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Spec work: bad for client, bad for designer

spec work

Imagine this scenario:

“I went for a dental check-up yesterday. After the dentist inspected my teeth, she suggested some work to prevent further tooth decay. I told her to go ahead, and if the dental work was satisfactory, I’d be more than happy to pay. She responded that she wouldn’t be able to do that, because she normally provides a service when a fee is agreed upon up-front. I said I’d let her know after I checked in with other local dentists.”

Unlikely, isn’t it? When you visit a dentist an appropriate rate of pay is expected for professional services. Yet every day, graphic design professionals are asked to provide free services in the mere hope of being paid. It’s called free pitching, or speculative work — spec for short — and is considered unethical among leading graphic design associations.

Why free pitching for graphic design doesn’t work

Design contests and spec work can be frustrating for designers who feel the value of their profession is not understood. In a speculative scenario, the graphic designer is chosen for the product produced, and not for the service offered. Graphic design, by its very nature, is not a commodity. Coal, gold, coffee — these are commodities, where the value fluctuates depending upon markets. The value of design is dependent on the skill and experience of the designer doing the work.

AIGA website

AIGA, “the professional association for design,” published its stance on spec work:

“AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

no spec

If you receive a request for speculative work, write or call the issuer. There’s a chance they may not even realise the practice is unethical. The website offers sample letters to get started.

Update: November 2010
Here’s how I respond to a spec work requests.

When starting out as a designer, it may be tempting to undercharge, but by doing so you’ll find yourself working with clients who don’t appreciate your value. More often than not, this will lead to hour after hour of revisions before a suitable design is reached — if at all.

Further spec work chat:

My second book on Amazon

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56 comments about “Spec work: bad for client, bad for designer”

  1. It took me a little while to catch onto this one. When I first started out with paid work, I did spend a fair bit of time at the SitePoint contests. I don’t regret it though, because I did learn a lot from it.

    The best way to learn about dealing with clients is to get clients, and at SitePoint, it’s very easy to get clients. The pay may be poor usually, but it is still something, and assuming you’re only starting out in the business, you probably don’t deserve great pay at that point anyway.

    After improving my skills considerably, and having learnt all I needed to know, I’ve stopped working at SitePoint contests, and do no more spec work. It’s a much nicer, stress-free way to operate! :)

  2. I think SitePoint does have value for beginning designers wanting to get some practice and maybe make some money from it. For those who are self-taught, having the opportunity to practice creating designs for real-world clients is ideal.

    It is rather sad that anyone would expect spec work from a designer though. Talk about devaluing someone’s time and expertise.

  3. You have to just put your foot down and say no to people who try to hire you on spec. Most of the time they are not knowledgeable about business (in general) anyway. If they do have an idea about graphic design or industry practices, but still request work on spec; they are likely unethical or scammers.

  4. This also happens with IT consultancy. After an initial meeting we will provide basic advice. Some clients then expect an indepth report on their IT systems without us charging for the service.

    Jamie

  5. I think there’s always different markets of clients, just like different markets of consumers. There are the ones who know how to appreciate a branded product, they appreciate the effort made in the design of the product, the extensive testing and research that comes along with it, and will not hesitate much to pay a premium for it.

    There’s also the ones who belong in the walmart category, the clients who think they want to get the best out of the cheapest, these are usually the ones who will crowdsource. These are also the same people who you wouldn’t want as clients anyway, because they’re the ones who will keep asking for price cuts, free revisions, etc. They’re the ones who looked for you not because they truly love your work, but probably at that point of time you seemed to be a great bargain.

    Of course there’s always the somewhere-in-between clients, who appreciate good work, just that they might be new to the whole thing. They usually start of with crowdsourcing, pick a designer they’re comfortable to work with, and move off from there.

    I think just like clients, there are some projects that may work better through crowdsourcing instead off a 1 to 1 relationship, the amount of rough ideas you get from a crowd can be astounding. It’s like a glorified sketching process. Sometimes no amount of research and process will make a logo work or not. (i.e. nike logo) Sometimes it’s just that spark of idea that seems to come from nowhere. Sometimes that spark comes from that special someone in the crowd.

    The crowdsourcing sites are a blessing to designers in poorer countries who do not have the kind of client network (and money) to draw into. They’re also a blessing to those who are just starting out with no portfolio to show.

    I’ve had direct clients and also have been one of those in the crowd. Surprisingly, some of my best clients are the ones that followed me from these crowd sourcing sites. That’s probably because they’ve already been through a working process with me, and they like what they’ve experienced, so there’s no mismatch of expectations like a new client.

