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Spec Work and the Value of a Graphic Designer

by . September 12th, 2016

Recently, I’ve seen a website being held hostage by the designer. The whole screen is covered by a dark gray wash with the words “Site Unavailable” written in all caps. Below it was “This site is unavailable until this company pays their designer the agreed fee.”

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I don’t really agree with the execution, of course. This act by the web designer only attracts a lawsuit. Even if arguably he’s in the right, this act is still borderline libel. But it still speaks about an issue that is very much prevalent today.

Spec work is prevalent in the design industry.

What is spec work?

Spec work is work where a client expects a finished design before paying a designer, if they pay at all. Speculative work comes in many forms and the American Institute of Graphic Arts listed some of them in their position paper.

  • Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
  • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
  • Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
  • Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
  • Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

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There are two reasons why businesses uses a spec work model when dealing with designers. First is that they’re cheapskates and they want to exploit young designers to do their work for minimal payment of either monetary compensation or their favorite designer currency, exposure. The second is that they know no better how to compensate these designers (Yes, they exist.)

So it’s now up to the designer to value themselves.

How much are you worth?

When you were fresh out of design school, you may have had a reason to undervalue yourself. You need to gain experience or to build a portfolio so you might do things for a minimal fee or none at all.

In the graphic design industry, you have to get clients in order to get more clients. Working spec might just be the only way right?

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But the thing is, reasons such as building a portfolio or meeting new people can be done even without resorting to spec work. For instance, if you want to build your portfolio, go to your local nonprofit organizations. You can even go to the local school and university and get in touch with student organizations.

Do a design for their advocacies or build their websites so they can reach more people. Students and nonprofit orgs usually do not have resources to pay for design work and it will be a great help to them. If it turns out well, you might have yourself a loyal client in the future.

Spec work hurts the industry

I know that accepting spec work for the above reasons is entirely valid but the fact is, doing so only propagates this system of paying with “exposure” and affects the industry as a whole.

First, it affects you, the designer, as well as the current and future designers in the industry. Clients may see this as an opportunity to get free work and thus might be conducive for abuse. In the long run, this practice would devalue the work of graphic designers. If it becomes a standard, then a lot of designers would settle for the cheap work or take a chance on winning big for these design “contests”.

Second, it affects the client, believe it or not. Spec work would only lead to mediocre work. Because of cheap or almost free work, clients will get what they pay for. More often than not, design concepts are not well-thought of. I know I wouldn’t spend as much time and effort on a logo that I know there’s a chance I would not get paid with. Worse of all, some would plagiarize work for a quick fiver. The client ends up paying for more.

Have an interesting spec work experience? Tell us in the comments below!

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