Let’s Talk About Spec Work

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What is spec work?

Spec work is work created and submitted by designers to potential clients before securing contract, payment, and often essential information to complete a unique and quality design. Companies and individuals often host contests or use spec sites to ask anywhere from tens to thousands of designers (and non-designers) to compete for a lower-than-average reward/payment.

Spec work isn’t limited to contests or nefarious sites. Often, individuals and businesses seek free design work from friends that are designers and new designers with promises like “it will help your portfolio” or “you’ll gain recognition.”

What’s the big deal?

Bear with me as I set up a scenario. You are preparing to have a few few friends and influential people over for dinner this weekend. You want to impress and have contacted five professional chefs. You ask each chef to cook a meal, bring it over, and you’ll pay for the one you like.

Think a chef would take you up on the offer? No!

Just because a person has a computer and an illegal version of Photoshop* doesn’t mean they understand design, color theory, typography, etc. Sadly, most people believe the opposite.

*Note: a logo should never be designed in Photoshop, but you’ll find many spec and amateur designers using it.

Also, if you’re of the “shop local” mantra, spec work completely sidesteps the local economy and often the country. That’s a pretty big !@#$ deal to me.

Spec is unethical.

I’ll let NoSpec.com say it all:

The designers in essence work free of charge and with an often falsely advertised, overinflated promise for future employment; or are given other insufficient forms of compensation. Usually these glorified prizes or “carrots” appear tantalising for creative communicators just starting out, ending with encouraging examples like “good for your portfolio” or “gain recognition.”

The reality is that they often yield little extra work, profit or referrals. Moreover, designers must often sign a contract unwittingly waiving their valuable creative rights and ownership of their work to the ones promoting this system. A verbal agreement is ineffective in protecting the rights of designers in a court of law. As a result the client will often employ other designers using similar unprincipled tactics to change and/or resell the creative work as their own. This promotes the practice of designers ridiculously undercharging themselves in the hope of “outbidding” potential rivals, in the process devaluing their skills and those of the design profession. Promoting this method encourages some clients to continue preying on uninformed creatives for menially valued labour.

Quality over quantity.

Sure, contests and spec sites provide a plethora of design options in a relatively short amount of time. But what’s missing? You have dozens, if not hundreds, of options and you’ll get away with paying $100 for it.

What’s missing is:

  • A proper briefing
  • Consultation
  • Market research
  • Time for exploration and sketches
  • Presentation and explanation
  • Collaborative revisions
  • More often than not: all the deliverables you will need in the lifetime of the design
  • Transfer of all rights to the design.

Why pay a professional?

If you use a spec site, you’re promoting free labor which is an unethical practice in itself. Would you work for free with the hope of being compensated? Also consider that spec sites attract inexperienced designers and developers who are under pressure due to unreasonable time restraints and competition. You run a huge risk of receiving poorly executed designs that inadequately represent your business. It could end up costing you in the long run for lost revenue and other factors.

A professional will work toward developing bespoke design and development solutions using years of experience and expertise. You won’t get that on a spec site.

So do the right thing… Hire a professional.