Jenna Van Hout
Jenna Van Hout is an independent designer & artist in the Bay Area

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Spec Work

I’m enjoying all the new things I’m learning about running a business as I continue to dive deeper into freelancing, but I just had my first encounter with a proposition to do unpaid spec work.

If you walk into a restaurant and order a sandwich, would you only pay for it afterwards if you decided you liked it enough?

Spec work, short for “speculative work,” is the concept of soliciting design work from multiple designers before deciding who to ultimately hire or pay for the work done or a larger contract. Sometimes it happens as a contest, or as part of a pitch, and sometimes it is treated as an entrance exam or a “test” of your skills. The AIGA has a hard line position against spec work, the main reasons being:

1. To assure the client receives the most appropriate and responsive work. Successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics. Design creates value for clients as a result of the strategic approach designers take in addressing the problems or needs of the client and only at the end of that process is a “design” created. Speculative or open competitions for work based on a perfunctory problem statement will not result in the best design solution for the client. 

2. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process. Requesting work for free reflects a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design as well as the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. This approach, therefore, reflects on your personal practices and standards and may be harmful to the professional reputation of both you and your business.

Think about it in terms of other industries—if you walk into a restaurant and order a sandwich, would you only pay for it afterwards if you decided you liked it enough? Or maybe you go eat a few different sandwiches from different restaurants, and decide which is the only one you want to pay money for. This is spec work.

Coming from a history of agencies, Ive done my share of spec work. My first agency participated in this practice. We would bust our normally-billable butts on non-billable work to come up with multiple concepts to be presented in pitches, where our people tried to convince prospective clients that we were the best partner out there to solve their particular challenge. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. (I’ll note that when I moved on to Blue State Digital, we had a no-spec policy, preferring to win projects based on merit and thoughtfulness rather than shiny pitch decks.)

Spec work was stressful because it felt as though so much rode on the designer’s back to show something beautiful and convincing—but I always felt it was a bit of an empty vanity play. We would be operating on limited information of what we understood the challenge to be, without having actually done the weeks or months of collaboration and discovery that the real project would actually begin with, with a final deliverable being a few choice, ultra-sexy screens. Sometimes it was fun to flex my design muscles in a world with very few constraints—no real users to empathize with, no larger system to work within, just make it look as awesome as possible—but most of the time it was exhausting and grueling work that you couldn’t even put in your portfolio due to the confidential nature of the work.

I think it’s one thing if you are an agency employing hundreds of people, and you’re going after a $500k project—it’s your business’s decision to invest the hours of a salaried employee on spec work. If you win the project, you now have half a million dollars coming down the pipe!—and it only cost you a few weeks of some of your staff’s time. If you lose it, it’s a bummer, but your staff, from the designers to the biz dev team, will still get paid for their efforts. However, it’s a totally different game if you’re a freelancer. The projects you’re going after aren’t nearly as big, and you most certainly can’t afford to work for free.

As freelancers, our expertise is of value, and our time is for purchase.

Now that I am an independent designer, I am a team of one. I am my own founder, CEO, CMO, CFO, and CTO. I do my own business development, marketing, project management, IT, bookkeeping and so on. The time spent on finding and meeting with prospective clients, researching, writing proposals and estimates, and keeping all of my comms up is no small feat—it’s a lot of overhead, and I don’t get paid for any of it. What I DO get paid for is what I specialize in: good, thoughtful design and a unique perspective.

As freelancers, our expertise is of value, and our time is for purchase. The right kinds of clients will understand that value and be willing to pay a fair price for it. Which is why, when a prospective client used the words “design challenge,” it took me a while to realize that what he actually meant wasn’t simply framing a paid branding project as a “challenge”, but to actually DO the branding project as unpaid spec work, pitching alongside a few other designers. It was a gut-punch when I realized this live on our call, and had to explain why I don’t participate in spec work. The call ended shortly after.

While I am bummed to have lost out on a project, it’s an experience I was bound to encounter sooner or later. I’m glad it happened early so I can either better qualify my leads, or be less offended when such requests come in. And on the bright side, by saying no and speaking my mind, I’m (hopefully) educating someone on why this is an unethical request. The optimist in me wants to believe that he will reconsider his approach, or will get results that prove that spec work is simply a race to the bottom.

To learn more about about spec work and how other designers feel about it, check out this resources page from No!Spec.

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