Spec Work: Just Say No!

Spec Work in Graphic Design: Why is it Bad?

Here at WMC Fest, it is our ultimate goal to love and support the design community in every way possible. So when we recently set up a design contest on our site, we were immediately hit with negative feedback. Due to your reactions, we pulled the contest down.

The backstory is that the contest was created by myself and a couple of other non-designers who love designers very much. Our intentions were the very best. Thanks to folks like Jamie Winebrenner from Cleveland’s AIGA and those who spoke out, we now understand the hurt that spec work in graphic design can cause – not only to designers, but clients as well. Our apologies to all who felt taken advantage of in any manner. We love our community and do our best to honor you always. (We make mistakes from time to time, please keep communicating with us and we’ll do our best to be better!)

In order to learn more about spec work and its effect on the design industry, the Jamie graciously took time out of her day to educate me on the matter. Thanks Jamie!

All the best,


Now, here’s Jamie with some answers to our questions about spec work.

Heather > Hello Jamie and thank you for stopping by to educate us about designing on spec. Our first question is – what is spec work? 

Jamie > Spec work is any kind of work whether it’s a final piece or initial concept that is done without the client committing to pay a fee. The designer may anticipate being paid eventually if the client likes the work. In this situation, a client usually doesn’t want to invest in a designer before seeing what they can do, and the designer must prove his or her worth before receiving compensation. For clients who are hesitant to commit to a designer, there is an appropriate way to explore the work of various designers. A more effective and ethical approach to requesting work is to ask designers to submit examples of their work from previous assignments as well as a statement of how they would approach your project.

Heather > What are some examples of commonly seen spec work?

Jamie >  One of the most commonly seen types of spec work are design “competitions” where a company will request submissions from anyone. The company will then choose and (potentially) pay for their favorite. These contests can include logos, t-shirts, stickers, pretty much anything. Spec work is done without any type of contract, and the designer typically loses all rights to their work, regardless of if they are chosen as the winner. One of the biggest issues with spec work is when a company could truly afford to hire a designer, or when the company is for-profit and intends on selling the design in any capacity for their benefit.


Heather > Why is spec work so hurtful to designers?

Jamie >  Spec work is hurtful to designers, but it’s also hurtful to clients who use these practices. When a company resorts to a spec work situation to solve one of their problems, they usually don’t know what they want or what goals they’re attempting to achieve. For example, they know that they want a logo, but they might not know (or care) about the meaning behind the design choices or how you chose to effectively communicate their message into a visual identity. One of the biggest issues with spec work is that it lowers the value of our profession. As professional designers, we know that there are many facets of design, research, initial concepts, fine-tuning, etc. Why would a company invest resources into these critical stages of the creative process, when they can hold a competition and get a “good enough” logo for $50? Often companies or clients think that designers “just push buttons” and don’t understand the true value of hiring an educated, professional designer. While there will always be some designers willing to create designs in response to an open call for work, without any assurance of compensation, the company or client immediately relegates their choices among those designers who are least likely to be experienced. Knowledgeable designers, who are in demand among clients, work according to the professional standards of the profession. Quite often, this choice of a less-experienced designer results in a client eventually having to bring a more experienced designer into a project in order to execute it, incurring additional expenses. The lack of dialogue in spec work prevents a relationship from forming between the designer and company as well. A good working relationship can be invaluable, leading to referrals or other projects from the same company.

Heather > How about crowdsourcing? How is this hurtful to designers?

Crowdsourcing is essentially another type of spec work. This can be in the form of contests (as mentioned above), and sometimes the hosts of the contest will keep all of the work and use it in future applications. Websites that ask designers to name their price based on a project description can also be considered crowdsourcing or spec work. These types of websites lower the threshold for creative fees. In this situation, designers are undermining each other for the sake of getting a job and usually end up with compensation drastically lower than what they would typically charge. Both crowdsourcing and spec work open the door for work to be plagiarized as well. Since the level of compensation with these projects is minimal at best, those who accept these projects may quickly copy over elements or entire designs from somewhere else.


Heather > What are some great ways for designers, with limited portfolios and access to work, to get their names out and more experience?

Jamie >  Young designers have a variety of options for getting exposure, without resorting to spec work.

  • Social media is a huge (and mostly free) avenue to get your work out there. Instagram is full of images of designs, lettering or illustrations from creatives all over the world. Make sure you have a website that accurately represents the kind of work you want to do, not necessarily the work you’ve been doing. If you can’t find a paying job that’s along the lines of the work you want to do, make up a project yourself!
  • Pro Bono work is also another option, entirely different than spec work. Events such as GiveCamp or Create-A-Thon give designers of all levels of experience an opportunity to create work for a deserving non-profit. These organizations accept applications to determine the projects they will work on, which results in a better working environment and gives the team creative control. You can get some great portfolio pieces and build relationships through this type of work which might lead to future opportunities.
  • Participate in community events and festivals, not just design-related ones. By volunteering and meeting more people or having a deeper contact base, your chances of finding work or hearing of job opportunities increase. Northeast Ohio has an awesome, active community with lots of opportunities for designers.

Thank you, Jamie!

Come see Jamie and AIGA Cleveland at Weapons of Mass Creation Fest 6 this August 7 – 9 at the Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square.