Spec Work

Spec Work: A Local Perspective

September 2018
Art by Lydia Kuekes

“Spec work” – a phrase commonly followed by designers’ growls and emphatic sighs. Every designer will undoubtedly be asked to do spec work at some point in their career. But what constitutes spec work and why should we care?

A touchy topic: what is spec work?

Spec work, as defined by the designers behind the No Spec movement:

“Spec work is any kind of creative work, either partial or completed, submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work in the guise of a contest or an entry exam on existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, designers normally lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.”

Why it hurts the creative profession

Spec work undermines the profession and devalues the worth of practitioners and the services they provide. Here are just a few of the ways:

  • Waived rights. Designers typically lose all rights to their work because they are working outside of a contract. Spec work is often marketed as “good for exposure” and then freely used without repercussion.
  • Compromised quality. When under contract, professionals are able to work closely with clients and get to know their business and needs. With spec work, professionals are not able to best tailor their recommendations based on their research, training and experience.
  • Undervalued industry. Undervalued work is damaging to the design industry as a whole, both undermining quality and giving clients the impression that design has little worth.

A local experience

Elijah Cameron is an illustrator and comics artist who recently had an experience with spec work and wanted to share his story to help other designers.

Eli replied to an “artist all-call” from a local magazine for the opportunity to have his work displayed throughout Raleigh. The magazine selected him for the project, but before signing the contract he was shocked to learn that they wanted this work for free. Eli said there was no mention of unpaid work in the all-call. Eli tried to respectfully educate the magazine on the No Spec movement and offered a modest fee he felt was fair to complete the work. The for-profit company was dismissive of Eli’s suggestions and called the project “for a cause,” with “opportunity for exposure.” Eli ultimately declined the opportunity, not agreeing that the for-profit end game was a worthy cause for his free efforts.

In Eli’s words, “exposure doesn’t pay bills,” and this type of project is “not ethical or sustainable for Raleigh’s art industry.” He is pained to know that other artists are now being exploited for this same work.

So is unpaid work ever okay?

Creatives must evaluate each opportunity and decide for themselves whether they are comfortable with unpaid work. See examples and thoughts on differing unpaid work from AIGA National:

  • “Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
  • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
  • Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
  • Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
  • Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

Not all of the above are considered speculative work and in fact many designers choose to do unpaid work for a variety of reasons. Students and professionals may draw different lines on what constitutes unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the associated risks.”

An example of opinion

There can be a fine line between definitions of spec work, often differing by individual opinion.

For example, Durham County Board of Elections recently held a contest for an “I Voted” sticker which will be handed out during the midterm elections in November. Like most competitions, there were few design guidelines and only the winner will receive a prize and publicity. The winner also waives all rights to the design.

So is this spec work? Maybe. In this case, that depends on the creative’s opinion of whether this design for government and democracy is worthy of free work.

How to respectfully educate and say “no”

To both educate on and decline spec work can be difficult. A tactful reply will help you maintain a positive reputation and possibly bring around a future (paying) client.

AIGA National provided a guideline here.

Know your rates

Need some help determining how much you should charge clients? You’re not alone. This is a hot topic for designers, freelancers, etc. Look for future related programming, reference the resources below, and stop by one of our community meetings to discuss with others in the industry.

Additional resources

No Spec movement
AIGA position on spec work
AIGA guide on calculating a freelance rate
AIGA guide on setting rates for a firm

By Sarah Harrington
Published September 24, 2018