Spec work sucks. It must die!

Have you ever been robbed in broad daylight?

It’s a horrible feeling. 

If you have done Spec work then you know what I’m talking about. The countless hours you put into creating something in hopes of being rewarded. You think to yourself, this time I’m going to win. This time they will realize how brilliant my designs are. This time it’s going to be different. But it isn’t different. You’re not recognized for your brilliance. This time you lose again. Your dreams of being awarded that project, or getting that job, or winning that contest, go down the drain. In the end, you’re left with just emptiness. A hollow feeling that eats you up. It makes you sick. It makes you angry. Why did I fall for this? You got absolutely nothing in return. What a fool I was to believe the client was going to award us the project by spending so much time and effort without getting any guarantees. What a fool I was for believing that my hard work on the take home interview test was going to be rewarded. What a fool I was for thinking my logo was going to win that contest which had hundreds of entries.
 
Spec work is a waste of time, and it must die!

 

What is Spec work?

Spec work, short for Speculative work or free work, is any project where the designer is expected to provide finished work before agreeing on a fee or compensation. You can also think of it as free pitching. The designer loses out twice because they put in all the hard work without ever getting paid and their work is taken from them without their permission. 

 

Types of Spec Work

Spec work comes in many forms. The basic principle is the same behind these projects; you do the work while someone else benefits.

Here are some types of spec work to look out for:

Freelance Bids

When starting out, it is tempting for designers who freelance to do whatever they can to win a project. This need to win a project can come from wanting to build up their portfolio or being desperate to make money. There is nothing wrong with either, just be careful and not lose too much time or energy in chasing projects that you won’t win.

Agency Pitches

Feeling like they need win a project at all costs even good agencies fall victim to doing spec work. The pressure to bring in paying clients is so big that well-intentioned people fall prey to doing work for free. On the surface, it looks like little harm is done when an agency spends a few hours that could help it win projects.

If we dig a little deeper, we can see that the designers at these agencies who end up doing the spec work have the most to lose. They are the ones putting in their heart and soul into the project only to realize that they wasted their time and effort. The trust they put in their managers and the agency also erodes over time. No one wants to waste their energy on something that was never going to succeed in the first place. Agencies have a lot to lose including their time, money, and their credibility when they decide to take on spec work.

Design contests

Design contests could be the evilest of all spec work. These contests take advantage of designers looking for exposure by luring them in with a chance for quick money, but the odds of actually winning are quite low.

Designers fall into the trap of easy money only to realize they’ve come out on the losing end. The lure of getting a cheaply designed logo or website attracts businesses to keep returning to these contest sites. As long as designers sign up for these contests, they will continually be taken advantage of. These contests place little value in the time and effort designers put into their work.

Interview homework assignments

There is nothing in the interview homework that a hiring manager couldn’t find out during an on-site interview. Managers who are for the take home assignments claim that they help them see how an applicant approaches a challenge, solves the problem, and works within a tight deadline. An on-site interview whiteboard challenge can easily find out the same information in less time and with less risk for the applicant to waste their time.

These assignments will always work in favor of the companies because the risk is set squarely on the applicants. Yes, sure the company found a great applicant who passed the assignment but what we don’t hear about are the dozens of rejected applicants who got their hopes up and wasted many hours when the odds were clearly not in their favor. Another reason this type of spec work is horrible is that there is no guarantee that the hiring manager will provide any feedback about the submitted homework.
Personally the interview homework assignments I have had to do have all burned me. Either the feedback was just a few words, or there was no feedback at all.

 

What are designers saying about spec work?

Brad Colbow - Independent UX/UI designer.

Spike Jones

"When a prospect who owned a world-wide chain of high-end hotels wanted us to do a complete spec identity for his business, I replied, “Okay. But our team needs to stay in at least three of your hotels in different countries before we decide if we’ll do the spec work. If we like the experience, then we’ll do it. If not, then we’ll pass.”
 
 “But we don’t give away nights at our hotels for free.”
 
 And then he paused and said, “Point taken.”"

 

James Victore - An artist and designer who teaches creativity and personal growth

"F*** Spec Work."
"Don't do spec work. Period."
 

Jeffery Zeldman - Web designer, Entrepeneur, Founder of A List Apart Magazine and the design studios Happy Cog and studio.zeldman

"Our agency receives its share of RFPs, and sometimes these requests stipulate that our proposal include layouts. Even if the project looks promising, we just say no."

