“AIGA has reiterated its longtime position that spec work is not in the interest of either designers or clients and we are now redoubling our efforts to educate, inform and inspire clients and designers alike to work respectfully, intelligently and fairly.

“I am personally vigorously, passionately and fundamentally against designers being asked to do work on spec and neither I nor my firm will ever participate in speculative work. I have said it before and I will say it again: speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our souls.”

It’s been said before, designing on spec leads to a lot of problems for both the designer and client.

Head over to No!Spec for the full chat.

# # #

August 11, 2009


Hi David–
Thank you for the support and the coverage and for being a tireless supporter of this important crusade!

I definitely think there is a lot of time and effort wasted when doing spec work. People have the right to be opposed to it, but as for those designers out there who can’t find a job or in school (like myself), what could we do? We need money so we do spec work.

I agree with J. Li on this one. I’m certainly no supporter of spec work, but I am a through-and-through supporter of people’s right to choose. I feel the “war on spec” is often times a waste of time/energy. Inherent in war is a lack of information to the “masses”. Where I feel the real effort should be made is in providing information about spec work, in a more constructive, less “smear campaign” fashion which better equips designers to make the decision on their own, rather than blindly becoming a flag-waiving spec hater, but aren’t quite sure why.

For me the issue isn’t spec work, it’s fairness. Hollywood is an industry built on spec work. Auditions are spec work. However the mutual understanding of the “necessary evil” of auditioning is one part of a thriving industry. Working on spec wouldn’t be “evil” if everyone involved got compensated in some way.

I’ve said it many time, spec work isn’t a new thing. The issue that stands today is the use of specwork in an online setting (often being confused with crowdsourcing, givng that an undue bad name). There is HUGE opportunity for a company to step in with a solution that still allows for project-based crowdsourcing that has a compensation model for all participants.

1000 people standing at the back of a ship yelling into the distance isn’t going to move the boat forward. However, if 1/10 of those people rolled up their sleeves and grabbed paddles you’d actually get somewhere.

Thanks for sharing this David, didn’t know there was a new President at AIGA. I really like what @specwatch are doing. In my opinion, it seems to be the most effective way to discourage people from taking part in spec work. Providing real life events of designers wasting their time, and client’s receiving ripped off designs etc etc.

Thanks so much for the post, David. For sure spec work is appetizing, esp. for college students like myself.

But when you have the whole design world — which includes well-established pros — telling you spec work is not the way to go, it’s time to take the hint! Not to mention I don’t want my work getting ripped from some amateur who frequents those sites in order to make a quick buck with clients. The whole situation is just tacky. Viva la revolucion!

May be I should put this in my blog as well.

I am just a reformed designer. I used to participate in spec work sites. Although it has given me the chance to compete with other designers and get a real feel of the competition in the design world and win some money in the process it’s only after I have become a full time designer that I realized how damaging it is to the design industry especially to full time design professionals.

As I have done my bit of spec works when I was starting out I cannot completely denounce Spec Work sites as evil. The best I can do is not to recommend spec sites to any one and educate any one who wants to make use of a spec site about how damaging it is to the design fraternity.

I’ll retweet this David.


Spec work is part and parcel of the world of advertising. I’ve worked in advertising for a while and it is disappointing when a good few days of hard graft come to nothing when you pitch and the client turns around and says thanks, but no thanks. But that’s the nature of the business. Some may say it’s because you’re a bad designer, but most of the time the client just decides against the campaign altogether (it’s happening a lot recently).

It’s only now, now that spec work is become popular that it’s beginning to cause unrest. However, this isn’t anything new.

It just seems to me that a lot of designers go on and on about services that devalue the whole nature of what they do, which is fair game. However, quality will always shine through and if you’re at the top of your game you will get paid top dollar.

I’ve read blog up blog about how practices such as spec work and cheap logo design are killing the industry. But when I see the same blogs are offering tutorials on web design, coding, filters, “how to create” lists etc. free of charge for any amateur designer to tackle, it smacks me of being a little hypocritical.