    I’ve also had no qualms directing some of my potential clients to these crowdsourcing sites. Sometimes if you know that this client is a happier person seeing 20 different designs no matter the quality, then he/she is a happier crowdsourcer.

    To each of his own, I don’t think it’s really hurting the industry that much, because ultimately those who are willing to pay and look for good talent will still be looking for the professional designers.

    And not forgetting, some designers just seem to like competition.

    To sum it up, I personally feel if a designer is confident of his/her own ability, and strives to work for good clients, then there’s really nothing to fear.

  6. I used SitePoint for bit becuase….well, I’m a student and was up for anything to try and make money lol. It does seem like a good idea at first, but I was spending lots of time creating things that were good, but it seemed never good enough for them. SitePoint DOES allow you to submit however many designs you want though and the clients must give back feedback. But, it’s such a waste of time if you never win.

    Another thing that bothered me was actual design businesses using SitePoint to outsource their work. They would offer lets say….$200 for a logo and whatever else….but how much were they charging their actual client? Ya never know. I agree with Randa Clay that it’s good for beginners all, but after all is said and done I don’t agree with any of it. Sadly I found out the hard way.

  7. For the last couple of months I’ve been looking for a designer for a new theme for my site. I must admit that I was hoping for a mock-up (I think it’s called, a basic “drawing” of the theme) before hiring the designer.

    I would never expect a full theme or anything similar, but just something to give me an idea of what the designer is capable of.

    I can see why it is unethical, but I had no idea before reading this. To my defense though ;) I’m not sure the dentist scenario is completely describing. As I see it the dentist can only fix your teeth in one way, maybe using a crown or similar and tell you to brush your teeth. You expect your teeth to look good afterwards and so does she.

    A designer might have an idea and you might have an idea, I find it very hard communicating my ideas to designers and imagining the suggestion from the designer. I think thats why I like to get a mock-up.

  8. ‘I would never expect a full theme or anything similar, but just something to give me an idea of what the designer is capable of.”

    It’s called a portfolio :-)

  9. I recently was asked to quote for some website work, and I had a discussion with the prospective client which took the form of a preliminary briefing. I offered no ideas or design concepts (initial mockups), nor was I asked for any.

    When I submitted my quote, the client sent an email back which suggested he was expecting that I would provide some design concepts too. I wrote back pointing him to my online portfolio, where he could see previous examples of my work. The next day he wrote back, saying he’d given the work to someone else who had provided design concepts. He said he felt I had done a good job of listening to his needs and translating them into my quote, and that he was disappointed not to receive any design concepts from me.

    I wrote back explaining that that wasn’t the way I worked, and that I provide no mockups until after a contract is signed (I also pointed out that mockup work was outlined in the quote I had sent him). I felt it was important to point out that this is a necessary part of the design practice, not just for myself but for a large proportion of graphic designers. I didn’t receive a reply.

    I agree with comments made above, that some prospective clients just aren’t knowledgeable about the process. And on the subject of crowdsourcing, it’s not for all designers and I think it’s unlikely that it would suit all clients too; there will always be clients who prefer to deal one-on-one with a designer, and also those who simply don’t have time to plough through 20 designs created on spec. At least I hope so.

  10. Hi David

    I’m a big believer in marketplace economics and so if this sort of things works for someone, that’s great. I have used the competitions before but for speculative projects. IE. Getting a logo done by a total pro would have been completely illogical if looked at in terms of cost v. benefit. In one case I was very happy, in another case all designs presented were average.

    I’m currently working with a designer from my city who’s doing a few different graphics related projects for my site and am paying more than at Sitepoint because the project means a lot more to me.

    Another attractive pull of the crowdsource is a ‘safety in numbers’ feeling. What if you hire a designer who proves unreliable? Barely communicates? It’s a big leap, and the designer needs a great portfolio to convince you that it’s worth it. For many designers SitePoint could be a good way to get that folio.

    If I want something decent, I crowdsource.

    If I want something brilliant I will find the best.

    Also regarding income levels, during the month or two that I spent there putting competitions in – and the prize levels were about half of their current level – at least three designers were pulling down pretty nice incomes for what they were doing. IE. US$500 a week. That’s a standard income for a first or second year grad designer in my city.

  11. Justin, I used to believe I should take on every client who approached me, but that’s just not feasible. For anyone.

    Jamie, the idea could pan out in any industry, to some extent, where people push and push for as much of a ‘freebie’ as possible. Hope you’re not too snowed under.

