaps. Using it as a method to generate design solutions is inherently flawed and lacks strategy, neither which serves the end-user or client. There is a reason you have not participated in spec projects: you are intelligent and understand that it has no place in your business (the practice of fair exchange). It is important for those of us with some experience and position in the community to show leadership and let new designers and businesses know with certainty that spec is is simply wrong and bad for everyone concerned.

  • lxgamer


  • jtr

    I never do spec work under any circumstances. If you have enough free time to do spec work I believe you are better served spending that time improving your skills.

  • Wow, I can’t believe some people still think spec work is a good idea. It’s a historically sound idea that lost all relevance when we hit the digital age.
    In, say, 1980, it was perfectly reasonable for a business to get spec work for the studios interested in the job. Because it was for the most part limited to a small, local crowd. They’d get eight or ten submissions. In 2009, when a company announces a logo contest on or something, they get three hundred submissions from all over the world. So it becomes a much longer shot for the designers.
    Take a look at the ‘benefits’ mentioned earlier.
    – It gives new and less experienced designers a chance.
    Yeah, maybe a chance to waste their time. I’m all for practicing, it’s the only way you’ll get better. But don’t do it under the illusion you’ll get paid for it. Especially in this economy.
    – It’s inspires competition, which can result in higher quality.
    Or it would — if the tight deadlines spec work frequently entails would allow for it. Instead, all you get is a lot of hurried work. Even worse, there’s no feedback — unless you’re the lucky one/few that make a second round or win the project. How is a designer going to improve without feedback? No feedback, no pay… you’re just practicing.
    – The designer gets a chance to get their name out there and find more work.
    Really? I’ve never seen a spec project where the client shared the names of the ‘contestants’ with their competition.
    – It’s good practice and a portfolio-builder.
    Good practice: check. Portfolio-builder: warning. If a company has an existing brand they’re interested in maintaining, then they won’t like unapproved designs floating around that use their trademarks. I’ve worked freelance with several clients that specifically told me that I could only use approved, final designs in my portfolio. And yes, I have received takedown requests from other companies that hadn’t specifically mentioned this, but it became an issue.
    – It gives designers a way to make quick money.
    What!? C’mon, you’re busted now. Whoever wrote this was an employer, not a potential designer. If a designer works for $50/hr and spends 12 hours on a logo for a ‘contest’ and isn’t the selected one, they’re out $600 worth of their time that they could have spent on a paying gig. And if there are 300 submissions, then their chances of selection are pretty small. Meanwhile, the company hosting the ‘contest’ gets 300 people * 12 hours * $50/hr = $180,000 worth of man hours that they get for the $600 used to pay the winner. Another way of looking at it is 3600 hours of work for $0.17/hr.
    – It presents the possibility of ongoing work if your design is chosen.
    How about this: your PORTFOLIO presents the possibility of work with a client, and it’s free (after you’ve put it together). Not only that, but you can have dozens of potential clients viewing your portfolio at the same time! It’s the opposite of spec work! It’s spec clients!
    So bottom line — no way. It’s too easy to get burned by a bad client these days anyway. I’m not going to make it easier for them.

  • We, as designers/developers/writers/etc., need to make it our resolve to never, ever, ever (as dougoftheabaci so wonderfully put it..) feel that we have to do spec work. We have to realize that starting this will devalue our industry! If one person/firm does this, it’ll drive everyone else to start, in an effort to stay competitive. So, as long as we resolve not to stoop that low, we won’t have to worry about it…

  • I would like to bring up one topic that seems to have been overlooked.

    Most of the providers who engage in spec-work aren’t real designers. Most of the time, these are people who only wish to make a quick buck. Statistics thus dictates that the best chances they have of making a quick buck is by joining as many spec-contests as possible.

    Now, since their intention is to join as many as possible, where do you think they come up with the submissions? Do you think they simply create them? Any designer knows that simply isn’t possible.

    So, where does this lead the desperate trolls? Towards theft and piracy.

    Pity the contest holder who selects the winning “entry”, only to be sued by the company who actually owns the logo, which was stolen by the “winner” in order to make money.

    The truth is: there is far less risk in hiring a legitimate designer or design firm, than there is if one were to blindly engage in hosting a “crowd-sourced” competition.