Good post. Some good comments added as well. I second both Jeffrey’s and Abbas’ comments.

@Brian, thanks for info about specwatch. highly informative. i agree, it may be the best effort for detering specwork. Real world examples are the best.

You’re welcome, Debbie!

J. Li, you say it yourself, time and effort is wasted, so if you need the money and if you’re passionate about your studies you’ll find any job to get you through (not necessarily as a designer). When I was studying I worked as a tyre fitter, barman, waiter, and other non-design jobs to pay the bills. At least I was guaranteed some money.

Jeffrey, I’m with you about the definition — design contest websites are not crowdsourcing, they’re spec. If someone was to come up with a solution where all participants would be fairly compensated, not just one from every 100, then great!

The info about ongoing spec projects (and the stats participants should be aware of) is out there. Smearing against designers working without fair compensation? Perhaps you’re familiar with it, but if not, @specwatch shows examples of how spec sites are detrimental.


“I don’t want my work getting ripped from some amateur who frequents those sites in order to make a quick buck with clients.”

One good reason not to participate.

Abbas, nothing new, sure. No reason for me to ignore it.

Hello All,

I recently read an article from Brian Yerkes talking about 3 things that keep clients from choosing a designers proposal http://bit.ly/Rc0A5.

The underlying premise is that even proposals best design firms don’t get chosen…which means designers are investing time, energy, money…aka work …into something and there is no guarantee that they will “win” that client.

Isn’t this just par for the course whenever you are trying to acquire clients or otherwise sell something…in nearly every industry?

Ultimately…there is a lot of opportunity for designers on 99designs.com. Just like with a traditional proposal…you are not going to win every time. But designers benefit from being exposed to a great number of projects that they would not have otherwise. So many of the designers I talk to in the community right now are just thankful for that…for the opportunity.

We are committed to improving the model…to improving the ways in which designers and clients interact on the site, to ensuring projects resolve well and that the overall experience of both clients and designers are positive.


I’m a recent GD graduate (albeit an older student) and not finding any work yet and wanting to up my portfolio, I read all the views of spec work and through much confusion I decided to give it a go and see for myself. I figured I have some time and get some experience – what’s the worst that can happen?

I won’t bore you with all the little details but basically I learnt my lesson. A contest was closed early while I was submitting my project (with apologies for their error on the date). Clients change focus AFTER you design, pick designs that you can see will not work for what they need, pick designs that are opposite to their brief, the clients can be rude and do not always comment so you don’t know where you stand. Even the designers write little nasty messages to the other designs and to the clients.

Within a couple of weeks I worked my butt off, was stressed, my confidence level in the dumps and had a very negative vibe. Soooo not worth it. I now know that even though I’m new, I need to value my work and client needs.

I changed direction, got a part time job while I found some clients that I can gain my experience with. I have learnt more from working direct with clients then I ever will with spec work. It’s obviously about design but it’s also about understanding the customer, building a relationship and working with them. I’ve met great people that value me, my design and how I treat them. A much better way to go!

I agree David, but it seems your campaigning against a specific type of spec work. The one where the designer looses out which is fine.

However, my argument is that people also need to know that not all spec work is evil and wrong. If you’re at an agency then spec work and pitching for contracts is a vital part of the business.

Jason, I read Brian’s post, and it has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Brian’s “proposal” does not involve working on the specific project, but instead involves offering a quote, perhaps broken down into sections depending on the scope of the job. As for 99designs, you forgot to mention you pocket $40 for every “proposal” (as you’re calling spec work), plus 10% regardless of who wins (if anyone does).

Leanne, sorry to read you had to learn the hard way, but it seems like you’ve really turned a corner. Thanks for sharing your story.

Abbas, you’re right — I’m against spec in the design profession, be it for independent designers or large agencies.

Hi David,

I disagree…if a client is trying to hire a designer and for a project and they issue and RFP then…for the designer the act of putting together that proposal is part of the work required to be considered for that specific project….and there are no guarantees.

From the article:

“It happens to even the best design firms; you send out a proposal, you have a face-to-face meeting, and then you receive the email.

