Designer beware: the pitfalls of spec work

Jun 1, 2012 by     16 Comments    Posted under: Business Success, Design


To spec, or not to spec: that is the question

As a graphic designer, I understand the need to build your portfolio, expand your client base and stretch your creative muscles as much as possible. But from one creative professional to another, I feel compelled to urge you not to participate in spec (speculative) work – including design contests and crowdsourcing.

What is spec work? It’s submitting creative or graphic design to a potential client who hasn’t yet agreed to pay you for that work. As a result, that potential client can offer up any type of possible compensation, or, I should say, the possibility of compensation – without legally promising anything. And you may never see a dime.

Need an example?
All right, let’s say Company X launches a promotion calling for entries for the design of their new logo. In return, they’re offering a $250 prize to the winner – plus, the bragging rights that go along with having published work. What’s more, no experience is necessary. If you win, there is also the possibility to include that piece in your portfolio, opening the doors to many more opportunities in the future. Sounds great, right?

Well, there are a few more questions you need to ask yourself before proceeding with your contribution. First of all, why is Company X using a contest to develop their new logo? Why not just hire a designer? Do they not have the funds to actually pay for graphic design? Is this actually what my time and skills are worth? Will this really lead to more opportunities from bigger clients in the future?

Amateur or professional?
There are certain groups of individuals that are within the rank of amateur. Amateurs often are going through the process of participating in competitions in order to hone their skills and improve their rank. There is a judging panel that decides final rank and ultimately a winner. Typically, this also means no payment is received. Some of these include Olympic athletes, voice, dance or acting talent hopefuls.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are professionals. These individuals are paid to perform specialized tasks. Graphic designers are within this category. Unfortunately, as is common practice within the industry, there is a process called “pitching” to a potential client. This is generally understood, as mandated by clients, as being spec. To any agency, this means their creative potential is cut short by having only the limited information given within the brief. In addition, the agency may or may not be informed that they have competition. Ultimately, it is the time, concepts and designs of the creative team that are presented; yet, these individuals are the only ones around the boardroom table who will not be paid to be there.

Why is it that creative professionals should have to take on gratis work, that in effect, puts them in the category of an amateur?

Is spec work bad?
When it comes to spec work, “bad” may not be the right word to choose. “Unethical” would be more appropriate. “Risky” might be even better.

By not having a solid agreement in place between the designer and client, there’s greater risk for the designer. The designs offered up could potentially be used without the designer’s knowledge, and he or she is by no means guaranteed compensation. Even the prize initially promised could end up being less than advertised. What at first seemed like a nice, shiny carrot could later resemble little more than scraps.

As a designer, you’re not the only one who may lose out from being part of a design contest. Spec work devalues the entire graphic design industry. It drives down the going rate for design work, while driving up the misconception that graphic design can and should be acquired as cheaply as possible. Put simply, it makes it difficult for everyone else in the industry to be respected for their worth.

We all make mistakes
Okay, so now you know a little more about spec work. Think back to that contest you entered a few months ago. You put a lot of hard work into that design, and sent it off with high hopes of being chosen as the winner, right? I’m guessing not much resulted from that entry. If you were lucky, maybe you got a “thank you” for a job well done. Does this sound familiar to you?

Everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is learning from them and passing on those lessons to others. Instead of entering contests, there are much more effective ways to build up your experience and credibility. If you haven’t already, get yourself on LinkedIn, visit your local design council, or talk to that friend-of-a-friend who knows someone in the industry. Fostering good relationships with your peers is a much more reliable way to further your career.

While we’re on the subject, here are some great resources for learning more about spec work:

AIGA, the professional association for design (AIGA – USA)

Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC – Canada)

No!Spec (international)

There are always different sides to the same story. This is my view. I’d like to know your view on spec work.

About the author

Lindsay Sleightholm Lindsay Sleightholm is a fireball of creative passion who is committed to brilliant design and client satisfaction. An unrelenting perfectionist with 8 solid years of design and production knowledge for print-ready creative, Lindsay is an intrinsic part of the creative process from conception to delivery.

16 Comments + Add Comment

  • Hi Lindsay,

    Echoing your outlook on spec work, especially from the standpoint of having, unfortunately, done my share of it. I did far more of it back in my early years and as an experiment, I did a little of it just recently. There’s been a lot of internet talk lately about crowdsourcing with design and I thought I’d test the waters and see what I could learn. The most dominant thing about it is that it’s a here and now win-win only for the managerial element along the pipeline of creativity, which seems to be a handful of fairly talented folks who see the larger profit piece of the design pie in just managing a crowdsourcing event versus doing the design work themselves. Plus they see other win-win things in it such as pretty much free marketing/advertising of the end product through the contest. But, us designers are put into the butt-end of the deal by being lured into creating the free-for-all shotgun approach to mass creation, with all the risk, time and work being done with absolutely no protection or promise of reward for us.

