Spec work or speculative work is any kind of creative work that is submitted to a prospective client without promise of payment for said work. Working on spec is not only bad for creatives but it’s also bad for the industry.

Let’s use Logo Design as an example. Often times spec work is presented in the following way:

I need a logo, but I need to see some designs first before I pay you. If I like your designs then I will pay you for your work. 

Let’s break down this example. The example client is contacting a logo designer and asking the designer to do work for them but they don’t want to pay for any work until they can review it.

This is bad in a number of ways. First, the client is asking for free work. In their mind they are rationalizing this request by asking for proof of the designers abilities in the form of logo concepts before they commit any money to the project.

Second, they’re saying “if I like it” then I’ll pay for the work. This is way to open ended. The client can then move on by saying “sorry I don’t like these designs” then the designer gets paid nothing for their work.

Lastly, a client could say they don’t like any of the designs and decide to use one of the designs anyway. Which is even lower than asking for work on a speculative basis. 

A legitimate client will review your body of work and then decide to hire you. They will be willing to pay you a deposit and work with you throughout your design process. Creating a logo is an iterative process requiring collaboration and client feedback. 

Let’s dig a bit deeper into why you should avoid spec work.

1. I just graduated design school and I should do some spec work to build my portfolio. 

Wrong. I advise against it. You just spent four years in school learning your craft. You should have a healthy portfolio from school. There’s no reason to do any work without the promise of payment after you graduate. You’ll graduate school with the skills and tools you need to enter the the industry. Not to mention you’ll have school loans to take care of so don’t sell yourself short.

Even if you only have a couple of examples of your skillset in your portfolio don’t work for any client that expects you to prove yourself with free work. You don’t owe them anything.

2. Spec work and pro bono work is the same thing. 

No it’s not. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pro bono work. If you’re going to do free work then do it for a friend, a family member’s small business or a worthy cause. You can take your family, friend or non-profit through your design process and collaborate and help them at the same time. You can then build those relationships and it could lead to payments for other services later.

Non-profits always need good folks to work on their projects and if you personally support the non-profit’s mission and want to help them with pro bono work that’s great! The other thing that’s worth mentioning is just because they’re a non-profit doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t pay you, you just have to decide when to do pro bono work and for who.

Remember, working for free is your choice. Spec work clients are asking you to work for free with a promise of potentially being paid. Pro bono work is clearly an agreement to work for free because you decide that you want to help that client. 

3. Spec work is bad for the creative industry because it devalues our craft.

It’s true. If people are allowing themselves to work for free, hoping to get paid if a potential client likes their work it devalues the other folks in the industry that have dedicated themselves to their trade.

Personally, I have only done spec work once. It took only one time for me to realize that not only was I devaluing myself I was also devaluing my colleagues and the industry. There’s plenty of room to price yourself competitively but at no time should you give prospective clients the idea that they can “try now and buy later” because that’s not how it works. 

4. Spec work will burn you out. 

This is the saddest part about spec work. You have to put in the same hours whether you’re being paid or not. Sucks right?

If you take on four logo design gigs and two of them are on spec you still have to put in all the hours to design four logos and you might only get paid for two of the four projects. Why would you do that? That’s crazy! 

You’ll stress yourself out over time hoping that you’ll get a payday. Time after time you will cross your fingers after sending your logo concepts only to be disappointed by the prospective client that says “Thanks, but I don’t like these logos”.

Eventually you’ll have animosity for your own career that you once where enthusiastic about. Don’t put yourself in that position. You can love what you do and get paid. 

5. Spec work creates a market for “looks good” rather than “designed with purpose”. 

Since I started this article referring to logo design in my above example let’s continue using that part of the industry. 

A logo takes time and there is a process that you and the client need to go through to arrive at the final approved logo. The problem with spec work is that often times logos are cranked out because you’re working for free. You may not spend the required time that the logo deserves. And the client may push you to simply get it done. 

A lot of prospective clients already have misconceptions about logo design anyway, so you’ll be contributing to “cheap and fast” instead of a logo that is designed professionally with purpose. 

6. Spec work affects other industries as well

Spec work doesn’t just affect the design industry. Spec work affects photography, web development, 3D modeling, SEO & Marketing, video animation and editing to name just a few.

Spec work can affect carpentry too.

My Dad once told me that a prospective client said “Can’t you just come by and slap up a couple of boards” and my Dad explained that it’s not that simple. He told the prospective client that he has to load his truck with his tools, pick up materials and there is no such thing as “slapping” up a couple of boards. 

7. Asking for spec work is offensive

Spec work in my opinion is a disgusting attempt by cheap people to get work done done that they can’t do themselves. And those of us in the industry don’t have to do it, in fact I wish more of us wouldn’t.

I’m offended when someone asks me to do a project based on speculation. You wouldn’t ask the grocery store to eat all the food in your shopping cart and pay it for it only if you like it would you? Of course not. 

When someone asks me to do something on spec what I hear is “I’m cheap and have trust issues” and that’s why I say no to projects like that. 

How do you feel about spec work?

Do you have a story about spec work that you can share?

If so leave your comments below and let’s chat about it.