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.

Athlete Originals: Connecting Designers with Pro Sports Stars

I was contacted by Chris Dey, the founder of Athlete Originals with an earnest request on how to build a crowd-sourced design website that professional designers actually liked. He had a great idea and it was cool that he was seeking advice from the design community. Their new site launched today and is now open to the public.

Designers can sign up today if they wanted.

Disclosure: Athlete Originals is a client of ours. We didn’t design their website, but we are providing them strategy and feedback to help make their site better for designers. This blog post is to introduce their site to the design community at large and get feedback from our readers. If you have any feedback, feel free to comment at the bottom of this post.


What is Athlete Originals?

Athlete Originals is a website that connects pro athletes with the design community. For designers, it works like your average design contest website. Designers can submit designs to logo and t-shirt design projects for these athlete’s upstart fashion brands. If their design gets chosen, they get paid. Pretty well in my opinion. Athlete Originals takes the design files and sends them to print and sells the merchandise in their online store. They are essentially a merchandising company for these athletes.

The best part is how no-name designers can work with big-name stars.

jarius wright

Who are some well-known athletes that have used AO to work with designers?

Jarius Wright (wide receiver from the Minnesota Vikings) and LeGarrette Blount (running back from the Patriots) would be two guys who have built brands and launched apparel lines.  They actually each built personal brands, then turned around and launched secondary apparel brands.  For example, BLOUNT and Blount Force Trauma.  J Wright and Wright Stuff.  Jarius is also building a line called Separation.

“Athlete Originals did a great job developing my brand.  The designs are tight!  I’m looking forward to launching my apparel line and bringing more of my ideas to life.” – LeGarrette Blount, NFL Running Back

legarrett blount

Coming online to AO soon will be Kerri Walsh (gold medal volleyball player), Pablo Sandoval (SF Giants and World Series MVP), Jessica Eye (UFC), and more.

kerri walsh

Now, I am not a fan of design contest websites by default. They typically pay the designer poorly and too many people lose and don’t get paid anything for their work. But I am not completely against them; they can work. Chris and I had long phone conversations about what designers really want: to get paid, creative freedom, fun projects, and cool clients. Chris took my advice and incorporated these principles into Athlete Originals. And from what I have seen so far, designers are digging it.

“Working with Athlete Originals was an amazing experience. I had the privilege of working for some of the best athletes in the country and to be able to capture their vision in a clothing line and see that design come to life was truly a dream come true.” – Kyle Saxton, Intern at Go Media

Design by Kyle Saxton, Go Media
Design by Kyle Saxton, Go Media

We got a chance to use it and two of our designers Kyle Saxton and Carly Utegg both won projects soon after they signed up. Now they are both talented designers and isn’t surprising but this was encouraging! It’s quite addictive to win and see that cash in your account!

What are the payouts?

“The payout is great. Not your typical $50-$100 logo fee given on other crowd-sourced platforms. Even if it’s spec, the huge payout encourages you to participate.” – AJ Dimarucot, Freelance Designer

Design by AJ Dimarucot for  Jordan Poyer, rookie defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles.  It’s a take off on his tattoos and his nickname J PO.
Design by AJ Dimarucot for Jordan Poyer, rookie defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s a take off on his tattoos and his nickname J PO.

From founder Chris Dey, “With the exception of our pre-launch athletes who received discounts, future design payouts will be $1,000 for a t-shirt design and $3,200 for a brand logo. This represents how much the designer would receive [after fees].” This is remarkable. Let me repeat this:

  • Average Payout for T-Shirt: $1,000
  • Average Payout for Brand Logo: $3,200
Design for Jarius Wright by Yavuz Sonmez
Design for Jarius Wright by Yavuz Sonmez

“Athlete Originals has provided me with the opportunity to design for some of the top athletes in the world… One of my designs was selected by famous American Football player Jarius Wright, who is a very good wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings.”  Yavuz Sonmez, Freelance Designer in Istanbul, Turkey

Designs for Jarius Wright. Logo by Yavuz Sonmez, t-shirt design by Go Media
Designs for Jarius Wright. Logo by Yavuz Sonmez, t-shirt design by Go Media

How does it work?

“The process is straight forward, quick, and allows for as much creativity as your willing to give! Not to mention it’s great pay and get’s your name out there!” – Carly Utegg, Go Media

After a designer confirms their new account via email, they can log in and view the active projects.  They add the projects they are interested in to their Watch List so that they receive updates on them.  They chose to participate in those projects that interest them most.  They submit designs according to the design specs.  Once the deadline has passed, if the designer’s artwork is selected, they upload the final files according to the specs (the Designer’s Playbook).  The client approves the final art and the designer gets paid.

Note: We personally had an issue with uploading final files before we got paid as this violates Go Media’s standard design process. We changed our mind for this one because the client is taking on a risk by allowing any designer in the world to submit. They need to make sure the final files are print-ready. Fortunately there are contracts in place that protect you as the designer. Don’t worry about not getting paid if you win.

Lonnie Pryor designed by Alex Miller, intern at Go Media


  • Extremely easy access to rewarding projects for some big name clients.
  • You don’t have to go out and sell to try to land more clients. They are already there.
  • Good payouts that are on par with market rates for logo and t-shirt designs ($500 and up)
  • Fairly low risk and a good percentage you can win because the site is new
  • You can focus on designing and forget about pitching and selling your work
  • Clients have already filled out questionnaires about what they want
  • You can quickly build a portfolio with pro athlete clientele
  • Work only when you want to, not everyone gets that luxury
  • The terms for payment and file delivery are very easy to understand.
  • Fast customer service from an interested founder.


  • No guaranteed payment unless you win.
  • Your chances of winning get lower when more designers participate
  • That’s about all I can think of

How do I sign up?

It’s free to sign up, just visit this page and build your profile and start working!