What Is Spec Work and Should Designers Agree to It?

Is it fair to ask graphic designers to work without the promise of pay?

Mature woman showing intern graphics on screen
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

It's common for graphic designers to be asked to work on "spec," but what does that mean? Spec work (short for speculative) is any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee.

This type of assignment request is very common for freelancers and it comes with controversy. Why? Because it is very easy for you to put in the work and for the client to reject it, leaving you with no compensation for your efforts. Therefore, you have lost time that could have been spent making money.

As tempting as it is when you're freelancing to accept any and every job that comes your way, it serves you and your clients best if you have a relationship that serves both of you. Let's take a deeper look at the drawbacks of working on spec.

Reasons to Avoid Spec Work

This type of work is widely considered undesirable and immoral by the graphic design community as well as other creatives. It requires the designer to commit time and resources to a project with the chance of getting nothing in return. 

Quite often, creatives relate spec work to other careers and services. Would you order a burger at the restaurant on spec and only pay for it if you really enjoyed it? Do you ask to try out the oil the mechanic puts in your car to see if it's right for you? These may seem like ridiculous scenarios, but your service as a graphic designer is just as valuable to your clients.

While clients may feel they don’t want to invest money until seeing some work, designers should not have to prove their worth to get a job. Instead, clients should choose a designer based on their portfolio and experience and commit to building a working relationship with them. Only then will both the client and designer see the best results.

Why Spec Is Bad for the Client, Too

Spec work doesn’t just hurt the designer. If potential clients are asking one or several designers to show work, they are immediately establishing a negative relationship. Instead of building a long-lasting relationship with a single designer, they are often asking several to submit work with little contact, taking a chance that the right design will be presented.

Design Contests

Design contests are one of the most common forms of spec. A company will put out a request for a design, inviting anyone and everyone to submit work. Quite often, hundreds of designers will submit a design, but only the chosen work — the winner — will be paid.

Designers may see this as a great chance to design a logo for a company and make some money…if they win. However, this is really an opportunity for the client to get a limitless number of designs and only pay for one.

Instead, clients should hire a designer, clearly communicate their goals, and have the designer present several options after a contract is signed.

How to Avoid Spec

Spec work can be avoided by simply saying you won’t do it. Often, clients may not realize or consider the negative aspects of it, so educating them is also helpful. 

It is always important to remember to treat your work as a business because that is what it is. Do not become emotionally involved when informing a client why you will not work on spec. Instead, find a way to relate it to their business or find another way to explain your position without sounding offended.

Professionally explain your value as a designer and what you can bring to their project on contract. Tell them that it will allow you to dedicate the time and energy to designing exactly what they need. The end product will be better and it will save them time and possibly money.

If they truly appreciate your work, they will appreciate the points you bring up.

Was this page helpful?