Spec Work: Good or Bad?


The concept of “Spec Work” is one that is constantly thrown around in the design world, and became even more evident during our refresh contest, in which, despite a large reader base, we received just one entry. For this article (or more of a opinionated piece), I take a look at why people hate spec work so much, and why it is actual ruining creativity.

What is Spec Work?

To understand what we mean by Spec work, you first have to know what it is. As defined by the anti-spec work campaign No!Spec, Spec work is “the short form for any work done on a speculative basis. In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.

The simplest example of Spec Work is a design contest, where there is one winner, and the other entries end up going towards nothing, with no benefits to the creator. It’s speculative because you could work your ass off and get nothing for it, which would end up being a waste of time and waste of resources…right?

This is where the line in the sand gets drawn.

Let the battles begin

As a designer myself, I can totally understand why people would be up in arms over doing work they might not get anything for. When I first started out [and was a complete idiot], I spent a lot of time doing work for clients who would run away with mock-ups or stop contacting me all together after I started the design. This was never any fun, because I didn’t take down payments, and selling a custom based template wasn’t the easiest thing to do if it wasn’t generalized. So plain and simple, I ended up screwing myself over multiple times. I had then created spec work for myself, because I would get nothing or very little out of my hard work.

“…design contests devalue professional designers work…”
– 9rules member note

To prevent this, people started campaigns like No!Spec to try to deteriorate designers from taking part in such work, and to “educate” people on why they shouldn’t host such things as design contests. The topic was also recently brought up on 9rules notes, with one commenter saying so much as “No, please don’t, design contests devalue professional designers work.” after a question was asked about whether a design contest would be appropriate for someone to run.

That one sentence annoyed me, especially because it generalized all types of contests – the fair and unfair ones. There are contests that do offers fair market value prizes for the work they require you to put in, and there are others that offer you $10 to put together a full site. Obviously, they are two opposite sites of the spectrum. In our recent contest, we gave away a 30GB Zune, with a list price around $230 USD. In exchange we asked for one homepage mock-up of our next design, simply because I was strung out and stuck in a rut in terms of design ideas. I thought the prize being offered was very fair, because we were only looking for one page, which would not require all too much time being dedicated to get it completed. We had plans to showcase all of our submitted entries at the end of the week in Friday Focus, so un-used entries simply wouldn’t be thrown into the incinerator.

The fact that people would believe that contests devalue the work of a designer I found quite unbelievable. Contests are one of the easiest ways for beginning designers to get started, because they can experiment in a no pressure situation, where they have nothing to lose and plenty of experience to gain. This is why $50-$100 prize logo contests on forums became so popular and generally garnered many participants. The work wasn’t all too complex, the prize wasn’t that bad, and it gave you the freedom the experiment and see how you stacked up against other designers.

And what if you are not a beginner but a seasoned veteran? What the hell would a contest do for you if you are years past the “experimental” stage? Veteran or beginner, you would be able to have the same benefits. The ability to design without restrictions and limitations, and to try something new, would all be on the table for you. No client influence hanging over your head, no exact style you have to follow. The ability to be free – something most clients unfortunately don’t give their designers. And if you aren’t declared the winner and don’t win that valuable prize, you could add the work to your portfolio or go along and sell it. Your work would not be devalued – in fact; you’d gain even more in experience.

A contest is…a contest

When you enter a contest, you should realize that you might not win. That is after all, the purpose of a contest. No!Spec supporters believe that you have to get something for participating, so they must not play the lottery too often, because they would find themselves severely disappointed 99.9% of the time. Contests help people expose different sides of creativity that they might not be able to get out in a client orientated world. It also allows them to grow as designers, even though their wallets might not exactly be overflowing because of it. In the end, whether or not you take on spec work is your own call, and it is best to base each call off the situation at hand. Analyze whether or not you have the chance at possibly getting anything at all (because if not, that definitely helps you lean towards the “don’t do this” side), and if there is a prize, make sure it is worth the work you may end up putting into the project. But don’t, I repeat, don’t, turn away contests [or the opportunity to host one for that matter] because a portion of designers think it is wrong and/or devaluating. Your work is what you make it, and if you believe a contest is giving your work less of a value, maybe you are the one actually devaluating your own hard work simply because you are not seeing green.

Note: Please see my comment note for my view on why taking is spec work does differ and depend on whether or not you are a freelancer or full time designer. As evident (and should have been stated earlier), I am a freelancer, so this view / opinion is based on designing not be your sole source of income / full time job.

