Spec Work: Should Designers Say No?

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

If you’re just starting out as a freelance designer, there are a multitude of opportunities to navigate. One you should avoid is speculative work. Here’s why.

The first time I hired a designer online was around 2002. He was located in India, had superb communications skills, the patience of a saint, was creative, and had incredible design skills. Not to mention that his pricing was very reasonable.

Since then, it has become even easier to procure design services online. When everything comes together, the result is a win-win for both parties:

  • Buyers can reduce cost and gain access to a global talent pool.

  • Designers don’t need to be located in a major city or commute to an office. They can work as much or as little as they want. They get paid the agreed fee immediately upon completion. Other benefits may include positive feedback ratings and lessons learned from the project.

However, in the case of spec work (speculative work), it is a very different story.

What is Spec Work?

Many designers, especially those who are just beginning their career, choose to engage in spec work in the hope that they may get paid. They also may be looking for exposure, seeking to gain experience, and wanting to build up their portfolio.

I am guilty of using both as a buyer in the past and would never do it again. And, if you’re a designer, I’d advise you to avoid spec work too. There are two main spec work scenarios you want to avoid; competitions and unpaid internships.


Design competitions are arrangements whereby the winner may be awarded a prize or compensation.

  • Direct Submission: Sometimes, the company or brand running the competition puts out a brief and waits for submissions to come in. They will then process them and award a winner. This was going on even in pre-internet days, but nowadays may be done via email.

  • Platform-Based: Several web-based platforms exist for running design competitions. In each case, a buyer posts a project brief, pays a deposit, and has designers submit entries over a specified period. They should then rate and provide feedback on the designs. At the end of the competition period, they must choose a winner, who gets paid the fee. If a winner is not chosen, the site operator will select one. Alternatively, if insufficient entries are received, the competition may be canceled, and the buyer’s fee refunded.

Unpaid Internships

Another form of spec work is when (usually young and inexperienced) designers work for free. In return, they gain experience. The arrangement may also include vague promises of creating valuable exposure to influential people and/or monetary compensation at the discretion of the employer.

Why Spec Work Sucks

Both sides can suffer from spec work.

For Clients:

  • Frustration: Busy clients find it tedious having to deal with inexperienced designers.

  • Risk: Desperate designers may copy a third party’s design as a shortcut to winning. The client may not realize and later face legal liability if the design violates a registered trademark.

  • Poor Quality: Even if all the designs submitted to the buyer are original, the rushed nature of the competition leads to designers cutting corners. In other cases, the designer simply may lack the skills or knowledge to do professional level work. While the buyer may have saved money, they often end up spending more later to hire an established professional designer to re-do the work.

For these reasons, I’d rather pay extra to work with a professional and get it done properly.

For Designers:

  • Disappointment: When competitions end, the designers who are not chosen suffer the pain of rejection and not being compensated for their efforts. The “winners” may feel that they didn’t really learn anything worthwhile and were merely exploited.

  • Opportunity Cost: The designers could have used their resources to build portfolios, improve their skills, or make a contract with actual payment.

  • Plagiarism: Some clients make minor changes and then resell the designer's creative work as their own.

Spec work is, therefore, something I’d suggest all designers avoid.

Alternatives to Spec Work

New designers seeking to establish their careers need to gain experience and build out an impressive portfolio of work before a decent client will consider hiring them at fair market rates. I can see two ethical alternatives to spec work.

  • Volunteering: There are many great charities and non-profit organizations which need design work done. This can be a great way to gain experience and build their portfolios while helping a noble cause.

  • Freelancer Job Marketplaces: Websites such as Conyac allow buyers to post a project, receive bids, and select one or more designers to work on their project. While the competition is intense, the designers, if hired, agree to the terms, including pricing. Upon successful completion, they are paid for their work.


In the end, neither side benefits from spec work. Designers are better off finding more worthwhile opportunities to gain experience. Clients will find that selecting a designer on the basis of their portfolio and paying them a fair market rate will be more likely to result in success.

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