Speaking of Spec: The Pros and Cons of Spec Work

by . September 6th, 2012

Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran in the graphic design industry, you’re main goal in life is to be able to create designs which you can sell to companies or individuals for you to earn a living. For most designers, this can happen in a substantial amount of time and from continuous practice and mastery of their craft.

So if you’re just starting out your career as a graphic designer or you currently have no projects to work on, it is sometimes very easy to fall for something that promises the possibility of earning money from your work in a very easy and convenient way. This is the main premise of spec work or speculative work. But are the information that you’ve heard about spec work right or wrong?

Here’s the 411 on this practice – the advantages, disadvantages and what designers should do whenever they encounter it.


Spec work or speculative work as the name implies is usually a creative work done whether complete or partial without the certainty of the project’s approval or compensation. Based on this premise, a designer will usually be requested to submit under the guise of a contest or a bidding process as a form of test for their skills.


The client or the employer will then choose one or a number of winning designs. The winner (or winners) will then be compensated through various means such as a monetary prize, a token or a certificate. If you are one of the unlucky designers who didn’t get picked, you go home empty handed. And worse, almost 100% of the time, you relinquish all your rights to your creative work and the company/client is free to use your design in whatever way they wish.


Design contests are all over the internet nowadays; and spec work contests are heavily infused into the mix. So how is one to differentiate the legitimate design contests from those that only want to get the most designs for a fraction of the cost?


Here are a few questions you can ask yourself before joining these types of contests:

  1. If I win the contest, will I get the same or even higher amount of compensation if I would have created the design under a legitimate project with a contract?
  2. If I don’t win, and the company or the client decides to still use my design in any way, will they give me the right compensation based on my skill level and the quality of the design I submitted?
  3. If I don’t win, and the company or the client decides not to use my design at all, will they return the files and all usage rights to all the designs I submitted?

If you answered yes to all the questions above, then by all means join that contest because it’s probably legit.


At a quick glance, the party that is most affected by spec work is the side of the designers. But is it all negative? Or can we derive something beneficial from spec work?

The answer is simple. If you joined a contest and you get picked as a winner, (given that the compensation is right for your skill set) then in that perspective alone the contest is beneficial. Winners can use the prestige of winning the contest on their portfolio and resume which will in turn improve their reputation as designers.


On the other side of the fence, non-winners have a completely opposite story. Not only were they not properly compensated for their work, but as part of the terms of the contest, designers will have to give up all usage rights to the company or client. And if a non-winning design is used in any way by the client, the revenue earned from the use of the design will most likely NEVER reach the designer.


Moreover, the sheer number of participants in the contest can substantially devaluate a designer’s work. The high level of competition among contestants promotes a feeding frenzy environment where designers strive to outperform and outbid other people in the competition. As a result, designers may oversupply the market and drive the value of their designs down.


If you think that clients and companies who promote spec work are spared from any repercussions of such a practice, then you’re deeply mistaken. Yes, they might be able to acquire an incredible amount of designs at a fraction of the cost, but they’re not immune to the side effects of using such tactics in the long run.

The negative effects of spec work contests are most clearly seen on companies and other business entities that have used these kinds of contests multiple times in the past. For starters, the basic nature of spec work competition prevents a designer from doing the necessary market research in creating a design for that company. As a result, the final (winning) product maybe the prettiest design among all the entries submitted but it might not be the most representative of the company’s or the employer’s visions and goal.



Also, firms and individuals who have regularly taken advantage of such contests may end up with a design theme for their products or services that lacks coherence and harmony. This is primarily because different designers may have different interpretation to the theme and needs of the project. So if a client is using a number of designs from different designers for several products, this may result in a segmented product line or campaign.


Although the disadvantages of spec work clearly outweigh the advantages, contests and projects that make use of this practice are still seen all over the internet. The reason is simple. These competitions act as huge sink holes that trap the unwary, uninformed, unsuspecting newbies who are innocently looking for an extra source of income or those who are actually looking for a full time job.

Lured by the scent of false advertisements, overinflated promises and the sweet scent of money, this legion of young uninformed graphic artists are what drive the practice.


Spec work works relatively the same as any unethical or illegal activity out there. As long as there are people who patronize and promote them. The only way to put a stop to it is really easy. In fact it can be summarized into three words – JUST SAY NO. Learning to decline an offer or disregard an invitation can come a long way, especially for the benefit of the many.

Spec Work is like poaching. Stop Buying and they’ll stop selling. (Source)

Spec work is just like poaching, prostitution, human trafficking and illegal drugs. Just stop buying what they’re selling and they’ll die out eventually.

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