Why you should be wary of spec work

Spec Work

Spec (speculative) work is a contentious issue in the field of design. You may have heard of it and not known what all the fuss is about. Or maybe it’s a totally new concept to you. Whichever camp you fall into, this article aims to explain the issues and give you some perspective on why spec work can be bad for designers and businesses alike.

What is spec work?

Spec work, basically, is work that is done for free in the hopes of eventually being paid for it. There is not usually a contract made before the work is done; rather, the client chooses to use the designer after the work is done.

Often, spec work comes in the form of competitions. There are several websites that use a competition spec work model, for instance 99designs and Crowdspring. These websites allow businesses to create a competition and set a price they are willing to pay for their design. Designers then submit work for the client to choose from.

Whoever “wins” the competition gets paid for their design; the other designers do not.

Why is it bad?

I’ve worked with one too many clients who have sourced their business logo through a spec work or competition site. And without fail, the logos are ugly, the wrong size, use a hideous font, or are just generally unusable. But often, the clients love them! How could this be?

One reason is that many people don’t know much about design. One of the elements of hiring a professional designer is not only produce what the clients have in their mind, but to educate them and guide them about principles and reasons behind design decisions. The client-designer relationship is symbiotic, and great design takes time and collaboration.

Whereas 99designs and Crowdspring both feature feedback loops as part of their process, this happens after the client has already rejected the work of many other designers. In addition, designers are unable to complete proper market research for the client, so they are unable to create a design that fits with the business.

For designers, spec work is bad for the quality of work in the industry. The more of this inferior and cheap design is out there, the less value people give to great design.

Why would you invest money and time in one single designer when you can cast a wide net and see multiple ideas without paying a cent? In addition, since you produce work for free without a binding contract, you lose all rights to the work because you are not protected.

For businesses, spec work is bad for branding. Asking designers to compete for a relatively small amount of money means that you will inevitably get a subpar result. Sure, you might get lucky and find something that you really love. But that’s not the same as working and collaborating on a design together with the designer.

Come on, is it really always bad?

There may be some specific instances of when spec work is OK. As long as the client knows that they are getting something cheap and probably lower quality, or perhaps their budget will only allow this, maybe it’s OK. And besides, no one is forcing designers to take part in this work!

However, think about it in relation to a different industry. If you needed a mechanic for your car, would you ask a number of mechanics to service your car, then decide on the one you wanted to pay for it? Or if you wanted to build a house, would you ask different construction workers to each build one, then choose the one you liked best? Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Why do designers still do it?

Unfortunately, there are many designers out there who will still enter these competitions. I feel that these designers are undervaluing their work. It’s a competitive industry, but the reality is that through partaking in spec work, these designers are helping to perpetuate that competitiveness.

If no designers engaged in spec work, then there simply wouldn’t be any market for it.

For designers just starting out, there are many ways other than spec work to pad your portfolio. For instance, you could do pro bono work for a charity or for the greater good in some other way. Or you could generate work for fictional clients.

What this means for you

Unfortunately, spec work doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Many people, on both sides of the work, have no problem with the ethics of asking professionals to give their time and expertise for free in order to compete with each other.

If you do use spec work, remember that you probably aren’t getting the best out of somebody, or the best design. If you’re happy with that, then by all means use it. But if you want to collaborate on effective branding that will last, consider hiring a designer based on their portfolio and your rapport with them instead.

Have you had any experience with a design competition website, or another type of spec work? What do you think?

Further reading