Thank you for your proposal and your time to discuss our project with us, but we have decided to go with another firm”

The tone of it is…we have all been here before…here are some tips to help you win that contract.

I don’t think it is very hard to draw a parallel between the proposal process and spec work. (as Jeffrey and Abbas suggested)

David, yes 99designs is a business…Our business is facilitating the connection between designer and client. Yes we make $39 plus 10% that the client pays to list the project on the site. Most of the projects resolve well and the designers derive value from participating…varying form from winning the project and developing a client relationship to gaining experience and working on their chops.

As Leanne noted…projects on sites like ours do not always resolve well. She mentioned the problem of clients not knowing what they want, changing direction or otherwise being absent. Hardly a problem specific to sites like ours. Nearly every designer I meet, from design agency or otherwise, tell their tales of client woe. Just as every designer learns from these experiences, so do we…and we take steps to improve the process…adding guidelines to help the clients write a clear design brief and understand what they need/want…active outreach and education to inform clients on their responsibilities to engage with the designers and provide proper feedback. It is not yet perfect…we we are getting better everyday.


Nice find David, I just read the interview and it was quite interesting and I’m sure pretty debatable. While I completely agree and I am for the whole no spec work approach, I also see the other view of people doing spec work, specifically students, newly grads or designers just trying to get their foot in the door. The argument could be made if money is needed take on a part time job doing something else but at the same time if someone has little to no design experience working part time somewhere else isn’t going to help them gain experience nor exposure. I think many contest or submissions in a way could be viewed as spec work. You are given an approach or theme and you submit something in hopes of being selected and if not then you have done work for nothing. At the same time however if you are picked then it could be quite beneficial and help you gain exposure.

Hi David, thanks for the mention. When I set out to interview Debbie Millman, I knew her replies would have meat on them. Deb is a dedicated gal, and the design community is extremely lucky to have her fighting for them.

Jason, our chat’s side-tracked. It’s detrimental for designers to work on a specific design brief without getting paid. I’m not talking about giving a potential client a quote. I’m talking about doing the actual design work. We shouldn’t confuse the two.

I know you won’t agree because your business model relies on people working for free while you take a cut. It’s up to you how you run your business, but if I was to have designers working with me, I’d be sure to pay every one of them before I take anything.

Adam, thanks for commenting. When designers like David Carson say it’s bad for job applicants to show they’ve done spec work, and when you have the president of the world’s largest design organisation telling you spec work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate, it makes sense to try an alternative.

If you have “little to no design experience”, I make a suggestion in the conclusion of this blog post that I highly recommend.

Cat, you’re more than welcome. Thanks for doing the interview.

@ Jason – True, there are no guarantees. But under an RFP response, the designer isn’t giving away their work now, are they? That’s the part of the equation that you keep glossing over. Under “spec work” in general, that’s one of the main issues. Under 99designs in specific, it’s even worse. Most 99design contests will see designers perform revision after revision – practically the entire design process – and STILL not getting awarded the gig, or any payment for same, if a contest closes with a winner being selected, which is often times not the case.

Claiming that it isn’t “very hard to draw a parallel between the proposal process and spec work” is ludicrous, especially if that “spec work” is in context of a 99designs design contest.

In the article that you’re quoting, Yerkes, outlines how to tailor one’s portfolio for specific clients (a not unreasonable bit of advice). Nowhere does Yerkes ever suggest that spec is an advisable solution. Spending some time trying to get a gig makes sense in ANY industry and is common for most. It’s called a sales pitch. Doing the gig entirely, with only faint hopes of getting paid doesn’t make any sense at all, and isn’t very common either. Dentists, accountants, mechanics, bricklayers, roofers, landscapers, driveway reseallers, cabinet makers, painters and almost every other trade one can think of perform RFP sales pitches and send quotes and proposals on a daily basis. Only when it comes to designers, do businesses like yours suggest that it’s a worthwhile endeavour to supply the client with the completed job, in hopes of getting selected to perform the job.

