The Pitfalls Of Spec Work

Whether you’re getting started in the world of design, or you’ve been for years, there’s one aspect of the business that plagues us. The plague I’m talking about is the idea of spec work. I’m sure you’ve heard of spec work before. If you haven’t, consider yourself extremely lucky. Spec work is when a so-called client approaches you, wanting you to do design work in exchange for the possibility or promise of payment. This is a huge trap, and usually no one ends up happy except for the swindling client. We’ll take a look at spec work, its different forms, and how you can gain real exposure for your design skills.

Spec Work - Chains and shackles

If you ever been approached by client who’s asked you to do design work, promising you big exposure in return? Avoid this at all costs. It sounds good, but nothing ever comes of it. This is a business’s way of trying to get you to do design work for them for free. In the long run, these companies will never hire you, and you always be looked at as replaceable. Why pay you to do something, when they can just swindling another designer and doing it for free in exchange for the promise of “exposure”?

Spec work is the bane of real designers everywhere. The reason is because of the vastly negative effect it has on our profession. Spec work hurts our profession in several ways:

  • It takes away from the value of our work.
  • It gives our profession the appearance of being trivial or unimportant.
  • It makes it harder for designers to get paying work.
  • It undercuts professional designers, basically taking money out of their pockets.
  • Businesses feel like they can get away with it if designers keep doing it.

Students and Rookies

Businesses that are looking for spec work, or for designers to do work for free, will prey on students and inexperienced designers. They know that you don’t know any better, which makes you an easy target. They also know that you’re hungry for exposure and to get your foot in the door, so you’re more likely to go the extra mile to make a name for yourself. It’s important, whether you’re fresh out of college, or you are a you are a freelance designer, to educate yourself and be prepared for when businesses try to get you to do spec work.

Spec work comes in many forms

Businesses will blatantly ask you to complete projects for them in exchange for exposure. They’ll say things like “this will get your name out there” and other rubbish like this. Another way spec work comes around is the promise of future employment. They may say something like “we need to try you out and make sure that your skills are what you say they are. Once we see that you can handle the work, will bring you on full-time.” This is a huge red flag, because they want you to complete the project, with no obligation of payment or employment.

Design Contests

I speak from experience, because a decade ago I tried this, too. Not knowing any better, I wanted to acquire real world projects for my portfolio. I entered several design contests online, hoping to land new clients and promote my work. The problem is, when you’re competing against 200 designers for the same client, you are at the mercy of fate. I say fate, because there’s no skill involved. The people that are looking to hire someone from one of these contests has no idea about the world of design. They don’t know what good design is, and if you want just give them what they want, they’ll find somebody who will. A real-world client can be guided help to make good decisions. However, when you enter one of these design contests, you deliver what they ask for, with no influence on the project at all.

A Better Route

I don’t know about all design schools, but most of them require that you work and internship in order to graduate. This is the time to develop real-world projects for your portfolio. If you really maximize this opportunity, you won’t have the need to succumb to spec work in the real world. You already have professional projects for your portfolio, which will impress potential employers and freelance design clients. An internship will give you the mentorship that you need in order to build your confidence in the world of graphic design.


Have you ever been in a situation where possible client or business wanted you to do design work for free? I would love to hear about your experiences. It’s important that designers understand the destruction that spec work causes to our industry. Be sure to share your experiences in the comments section below.

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