    Winnie, absolutely right. As for directing potential clients to crowdsourcing sites, that’s not something I’d do. Sure, they’ll get a lot more options for their money, but at what cost to quality?

    Sean, that’s a shame you found out the hard way. Did you take anything positive from your efforts?

    Dennis, as Cat says, if you want an idea of what a designer is capable of, look at their portfolio rather than have them work without any contract/payment. As for the dental scenario, it’s certainly not unheard of to come across a cowboy dentist. You say you find it hard communicating your ideas to a designer. I wonder what information you provide them? Do they have a template design brief or questions they have you answer? Perhaps you send them sketches or your own mock-ups?

    Cat, thanks for the mention on NO!SPEC.

    Tracey, while it’s never great to spend time with a potential client only for them to turn you down, I think you made the right move. I’ll often have someone complete one of my questionnaires before I send a quote only for him/her to disappear into the sunset.

    Jonk, that’s fair enough if you want a cheap logo for a speculative project, but do you think it’s better leaving the logo (or simply creating a text logo yourself) until you know for sure if the project is going ahead? That way you save the money you spend crowdsourcing for your professional design budget.

    Regarding those designers who barely communicate. You can get a decent idea of their practices before spending any money, simply by their online presence / the communication before hiring etc. Give them a call. Do they answer first time? Do they have voicemail? How long does it take them to call you back if they missed your call? Things like that all count towards that first impression.

  12. I just want to say comeing from a younger designers stand point that this was a great article. I just graduated in May and comeing into the industry I do not know much besides how to try to make great work. Priceing and ethics are something I am still learning. So I am glad that this post are out there for young designers not to fall into some traps. Thank You for the great blog.

  13. You’re right on, David, when you say that it devalues our work. Enough people already don’t understand the value of a designer and spec work just makes it worse for everyone, including future designers the client may work with. It also attracts future clients who expect the same thing (word will get around). If clients don’t value our services highly they will also not want to listen to our advice and that too makes it frustrating for everyone all around.

    But here’s a situation I was in recently. Tell me what you think: I met with a client in December 2006 and the representative said she was ready to start building a website for the company. She had the budget and was prepared to take the time to get things moving. She was brand new to working with a designer and wanted to know the process. I explained it to her and what she needed to do so that I could start working. I explained it about 20 times over the course of 9 months. I finally had to tell her I couldn’t work with her anymore. I never got paid for that. I didn’t actually do any creative work, but I did a lot of emailing and explaining and that took time. What would you do in a situation where you really wanted to work for the client for networking possibilities as well as portfolio pieces and sustained income but things just don’t get off the ground?

    BTW, I’m glad you wrote this because it’s been informative to read the comments, especially from people who are on the client side and have discussed why they make the decisions they do. Thanks to those of you who responded!

  14. Haha, My avatar as a phalic symbol would be a very sad man!

  15. Great article, David. As a designer with 14 years in the business and as the owner of my own company, here’s my two cents.

    All of you students who are saying it’s great experience to post in the SitePoint contests, I applaud your initiative. It’s great that you’re getting out there. However, if you’re willing to work for such little money, one suggestion is that you contact a small non-profit near you (and if you believe in their mission, so much the better) and inquire if there’s any work that they need done for very low pay. Many smaller organizations don’t have very much money, but could really use help with their web site, logo, publications, etc. They’d get better quality design than what they’re used to (typically a volunteer clip-arting away in Publisher or Microsoft Word) and you’d get some money, experience, and pieces for your portfolio.

    When I start a new project, I always have a discussion with the client about what would happen if I can’t come up with a design that they love. In my contract I offer three initial designs, another round of three if the first three aren’t accepted, and up to five rounds of revisions. If none of those are acceptable, I charge the client for any expenses I’ve incurred (shipping, art or font purchases, etc. Not my time) and we go our separate ways. This is my guarantee that the client won’t waste their money on work that they don’t like, and a way for me to never have to work on spec, which I refuse to do. In the 9+ years I’ve had this policy, I’ve only ever had to honor it once. Design is a process, and when a client asks to see “roughs” before they hire the designer, they’re discounting the time it takes for client and designer to work together to come up with the right solution.

  16. “The text revolves mainly around SitePoint, a website where people post requests for logo designs / t-shirt designs etc., but don’t pay any money until they receive a design they like, often from the lowest bidder.”