It’s a position that takes considerable chutzpah, but If I were you, I’d be enthusiastic too. You claim a workforce of, what, 40,000 designers who submit their work to your site for free, without you having to worry about the usual stuff supplied to employees – hardware, software, courses, health benefits, sick days, paid vacations? The small design firms you compare yourself to aren’t likewise blessed. You charge buyers forty bucks to host a contest, and skim 10% off the top (unlike many designers, I don’t really see the difference of pre or post contest amount percentages) from everything that goes through your site. Your contests are a morass of arguing, nit-picking and accusations of plagiarism and copying while clients can walk without paying anyone a dime, absconding no doubt with half the concepts that designers have uploaded to your site. And while you claim you ‘lock’ these contests to prevent designers from having their work stolen, it’s only the comments in the failed contests that are removed. It’s still easy to find the images and besides, after the holder’s been given, what, two weeks to pick a winner, they’ve already saved every single image beforehand, and locking a contest after it has run its course, is a classic case of ‘locking the barn long after the horse has fled’.

Equating all of this to sending out an answer to an RFP is utter nonsense and I’d argue that there aren’t any “parallels” at all except for the obvious fact that both take time. I also imagine that the author of the article you’re referring to wouldn’t be terribly thrilled with having his piece pivoted into an article that somehow advocates spec work. From what I know about Yerkes, he isn’t very fond of spec work and design contests at all.

You also mention how every designer and design firm has “client woes” and clients “not knowing what they want, changing direction or otherwise being absent”. That much is true. The part you leave out (not surprisingly) is that when a client is difficult in a traditional venue, they’re paying for the privilege of being a PITA. It’s practically a customer ‘right’. On 99designs, they can be a PITA to dozens of designers – unruly, argumentative, uncommunicative, abusive, insulting and demeaning – without paying a dime for that privilege. In business, the only way we can apply value to someone’s time is to pay for it – that’s the stop gap that prevents customers from ‘wasting’ a vendor’s time and requesting they perform one ridiculous request after another. If you would like to see your driveway crimson red, your contractor will probably advise against it, but if you insist, he will indulge you. You will, however, pay for the time. And you’ll pay some more to make it black again. In design contests, there are no such stop-gaps with contest holders being encouraged to pursue one nonsensical rabbit-hole after another. And why shouldn’t they? They aren’t paying any more to do so. Nor is 99designs. Must be lovely really, for contest holders and 99designs, but it is unarguably disrespectful of the value of a designer’s time and talents.

And while you keep claiming that you’re “getting better” at protecting designers and managing contests, I haven’t seen much of this, other than the recent development of censoring comment sections pretty heavily, which isn’t about “getting better” or “improving every day”. It’s about making sure that no-one (especially designers) knows the truth about what goes on in your contests on a fairly regular basis. Even you realize that a lot of the activity on your site doesn’t look very nice.

One more thing. I notice that you (and other design contest sites) have now pivoted your argument on the benefits of design contests for designers to one of “opportunity”. It’s now all about “gaining experience and working on their chops.” (wondering how designers “worked on their chops” before sites like 99designs came along but no mind). At least you’re now admitting what many of us have known all along; that design contest sites are NOT an efficient way for designers to earn a living wage. Glad to have you aboard.

@Steve Douglas and @David

I think Steve put it perfectly. A proposal (as mentioned in my article) is nothing more than time spent on the “sell”. This happens in every single industry. Spending money on billboards, tv ads, print ads etc…is all part of the sell, and could even be looked at as a company’s proposal to their potential market.

In no way does a proposal supply any design work that could benefit the client. Of course there are clients that ask for concepts to be included with proposals to “help” them choose a company, but it is always wise to say “no”.

The difference between presenting a proposal to a client and presenting your actual work (for their requests) is clear as day, and the former can in no way be considered or even compared to working on spec.

You are providing a quote and specifications of what the project will entail in a proposal; you are not providing the actual completed product/design (as is what happens on 99designs / CrowdSpring).


I know we disagree on various points…after all there is two sides to every coin… but I do appreciate you providing a forum for discussion…I respect your views and your work.

