Spec Work

What is it?

A growing problem to many industries is spec work. The problem includes graphic designers, illustrators, artists, photographers, writers, and others as well.

For those that do not know what spec work is, here is a short explanation – Spec work is work you do without charge hoping to be paid. A more involved explanation is provided from No!Spec –


“Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by a designer to a prospective client/employer before taking steps to secure both their work and an equitable fee. Under these conditions, a designer will often be requested to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, the designer normally unwittingly loses all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a signed binding contract or agreement. The client/employer often uses this freely gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.”

— Excerpt from No!Spec FAQ

I have to say low priced work is not spec work, after all it is paid work. Many seem to think any low paid work is spec work; however, according to their own definitions it isn’t.

What many call low pay work varies from person to person. I have heard some say they would not do work under $1000 dollars, and others work around the minimum wage amount. I think pay should be a livable wage one would be happy to work for. Not all businesses, including most online, can afford ridiculously priced designers. This itself is another topic, and many websites I read combine these two topics.

Why is it a problem?

The largest problems spec work create are devalued work, under-appreciated creators, often stolen work, creators who can’t make a living, and so much more.

Overall spec work seems to make many view the industry simply as “cheap”, in all meanings of the word. As they think anyone who downloads some software like Adobe Photoshop or has a digital camera is a designer/photographer and as such has no value. Many people do not understand just because someone has the software or a camera it does not make them a designer or photographer. In that line of thinking giving someone a guitar will turn them into Slash or Jimi Hendrix – and it simply does not!

There are so many websites devoted to getting free work it seems like a problem that will not disappear. Adding to the problem are college students, hobbyist, and people looking to make some income – as they know nothing of spec work or know how to get work.

I mention college students as many of the teaching professors do not know what is online, know what to inform students to avoid, or simply do not know what spec work is themselves. My time at college was no exception, as none of my professors knew of the freelance or contest sites – or knew what to inform me to avoid. I wrote a article about my time at college at No!Spec, you can read it at Spec Work and Design Students.

What to avoid?

Any of the contest websites are to be avoided like the plaque, they are the worst of the worst. Often the designs are made by complete amateurs (no sense of design at all), stolen designs (remakes of famous designs with just a new name), really low pay even if you do “win”, and several contests end without selecting a “winner”.

Contests include the contest design websites, e-mails from some businesses, or can be hosted by other websites (Even deviantART is doing contests as well anymore). If you are doing work for a “contest” consider the amount of time involved, what if you lose, what if your work is stolen, and judge for yourself if it is worth the work.

Another thing to avoid is sample and unpaid test work. Often they are wanting samples of designs or “testing” your design skills, before hiring. In this case they are just looking for free work. I recommend you refer them to your portfolio. As the samples/test is the actual work, even if they like your work there is no need to hire you as the work is already completed. Beware any samples/test work may end up being used freely by them.

If the potential client is legitimate have them hire, and pay you, for the samples or testing. A real client will understand the problem and pay you for any work you preform.

Sometimes a client will also try to add work to a project. For example you are creating the logo for their project, and they want you to create a website banner too. If you are getting paid hourly it really isn’t a problem; however, if you are getting paid a flat project fee it is a big problem. I recommend you remind them you agreed to the project price as agreed upon just for the logo (or whatever), and the banner is a new project. As it is a new project you can negotiate the terms for that project.

Just remember that if you create work then you need paid for that work.


Even if you are trying to get work remember that no amount of spec work, contest or otherwise, will get your work noticed or you hired. It is not something you need to do to get started, it is not part of the process.

The best way to get your work noticed is to create designs for your portfolio, and show your portfolio wherever you can. Create a website to display your work and get it listed on search engines. Show your printed work to any potential businesses in your area. You may even want to pay and get your portfolio listed with a portfolio website, or with an agent.

One thing that will help you improve your abilities, get you money, and turn into real work is to work freelance online. I would recommend working online freelance websites, just remember the things to avoid as they happen there as well. From experience I recommend oDesk, Elance, and iFreelance for freelance work online.

There is many websites that offer great information regarding spec work and getting started. Below is a small list for you, be sure to look at their other articles as well.


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