  • jonty17

    We have the same “no spec work rule”, but I’ve just done a bit of spec work… A local firm contacted us and said they want some spec designs, it’s the only way to get a shot at a prestigious client and it’s worth a shot. It also gets us more contact with the client – and more chances to explain to hem why spec work is not a good idea. I’ve treated the work as being time wasted but worth a punt.

    One problem is that this client INSISTS on having some free designs, so any company they approach who refuses this is out of the bidding. This just leaves a bunch of rubbish companies who are so desperate for work they will agree to spec work (and us – so maybe we will get the job). The chances are that this company will end up with a really bad site built by idiots because they fail to understand the process. Or they might hire us!

  • Crowdsourcing is the equivalent of a restaurant trying to create a signature dish by way of a town cook-off.

  • helix7

    “It gives new and less experienced designers a chance.”

    I don’t buy this idea that new designers have to work for free to gain experience before they can get paid. Holding someone’s lack of experience over their head as a way to get free work is borderline extortion if you ask me. Everyone’s time is worth something, no matter how inexperienced you are. If you get any entry-level job that pays minimum wage, you’re still getting paid despite not having experience in the job. How did it become ok to say that lack of experience in design means that you shouldn’t get paid at all? It’s just wrong.

  • Rick

    Why NOSPEC? Because nobody else in the world does it for a couple of hundred dollars, that’s why.

    Not architects, not sculptors, nobody.

    You get into the business this way: You get a design education, build a portfolio, do some practicum. Shop the studios or network businesses. Maybe do some not-for-profit work that highlights your name. THAT”S how you get into the business.

    Anyone who says you break into the business by doing spec is spouting B.S.

    Spec design is basically a lottery where not only are your chances very, very slim, you pay a lot in terms of time and effort up front JUST TO ENTER.

    People who play the spec design lottery are basically suckers. They get shafted when they do all that work just to enter, they get shafted when they don’t win, and they get shafted when they DO win because they are basically GIVING THEIR WORK AWAY for peanuts.

    There is no easy way to make money at Graphic Design. The people with 3- and 4-year degrees in design will always get the jobs. Even those with 18-month or two-year diplomas will stand a better chance of getting steady work.

    The day when you could buy a computer and some software and call yourself a Graphic Designer has passed. Only suckers try to make a living off a lottery which, btw, doesn’t pay very well, does it now?

    Don’t be a chump. There are no Get-Rich-Quick schemes that work to your advantage. They only work to someone else’s advantage.

  • Anonymous

    Spec work is great idea, Last month, I paid $3000 to a “known” web designer as a down payment of $10k website design project, I chose him depend on his prtofolio and on websites that shows his work as case study!!! then he delivered very BAD work to me not because he is bad in design, but because his work is very arty, while my project was a “business” website, he could not make “business” website so I dropped him and lost $3000 and I’m looking now for who can show me something, before paying him

    the with Spec work, you can feel how things will go with a certin designer or design firm before you pay. (I do not think so called designers will like what I siad)

  • @Anonymous – sounds to me like your contract with your designer didn’t allow for revisions. If you selected him based on his portfolio, it means that he is capable of doing the site you wanted. So it sounds more like a contract/agreement issue, rather than that a spec issue.

    I’d love to see what you define as “arty” though. Maybe because it didn’t look like all the millions of web 2.0 clones, it appeared “arty” to you? Just asking.

  • Pinky-Winky

    I didn’t know about spec work, and got suckered recently into doing an “audition” – which I now know is spec work. Two guys who own a web design company but only have programming skills, no design skills, were boasting about all the work they had coming up and needed a designer. I need work, so I agreed to the “audition.” I spent about 20 hours preparing different versions (which they asked for), only to have the client say that IF he was going to update his site, it would be in 3-4 months. Ok, no money there. They then told me they have a client who definitely wanted her site redone, and wanted me to do the graphic work. The bomb: This would also be done for free and shown to the client to see if she liked it. That’s when I realized it’s a scam and told them off.

    Beware! Don’t work without a signed contract and 50% upfront (my USUAL requirements) – even when desperate!!!

  • Juggernaut

    I like what XLCowBoy says – I also suspect a lot of the entries in contest sites actually are pirated and theft and in some cases just plain stockart.

    But also, on quite a few of the contests, some (or even most or all) of the designs delivered are so bad that any kid at age 10 could do it. So as someone else has said it, I doubt that many real designers actually use these contest sites…