    Not only does this suck for us designers, but it terribly devalues the client’s participation and expectation for consistency of qaulity next time around. And it also creates absolutely NO conversation or communication upon which any party involved can grow upon. The next time will be just as blind as this first time. I hope anyone who wants to see crowdsourcing continue can live with the act of re-inventing the wheel becoming a standard element in their career. I personally see it as going backward in an age where going forward is supposed to be the point.

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for sharing the results of your recent experiment. That’s interesting, and makes a lot of sense. The amount of coordination, management and man-hours that must go into these competitions would make most wonder why they don’t just hire it out? But, it seems they have their pick of designers to choose from who are all willing to contribute and the exposure reaped that goes along with having a contest. These individuals managing the pipeline of creative know exactly what they are doing and why.

      It’s really disheartening to see the number of organizations out out there now, solely dedicated to cultivating creative “on the cheap”. Not to mention, the number of participants who are willing to offer their work for so little in return.

      I think you touched on the key thing about spec and crowdsourcing that most clients don’t understand. It is not simply about designers being exploited, it is also about the lack of quality product the client will receive as a result. One of Miriam’s isms is “No one can create in a vacuum”. As you said as well, there is no communication. It makes no sense to try to simply plugin design and punch out a creative solution.

      I completely agree, all of this is pushing the entire industry backwards. Visual communication, advertising, marketing and design all suffers. I hope we can continue to spread the word about spec work and educate our client’s in the process.

  • I recently had a prospective client request a full enewsletter – design AND copy – before they would hire me. Instead, I sent them a mockup of the general direction I would take, along with some real life examples of work I’d done for other clients. When they balked, I balked back. I politely told them I wasn’t interested in doing any sort of work for them and wished them all the best in their future endeavours.

    My dad once said “the less someone pays you, the harder they expect you to work.” I’ve found that to be true when it comes to cheap clients.

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Hi Aidan,

      Good for you! No doubt that client you turned down went somewhere else and received something much more suited to level of value they considered it was worth. Too bad for them.

  • Miriam Hara

    Great perspective Scott and Aidan. Suffice to say that our investment for all of our mandates lies in our “thoughts” and “process”. Once you provide that…then it’s done. In our world, it’s not only about design it’s about a total solution. You can’t provide a solution in half measures.

  • I fell into the crowdsourcing trap when I was looking for work and just something to do to keep the creative edge up. What my experience is that there are a handful of designers that seem to take over a “contest” with multiple versions of the same artwork. This causes really good concepts to get lost in the overflow of trash.

    In my opinion, the only winner is the sites hosting these crowdsourcing events. The designers lose because they rarely get their full compensation if they do actually “win” and the clients are not getting the full attention of the designers because there is little, if any, personal interaction between client and designer.

    What amazes me is some of the work that wins and the quality of the stuff that is not chosen. I also see a lot of designers producing some real crap for these things.

    I no longer participate in these types of contests anymore. Ones that are left to voting is often nothing more than a popularity contest with the people with with more Facebook friends winning. I get requests all the time from “friends” asking for votes on their stuff they have placed in various competitions. I do not participate nor agree with the ballot stuffing concept.

    One thing I see is an increasing number of foriegn participants in these spec work competitions. I also see foriegn designers quoting prices in requests for work that are ridiculously cheap. well, cheap by my standards, anyways. Hard to compete with this.

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. By your account, the quality of work is not only not important in these competitions, it seems as though it’s pretty much an afterthought. If anything, these organizations seem to resemble a poorly run factory. Cheap labour is “hired”, no quality control in place and an end product that is questionable at best. Obviously, the end client has no idea what they are actually paying for.

  • I agree with everything this article articulates concerning the the downside of spec work. It is in the best interest of our profession to alert those that would do business with us on this degrading and undervalued practice.

    Last year I wrote an article directed mainly to our clients and potential prospects on why we don’t do spec work. The article can be read here: http://www.cinqpartners.com/author/sdoyle

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Hi Steph,

      Thanks for your sharing your article. It seems we are on the same page. I especially like how you explained the importance of “real” concept development.

  • Great article, Lindsay! If there’s anything that can get me riled up, it’s spec work. To help make clients understand the absurdity of it, I take their profession as an example, and ask them if they’d be willing to do __blank__ for free first to see if I liked it before hiring them. Once the shoe is on the other foot they see.

    I’m glad you’ve referred to AIGA and other design organizations, who frown heavily on spec work. I feel that if more and more designers all stood up and said, “no,” then spec work would slowly become a thing of the past.

