What’s Your Take On Spec Work?

Whether you design logos, build websites, write copy or blog for a living doesn’t really matter, at some point in your freelance career it is more than likely someone will ask you to do spec work. In other words: work for free.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, picture this:

You’re a web designer and of course you are looking for work. You come across this company and they need someone to design their new website, great!

At first you think ‘hey I’m available so I’ll send ‘em my resume, hope they’ll hire me, my portfolio is killer!‘, then you read a little more on their website and they’re actually asking people to come up with ideas, concepts, and to put something together, then they will hire ‘someone‘.

The problem is you have to work but you won’t not necessarily get paid. What if you spend 10-12 hours on this and they decide to hire someone else? At the end of the day, who is going to pay your bills?

My Take On Spec Work

No-SpecHonestly when someone asks me to do spec work, I just turn around and leave. Sure when you’re getting started it ain’t easy to find new clients and build a portfolio, so participating in design contests and do spec work can help. But before you accept to do spec work there are some questions you might want to ask yourself. Do you really think it’s the only way you can find work and build your portfolio? Can you really connect with the client? Does it give you enough time to brainstorm and come up with concept ideas?

Branding is not just a pretty logo. If a company or potential client is not willing to hire you based on what they saw on your portfolio, your excellent communication skills and your professionalism, you may be better off not working for them anyway.

What About You?

What do you think of spec work? Ever participated in a design contest, on SitePoint maybe? Do you do spec work? Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comment section below. :)




  1. says

    Walk away is the best thing you can do. I’ll write up a quote for people but they get no designs/code until I see a signed contract and deposit.

  2. says

    I think normally your portfolio should be enough. Or arrange for a special “kill fee” if they decide not to go with you.

    That said, I’d consider it based on the situation…

  3. says

    Like most designers i feel spec work devalues our industry. I have never undertaken spec work nor ever will. It’s far more beneficial and effective to work on generating business through networking and brand building. I understand inexperienced designers may think this is a quick buck but i think it can only lead to bad habits.

    You should value your time and skills!

  4. Zac says

    I’m a freelance book editor. I’ve done some work for friends on the basis of, “Pay me when you get this thing published,” oftentimes taking a reduced fee (10-20% of my standard rate) in exchange for a promise to pay the balance upon publication – and I draw up a contract that states exactly this, even for my best buddies. But I’ll never do anything on “spec.” You want samples? Fine; I’ll send you some old material after clearing it with my client. An employer who asks ten people to provide REAL work, in the hope you’ll be the one hired, is an asshole. Guaranteed they’ll find some way to screw you if you’re the “lucky” winner.

  5. says

    I’m in the “no spec” group for sure. Spending hours on a job that may or may not pay, that you may or may not be stuck with, that may or may not get sold somewhere else isn’t a risk I’m willing to take. While I understand the concept, I have a family to feed first, and I’d rather spend my energy and effort on work that buyers really want – not work that people aren’t sure they’ll use.

  6. Bob Zuruncle says

    That’s easy… If you charge nothing for your work then that’s exactly what it’s worth

    If you are that desperate to build a portfolio, charge something… even if it’s just enough to cover your fuel for the month

    It’s a bad habit to develop

  7. says

    I do not ever work for spec, nor would I ever condone it. Anytime someone I know does it, I don’t hesitate to let them in on the fact that not only are they jeopardizing their situation, but they put it in the client’s head that spec work is ok, which hurts our industry.

    The only time I would ever condone it, and I’m still on the fence on this, is if you were passionate about working for a particular company and this was the only way to get your foot in the door. It would have to be something that your dream of doing work for that client far outweighs the need to get paid. But even then its still not a great idea.

  8. says

    I’m with Dave C on this one. I’m opposed in general, but if the perfect opportunity came along, I might consider it. That said, the perfect opportunity never has come along yet. :-)

  9. says

    Well, I have a slightly different perspective because I’m a developer. When looking at contracts, especially larger ones, I will prototype and write a specification in order to allow me to quote accurately and communicate confidently with the client.

  10. says

    I have participated in Sitepoint contests alot for web design, logo design, and identity design. I like Sitepoint contests. My first three months of freelancing it was my largest source of income. I met clients from Sitepoint contests that have used me for many projects following the contest. My portolio has lots of Sitepoint generated work in it connectioncube.com. Alot of my business was built from Sitepoint.

    Now I have clients and some new clients find me through google, refereals, my blog, etc. Its like I’ve outgrown these contests. If I have enough regular paying work and can find them without doing spec work than Sitepoint no longer has a use for me. I’ve moved away from Sitepoint as being a part of my business plans.

    I still see Sitepoint as a potential marketing platform where if I had the time I might occasionly enter a contest. Though at this point it is unlikely. I have to many personal project ideas that if I don’t have client work that day I would love to work on my projects – like aiburn.com.