You stated “The issue is that it’s detrimental for designers to work on a specific design brief without getting paid.”

Yet…as we have engaged in this discussion in the past in other places…you have suggested that beginning designers do just that…to go knock on doors at non-profits and volunteer to work for free…this would be an acceptable way to build a portfolio, gain experience etc…which I completely agree with.

All I am saying is that 99designs provides a similar opportunity. Granted…there is no substitute to working with someone face to face. I can speak from much experience here…I am the only person from 99designs in the US, everybody else is in Australia. Steve pointed out that designers have built their business and gained experience before 99designs…Absolutely, just as people traveled from place to place on horseback before the advent of cars. Technology changes things…the Internet changes things…With change comes new opportunity and new problems.

Knowing that working at a distance and in non face to face environments is growing more and more common…isn’t it also valid to say that 99design gives valuable experience working in this new economy and utilizing the new tools available to them.

As I said…new opportunities..new problems… we welcome any constructive dialog and suggestions on how we can better serve both designers and clients.

Also…to clarify two points for Steve…I do understand the difference between our process and the proposal process and by pointing to Brian’s article I was not suggesting that he was in any way advocating what we do. I was only using it to illustrate the point that putting together a proposal also requires a great deal of work done for free in hopes of winning a job. Secondly, It is very important to understand that we do not skim 10% off the top. The money that a client offers up to the designer for their project is paid in full to the designer. The 10% fee is paid on top by the client to cover the various transaction fees associated with payment services like paypal or western union as well as our own own administrative costs.


Thanks for taking the time, Steve, and thanks to you too Brian, for clarifying my statement about your blog post.

Yes Jason, that’s absolutely right, I recommend design students who are starting out, those without a real-world portfolio to display their talents, approach non-profits in their town / city, offering to work pro-bono. To quote the benefits stated on my summary here:

“You’re improving your face-to-face customer skills, giving back to the local community, networking with business owners, and standing a much greater chance of actually seeing your work used (excellent for your portfolio). You’ll learn about your chosen profession much faster too.”

I recommend that just as much as I do a solid internship, but to consider carrying out spec work on sites like 99designs over either of those two options is a waste of time for many of the reasons stated through the links above.

Hi David, yes, very professional comments in your last link. I would say let them speak for themselves.

I personally don’t want to work with any clients who leave it up to a contest to create their future logo/CI, one of the most important communication elements of their business.

That somehow tells me how these clients value business and business partners.
Usually clients who know that they have to pay for quality are easy to work with.
(although some of them participating in contests might just be uneducated about the whole thing)

I also think by now (after following these discussions in the US, here in Australia and in Germany) that specs work will always be around in some way but I also think it’s a bit of a hype at the moment which will slow down again, the market will regulate itself.
Back in Germany they had the slogan over the last years “Geiz ist geil” which means something like “being stingy is cool” – this now seems to start backfiring.

A young designer can get experience in working pro bono if it’s really tough to get proper jobs at the moment or as an intern. Being in direct (non virtual) contact with clients/agencies would also help to learn more about the costs involved running a design business.
I agree that it would be more effective to get any job for awhile to make some money and concentrate to get a proper start in the design industry.


I think designers will find – in the long run – that crowdsourcing sites like 99designs are going to STRENGTHEN not WEAKEN the design profession.

While you look at these sites and see designers working on spec – I am seeing behind the scenes on the client side of the table.

99designs has recently begun giving contest holders “questions” to ask a designer before the contest ends… and it includes such pesky little things like image licensing issues.

AH – when those questions begin to fly – the rubber meets the road and suddenly the bored unemployed factory worker with an artist aspiration and access to flickr can’t answer questions about licensing.

Education is an important tool. When you’re a designer – you’re “selling” more than your design – you’re selling your expertise.