    My understanding is that SitePoint encourages higher prices, rather than “lowest bidder” like many other marketplaces where competition is based on the lowest bid/quote. At SitePoint, designgers compete by submitting designs, not the lowest bid.

    Higher prize contests attract more entries, better designers, higher quality. Over time, I see more and more big contests ($500-$1000+) on SitePoint. This is great for designers, especially from places like Romania, Ukraine, Russia, India, Pakistan, etc. where $500 is often more than 1 months wages.

    Even if they don’t speak/write English very well, these designers can compete on a global marketplace and increase their standard of living.

  17. It is similar in the translation world. It is one of the reason I don’t freelance much anymore. I have done “sample” work for companies and then they turn around and not use my services after they have seen a “sample” translation of a document that was professionally translated for them. It really makes you think that some people have no integrity.

  18. David,

    What do you think about the other way round – designers offering spec work to people?

    Like doing a complete blog design for free.

  19. Looks like everybody’s had this problem: translators, IT people, designers.

    And copywriters too – although usually, it’s a sample piece of copy that somebody wants rewritten just to see if you really can jump through that hoop.

    But if you do, you’re setting yourself up for failure: they don’t brief properly, and won’t until you get the job (you see the circular logic). It’s a bit like saying ‘draw me a picture, and if I like it, I’ll tell you more about the sort of pictures I like’.

    Even worse, some people try to get you to carry their risk: write some sales copy, but settle for a percentage of the sales rather than a fixed fee. That would be fine if you had control over their products/services, customer service, prospect list, marketing plan and so on. But you don’t.

    In the end, I think you have to decide on your approach, and stick to your guns.

    Not only does spec work devalue what you do, but it establishes the rules of the game early on: they dictate, you comply. And that doesn’t augur well for a good working relationship.

  20. Like Kevin said, “Looks like everybody’s had this problem.” In the domains I’ve played in from actress to freelance journalist, copywriter and now coaching, it’s a similar dilemma. What seems to underly all our knee-jerk freebie agreements is the fear that there will never be another opportunity to make money. “I’ll never work again.”

    Over and over I’ve noticed that sticking to my integrity, fundamentally “no work for free,” establishes a credibility in my work, and actually helps solidify my niche and the types of clients I want to work with.

    In the end, I have more, not less.

    Great post, David.

  21. Lauren, I can empathise with the situation you were in. In fact, it’s similar situations that prompted me to publish my previous post, my design process. Having this information readily available makes it easier to answer client questions before they arrive, saving time and effort.

    If things don’t seem to be getting off the ground, I politely remind the potential client that I can’t justify spending so much time educating them without some form of contract or payment.

    Leslie, thanks for your two cents. Your suggestion to approach local non-profits rather than enter a contest is right on the money.

    Ian, apologies if I’ve misinterpreted the SitePoint ethos. I don’t recommend that anyone should look to SitePoint or contest marketplaces to increase their standard of living, no matter how the economy is in their country. A skilled designer could spend all their time entering contests, and still not ‘win’ any, because the standard of client is generally less than they’d find elsewhere. When you deal with a client who doesn’t value the design process, you can’t expect them to choose a quality design over a poor one.

    Ilker, I’m not sure we’re on the same wavelength. Working on spec involves the idea that there could be some form of compensation, if the client is happy. What you’re suggesting is working for free, no matter what.

    Kevin, good of you to comment. I agree that the vast majority of contests I see don’t include a proper brief. Sticking to your guns is definitely the only way to be.

    Lisa, great to read. A lot of fresh designers could use that advice (I know I could’ve when I first started out).

  22. Terrific post and replies from everyone.

    I think one of the problems we face in the design industry is that many of us actually like our jobs (or at least the designing part of the job anyway!) and there is a misconception that because we enjoy it, we are happy to work for slave wages. Unfortunately job satisfaction doesn’t pay the mortgage.

    I thoroughly agree with Leslie that some pro bono is a good thing (for both parties) and I encourage my own class to go down this route. Great for learning to deal with clients without the too much pressure.

  23. That’s good advice. Thanks, David! Going through two situations like the one I mentioned prompted me to also set flat rates for creating websites. A little wiggle room there, but it gives the client a basic idea and I also now have plenty of material to explain the process to the next people so I don’t have to spend more time!

  24. Hi David,

    Spec work or in Industrial Design called Free Pitching has its roots in the advertising industry. They used to sell free graphic design as part of the entire brand package, as a result spoiling the graphic design industry.

    We have the same issue in industrial design as contract manufacturing companies offer free product design in returns of large manufacturing contracts.

