Spec Work is Two Four-Letter Words
Updated: Aug 15
Imagine, it's a lovely Friday night and you wander into your favorite restaurant. You've had a tough week, so you order everything on the menu. After spending hours eating and savoring, you decide you're finished. Your waiter finally brings the check at the end of the night. Before it hits the table, you chuckle and say, "The tomato bisque wasn't exactly what I wanted, and I can see a restaurant right across the street that has good soup, so I'll not be paying for anything, thanks."
That's, well, a crime. Obviously. But that's what happens with spec work.
What is Spec Work?
Spec work, short for speculative work, is creative work completed without the guaranteed condition of payment and/or rights to said work. It's essentially volunteer designers creating projects for prospective clients before any agreement on fees, reasonable or not, have been contracted. It removes the security and consensus of specific creative rights and equitable fees.
In common practice, this happens under the guise of a contest or entrance exam. It typically also means that designers will lose all rights to their work because they lack the protection of a contract. Non-designers often think this is a great idea, because hey, the more options, the better. But too many cooks spoil the broth. Bad actors will also use even "losing" work however they wish without fear of legal repercussions, because they know there are no protections. When work is intangible and there's nothing you can hold in your hand, it's a lot easier to get away with stealing it.
Have I done spec work intentionally and accidentally before? Yes and yes. Will I ever intentionally do it again? No. Will I accidentally? Hopefully not.
Why is It Unethical?
Do you work without compensation? If you do, stop. Time, creativity, and skill are valuable resources. There is no one out there that will give you valuable "exposure" without fair compensation, too.
Most of these contests tend to revolve around logo design. The shortest amount of time I've ever spent on a logo is 10 hours. And that was because they were a super committed client who knew exactly what they needed and had the upmost confidence in their answers and gave me so much market research I barely needed to complete my own. When designing a logo, there's time dedicated to market research, creating a comprehensive brand identity, and time for ironing out mistakes and slowly perfecting a solution.
Logos aren't just a thing you slap on a t-shirt. They're a representation of your company, a tool for effective outcomes, a beacon to guide customers to your business. My logo design process involves meetings, discovery, proposals, worksheets, concepts, mockups, and potentially hundreds of variations of final deliverables. It's years of design experience culminating in the perfect work for that specific client. It's not just drawing something, it's crafting something that is the ideal solution for how you want to grow your business.
In contest work, there's no time for any of that. It literally is just a pretty design, because there's no reason to spend anything more than the bare minimum time and effort to create it. It's no longer about efficacy of outcomes or evidence-based design, it's about speed. The focus is on quantity, and it often devoles into plagiarism in order to create more. It also tends to attract inexperienced designers, unaware of the trap they're falling into. The crazy part about all of this is, designers don't even earn a lot out of these competitions. The cut the controlling business takes is a substantial percentage and leaves the designer with pennies on the dollar.
Even though the designer may not win, they often will still lose rights to their designs. Usage rights should be expressed in a contract. Designers will grant rights for concepts and final artwork, depending on the exact agreement. For example, I never give derivative rights without a separate agreement and compensation. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to tell you how exactly these agreements should be laid out or what is appropriate in your area.
It devalues not only the designer's work, but yours. If you're not willing to put in the effort or money to obtain a quality outcome, why should people be willing to spend money on your business?
The Client-Designer Relationship
A huge part of design work has nothing to do with the actual production of the design. I consider the most important part of my job to be the effective communication I have with clients. Creative work is a mutually beneficial collaboration. The value of being able to discuss the research and tailor a project to the client is so incredibly satisfying. It's an importance that cannot be overstated.
That's why it pays to contract a professional. It's literally our job to focus on your best interests. Spend some time looking at portfolios and narrow potential designers down to those with a style that fits what you want. Once you contact a designer, you can determine if you can form a quality working relationship.
Spec work is never going to give you the quality you deserve, both as a client and a designer. Reach out, find someone you want to work with. I guarantee you'll come away from it with better designs and happier outcomes.