Spec work is a very polarizing subject among designers and creative professionals. Personally, I think it’s far too complex and ambiguous a topic to speak definitively about, so I’d like to discuss this in detail and go over the various types of spec propositions I’ve received as a designer and offer my own personal insight on what kinds and why spec work is bad.
Spec work, short for speculative work, is work you do for someone on the speculation that you’ll be paid for it, instead of agreeing to terms, price and payments beforehand.
What Spec Work Isn’t…
Before I get into this, I’d like to draw lines around what my own definition of spec work is and is not, because I believe one of the biggest problems in discourse is that everyone seems to have their own arbitrary definition of what spec work is.
Let’s say you do work for an established public figure with a large following, but instead of compensating you with money, they’ll give you a shout out to their audience and pass forward a good word about you to their network and colleagues. In my opinion, that’s not spec work; it’s bartering (and good marketing.)
You’re still receiving some kind of value in exchange for your work. You’re being compensated, but in the form of having your business personally endorsed by someone with influence, which could rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.
I don’t have a problem with this approach. Although I have yet to pursue an opportunity like this myself, I would be open to it because I think it would be a clever strategic move as far as marketing and acquiring new clients goes.
What Spec Work Really Is…
Let’s say someone reaches out to you and says, “I need a logo made. Why don’t you come up with some design ideas, and if I like what I see, I’ll pay you for it.” If you were to pursue that offer, you would be working on the speculation that you’d be paid for your work. This is the sort of spec work I’ll be addressing in this post.
As a freelancer, the product you’re selling is your time, and when you accept spec work, you run the risk of giving your product away without being paid for it. You’re essentially working for free.
The argument clients make to justify this, is, if they pay for the work upfront, how do they know they’re going to like it? In that scenario, they’re forced to pay even if they aren’t satisfied with the work. That’s a flawed argument in my opinion though.
Being in business means that you’re going to take risks, and when a client wants work done on spec, they’re essentially saying that they want the designer to assume 100% of the risk so they don’t have to take any. Accepting such a proposition is not a wise business decision on behalf of the designer because they run the risk of not being paid for their work.
On the other hand, if the designer requires their clients to pay the full contract amount upfront, they’re shifting all of the risk onto the client while accepting none for themselves (assuming there isn’t some kind of refund policy in place, that is.)
Ideally, both parties should accept some degree of risk. This is why I try to find a fair common ground. What I like to do is require 50% of the total cost upfront as a deposit (for larger projects, that is.) If the client isn’t happy with the work, they’ve only lost half of what they agreed to pay, and I’ve only gotten paid half of what I wanted to be paid. This approach is fair for both parties involved because they both accept equal parts risk. This has proven to be effective in my experience.
Check out this comical video depicting how traditional businesses react when propositioned with spec work…
It makes you wonder: if other types of businesses would find this sort of proposition outrageous, why are we expected to accept this as designers?
Spec work also comes in the form of design contests. For example, something like 99Designs, where a bunch of designers come up with design ideas and the contest holder only pays for the design they like best. Only the creator of the chosen design gets paid, and all of the other designers that invested hours of their time coming up with design ideas walk away empty handed.
Again, this is a poor business decision on behalf of the designer. Your product (which is your time) is a valuable, finite resource. By participating in design contests, you’re devaluing your own product. You’re accepting 100% of the risk so the other party doesn’t have to accept any. This is not an effective way to do business.
If you are going to invest your valuable time into doing work for someone, you should expect to be compensated for it in some way.
People Who Just Want Free Stuff
Sometimes spec work comes in the form of a poor negotiation tactic from someone trying to fabricate leverage because they’re just looking for any random designer who will do the work for free.
Here’s some of those tactics I’ve had potential clients try to use on me…
“It’ll Be Great Exposure!”
This person tries to sell you on the concept that if you give them free work, they’ll spread the word about you to people who are willing to pay.
This only works if the person actually has an audience to expose you to, or a network of colleagues who could benefit from what you have to offer. Often times, these people are just starting out and have no audience or network to speak of. They’re basing this grand exposure on the assumption that they are going to be successful in their endeavors, when nobody really knows for sure (remember that old statistic that 90-something percent of all businesses go under within their first year.)
I’m okay with working for exposure, but it has to be exposure to an audience that actually exists; not the hypothetical audience someone dreams of someday having. Not only that, but it has to be a targeted audience.
As a graphic designer, the people who are going to hire you are usually entrepreneurs, business owners, startups, other freelancers, and so on. This would be a great audience to be exposed to. However, you have very little to gain from having your work exposed to kids watching gaming videos on Youtube, for example. As far as demographics go, these are not people that are going to hire you for design work.
Make sure the audience you’re getting in front of is relevant to your business.
If you want exposure, you don’t always have to do unpaid work for someone else. It’s 2016. You can get lots of exposure on social media. Just look at what I’ve been doing on Youtube and with this blog. This content I create ranks in search, gets discovered, gets shared, and leads to me being hired by paying clients. You can do that too.
“Can’t I See A Sample Or Sketch First?”
As discussed earlier, when someone wants to sample your ideas before agreeing to pay you for it. This is someone who is supposed to be an inherent risk-taker, but doesn’t want to take a risk on you. Instead, they want you to take all of the risk. Well, why would I risk wasting my time creating sketches for you when I could spend that time doing work for someone who will pay me for it, or creating content that will attract people that will pay me for it? How do I know that you’re not going to take my sketches and disappear into cyberspace, then hand it off to someone on Fiverr so they can recreate it for 5 bucks?
Expecting someone to do any kind of work for you without giving them some kind of value in return is demeaning and disrespectful, even if it’s just the initial sketches. Sketches require a time investment, and the research and design exploration that needs to be done before you can even begin coming up with sketches requires even more time.
If I get a bad haircut, I still pay for it. If I order a meal and it sucks, I still pay for it. If I hire a web developer and they turn the work in 13 days late, I still pay them for it. I just won’t do business with them again, and I’ll accept partial responsibility for that poor experience because I didn’t make the best decision.
If someone wants to run a successful business, they need to be comfortable with making hiring decisions, taking risks, and accepting responsibility when things don’t pan out.
“It’ll Help You Build Your Portfolio!”
This is often thrown at new designers who are just starting out.
There’s many ways you could build your portfolio while keeping your professional dignity intact. You can do work for family and friends, you could do work for charities and non-profit organizations you’re passionate about, or you could simply do what I did when I first started out and create logos for fictitious concepts.
The latter approach doesn’t necessarily prepare you for client interactions and meeting deadlines, but it does help in showing off your competency when it comes to design, which sometimes is enough for you to be hired for a small project by someone looking for an entry-level designer because they may be working with a limited budget.
You don’t have to give your services away in order to build an impressive portfolio that will entice people to hire you.
Putting Things In Perspective
A post like this can paint a grim picture of what it’s like to be a freelance graphic designer, but don’t let it discourage you. The overwhelming majority of requests I receive and clients I do work for are respectable business people who are an absolute pleasure to work with. It’s because of them that I have a wonderful quality of life. If you intend to become a freelance designer yourself, your own experiences probably won’t be too much different. For every 100 inquiries you’ll receive, maybe 1 or 2 of them will be from someone trying to swindle you for free stuff. As long as you understand the value proposition and make the right decisions, you’ll be alright.
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