    At the end of the day, designers that engage in free pitching, ie doing work for free, means that they not putting in the effort to do the quality work that betters the industry. Or if the effort is put in, then why would people pay for good work? In fact, this really applies to all services industries as design of any discipline is really a service.

    It is tempting for fresh graduates to take on free work, but it is not ideal. There are many other options, work as an intern, rework an old project, polish your portfolio etc.

    Speaking of portfolios, your portfolio should represent your talent and ability. And you that to get hired. Also there are many employees that ask you to do a mock test or draw ideas on the spot. That is to me also free pitching. If you have to do it, remember to bring home the work.

    Finally on Sitepoint, i read about them a while ago, and they lost the plot about crowdsourcing and walk the grey area of free pitching. To crowdsource something is for a business or designer to do something the crowd or customers want. ie getting confirmed sales. Not the other way by getting the crowd to do the work for one person.

    If you are interested to know more about crowdsourcing check out this write up on wired magazine:
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html

  25. Another great example is http://www.cambrainhouse.com

    Submit ideas, people vote on it and the best get realised by the organisation. Its only during the realisation phase that any design is done. At the end of the day returns are paid to each person in the process via a royalty system.

  26. My problem is that I’m “creatively impaired”. I’m not sure what the designer expects of me or what to supply the designer with.

    In my theme description I’ve written some things that I want my theme to feature and a few themes that has inspired me. That is basically all.

    As I said this is my first time “ordering” a theme. A few designers contacted me, but the ones that had a portfolio didn’t impress me very much.

    I learned a lot reading your comments though and I’ve created a document describing exactly what I want, with a very basic mockup and all the other stuff.

  27. I did my first spec work the past week and ended up feeling rather stupid. I spent about 2 hours designing a logo. The client didn’t like it, so I spent another 2 hours designing another logo that he specifically wanted. When I sent the Final Draft, he said he doesn’t like it, and that was it. No reason as to why he didn’t like it, or any oppurtunity for me to revise the work I’ve done.

    I only did this spec work because it was my first time doing spec work and because I’ve never created logos through forums before. This was a great lesson, but I wished I read this post before I started.

    Andy – “Enjoy life as long as you can”

  28. The post and the comments are really interesting.

    What’s ironical is I received a pitch invitation yesterday. It’s brief called for a presentation of marketing strategy, creative and media, and the lead-time given is 7 days. No pitch fee is offered in that 7-page brief.

    I had spent many years in a full fledged ad agencies and during those 10+ years, only one prospective client offer ed a fee to cover our time and effort. The rest were free pitches. The ad industry people grumbled but nothing like AIGA had taken place here – as far as I know. It’s really, really sad.

    Some prospective clients told me they were seeing me because they felt cheated by their agencies. I asked if they selected the agencies based on pitching and the unanimous answers were yes. I explained to them that the pitch team will be formed by the best talents but the actual team that service them might not be the same team. They were astonished and that’s why I wrote a post on it, with the same intention to highlight the issue to more people.

  29. Jennifer, I think you’re right. Of course they’re only harming themselves though when they can’t pay the bills.

    Lauren, I too have gone through certain experiences that have made me revise how I charge clients. It’s all part of the learning process. ;) Good to know you keep that ‘wiggle’ room in.

    “There are many other options, work as an intern, rework an old project, polish your portfolio etc.”

    Absolutely.

    Dennis, in the same position, rather than wait for designers to contact me, I’d search for them. That way you don’t have to waste your time dealing with the ones who show poor portfolios. That’s great that you’ve created a design brief. The more info you record, the easier it is to get the result you deserve.

    Andy, sorry to learn of your first experiences. I’m glad there’s some info of use here. The comments left by everyone else hold fantastic advice!

    Vivienne, sreat that you’re highlighting the issue, and thanks for flagging up your post. I received a pitch request this week, and I’ve no intention of submitting.

  30. I see a lot of calls for spec work on ‘lance sites such as elance, getafreelancer, scriptlance (that’s the worst one, IMHO), guru.com, etc. The ones that send me straight into orbit are the ones that say something along the lines of, “I know how long this project should take so I won’t accept any bids over [insert ridiculously low price here].” If they know that much about it, why aren’t they doing it themselves? You cannot hurry creativity. Plus, it’s the skill of having done something and being able to do it efficiently that the uninitiated will not have .. that lets them charge more for it. Time is, after all, money.

