Dealing With "Spec" Work

Professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work.

I recently received the following question from a design student at MacEwan University:

Earlier this summer I met two gentlemen—one of whom was a graduate of the MacEwan Design Studies program—who own a new advertising agency. The three of us talked a lot about future opportunities, and so I later sent them an e-mail explaining that, although I was already employed, I would love to hear what they had to say about my work.

They took a look at my work and said they loved it. They offered me a job working as a contractor, just picking up jobs on the side. Before thinking too much about it, I asked how our relationship would work.

They told me that we’d have a few “trial runs” of unpaid work, “as a test to see if the quality and ability is there.” I politely declined the offer.

I was lucky enough to already have employment, so I wasn’t desperate for the work. But after thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that there may be students looking for a job who might fall into this kind of trap—doing client work for no pay.

Is this kind of “trial run” a standard practice?

Stories like this are, unfortunately, all too commonplace in the graphic design industry. What the agency was asking for was speculative work. It’s something that comes up often during the hiring process and which most designers know well enough to avoid, but sometimes the potential of an opportunity can make it difficult to say “No thank you” to such an offer—especially if you’ve been on the job hunt a long time.

Speculative work—or “spec work”—is work performed without fair compensation. It’s typically presented as an opportunity: someone is looking for a designer, but want to make sure that you have the right skills, or that you’re the right fit, so they ask you to do just one or two things for no pay, in return for the opportunity to maybe get paying jobs in the future.

It all sounds reasonable, especially when you’re just starting out, but the truth is that requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process. It also reflects a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design. Designers are professionals, their services add value and help clients in ways they cannot help themselves. You can’t get your first divorce proceeding free from a lawyer—with the promise she’ll be paid for the next one!—so why should a designer be any different?

The Graphic Designers of Canada believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. I would like to invite you to have a look at our code of ethics in which you can find more information on the topic: About Our Code of Ethics.

So what can you do if a situation like this arises? You could say no, or you could try to negotiate.

Try this: if the work being performed by you as a freelancer could be performed by someone in a salaried position, ask to be paid at the same hourly rate. There’s nothing wrong with making a respectful suggestion: it demonstrates that not only are you are interested in the position, you’re also a professional.

If they say no, well then it’s clear the company you are applying for doesn’t value your work—which will probably result in a lot of frustrating situations you’d be wise to avoid from the get go. From my experience, it’s better to work somewhere unrelated to your professional field while looking for a great opportunity than be taken advantage of disrespected.

To help you make great decisions for yourself, it is important you understand the impact of them. Below is a list of great resources on spec work. And, if you have any further questions or you’ve encountered a similar situation and require advice, please don’t hesitate to contact the GDC directly.

What is Speculative Work?

What is Spec Work - informational video by Topic Simple

The NO!SPEC Campaign by NO!SPEC

AIGA Position on Spec Work

Don’t Design on Spec - by Jeffrey Zeldman

Guidelines for Soliciting Work from Professional Designers

Competition and Contest Guidelines

Best Practices for Competitions and Contests

Ico-D Best Practice Paper: Organising Design Award Competitions