    I have found some great clients through Sitepoint, but I want to target my clients more effectively now and continue to find clients that value my services. Clients that understand the design process and are great to work with. I’m moving further away from low budget work continually.

    I personaly don’t think that designers willing to do spec work devalues the industry. Design is fun and if people are willing to do it for free then there is no problem with that. A small business can use Sitepoint and get good results. Though it will take them more time and effort than hiring a professional to do the job. They have to comment on entries and run the contest. So, the client pays in time spent. Which for a small busniess it may be worth it for them.

    A business with stakeholders and that has alot to risk should not rely on something that may fall through. It would be good to use a designer that has built a solid reputation and has a good portfolio. Designers that do work on spec are likely hobiest or desingers just getting started out, or designers living in countries with lower standards of living. Not always the most reliable. Though it is possible to find great designers through Sitepoint.

    There are exceptions, but often customers do get what they pay for. And quality reliable service will win you many customers. And get you the type of customers you want to work with.

  11. says

    Above I wrote some experiences with Sitepoint my first year of freelancing. I no longer have to take the risk of doing spec work. I have enough regular paying work.

    With new clients that approach me I don’t do spec work. I also get payment in advance. Full for less than $500 or a down payment for larger projects. These clients have found you for a reason. And that reason is likely the high quality of work in your portolfio.

    Being confident in your abilities an having the business experience to know how to make a sale puts you in a good position with negotiating with new clients.


  12. says

    One year ago, a company invites web developers groups to a discussion. Each group presents their offer. My group was one of them. We displays our design to the company. We have a long discussion. But the discussion ended when they talk about prices. This company doesn’t even do their homework for design prices. And that’s conclude the discussion without any winner.

  13. says

    Jon, I think a critical question in this discussion is “What will you be able to do with the work if this doesn’t pan out?” The original post and many of the comments here seem to relate to design work. In that field, it makes little sense to work on spec because you either get the job or you don’t, and if you don’t then your effort has been largely wasted.

    As a writer, though, I’ve never had any problem working on spec for articles and such. I’m not going to write marketing copy on spec because it’s basically the same situation as described above–but if I write an article for a publication on spec and they don’t like it, I’m reasonably confident (and history would indicate) that I can sell it to someone else in fairly short order.

    In fact, it can be a great way to get in with a larger publication that might not be ready to take a chance on a relatively unknown writer, and it’s virtually risk-free, because if the publication decides not to go with the story, some minor tweaking will probably make it perfect for one of your regular markets.

  14. says

    As an artist I’ve found that spec work rarely if ever pays off. Most companies sponsoring contests or offering spec work are generally looking for a bargain. Please be careful before getting involved.

  15. says

    No, I don’t do spec work, and I turn down flat any requests to for it. But I was introduced about a year ago to a method that works well especially on larger projects.

    Split the project into at least two phases. In the first Discovery phase, you and the client hammer out the detailed specifications for the remaining work. This includes creating design mockups (however many you usually do) and taking one to completion.

    At the end of the Discovery phase, I’ve delivered:

    * final approved design
    * detailed specs for development (may be broken into multiple phases)
    * schedule and estimate based on my rates

    At this point, they can choose to take that information out to bid, or just award the work to me.

    Chances are if they go out to bid, they are probably a client I would just as soon not have.

    I’ve only them go out to bid twice; both times they awarded the contract to the lowest bidder (which was most definitely not me!). Both times, the project turned out to be a nightmare for the firm that won the bid to complete the work.

    Most of the time, we move straight on to development.

    The client wins: they have a design and a set of specifications before they have to commit to the entire enchilada.

    I win: I’ve been paid for work I’ve done.

  16. Jane says

    I’m in the no spec category as well! There is no guarantee they will go with and you are working for free. These potential clients would never expect a carpenter or some other industry to come in and design either plans or build a cabinet for them just to check out their work.

    Our job is to make sure we can do the job to the standards that they are looking for and do it well. If they don’t understand or are not willing to work within our industry standards then they are not respecting the design and work involved in coming up with specs or ideas and are probably going to be a problem client.

    I would try to set up a meeting with them and of course go through our portfolio and gain their confidence. They may be new to this and don’t actually realize what they are asking and why it is almost offensive! I would try to explain to them some of the things that are important when looking for a designer and why they are important so they can make informed decisions when choosing a designer/developer. Hopefully this will help them to make more educated decisions in regards to their project and if not maybe they will go with the person who was upfront and helped them to make a more informed decision.

    I would also check out the outcome down the road )if they went with someone else) to see if they received the service and the design they were looking for and how it is working for them Maybe they aren’t happy or it’s not even done and they are ready to go with someone else and remember that you were helpful before.

  17. Aron B says

    To be honest i think no spec is important if you are starting off and building your portfolio.

    Its shows track record of hard work, i think its the preliminary to entry level programing and design position.

    Its a must for all, to know what to do and what to do!



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