 

AIGA’s stance on spec work

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the oldest and largest professional design organization, takes a clear stance on this issue:

“AIGA believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients. To that end, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into client projects with full engagement to show the value of their creative endeavor, and to be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.”

 

Why spec work sucks

There are a lot of reasons you should stay away from spec work. Here are a few:

  • There is little to no input from the client
    Design isn’t done in a vacuum. To create the right solution, the designer must understand the context around the challenge.
  • Your time and effort are wasted
    The opportunity cost of working on a project that won’t pay is big. You loose out on the project, you lose the time you spent working on it, and you lose momentum. It will take twice as long to make up for wasted time and effort.
  • You lose more money than you think
    The lure of spec work can make you blind to the financial losses you will incur. Losing out on the spec work project hurts financially because of the lost revenue and then making up for the lost revenue takes time as well.
  • The quality of your work won’t be the best
    When you don’t have all the information you need to follow through with your process, you will end up skipping over important parts, and that’s when your work will suffer. You’ll be presenting sub-par work which hurts you in the long run.
  • High chance of your work being plagarized
    Without a written contract it is extremely difficult for designers to make their case in the court of law. This makes it easy for the client to resell the designer’s work without being compensated.
  • Opportunity for morally suspect clients to exploit you
    Clients who are morally bankrupt and looking to save money choose to rely on spec work for free designs. This group of evil people also includes hiring managers who ask applicants to assign redesigns as interview homework in hopes of getting a variety of options to choose from.
  • It’s demeaning
    Spec work also puts the agency and the designer at a lower level than the client instead of a valued partnership. Asking for round after round of changes with no end in site and knowing that the client has the upper hand makes this a very demeaning situation.

 

Enough is enough

 Zulu Alpha Kilo is an agency that put it were foot down and refused to do spec creative work when pitching for projects. They made it known to their clients where they stood on the matter and guess what? Their business actually did better than before and grew exponentially.

I love this quote by Zak Mroueh, Chief Creative Officer & Founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo:

“We’d like to help unchain clients and agencies from this outdated process. Because we really do believe that it’s bad for clients. It’s bad for agencies. And it’s bad for the entire industry.”

Check out this video they produced on spec work. It’s a gem.

Architects don't give away their blueprints. Diners don't fork out free meals. Personal Trainers don't sign over their intellectual property on spec. This video pokes fun at the speculative creative bidding process in new business pitches. We believe there's a better way for agencies and clients to find the perfect match.

 

Been there, done that!

Yes, my hate for spec work is personal. I’ve been burned a few times and have finally learned my lesson. At a previous company, we were pitching to a client on a large project which included a complete overhaul of their website. The hope was that by showing a redesign of their home page, we could show our capabilities to get a leg up on the other agencies who were bidding on the same project. This “quick” redesign took two weeks. There was no client feedback. We couldn’t ask any questions or clarify our assumptions. We submitted the designs and needless to say we didn’t win the project. Personally, it hurt having spent two weeks working on a design that was great but was not usable. All the hard work was wasted. This was a tough but important lesson to learn the hard way.

How to respond to spec work requests

A request for you to do spec work will happen sooner or later. Here are some ways for you to respond:

  • Flat out tell the client no; it’s not personal, it’s business.
  • Explain the value you bring when working with a contract.
  • Explain to the client how it spec work hurts them and their business.
  • Offer references who can speak to the quality of your work.
  • Use a phased engagement approach where you break the whole project into small engagements. Each small engagement can have an opt-out clause.
  • Provide a money back guaranty. This sounds a bit risky, but there are equal risks and assurances on both sides.
  • Share your process. Create case studies of previous projects so the client can be assured that they are in good hands.

Conclusion

Spec work must die. It is bad for everyone involved including the designer, the agency, the client, and the industry. The price unsuspecting designers and agencies pay is too much to keep quiet on this issue. We need to make it our mission to educate fellow designers on the dangers this practice. 

Next time you are asked to do spec work make sure you just #saynotospec


I’d love to hear where you stand on this issue. What has your experience been with spec work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Let’s connect!

Want to discuss this article or other topics? You can find me on Linkedin and Twitter.

Thanks! 🙇