Your turn. We want to know what your thoughts are on spec work. Do you support contests and doing spec work from time to time, or are you totally against it? Please let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear your responses. This article is not intended to offend anyone who follows one view or the other, simply to present the view most people ignore.

  1. By Matthew Pennell posted on April 18, 2007 at 3:33 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    “Nothing to lose”? Seriously? So presumably you think that those designers’ time and effort is worth nothing, then?

    If I spend several hours creating a design for a contest that I don’t then win, I have ‘lost’ hundreds of that would normally be billable. Saying “Oh well you can add it to your portfolio anyway” is a lame answer.

    It’s a cliched argument and used too often, but compare design contests to other professions to see how unacceptable they are – would you ask all the local mechanics to fix your car for free, and then you’ll choose which one fixed it the best and only pay him?

  2. By mahud posted on April 18, 2007 at 4:36 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I can understand full on professionals not wanting to participate in such contents, and they probably wouldn’t have the time anyway, with all the projects they are working on guaranteeing payment.

    As an aspiring web designer, yet to make any profit from my work, I would be picky about theses kind of contests, and if there are warning signs, I’d steer well clear.

    I have done much design work in the past that was unpaid, assured by the client, that it would help get my Name out there, only to have my hard work replaced a few months later.

    I no longer do any design work for free. I spend days and weeks creating sites, mostly my own re-designs and templates, improving my coding skills, and these are what end up in my portfolio.

    The amount of work and knowledge that is required to create code and craft functional and aesthetic Web sites, but as far as business sites who run such comps for peanuts, they would e better of hire an experienced designer, and get involved with the design process themselves. In the long run, they are going to benefit.

  3. By Ben posted on April 18, 2007 at 4:38 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Um, Matthew – if it’s a contest then there will be losers. That’s a competition. It’s not a signed contract piece of professional *paid* work.

    If ‘losing’ your design time is such an issue.. don’t enter. Some designers will however, and if they have a good design their prize is exposure.

    It’s like people who complain about TV.. it you don’t like it, switch it over(!)

  4. By aj posted on April 18, 2007 at 5:40 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Here’s my thing. If you need to put a solid price on design for it to have value, than maybe you’re in the wrong profession. Like everything else, if you love it, you do it regardless. If you can’t spare a few days and don’t want to sacrifice anything, then yeah, don’t enter, but for people to say it devalues work is just bullshit, because any designer should value their own work more than anyone else.

    Design can not be compared to any other profession either. How can you compare an auto mechanic to a designer? For the most part, we don’t order parts from various places and have grease on our fingers. We sit in comfortable chairs in our homes or offices and work in idea conditions.

    Sidenote: Freelancers tend to have different views than your everyday designer working for a firm. If your designing every day, chances are you don’t have the time to participate in spec work, and that is fully understandable, because that is your overall income you’re losing. But when Freelancers also shy away from such work like as in contests, it’s disappointing to say the least.

  5. By Lauren posted on April 18, 2007 at 7:57 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I absolutely agree with you aj…

    I, by far, cannot fully call myself a designer to date.. aspiring to say the least. I am just about to complete my core program for web design. I also haven’t entered into any contests yet. If a contest can whet my design skills by offering a challenge, then why snub it? Like aj said, if you’re a full-on professional and you consider your “time is money”, then don’t hate on the rest of us who are just trying to “make it”. For myself, I sometimes need a reason to get motivated, and if a contest can do so, then so be it…

    Design is art.. art is expression… any medium that allows pure freedom of expression without the constraints of client demands seems to me like a good outlet no matter what cheese is at the end of the maze.

  6. By Matthew Pennell posted on April 18, 2007 at 9:29 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    “Design can not be compared to any other profession either. How can you compare an auto mechanic to a designer? For the most part, we don’t order parts from various places and have grease on our fingers. We sit in comfortable chairs in our homes or offices and work in idea conditions.”

    Sorry, but since when was the value of a profession judged by how dirty one gets performing it?? It’s clear that you don’t value your skills at all – it’s almost as if you don’t think you deserve to get paid for what you do…

  7. By Rachel posted on April 18, 2007 at 9:48 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I think your perspective on design contests is interesting. There are differences between a contest entry and spec work. A contest can be a fun side project for someone like me, a corporate designer who works with the same colors and logos all day, every day!