    You might also want to consider the fact that any type of contest or spec work is incredibly demoralizing to a designer; it also is psychologically damaging and addictive. Similar to why casinos stay in business: it’s the cycle of losing and winning that’s unpredictable, yet occasionally offers reward. Unfortunately, the extinction rate for this behavior is almost nil, since the chance of winning is “just around the corner.” I wish more designers understood what they were doing to themselves and their profession.

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Thanks Sheila!

      Great idea. I think a lot of clients sometimes just need it explained to them. They also need to understand the value of what they are paying for. Professional services/creative are going to cost more. It doesn’t matter what business you are in.

      I hope you are right and we can put a dent in this problem. Saying “no” and explaining why to your client is a great place to start.

      That’s an interesting perspective on the behaviour behind participating in contests and spec sites. I’d imagine it is very much like gambling. However, not only because of the psychological effects, but also because they don’t seem to be actually judging the quality of work. As Bruce pointed out, the design that wins, may or may not have been the best.

      • Thanks, Lindsay!
        I’m a big advocate of educating clients. We almost can’t blame them for asking for certain -shameless- things like spec work; they simply don’t see it for what it is.

        The big caveat with saying “no” is that for it to really work or make much of a difference, we all, collectively, need to stick to our guns. It doesn’t do us any good for the few to stand firm, but then others to continue the practice. Because then the client will just laugh and go on to those desperate enough to actually do spec work.

        Which is why, sadly, educating doesn’t end with clients; we need to educate each other! I’m still amazed (and dismayed) that there are so many designers who actually DEFEND spec work. That needs to end first.

        • Lindsay Sleightholm

          Hi Sheila,

          So true, this needs to be a joint effort! Through the process of researching and writing this article and now seeing the comments that have been shared, it’s been eye-opening. Many designers and creatives have experienced dealing with the pitfalls of spec work first hand. However, some were surprised to hear how bad the problem has become. While others didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.

  • “To help make clients understand the absurdity of it, I take their profession as an example, and ask them if they’d be willing to do __blank__ for free first to see if I liked it before hiring them. Once the shoe is on the other foot they see.”

    Funny story from when I operated a sign shop… A local restaurant/bar we had done work for in the past, but still didn’t totally trust, asked us to design new graphics for his new business van. I initially balked at doing this because I didn’t want to expend that amount of time into project i had no deposit on.

    After being reassured that the job was ours, all he wanted to see was a rendering of the final project. So, I did up the drawing and took it down to him and his wife. We were sitting at the bar when he folded up the drawing and said he was going to compare it. I asked him to what? He said the other shop he was talking to about the project. I said to him that I thought it was our project and he said it was his prerogative to shop around.

    I acted cool and calm and said that was fine. I then asked him and his wife if they were still serving off the lunch menu and he told me that they were. So, I ordered a double cheeseburger. When he brought it it out, I lifted the bun and inspected the inside. Then I pushed it away from me and told him I would get back to him. He asked what was i talking about? I told him that I was on my way to Burger King and I was going to see what they offered as well. After all, it was my prerogative to compare, right?

    Needless, to say, he was really torqued. Then his wife started laughing and told him that he had no business being angry because that was just what he had done to me.

    BTW, I didn’t get the job but I did earn some respect from several people around town when they heard what i had done.

    • Awesome story, Bruce! Glad to see that technique in action. Interesting (and sad) that, in the end, even though their eyes were opened, they still didn’t end up using you. So much for their assurances.

      For the record, even though they had the “right” to “shop around,” what they DID NOT have the right to do is was to take your design and compare it to others. I wish more designers would realize that full rights belong to them, even after they’ve handed over a final design to a paying customer. Of course, it’s within our right to release such rights, but by law and default, we remain the owners of our intellectual property.

      Far too many clients fall into the consumer mindset, that “since they paid for it,” it belongs to them outright. Tsk tsk ;)

    • Lindsay Sleightholm

      Good for you Bruce! At least you left them with something to think about, and kept your reputation intact in the process. Not to mention your self-esteem.

      I agree with Sheila, every client has the right to shop around, and should be encouraged to do so.
      After all, we have all been clients as well.

      On a personal level, I recently had to source out quotes for body repair work on my car. I’ve never had to do this before, and was completely uneducated with the process. But, I visited four different shops and received quotes ranging from $600 to $1200. Although, It wasn’t simply the price difference. Instead, it was the process of meeting and talking with these people, the degree to which they explained their work to me, seeing their company and the level of professionalism (or lack there of) with which they treated me that made my decision clear.

      I don’t think I’ll ever be an expert of auto-mechanics or body work, but at least I can feel comfortable that I made my decision with some degree of education. I think most people can generally understand when someone is being honest with them or not. If not, they soon will.

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