Why We Don’t Do Spec Work - CINQ Creative

Why We Don’t Do Spec Work

November 1, 2012

Spec work and spec-based design contests are a growing concern within the graphic design profession.  With this ever-growing problem manifesting itself with presidential campaigns, book publishers, and large retailers buying into the crowd source and design done on spec, I thought I would write to those interested in working with, or for us, and explain why we don’t participate in this valueless practice.

What is spec?

No!Spec logoFirst we need to understand what spec work is.  According the site NO!SPEC, “spec work has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis.” In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee or compensation for time has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing. An example would be when a designer is asked to provide a sample composition of a defined project without a written agreement for compensation of their time and work.

What’s so wrong with that you ask?

It gives us the impression that those requesting design on spec view our time as worthless, to have no perceived value other than free promotion for their own gain. Often with the risk of having our ideas and solutions retooled with no compensation or credit for our efforts.

Andy Rutledge, a successful designer in Texas states,

“Spec work does not make a professional name for the designer or firm that participates in this unethical practice. Rather, it solidifies a reputation for being perceived as a valueless provider.”

Overall, the impact this practice has on our profession is detrimental in that business owners get the impression that graphic design is a cheap and easy commodity. The service the design profession provides is, in fact, just the opposite.

Every problem is unique

Professional graphic design is about creating strategic solutions to specific problems, not cliché concepts based on a short brief that has little or no content relevant to the client’s business.  The value of design lays in the ideas and solutions generated to solve specific problems.

Approaches to problems need to be thoroughly researched and evaluated before a tangible concept can be born. Without a comprehensive understanding of the business or the content, any design presented at that point is mere decoration, being convenient stand-ins for real ideas and genuine skill. Presenting real ideas and well thought out concepts is what the true professional gets paid for. So to ask for design samples done on spec is asking for work to be presented without compensation.

What about the promise of fame?

We are tenured design professionals with years of proven successful results behind us. Doing work on spec isn’t going to launch us into fame because we did it for XYZ Company for free. In fact, we view doing this type of work as having the opposite effect. The perception that our time and effort have no actual value is not where we want to be. With this type of fame, there is no fortune, just a mired reputation.

What about pro bono?

Pro Bono work is based on a formal agreement between the designer and the client. Most projects involve a firm belief or desire on the part of the designer to volunteer services to non-profits, churches, and other social programs that offer outcomes that the designer is passionate about.

In these cases, projects are approached in the same professional manner as if they were paying clients. Even with these projects, there is some form of equity for the designer or firm that participate in the practice of pro bono work.

So what’s the best approach?

An effective way to decide if you want to work with a specific designer or firm is to take the following steps:

  1. Look at their portfolio. Does their work represent the type of solutions that would align well with your business’ objectives? Is the work professionally executed and communicate well, or is it just trendy decoration?
  2. Set up a meeting. This is a great time to get to know the personality and thought processes of the professional to determine if they would be a good fit for the project. How well do they take criticism? Be aware of their mannerisms like eye contact and how well they articulate ideas.
  3. Ask for references. Testaments from past clients can offer great insight concerning the process and obstacles that may have come up during their project and how they were dealt with in a professional manner.


Please remember that graphic design is a practiced discipline based on years of formal training and the professional development of creative talent to help others communicate their messages effectively. Viewing designers as fellow business owners can make it easier to see that our time too, has significant value in the market place.

For more about the graphic design profession and the opinions of other professionals concerning spec work, please visit NO!SPEC, the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA), the Graphic Artist’s Guild (GAG), and the Design Management Institute (DMI).

Author: Steph Doyle

Steph is passionate about helping businesses and organizations solve marketing problems by seeking creative solutions to current and future graphic design needs, brand building and/or reinforcement, and many other visual communication endeavors.