Thoughts on why Spec Work is Bad and Why You Shouldn’t Do It

Speculative, or ‘Spec’, work is in hot debate at the moment in the design industry. Design contest websites in particular have created a furore of debate over freelancers working initially for nothing, instead hoping that a client likes their work enough to want to pay for it.

What is Spec Work?

Speculative work is where you agree a price, but the client pays in full upon acceptance of the work. In other words it is where you submit full completed work before you have taken any form of payment, or signed a binding contract.

Really? Spec Work is widely condemned
Really? Spec Work is widely condemned.

My Story

Let us be clear that spec work is not just about design contest websites. Back when I worked freelance after graduating from University, I began plying for work on community websites. The kind of people that got back to me would list their demands. I would inform them on the likely cost and then I would begin working. Naturally, it just so flowed that I would then show them how I was getting on.
This was a big mistake because inevitably they would want changes, or worse, want me to start again. And of course, when this happened, nothing was said about the cost.

NO!SPEC’s campaign to build awareness of the damaging effects of spec work is gaining momentum

Unfortunately, design work suffers because the quality of the work is much down to interpretation. Everybody has their own opinions on whether a logo, website, etc is good or not. Whereas when you call in a plumber, you don’t question their techniques and the end result is irrelevant – it either works or it doesn’t, there is little or no degree of interpretation.
So of course, what kept happening to me is I would spend dozens of hours on work only to find myself unpaid. I even built a fully functioning e-commerce site for a client who decided she didn’t like it after a whole month of work.

Why is Spec work bad?

Apart from the point above, that you may find yourself unpaid, there are other issues that bring a negative feeling to spec work.


• Competition.
With design contest websites you are competing with hundreds of other designers. So you could spend a lot of time creating design work for absolutely nothing.

• Even if you do win, the fees are small.
99designs pays as little as $100 for a logo. That’s if you win. This also has another side effect in that it creates unrealistic expectations of how much design work costs, which could have a negative impact on all of us, not just those of us that use contest sites.

• Design contest websites claim they benefit designers by adding to your portfolio and giving you recognition.
But are you willing to work, more than likely for nothing, for the sake of recognition? Even so, it’s debatable if contest work will actually help you.

• Your quality of work will suffer.
Naturally, we don’t care so much about work if we’re not getting paid for it. Invariably, if you submit entries to a contest site they will more than likely not be as good as work you do when you have been paid a fee up front.

The grim reality of spec work is it leaves the majority of designers unpaid


From a clients point of view, it would be extremely frustrating if we paid £500 for a logo yet the end result was nothing close to what we wanted and we ended up not even using it. Imagine having to repeat this process several times until you got the logo you wanted, it could end up costing thousands. However, even from a client’s point of view, speculative work should be avoided and the results may not match the temptations of the low costs.

• Low quality work.
Because there is little chance of designers winning, most who submit work spend little time on it and it is usually of a low quality, clip art is prevalent. If you are serious about the brand identity of your company, a design agency or professional individual designer is the sensible choice.

• Anonymity of designers.
Would you open your front door to a decorator in a balaclava? Allowing someone who you do not know and have little or no idea about where they are from or who they are to brand your company or build your website is foolishness, for the same reasons you wouldn’t let someone else you don’t know to tamper with any other aspect of your business.

• Design contests essentially promote free labour.
You wouldn’t call over 10 plumbers to fix your toilet and only pay one of them – so why should this be any different? Simple – it shouldn’t.

• Plagiarism.
Plagiarism is nothing short of rife on design contest sites. You may think you are getting an original logo, but where did that clip art come from? Is the font licensed? The logo a client gets may not be legitimate, it may even be illegal.

What should I do instead?

First of all, every freelancer should have a rough pricing structure. My advice would be if freelance is really the way you want to go, invest some time working out how much you feel you should be paid for work. Your pricing structure doesn’t need to be rigid, in fact it should be flexible, but it is essential you know your worth before you do any work. Remember, don’t undervalue yourself, you are charging people not just for your time, but your expertise. Don’t forget to make it clear what happens when the client asks for revisions.

Secondly, get everything in writing and agreed and signed for before you commence a project. Inform your prospective client of all the costs, and explain them. You should also explain to the client that if you are working by the hour, actual costs may vary. If they want to spend a fixed amount, agree a fixed fee for a fixed number of hours of your time. If you have to go over these hours, charge for them but liaise with the client first. The best thing to do is to get everything written in a legally binding contract which the client signs. They are then obligated to pay you, providing you complete the work.

If you are a client and you don’t want to be a position whereby you have paid for unsatisfactory work, the best practice is to go to a reputable design company or freelancer. Be as helpful to the designer as possible, make it clear what the ethos of your business is and try and be clear in your demands – don’t contradict yourself, it’s very frustrating when clients ask for a minimal design but then ask for a floral background.

