In my career as a graphic and web designer, I’ve been approached a few times about doing spec work, and I have respectfully declined. Spec work is basically doing work with no guarantee of payment. Sometimes, payment is not even an option and you are offered “exposure” or “experience” in return for your invested time. Spec work is usually associated with online design contests, but freelance designers and small design studios get requests for spec work too.
Now, let me clarify that I have worked for free in the past. I have done a free internship, free work for family, close friends and definitely donated design work for non-profits. However, spec work is different than just working for free. It’s often requested by established companies who want to see if you would be the right fit for their project, but they don’t want to pay you or even officially hire you, until they see what you come up with. This means if they don’t like your work, you don’t get paid for any of your time, talent and resources spent. It could get even worse, as they could pretend to dislike the work in order to pay someone else less money to develop the ideas and concepts you’ve already created for them for free.
So here is what I do when people ask for spec work. I talk to them about my design process and experience, I ask them to view my online portfolio so they can get a feel for my style and ability, and finally I draw up an agreement and request a deposit before I start any work.
Talking to a potential client, explaining your work process, giving them references, as well as showing them examples of projects you have done in the past should be sufficient for them to know if you are the right person for the job. Understand that this is not fail proof. I’ve had on a very rare occasion a client whose vision I just couldn’t sync with, and we had to stop the project after work had already been done. But that’s why we do an agreement and a deposit, to protect both the designer and client so the work and the compensation is fair.
At the end of the day, there may be people that think doing spec work is ok, especially if you are starting out and are genuinely interested in exposure, or just the possibility of adding work to your portfolio. But for me, well I can just say this: we don’t do spec work here at BlackStone Studio.