    Also when it comes to contests, I think whether or not it’s appropriate depends on the company who’s holding it. A volunteer or community site that’s primarily built as a labor of love by its creators is not “cheap” for holding a design contest. On the other hand, a profitable company with resources to pay for professional design is probably better served anyway by working with a designer on a contract basis rather than holding a contest and hoping something “sticks”.

  8. By mel posted on April 18, 2007 at 10:07 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I agree with Rachel. And I do think there is a definite difference between a contest (fun, no stress) and spec work (which is far from fun and um, “work”).

    If I had the time, I probably would have submitted an entry for your contest. I was able to do that back in the day, when ExpressionEngine had a template design contest. It was fun, they had some cool prizes and it allowed me to be creative without any restrictions. I don’t feel it devalued any of my work.

  9. By aj posted on April 18, 2007 at 10:16 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Do I value my work? Of course I do, and by no means do I value others work based on “how dirty they get”. The point I was trying to hint at is that you can not expect a car mechanic to do work for free, because they are forced to buy many parts, etc, from outside sources, meaning before they even start actual maintenance, they have actually spent money. [Freelance] designers tend to work alone, their are no outside expenses, so it’s totally up to each individual whether or not to accept spec work a not. Comparing a car mechanic to designer in terms of spec work was not a good comparison.

  10. By Matthew Pennell posted on April 18, 2007 at 11:10 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    “[Freelance] designers tend to work alone, their (sic) are no outside expenses…”

    You don’t need a computer, software, maybe office space (certainly office supplies)? Just because we don’t need to buy spark plugs doesn’t mean we can afford to work for free!

  11. By Nate Cavanaugh posted on April 18, 2007 at 11:14 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    As a designer who has done quite his share of spec work, I think it’s important to remind a few of you of this little fact:

    Life is speculation.

    There are no guarantees. That client you’re pitching your designs to? (S)he could say no. Then you’d be out the time you prepared.

    That job interview you spent 3 hours at? Guess what, you might not get the job.

    That design contest you entered? Hey, guy, news flash! This isn’t your t-ball team where everyones a winner, and we all get a cupcake afterwards.
    Someone will win, everyone else will lose.

    There are plenty of industries where spec work is done, and in fact, for an entrepreneur, any industry they go into will be spec work.

    The problem isn’t the morons posting ads on Craigs List offering potential riches if you help them set up their animatronic hentai porn site for free.
    The problem is dopes who say yes.

    And if they find a dope who is willing to do the site for free, whats the harm in that? The dope is either going to learn his lesson (as we all did), get stinking rich, OR never do design work again.

    I’m fine with all three outcomes. Why? Because that dope is fully capable of making grown up choices.

    So, my advice? If your design competitions are cutting into your billable hours, then use your grown up powers of time management, and don’t waste your time.

    There was a great article on Sitepoint, I believe about this sort of thing.

    The author said something about splitting his time 70% billable, 30% spec. Sounds about fair to me.

    Or, if you really want to flex your economic muscles, do 100% billable, and 0% spec.

    But don’t go around pissing in everyone elses cheerios because you can’t win a design competition, and therefore it must be an exploitative technique by the man to get all of your free design work.

    Trust me, most of the crap entered in a design competition is throw away anyways.

    There was a famous artist, his name escapes me, but he said that every artist has 100,000 bad drawings in him, and that once he’s gotten rid of all 100,000 he is now a master.

    So think of design contests as a way for the collective mass to expunge their bad work, bringing the world closer to having more great artists. 😉

  12. By aj posted on April 18, 2007 at 11:18 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Hah, nice points Nate :)

    Btw, 100% off topic, but nice site design. Could end up in this weeks Friday Focus 😉

  13. By Lauren posted on April 18, 2007 at 12:14 pm
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Nate.. “BRILLIANT!”


  14. By tsk posted on April 18, 2007 at 3:07 pm
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    Great take on the spec work issue, AJ.

    I strongly agree with Nate. If you’re entering a contest, in the back of your head you must always have that idea that you probably won’t win.

    Also, if you’re entering contests to pay for your bills you’ll be homeless in no time soon.

    No right-minded professional will expect to live off spec work. On the other hand, freelancers will jump at the occasion of any free advertising. That’s of course if you’re in need of any exposure at all.

    Matthew, I think you’re just trying to attack any of the above said. You don’t go off buying a computer software and office space just for a lousy contest. No. You go off buying that trying to make some real money from paid work.