If you are a designer just starting out, you may have to find yourself charging smaller fees for your work and plying for jobs on community boards such as Gumtree and Craigslist. This isn’t necessarily bad but there are other ways. I have found being a member of Concept Feedback highly beneficial – at first the work I submitted was just for fun but as I became a member of the community I actually was approached for work by people who had seen my designs on the site. Additionally, the feedback I got has improved me as a designer hugely. Be proactive, make business cards and flyers and promote yourself locally.
And lastly, one key tip which I think is worth mentioning is the relationship between client and designer is usually several times better when you know them in person. Don’t be afraid as a designer to meet your client. If you have to travel for an hour on a train just for a coffee – so be it. It will also portray you in a good light because it shows you care about the work.

If you have anything to add about spec work or would like to share your own experiences or thoughts, I would love to hear from you.


  • ryanb6

    Very nice

  • Leslie Ferreira

    The ads on the side of this article are contradicting what the article stands for!

  • HD

     Tenley – i would be very interested to see a proposal template for a site based on the terms you stated. I have worked like this as well but it is always helpful to see how others have articulated things and laid down their limitations for a project.

  • Nicholas Johnson

    Yes. For me it goes something like this:

    1. Get the call, usually from a friend of a friend, someone I met in the park, on a train, etc, etc.
    2. Meet them, show them previous work, tell them my day rate.
    3. Spec the project, work out a fixed price based on days. 
    4. Build in contingency.
    5. Knock a bit off the price.
    6. Agree a start date and payment schedule, generally 25%, 25%, 50%

    I use a burndown to give a graphical representation of the state of the project. Additional features not on the burndown mean the loss of a different feature of equivalent worth, or an extra fee. If something creeps a little, and it always does, I don’t sweat it as I have contingency built in.

  • Chris

    I totally disagree. A company who is betting millions that design work with have it’s intended effect needs to know that the work can be done. Designers only show you their best work in their portfolio not their major screw-ups. We recently paid thousands of dollars to a Designer who could not or would not get it right. We ended up having to pay another more competent designer to get it right after “Spec” work. For some small company with limited reach, I am all for no spec work but not when it comes to requiring global or national reach. It’s me getting screwed by a designer who won’t listen or thinks too highly of himself and stretching his capabilities and again by my CEO for not getting the job done. I know from experience and it hurts! It’s more about paying for someone who can do the work vs taking the risk with millions of dollars of product that it’s not going to be presented right. Most large companies do RFP’s and get a lot of spec work or have relationships with firms who do a lot of spec. Not all designers know what they are doing. It’s a freaking insult when I am paying for something and can’t see what I am paying for. Took that risk once and got burned. Not again. Just try going to the grocery store and buying what you think is fresh produce only to get something of lesser value.

  • TraitDesign

    if all of us agree to not work free than people who advocate for it will stop being ridiculous. I have been freelancing for years myself and I get solicited by numerous clients who want me to work first then they think about, not going to happen in my world. great article sir thank you!

  • Amy Lightholder

    I hear this from designers a lot, and I think the wise thing is actually more subtle: Do work for free, but be smart about it.

    I paid about $500 last weekend traveling to work for two days with an expert in my field. For free. And then I came back and did an interview, also for free. On monday, I’m going to teach a full day class to ten people, worth about $500 a student, but I’ll get paid about $50, so it’s basically for free.

    Why am I doing this? Because the expert didn’t charge me for training, and if I were buying such an experience, it would have run about $1500. Because the interview and the blog post are marketing materials. Because I needed the kick in the pants that comes from having a deadline. Because I don’t have a lot of training experiences in my portfolio and I’ve established that there’s a market for people in my field with training in their portfolio. (Also the lady I’m teaching for is a rockstar marketer who’s teaching me her secrets.) Because working a couple of days here and there at ‘sexy’ places boosts my reputation and therefore my market rate. Because a lot of time working for free is a reason to get in front of potential clients and/or building relationships within communities that I have already established have a very good chance of paying rich dividends in the future.

    Working for free has been the engine behind every successful career move I’ve made in my entire life. It’s how I’ve quadrupled my income. It’s how I’ve developed the supportive business networks that supply me with advice and references and information about how much everyone is really being paid. If I refused to work for free, I’d be screwing myself royally.

    The key is in managing your time. Dashing off a five-minute sketch costs you nothing and is done almost as soon as you’ve started. Committing to doing a portrait alone in your studio can suck up your entire week and since nobody sees this, you won’t be getting any credit.

    Every situation is different, and I can’t tell people here whether a particular ‘giveaway’ is going to work for them or not. It took me years to learn how to make such investments. But I cringe when I see amateurs getting self-righteous about ‘not working for free’ when their real problem is that they have poor business skills.

  • Great article. Just forwarded it around the office. Thanks!