The Blank Slate: Do You Work on Spec?

The Blank Slate: Do You Work on Spec?

I’ve rarely encountered a client that has asked for me to work on spec, but I know it does happen to a lot of designers. I’ve even seen websites where clients post their projects and designers try to land the gig by submitting work on spec. Frankly, I believe this is a problem, and devalues the industry as a whole. For those who have never encountered a spec request before, lets define spec work.

“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.

I recently ran across a company that was looking for a designer to produce a poster. Instead of hiring a designer directly for the project, they launched a contest, and invited anyone willing to participate to submit a design for the poster. The winner gets… (wait for it)… paid. The company gets to choose from potentially any number of designs, but they lose the one on one time they would get with a designer to communicate their goals for the project, and have something produced that they had a direct hand in creating. I’m assuming that the company failed to see the value in the this. Why is that? Are clients generally not educated when it comes to hiring someone to do a job? hmmm….

This contest brought up a question…

Do You Work on Spec?

Have you ever entered a design contest? Have you ever had a client request spec work? If so, how did you handle it? How do you avoid spec work in general? Let the WeGraphics community know where you stand regarding this issue in the design industry.



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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years.


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  1. I tried doing spec work once in a logo design contest, and I’ll never do it again. When the contest was over the company picked an incredibly complex design that was covered in almost every Photoshop layer style available. It might have looked pretty to them, but it’s going to be completely unusable whenever they try to run off a hundred copies on a cheap black and white copy machine. I think a better way to run design contests would be for the client to provide a brief and some background info, and designers would then submit their portfolios in the same way they would submit a concept, and then the contest holder would be able to choose a designer based on the style of work they do and work with them one on one. I don’t think it’s a budget problem with clients who choose to run contests, they’re just unwilling to search for the right person to do the work.

  2. i’ve done a few online design competitions but I find the contest owners pick winning designs that are either just technically bad, amateurish, or are not going to attract the correct audience for their product or business or there are simply so many entries the chance to “win” a relatively small fee is not worth it.

    The only time it’s worth it is if you are trying to build up a portfolio and want to practice design.

  3. Good comments… I agree about the portfolio submissions versus actual spec work. That seems to be a much better solution in my opinion. That way the client isn’t requesting the designers time for nothing in return.

  4. I regularly ‘compete’ on logo contests via 99designs. The reason for this is to develop my skills and help to build a portfolio. For me winning the contest is a minor consideration – I enjoy the process and at the moment it is the only way I get to take part in it.
    I understand that it devalues the design process and industry – but presumably the type of ‘clients’ that use spec work aren’t going to be spending big money on ‘proper’ designers.

    • “but presumably the type of ‘clients’ that use spec work aren’t going to be spending big money on ‘proper’ designers.”

      This is an interesting statement… I wonder if the “clients” using spec agree with that. It seems like a better solution would be to find a designer (maybe a student) that fits within their budget.

      • It would be interesting to hear from a contest holder – just to see what they want from spec work.

  5. Peter Chua

    I joined some sort of competition for a client asking for a poster/flyer design. There were 6 of us who sent different designs and luckily they chose my design. I considered it a challenge and did my best and now I regularly make designs for them.

    In my other experience, I made a logo for another client which they like but they said that they are either gonna choose mine or another artists design (without initial payment). The client asked me to make several minor revisions and hopefully capture their hard-to-please taste. In the end, they ended up hiring a third artist to make their logo. I felt bad but moved on. A few weeks later, I found out the third artist was their nephew plus the design was horrible.

    I guess sometimes “spec” work works out for some people, but from my point of view, its really unprofessional to not pay designers. If it really is a competition, why not throw in an Ipad, a trip to Hawaii, or a Playstation 3, on top of the pay.

    Just my two cents.

  6. I think “spec” work is at first an easy way for clients to see what designers create out of clients guidelines or wishes for a logo or poster. They want to see the finished product before they are willing to pay.

    In some cases it’s okay, when the client is serious about the whole project and is really willing to pay after the work. But what I’ve learned so far is, that those clients are willing to pay anyway, doesn’t matter if before or after or in between or whatever.

    The most clients (ok thats another real spec haha) who want “spec” work are clients who want a range of designs and more important a range of ideas I think. Then they can pick their fav and can go to a much cheaper designer or to their own designer in-house with “their” idea of what it should look like.

  7. Steph

    Just turned down a spec project today! I do not have time to do work that I may not get paid for, and I let the client know this. I have worked for this client before on the same project (which they were really happy with), but now they wanted me to work for free! no way! and I have never worked on spec before either. Just say no. A contest is different, I think more for fun.

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