    We have a firm policy about spec work. We flat don’t do it. We figure that if we are tied up spinning our wheels on a spec project, we will miss the opportunity for a bona fide paying job. Plus, like housework, there is always plenty to do with one’s own web site which generally falls by the wayside while we work on others’ projects. Excellent article.

    I do like to hang out at the contest forum on Sitepoint for one reason: Because people’s work is posted there, it’s always interesting to study everyone’s different design solutions. That in itself can be a learning process and often an inspiration. :)

  31. Hi Joni, you’re absolutely right. My site suffered for some time, but I make a point of updating regularly (it’s a great source of new clients).

  32. I used to work for a small but well-established new media company in the Netherlands. All the “BIG’ clients (Dutch corporate giants) were landed via pitches, as we call them here. In my 5-years working for the company, we saw compensation for one pitch (traveling expenses).

    I’ve directed my husband, who still works for the aforementioned company, to this post. I’m sure he will find it food for thought.

  33. Thanks Rachel. I hope he finds the article of use.

  34. The purpose of revisiting this post is to reiterate my stand against free pitching. Recently “Marketing” Magazine (published in HongKong and Singapore) invited me to contribute an article to its “Ad Insider”. I put forwards my thoughts on free pitch. I welcome and value your comments at Will They Respect us The Morning After

  35. Missed this post first time around.

    I’m not a designer in that it isn’t a primary business and is never likely to be but I am very interested in it. I hadn’t considered the “no spec” aspect previously but having seen your arguments tend to agree.

    However, I now find myself in the situation where I am project managing a website for a non-profit and as a part of the process I have persuaded them to consider a change or update to their logo.

    Taking the no spec on board and short of being contacted by a designer offering to work for cheap (or indeed free), then are there any suggestions as to how one could go about working out whom to use or how to contact someone whom is prepared to do the same quality work but cheaper?

    I’ve not phrased that last bit too well, but the idea is there and perhaps David you could do a follow up post to this one addressing that (or have you already?) ?

  36. Stuart,

    You ask a good question. There’s no real resource available where you can find designers prepared to work on non-profit pro-bono jobs. A close friend is working on one, however, and it promises to be excellent.

    In the meantime, I suggest asking designers you admire if they have any time available to work on non-profit projects for a discounted rate. I work on a continuous basis with a cancer charity, and don’t charge as much as I could because I firmly believe in their cause.

    Best of luck.

  37. I need to start linking to this article from my “quotes” page on my portfolio website. I am one of those designers who started off entering contests on SitePoint, content to enjoy the experience of competition and see what other designers could come up with on the same project I was working on. It helped that I won quite a few of the contests I entered. What turned me around is when a customer followed me from SitePoint expecting the pay the same tiny fee offered there for a logo contest when they worked with me one on one. That was when I realized just how badly entering those contests had devalued my work, and I never entered another one.

    Thankfully, that was several years ago, and I have since instituted a “No Spec” policy. Sure, I have lost a potential client or two in the process. But I would much rather have a client who understands that both my time and creativity are valuable than one who would join the crowd at a logo giveaway just to avoid spending the money it takes to get something really great. By doing this, I have managed to weed out many of those clients who want something for nothing. There will always be the occasional customer who will try to squeeze everything they can out of a penny, but I have learned to stand firm in telling them what I will and will not do. I have a questionnaire for every type of project I take on (logo design, web design, advertising, etc.). That questionnaire alone, because it is so detailed, tends to show the client why it is not in either of our interest for me to so spec work.

    I explain it like this: When you go the grocery store, you don’t fill up your cart and walk out without paying, telling the cashier that you want to make sure the food tastes good before you way. You pay first, then get to take the food home.

    I have done spec work exactly one time since I quit the contests. I had done a logo for a client a few years before who subsequently came to me for a lot of her other design work (business cards, website, flyers, and more.) I hadn’t worked with her in a while and I was revisiting the work I did for her. My design skills had improved quite a bit since then, and I really hated the first logo I did for her. I offered to provide specs of a new, better identity. I did this only because of my previous experience with her. She paid on time, gave great feedback, and deferred to my experience 9 times out of 10. I knew the type of client I was dealing with, and I really, really wanted to improve her logo, both for the benefit of my portfolio and the benefit of her business. And she did exactly what I expected. She bought both the new logo I had designed (and I only provided 1 spec design), as well as a bunch of other new items to match it. And I’m still working with her to this day.

    That said, would I do it again? Not likely unless both the existing client and circumstances were perfect. For new clients who I have never worked with before, I have a firm no spec policy. They can either take it or leave it. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for.

