Spec work, also known as speculative work, is when a “client” asks designers to design their project with no payment—worse yet, no guarantee of payment, unless the “client” decides they like one enough to pay for it.
This can come in many forms, but most commonly it comes disguised as a “design contest” where dozens, sometimes hundreds of designers submit their work in the hopes that it comes close enough to your brief that you’re willing to pay for it.
Sure, on the surface, this seems like the perfect scenario for clients because you seem to get all of the benefits with none of the risks. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from people who have worked with inexperienced or unprofessional designers, so I can certainly understand the line of thinking, but spec work is not the land of sunshine and unicorns it first appears to be.
Here are six solid reasons you should never ask for spec work.
Spec work attracts designers with little skill or experience
How did you select your accountant or lawyer? You probably asked a trusted friend or colleague for a recommendation, right? That’s the same way you should select a designer.
Would you trust an accountant who was willing to do your taxes as part of a “contest” in hopes that you would pay them afterwards if you thought their work was “good enough?” Of course not—you hire an accountant because they have specialized knowledge that you lack. Even if they were willing to participate in such a contest, you would not be qualified to accurately compare their work because you don’t have the specialized knowledge they have. There’s more to there work than just how much they are able to save you in taxes…you would also need to ensure that all laws were followed because even a small mistake can have devastating financial and legal consequences.
Design is no different. You can certainly identify which design you like best, but that doesn’t mean it’s the design that will perform best. Designers understand color psychology, calls to action, screen resolution, and other technical details that determine whether a design will deliver the results you want or not.
Your personal preferences are fine for choosing which art to hang in your bedroom, but design decisions for a business should be left to professionals with skills and and experience in deliver results.
Most qualified designers refuse to perform spec work because they have a portfolio of previous work and a roster of satisfied clients who will vouch for them, and since they deliver results, their clients eagerly send them a steady stream of referrals. The only designers who compete for spec work are the ones with no experience or who have burned relationships with their previous clients by providing poor service, not delivering results, or worse yet, not completing projects.
You need to select a designer who will understand your business, can communicate clearly in a timely manner, and can help you achieve your goals the first time around. The best way to do that is to get a referral from a trusted friend or colleague who has worked with them. The next best option is to meet with several designers (or firms) who have performed similar work to discuss your needs, then speak with their clients to ask how they felt about the process and results.
You won’t develop the type of relationship needed to work with a designer
A designer’s work is based on their relationship with you, and in order to develop that relationship, they need to understand your mission, strategic goals, and personal preferences. The nature of spec work makes it impossible to develop that type of relationship.
Most designers who submit spec work will have little understanding of your business and goals
Sure, you could write a detailed project brief containing everything you think is important, but it will be missing a lot of information necessary for a successful project and most designers will only skim it anyway. Worse yet, no matter how detailed your brief is, it will only scratch the surface compared to what an experienced designer will require before even beginning to plan your project.
To put it into perspective, before we preform any work on a project, we first have a detailed conversation with our client and conduct extensive research on:
- their industry from the perspective of the client, customer, and media
- their competitors
- their business goals
- their past and current marketing efforts
- their relationship with current customers
This results in a comprehensive and detailed report—all before any visible part of the project is completed.
It may seem like overkill, but it ensures that anything we design aligns with our client’s mission, compliments their branding, moves them closer to their goals, and leverages their strengths as well as new opportunities.
Do you think a random designer who simply read a one‐page brief online has any shot of doing that? Not a chance. So you’ll waste valuable time reviewing submissions that aren’t a fit for your company.
A professional designer will invest the time to learn not only what you want, but also who you are and why you exist as a company, and all of this information is critical for almost every project.
Spec work attracts designers who are only interested in flipping a quick project
I’ve seen enough spec work “contests” and have worked with enough clients who were burned by spec work to have noticed that a lot of the work submitted is simply repurposed from somewhere else.
You’ll see a lot of the same work submitted over and over on multiple contests with minor, if any modifications. Even worse, you’ll often see stock art that has been purchased elsewhere presented as original work. This is a huge problem in general, but especially when it comes to logos because you can never hold the copyright/trademark for your own logo if it came from stock art. Almost as troubling, if someone presented a stock website template and you paid them to implement it, your competitor can use the exact same template and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. In fact, you might even be on the hook for large legal fees for violating the licence even though you did not do it knowingly. Getty Images is particularly brutal with their tactics in this area, but any stock art company will take action when they find out.
The fact that you paid someone else and they are the one who violated copyright and/or licencing is irrelevant—you still bear final responsibility. And after the all headaches and unanticipated expenses, you’ll still need to hire a professional designer to create a new design that is actually yours in the end anyway.
It makes more sense to just hire the right designer in the first place, doesn’t it?
Spec work won’t align with your overall branding and marketing strategy
Much like the organs in your body, every marketing piece is part of a larger overall system. Each project, from the seemingly insignificant, like business cards, to the obviously critical, like web design and social media campaigns, directly affect not only each other, but also your brand as a whole.
Any project designed in a vacuum, without the bigger picture in mind—not just in style, but also in strategy, will have a detrimental impact on your marketing efforts.
Speck work attracts designers who don’t value their own work
It has been said that “you teach people how to treat you” and how someone treats themselves is a big part of that.
Your work should speak for itself. If a designer is willing to work for free on the off chance that someone might like it enough to pay them for it, they don’t have assign much value to their work. And if a designer doesn’t value their own work, why should you?
To put it in perspective, a particular project we developed was directly responsible for one of our clients landing a $154 million dollar contract with Hilton Hotels. How could I ever justify giving my company’s work away in an arbitrary contest to be judged by people who lack the background to make an educated decision when I know exactly what kind of results we deliver on a consistent basis? How could anyone who knows the value of their work participate is a spec work scheme?
Bottom line—if a designer doesn’t value their work, you certainly shouldn’t either.
In the end, spec work doesn’t work
You will get the best results by selecting a designer who you work well with and developing a relationship so that they understand your mission, strategic goals, and personal preferences. Sure, that will require a fair amount of time and effort.
Anything worthwhile does.
The question floating around in your head right now is probably “Then where do I find a professional designer?” And since I’m not one to present a problem without a solution, I will be writing an article on exactly that very soon. If you’d like to be notified when I publish that, subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll email you when as soon as it is live!