I think designers will eventually find the crowd sourcing sites will provide a new crop of “educated” design consumers in the future.

is it spec work that is the enemy here or the crowd sourcing / design contest websites? (i am not supporting spec or crowd sourcing, i am just trying to raise discussion points)

and what about when a design firm does work for a proposal or bid? we are doing the work and then competing against the work of other firms, without knowing for sure we will be getting the job. or is it because that has been a part of the industry for so long and we are competing against other professionals and not against some plumber, stay-at-home mom or teenager who happen to have a computer and pirated versions of software, that we accept this but not the latter?

what about the little coffee shop owner who realizes he needs to spruce up his logo and collateral and such to stay relevant, but doesnt know any designers or how to go about hiring a freelancer so he turns to the all-powerful interwebs and stumbles upon a crowdsourcing site? he is not intentionally trying to crumble the design industry, but that route seems like a good route.

how do we reach him and help him get what he needs and to understand that a professional can help him with much more than by just designing a crappy logo? he doesnt care about a bunch of designers bitching if he gets what he wants/needs for a good price (well, what he thinks he needs, anyways; )

I can see how that German saying could backfire, Astrid.

Kathy, so 99designs offer sample questions about copyright infringement, but I don’t see how that will prevent it from occurring. If a “designer” is perfectly willing to steal a design and pass it off as their own, don’t you think it’s a fair assumption that they’re also willing to lie about it?

Adam, we’ve been chatting about RFPs and spec work, summed up in this comment above.

A lot of spec work is done by designers, as some stated above, looking to crack open some opportunity and get some real work in their portfolio. But spec work is not necessary!

What you want to do, if you need portfolio work, is do it pro bono. What is the difference? There is a big difference!

In the spec model, the relationship is one-sided and upside down. You are the slave and maybe you’ll get paid. It feels bad. The design process is affected by that.

In the pro bono model, you are the aggressor, the one on top and in control. You decide who to give your services to and under what conditions. Since the receiving party will not be remunerating you, they have no sway. You feel good the whole process through.

Find a way to give away / donate work to the business, person, charity, or other group of your choice. Find out what they need and do the work for free. You will feel great about the work, do a great job, have a happy relationship, spread goodwill, and it just might lead to paid work from the pro bono client as well as referrals.

Just say no to spec and yes to pro bono!

“If we give away our work for free … we give away more than the work. We give away our souls.” – AIGA President Debbie Millman

Does that mean that if we sell our work, we’re selling our souls? This over-the-top language tries to confuse the issue. This is an economic problem, not a moral one.

I thought Ram’s comments were interesting in that he used the spec process to learn about the design world and make some money, but once he established himself he “realized how damaging” spec work is, “especially to full time designers.”

It seems that most people who condemn spec work have already made it to the top of the profession. They’re doing a healthy business based on their established reputations and don’t like the way spec work erodes their income. That’s understandable. But it’s also understandable how someone who is desperately trying to establish themselves would go the spec route.

When I hear established professionals tell young designs to just do pro bono work or work non-design job on the side to make money, I can’t help but think how condesendingly dismissive that is. Opting for the pro bono route may give you some experience, but it won’t put food on the table. Working as a waiter or waitress might put food on the table, but it won’t give designers the resume/CV they need to be considered for bigger jobs.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but a healthy first step in finding one is understanding the problem. It isn’t a matter of good vs. evil. It’s a matter of competing economic interests.

‘Opting for the pro bono route may give you some experience, but it won’t put food on the table.’

This is another misconception, as a lot of non-profits do have a design budget. You just need to ask.

Basically, it is up to each designer to decide just how much of their time will be donated – probono.

I used to cut my charges in half, and the non-profits had to get donations to cover the rest.

Also, designers are usually allowed to approach companies to donate money to cover a part (or all) of the design costs.

This is how the real world works when you become a full-fledged designer, so might as well use a system that is already in place.

Internships are spec work. Pitching is spec work. Both are ways that lead to greater opportunities. The truth of the matter is that if you position yourself well, have a good dialogue with your potential clients, and are able to deliver a great product, people know not to ask you to do anything for free. I think that the there should be a footnote to the idea of not doing spec work- Don’t ever do spec work (if you are good enough to charge for your work)

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