  38. Hello Jennae,

    Thanks for your detailed response, and it was good to read your stance on spec work. It’s great that you managed to gain repeat business from your experience, especially considering how rare this is. That says a lot about how you work.

  39. Spec work produces one of the most devaluing feelings I have ever experienced as an advertising professional. My philosophy on this issue is that, the potential client is either afraid or arrogant. Either way it all boils down to this ugly fact. This individual just does not want to pay for these services. They are usually looking for some free way out. I have seen my peers do some amazing work on spec, have the client really like it, and then negotiate with the designer with an extreme amount of leverage because the work is already complete.

    The reason they have this leverage is two fold.

    1) They are not that concerned what the artwork looks like. They just come from the “ITS GOOD ENOUGH” position.

    2) They are fully aware that every service you provide is custom. Which means you cannot resell it somewhere else.

    My advice is to NEVER DO SPEC WORK. If you are a great graphic designer, artist web developer etc… LEARN HOW TO DO SALES AND BUSINESS IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER. People will respect you and value you. Here are some perspectives to keep in mind when you are wearing the business hat in front of your client.

    1) Your work is worth your time whether they like the product or not. (you wouldn’t hire a painter to paint your house blue and then say, “I don’t like blue anymore, repaint my house yellow and I don’t charge me any extra!” It is absurd!!!!!!

    2) Your work is labor, you are not just having fun on the computer

    3) You have made a substantial investment into your career, (school, computer, software) you are entitled to make a profit. That was the whole point for getting into this.

    4) You have the professional opinion, stick to your guns when when justifying your graphic decisions.

    5) MOST IMPORTANT!!!!! YOU ARE THE LINK BETWEEN YOUR CLIENT AND THE PUBLIC. YOUR WORK WILL DIRECTLY AFFECT HOW PEOPLE WILL VIEW HIS BUSINESS. NEVER STOP REMINDING HIM ABOUT THIS FACT. IT WILL HELP YOU DETECT AND WEED OUT PEOPLE WHO WILL ONLY WASTE YOUR TIME!!!!!

    On a general note. Spec work is usually done out of fear by the designer because, they are concerned that work opportunities are limited. People have become aware of this infection in our industry. Every single time a designer does spec work, he or she degrades our industry. It makes it three times as hard for legitimate agencies and media houses to do business because you have a bunch of freelancers out there running around working for free or for pennies. I PROMISE ALL OF YOU, IF YOU ARE GOOD AT WHAT YOU DO, YOU WILL PREVAIL. BE CONFIDENT, NOT AFRAID!!!!!!! YOU ARE WORTH IT

  40. Just want to throw in my “here, here” comment, as spec work is one of the few things that makes me lose cool.

  41. Hello David,

    I’m glad you’ve highlighted this, because I myself have (unintentionally? TRICKED!) Into done spec work before. Sadly, I was new in the industry, out to expand my skills and quite (very) naive. All that was achieved from doing spec work was wasted time, no money gained and bittersweet memories, to say the most. That was the first and last time it’s happened and I’m very grateful that you’ve brought this subject up to educate people.

    Yes, people think spec work’s valid because there’s more competition in this world, but when was there none? People should not feel intimidated by their peers/superiors and steel themselves to do better. In the end, if people wanna be good so bad (oh my), they’ll do what it takes!

    Thank you again, David! :D

  42. No worries at all, drifter. Sorry to read of your past issues with spec work. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s a shame most people have to learn from experience.

    All the best.

  43. I couldn’t agree more. I recently started my freelance career while finishing off school, and have come to have some harsh feelings about spec work. Unfortunately, my inexperience in the field led me into a few situations where I was clearly being taken advantage of.

    Although I am still relatively new to the industry, posts like this one, and others about how to deal with contracts, and different types of clients by you, and many other gurus out there make me feel like a pro.

    I recently wrote my own article about spec work, touching on some similar topics. I find logo design contests, specifically, to be outrageous. Yes, some sites are legit and require payment before posting the ‘contest,’ but I’d say most do not. I think designers should take a stand against this in order to give this industry some integrity.

    I have been there, and for those of you debating whether or not it will be beneficial to you – your experience aside – I assure you it is not.

    You can take a look at my blog here, but David has summed it up very well – http://www.carsonshold.com/blog.

    David, your posts range from inspiring to genius, keep up the great work!