    If you’re interested in participating, you might use those in making and submitting your work. No one will ever make you buy that kind of stuff just to enter a contest.

    I love Nate’s expression “don’t go around pissing in everyone elses cheerios”. If the contest is not interesting to you, you are not forced to participate but remember that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

    You, Matthew, are probably trying to be over-protective with some newbies whom, you think, will be in loss after participating in such a contest. This discussion is a great way of showing off that and I thank you, seriously, for bringing it up. On the other hand, most freelancers get exposure out of these things too. This is up to each participant to decide if they will commit to such a task.

    On a side note to the organizers of the contest here at Devlounge I’d have some issues to point out. It may be just my case but I think it was all planned in a haste.

    Giving participants just around two weeks to submit their work, and this during the Easter holidays may haven’t been the smartest decision. Just speaking on my part, I had a thought of participating with something but I was in the middle of another, paid, project that required my attention. This, coupled with a few days of well-earned vacation, narrowed my spec-work time to a few busy days.

    I’m not looking for compassion but I think that the low participation rate may have been influenced by the fact that the competition was on a tight schedule in a very chaotic time-frame with the holidays and such.

    I was planning on submitting something, and I was confident it would be just for the exposure. I hadn’t dreams for the Zune but now seeing that this sparked such a feverish discussion I regret not taking the time to submit something. I could really have spoken from the other side, as opposed to Matthew’s opinion.

  15. By aj posted on April 18, 2007 at 3:59 pm
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    That’s TSK. It kinda of was an ignored fact/issue on my part. We will (most likely) be running a logo contest in the near future after we get the new design coded, and I’ll make sure to allow a greater time table.

  16. By mike posted on May 4, 2007 at 12:47 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I’ve hired designers to do work and have also provided design services for clients and I think the original poster of this article missed the most critical point of the NO SPEC campaign. Getting spec work done is a huge gamble (think speculative/speculation) for *both* parties involved.

    Most people think that spec work is bad for designers because they aren’t getting paid and good for the people hiring because they get it free but remember YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

    Design work is a process aimed at developing a plan or a solution based on specific goals. During the initial phase of a design project the designer works with the client to learn about their needs and aims and goals and does research to learn as much as s/he can to reach the project goals. This means a lot of work to get the right design solution. To jump to a solution and provide spec work means you are skipping or rushing or guessing about that in between phase. So what’s the spec work then uninformed solutions or goals. It’s speculative solutions that are not the result of careful design work but guess work. Would you risk reling on guess work when hiring any other contractor or professional to provide you with services personally or professionally? Is it really worth the risk to your brand identity or your interior design [fill in type of design work] ?

    Could you imagine going into a lawyer and telling them you won’t hire them until they provide you with a draft “concept” of a will or a business agreement specific to your project without fully understanding your needs? Would you run off an use this spec work to secure your future? Or how about a Dr. who would give out a trial free diagnosis before you decide to use them as your regular Dr. Would you actually trust a Dr. that would do that? I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t trust a designer who would try to design (i.e. plan) a project without fully understanding the project or doing the research and necessary steps to complete the process to reach a solution.

    There are tons of analogies to other professions but the point is SPEC WORK is a disservice to the client and a waste of time for both parties.

  17. By Nadia M posted on May 10, 2007 at 4:55 pm
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment


  18. By Varun D posted on August 27, 2008 at 4:13 am
    Want an avatar? Get a gravatar! • You can link to this comment

    I LOVE Nate Cavanaugh’s explanation. Right on! And I believe in the fact too that all designers are able to take adult decisions and if not then they will learn from the experience. It your choice in the end.

    Ultimately, No Spec explanation maybe misleading by people who are “ultra No spce supporters”!

    I think NO Spec comes into play when a corporate needs a logo/below the line ad/campaign art which would take them weeks and maybe even months to sit with the artist and iron out the minute details, this REQUIRES money and time on the part of the artist and hence in these instances no designer in the right mind must do any Spec work for the client.

    However, if its a small competition and me as a freelance artist has got some time, then I would love to do it and see where my imagination takes me without the client on my head.

    Ultimately its your choice. And you will learn from it accordingly.

    aj has also given good reasoning.

  19. TrackbackStandards for Life by Natalie Jost » Designer to Designer: Spec WorkTo Spec or Not to Spec | Think VitaminHi, I’m Grace Smith » How To Say No To Spec Work Requests