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Spec Work and Why You Should Say No

by Taylor Slattery | October 29, 2019

Spec Work and Why You Should Say No

It seems that as learning resources become more widely available, and the number of working creatives increases, so to do the number of people looking to exploit them. This primarily takes the form of spec work, or work that is done without guaranteed pay – work you shouldn’t do. Here’s why:

It’s bad for everyone. One common type of spec work is the “contest” format. I’ve noticed a number of these crop up in recent years, and though I won’t list the sites by name, do a quick search for “freelance design” and you’ll see just how many there are. They work by allowing clients to list their brief to a pool of prospective designers who then complete the project and submit their work. At the end of the allotted time, one designer will be selected and will receive payment for the project. Throughout the process, it’s common for clients to offer feedback and ask for revisions, regardless of whether they intend to choose this designer or not. For a naive designer thinking that this must be a sign that they will be chosen, they’ll be more than happy to complete the revisions, only for the contest to end and to never hear from the client again. Rather than the design itself being the product, in this scenario, the designer is the product. The site promises clients a large number of options at a low price, and naturally, they’re looking to provide their service at the lowest cost possible. What better way to do that than to dupe naive designers into doing work for free?

Why you should say no to spec work

Obviously, after one or two goes at these contests and a few wasted hours, you would think any right-minded designer would take their talents elsewhere. And you would be right. What’s left is a sea of bottom-feeders playing the numbers game by submitting designs to as many contests as possible, and spending as little time as possible on each. The result is a sub-par product for the client. Often times it’s plagiarized or unoriginal, consisting of various pre-made vector assets that countless others are using.

Not only is this type of work demoralizing for those who put in an honest effort and reap no reward, but the premise these sites are built on is dangerous for intellectual property as well. Putting work out into the world without a contract is risky. While you’re still protected by intellectual property law, the other party may still use it and unless you’re willing to keep tabs on them for the foreseeable future, you’ll be none the wiser.

Say no to spec work as a designer

Many people and businesses who use these services simply have no experience working with designers and don’t know any better. In this case, it’s hard to blame them for using one of these services, as the prospect of receiving a large number of options at a low cost seems like a good deal. That’s why it’s best to be proactive and put in the leg work and reach clients before they find their way to one of these sites. Have a solid portfolio to demonstrate your value and explain the level of attention and thoughtfulness they’ll receive when working on contract with you. If you are ever approached for spec work, it may help to frame things in the context of the client’s industry or in terms they can understand. You wouldn’t expect to dine at 10 restaurants only to pay for the one you liked the best, would you?

For more industry information on the dangers of this trend, check out the AIGA position paper on spec work.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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