How the pros and cons of spec work impact you

Speculative work (or spec work for short), for which work is undertaken before actually knowing if that work will be chosen and paid for by the client has become a heated topic in the last few years, especially with the creation of design contest sites. Spec work has been something I’ve been undecided about for a while but after reading several articles about it lately, I decided to give the whole subject more thought and share my humble opinion on how I believe designers and companies are impacted.

In the early years of my career I always thought of spec work as a norm in certain industries, take advertising for example. A company might ask a few selected agencies to pitch a concept which would normally include some unfinished artwork. From the company’s perspective, they get to see how a few agencies, chosen because of their work and reputation, would tackle their specific needs. The agencies taking part though, would have to spend their time and money on these pitches, but in the hope that if chosen by the company, they will gain financially by being engaged for an extended period of time, working on more than just the initially pitched work.

No Spec posters

No Spec posters by Von Glitschka.

But over the years, especially more recently, when I think of spec work what comes to mind are all these design contest sites that have sprung up online. Which unlike the advertising example above, require designers to produce finished artwork, with no guarantee of further money from that company for producing additional work – all on the understanding that their work is competing against many others so stands a far less chance of being selected and paid for.

Before I go any further let me be clear, I do believe these contests are actually just spec work, disguised under the mantle of a contest. Though regardless of how we choose to label them, be it contests, crowdsourcing or crowdspecking, I think it’s the pros and cons that companies and designers can experience from this type of spec work that’s more important. Below these are listed, comparing spec work to the more traditional practice of choosing a designer before any artwork is produced, with the guarantee of payment at the end.

Companies Engaging in Spec Work

Pros

Save Money

Rather than a designer giving you a quote for producing your artwork, you can decide how much money you want to pay instead. This can save you a fair amount of money, but at what cost? Will the quality be the same? Will the designer take the time to understand your business and the image of your company? These are questions you should be asking yourself.

Wider Choice

Why settle for one designer creating artwork for you, if you can get dozens or even hundreds doing the same thing? Consider how you will deal with all these choices, decision making can be difficult, you’ll need clear focus to pick what’s best for your business and not just your own personal taste. This is the type of input you would usually get from a designer if engaged the traditional way (see Six Steps to Hassle Free Great Designs for more on this).

Quick Turnaround

Good designers can be busy people, in demand because of their reputation, so they usually require more notice before starting a project. Therefore, if you need artwork produced in a rush, you could instead use a design contest and possibly have it in a matter of days. There will surely be designers out there that can rush your design along, but do you really want rushed artwork? And will it satisfy your requirements and what if it doesn’t, will you have to start the whole process again? You could be lucky, or would you be better waiting a little bit longer to hire a designer you know can deliver the quality you need?

Cons

Lacks Originality

Without the guarantee of payment, how much time do you think a designer can give to your project? He will most likely not have the time to research your business or to brainstorm and sketch ideas. Instead he might rehash a past design that wasn’t chosen by another company or else search online for your type of business and use what he finds as inspiration for your artwork. This can be risky if another company notices the similarities, especially with logo design.

Less Specific

Again, because of the lack of time that can be given to a highly likely non paying job, the lack of research will mean that the final artwork will not be very specific to your company and what it stands for. There simply won’t be the time to learn enough about your business and to work through ideas to get to a solution that fits your business, unlike how a designer would usually work if you had hired him the traditional way.

Poor Quality

You could be very lucky and get someone with experience and talent creating your artwork, but as stated already, how much time can they give to your project, therefore what will the outcome be. But the more likely situation would be your artwork being produced by a young designer wanting to gain experience and produce work for their portfolio. There’s a good chance that they simply won’t have the experience to create the level of work needed and it’ll show. Do you really want your business to be associated with poor quality?

Designers Engaging in Spec Work

Pros

Earn Money

With the high amount of designers submitting designs, the chance of yours being selected is minimal. Even if you do spend as little time as possible on it, it’s still time that’s unlikely to bring a reward. You would be much better using your time trying to attract regular paying clients, think of new ways to market yourself or develop new skills that will make you appeal more to new clients.

Gain Experience

If you’re a student or just starting out in design and need to gain experience and build up your portfolio then spec work might be an option, but it’s certainly not the best option you could take. It’s very unlikely that your artwork will be chosen and there will be little feedback.

You would be much better off working for small, local businesses for a reduced rate or even for free to build up experience. At least this way you’ll be able to discuss the project in detail and get regular feedback from them (see Six Steps to Hassle Free Client Approval for more on this) and they may even become regular clients if they like your work.

Get Exposure

How much exposure you as a designer will gain from doing spec work is questionable. Companies go to these contest sites to get artwork, they are not there looking for designers to hire the usual way, they wouldn’t be there in the first place if that’s what they wanted. So you need to ask yourself what benefits you’ll get from being known on these sites, surely only fellow designers competing against you may remember your name.

Cons

Time Wasted

The chances of your work being selected are pretty slim, so any time you spend will probably be wasted. Sure, you may gain some experience in the process, but without proper feedback how useful will that experience be. Also, if you want to produce portfolio pieces, unless you are willing to put in the necessary hours, they will not amount to much? And can you afford to use so much of your time this way, without the guarantee of payment at the end?

Lost Enthusiasm

There’s a real risk that continually producing artwork that is never selected will result in you loosing enthusiasm for design or even have you questioning your own abilities. Design is a hard business to be in anyway, with lots of competition, so you don’t need the extra pressure of competing on each project with dozens or hundreds of other designers. If you do get to this stage, rather than questioning your skill, ask yourself why you feel the need to produce spec work and see what other options are out there.

Financial Loss

Not only will you have to risk spending your time creating artwork that most likely will reap no reward but even if your artwork were selected, the payment would usually be less than if you had been hired traditionally. Also, your reputation could be effected if it were to get out that you enter these types of design contests. Imagine a client finding out how little value you place on your abilities, they would certainly not want to pay more and it could impact how they view your work too. So if you do produce this type of spec work, at least don’t use your real name.

Summing-up

After weighting up the pros and cons as I see them, I think it’s pretty clear for you to tell what my own personal views are on this type of spec work, though in the end it comes down to choice. It’s up to the individual company or designer to choose what is best for them and how they want to be perceived.

There will always be companies out there that want to pay as little as possible and if they are willing to accept the level of design that brings, who am I to complain. And for the designers out there, who for whatever reason choose to do spec work, if they are happy to then it’s none of my business.

The spectrum of design can be wide, from the awful to the exceptional, from the totally free to the highly expensive, from the copied idea to the original concept. We decide for ourselves where in that range we want to fit, it’s our choice.

About the author

Paul Galbraith is a freelance designer, specialising in logos, branding and web design for startups, small businesses, agencies and entrepreneurs worldwide.