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Khalil Gibran QuoteAs a designer, if you haven’t already, you will experience the very controversial world of SPEC work. SPEC work is when a designer is tasked with creating something to bait the client into a paid project, but very often never leads to that. Working in the publishing industry for many years, I’ve designed my fair share of SPEC ads. The sales team would go out, grab a business card or jot some illegible information down on a piece of scrap paper, later staple it to a SPEC sheet and it was my job to decipher their hieroglyphics and find the proper imagery to create the ad. I remember a very small percentage – and by small I mean possibly 1 or 2 out of one hundred – of those ads actually making it into the final production layout. At most, it was a way to remain productive during slow periods.

A few years ago, I decided to try my hand at 99 Designs. I had read a couple of articles from designers that were up-in-arms about the site, but I had also seen some designers that had positive feedback as well. I didn’t quite understand the concept, but I was looking to create some new portfolio pieces and I thought I’d give it a shot. There were contests for so many fields! I signed up and entered a few, confident that my design would be chosen for at least one of these, but the sad reality hit that I was competing against so many other designers with equal or better skills. I wasn’t about to give up.

I started looking at the contests with smaller prizes and less entrants to try to win my first contest. I would make it past the first round, the client would request changes upon changes, I would post the new ideas and I’d never win. I found myself creating many projects without ever earning a dime. It was a very frustrating process that began with such high hopes and ended in a painful fiery crash.

Do Clients Know It’s An Online Sweatshop?

Counting MoneyTo the client, 99 Designs is an amazing experience – if they have the proper budget. Who wouldn’t want to spend $250+ and have access to thousands of designers willing to compete to make a logo? You get endless options from fresh perspectives. You also get to command the entire process while creatives claw to win your approval and the cash prize. It’s a win-win situation. Right?

Let’s say a designer charges $95/hour. Your contest prize is worth $250. Consultation is usually free to better understand the scope of the project. The time it takes to brainstorm the logo runs 1-2 hours alone. Sketches about another 1-2 hours. Digitally rendering the best sketches can turn into hours. Keep in mind, that those rendered options can become even better ideas once created in a program and even more options are explored. By the time the designer produces 3-5 of the best options, it could be 10 hours into the logo design process. That’s about $950 worth of work so far. Then one of those design makes it to the next phase, but the client would like to see more options. So the designer spends another 2-5 hours giving the client more options from the one design and none of those are chosen to make it to the final round. By then, the designer has lost over $1000 in production time for a nice portfolio piece.

The True Purpose of SPEC Work

SPEC work is supposed to wow the client enough to want to spend money and work with the designer. So back in the beginning of time, who’s idea was it to begin with – the client or the designer? It’s truly a chicken or the egg situation. The client may ask the designer to “mock up” an idea. The designer may try to land the client’s business by flashing some visual candy with their brand or logo on it.

To the client, SPEC work is an easy way to see what the designer has to offer. But it is also a FREE means of new, fresh ideas. I’ve had people ask me for ideas, then take what I created, show it around and ask others to design another variation. That was the very young and inexperienced designer in me. But to the client, they feel justified in shopping for designers through FREE SPEC work and eventually landing with the designer who will give them the better price – not necessarily the better design. Does this sound a bit like 99 Designs, but with a set price?

The Word “Contest” Should Give It Away

When we are kids, we enter coloring contests, drawing contests, races, etc. We enter them for the prizes that are promised at the end. While there is no guarantee we will ever win, we still compete because there’s no real cost to losing. But as an adult, time and money are almost always sacrificed to enter a contest. We must use our own resources and money, take time away from work or family and sacrifice many hours to win what we are competing for. And if we truly wish to win, we pour blood, sweat and tears into the project to ensure victory.

99 Designs promotes “contests” that have various professionals compete to earn prizes. There is virtually no difference between the art contest in the newspaper and those held on 99 designs. They don’t hide the terminology. “Contest” is plastered all over the site, so no professional can mistaken that money is guaranteed for your design.

One could make the argument that this is the same as when professionals bid for a client’s business. However, usually at the conclusion of the meetings, a designer/firm is chosen rather than the client asking each bidder to produce more work to try to win their business. And in this situation, the designer/firm is allowed to chose what price they are willing to work for (the bid). All of the variables are taken into consideration when creating this estimate, including time, revisions, meetings, etc. In a contest, no such freedom exists. The price is set, so it is up to the designer to decide if they would like to take the chance of offering multiple completed pieces to potentially never earn a single dollar during the process.

So Should Designers Do SPEC Work?

Make Things Happen Post-ItTo answer this question, you would have to ask yourself multiple questions. Do I need to update my portfolio? Is the client a sure thing? Will this take away from other paid projects? Was this my decision to offer the SPEC work or the clients?

I will never do SPEC work for a client that requests it, just as I would never expect a client to give me free products because I asked to test them out. It’s about respect. I respect my skill set, the money I paid for my education and my time enough to not offer free design work for the sake of client wanting to prove my worth. I have compiled both a digital and physical portfolio for those reasons. If my skill level can not clearly be proven in the work I have displayed, I will have to work to change that, but not because a client would like to see their brand and logo on something I took the time to produce for free. If I find that I have down time, and I am fishing for some new clients, I would open myself up to producing a SPEC piece to bring them on board. Again, this is because I, as the designer, made that decision and could potentially benefit from it in other ways (a new portfolio piece).

I would not encourage professionals to do SPEC work when it is requested by the client, however, I would encourage them to weigh the cost and the benefits. As a new designer, you may find yourself being asked to produce SPEC pieces for clients to test your skill level. If you find yourself in this predicament often, I’d say you need a stronger portfolio that shows your range of talent. Clients are more inclined to not ask if they can see clear examples of what they’re looking for in your displayed work. But if you need to build a portfolio, I encourage you to flip through some publications or scroll some websites, find some logos, ads or sites that are displeasing and redo them to make them more appealing. You can take the final product to the business to try to win them over, or change some information to turn it into a fictitious portfolio piece.

What is your take? Would you or do you create SPEC work?