  44. Hi Carson, that’s kind of you to say, and good luck with The Happiness Machine.

  45. I am so happy to read this. I trained as a designer 20 years ago and eventually life led me to other things but I wanted to design again and learn to use the latest tools such as Illustrator so I participated in sites such as crowdspring. I have to say that while it gave me good live projects to use for honing my electronic skills it was also incredibly demoralising. Client communication is a real problem and mostly it feels like you are playing pin the tail on the donkey. I value my relationship with a client and communication is key. These spec style sites are undervaluing the designer and and denying the client the opportunity to work with somebody that is skilled in turning their concept into a visual identity – how can they do that properly with dozens of entries and when many are only clip art anyway?.

  46. I hear that quite a lot, Carolyn (about “contest” sites demoralizing the designers who participate). Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  47. I apologize if this topic has been covered before, but what if a potential employer asks for design work as part of the interview process?

    Today I had an initial phone interview with an employer who is already interested in me because of my portfolio, but she has asked me to create a comp showing how I would redesign the home page of their website. I agreed to do it (because I was mentally unprepared for such a strange request) but now I feel annoyed and upset, because this will take quite a few hours of my time, and if the job doesn’t pan out, it will be my effort down the drain for nothing — and they will have gotten a free site design out of it. Am I just stuck doing it now, or can I go back to her and explain that I can’t do it?

  48. I think the employer’s taking advantage, Gloria, but try not to be upset, as there’s a chance the request was made out of naivety. You should earn more respect for saying no to the request, and for having faith that your portfolio is strong enough to give the right opinion of your quality.

  49. Thanks, David! I think your insights are spot on.

  50. Hi David,

    Just wanted to notify you of this article wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-05/03/crowdspring that challenges your opinion on crowdsourcing, just in case you wanted to defend your opinion on the Wired website.

  51. Hi Derek. That’s quite the advertisement.

  52. Yes, it is quite the advertisement. I much more preferred your write up on the subject. Congrats on the new book.

  53. Thanks very much, Derek. If you’re thinking about picking up a copy, there’s some free content here: It’s not always about the money

  54. There was one instance where I was contacted by a start up company in Canada to help with their branding, as I’m still studying at university and at the time was still in my first year I jumped at the opportunity to work for free (with promise of pay if everything went well).

    I worked incredibly hard at it and focussed purely on this project for quite a while, one day the business contacted me and said that I had taken the branding into a direction that they weren’t looking for but thanks for the hard work. Now as disappointed as I may have been I was also grateful for what they had done to me; at the time I had no idea how you should bill a client or if clients would actually be cheeky enough to ask for you to produce work and then not reward you at all, from going through this process I learnt that:

    1. People will try their very best to take advantage of you in this industry.
    2. I should always ask for some payment up front to confirm that the client is just as committed to the project as you are.
    3. That I needed to leave space to negotiate on the final designs once the concepts have been sent.
    4. That once I graduate I could not afford to do all the work up front and there only be a chance that I would get paid, there are bills to pay etc let alone the mass amount os student debt I’ll have start clearing.

    My advice to fellow students would be, as negative as the experience may be there may be some benefit in doing free work whilst we have no overheads to cover, experience is what will make us good and by only going through the painful moments will you gain it. I can imagine that the most successful designers out there have been knocked back by a client many times before finding the right solution for them and also the client.

    What would you say to this David?

    Great article,

    BW

  55. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this post, Barry, but I’d say that if you’re going to work for free, then pro bono design is the way to go.

  56. I’ve read all the posts, and have taken many of them to heart. I am returning to graphic design after an 18 year lapse, and I’m in school re-learning skills and learning software programs that were not in existence at that time.

    During the time I was a graphic designer before, I wanted to freelance, but was consumed with the same fear and uncertainty as now: how much do I charge? Luckily my current instructor for Professional Practices recommended that we charge no less than $50/hour as a freelancer, and more, if we thought we could get it.

    My last design job was in 1995 and I made about $8/hour. The printer and I were listed with the janitorial staff under “miscellaneous support employees” — at a junior college, at that.

    I appreciate all the comments made by everyone, since I really don’t want to work full time for any one employer. However, there is one question I have not seen answered by anyone:

    “How much should a beginner or graphic designer returning to the field expect to be offered for their first ‘for employment’ job?”

    I retired making $30/hour from not doing design work. Should I expect to make at least that much? $10/hour would be an insult, $15/hour not much better, $20/maybe a good beginning income (though I have the background, just trying to hone my skills).

    Anyone currently working for a firm care to address this? Thanks.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.