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The Ethical Issues of Spec Work for Designers

Lisa Winand


Contemporary Moral Issues

Instructor: Carmen Cayon

Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

The Ethical Issues of Spec Work for Designers

This article seeks to determine whether spec work disrespectful to designers and if it undermines

the design industry.

Spec work (short for speculative work) is any job for which the client expects to see examples

or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee.1 This includes logo design contests and

crowdsource sites, where designers submit logo designs to a client (without payment), and the

client pays only for the one chosen – normally at a price much lower than the competitive rate.

In the design field, along with providing the agreed-upon deliverables, a designer charges for his time,

resources and original ideas. A designer is providing more than a “logo,” he is providing the strategy

and innovation needed to make the client’s business more appealing than that of the competitor, and

therefore make the client money. Design is not merely the output of a computer – it is the result of

the knowledge, intellect, experience and skill of the professional providing the service, based on what

he has determined to be the best solution to meet the client’s needs. These solutions don’t happen

spontaneously – they evolve through careful research, development and revision. This is a valuable

and time-consuming process that involves working closely with the client.

AIGA’s code of ethics states:

A professional designer does not undertake speculative work or proposals (spec work) in

which a client requests work without compensation and without developing a professional

relationship that permits the designer sufficient access to the client to provide a

responsible recommendation and without compensation.2

Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

The key word here is “professional.” By demanding or assuming that designers are willing,

even happy, to work for free, the designer’s status as a professional is degraded. “Professional”

implies that one has an education and/or years of experience in a particular discipline. Few, if

any, professionals in fields other than the creative industry are approached with the prospect

of providing free samples of their services without payment, with the possibility of a “prize”

awarded at a rate far below industry standards, and in competition with other professionals

competing for the same job, also for free.

Much of the general public, specifically small-business owners, make a habit of holding contests

in order to have a logo designed for their company, or demand to see the designer’s ideas at no

charge, which often involves many hours of work – which the client can then steal and give

to someone else to do at a lower price. By doing this, clients don’t acknowledge the value of

design. They also don’t understand the impact that well-thought-out and well-designed branding

can have on their company.

A client who expects work for free should set off an alarm in the designer’s head. Is this decision

based on lack of understanding of the designer’s craft, or on lack of funds? Likewise, the client

should be wary of hiring a “professional” who is willing to worth for nothing, or next to it, and

doesn’t require a contract that specifies not only what he will be paid but also what the client

will receive in return. Professionals in other fields who secure work based on estimates or

proposals clearly state in writing what services the client will be getting for the cost, for their

own protection as well as the client’s. A smart business owner should question why someone is

available to work for free.

Often, when work is submitted to a design “contest,” it becomes the property of the client or

the originator of the contest. Not only is the designer not paid for his work, but he is no longer
Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

the copyright owner of his work, and therefore can’t recycle or revamp it for another client or

even for his own promotional efforts. Although the designer is not compensated for his time, the

work is still not his own, and the client is getting work that they could possibly take to another

designer to have completed. The designer whose work is not accepted is losing twice.

Spec work is not to be confused with pro-bono work or open sourcing. Pro-bono is work donated

by the designer for a charitable cause. Many freelance designers and agencies elect to do one or

more pro-bono projects each year as a community service. Open sourcing, usually seen in the

software industry, is a form of collaboration where professionals contribute their skills to a project

that is freely available to the public. This is also done as a contribution to society.

Spec work also differs from design competitions, which the winners received coveted industry

awards. In a competition, a designer (or agency) does pay a fee to enter their work, and there

is no guarantee of winning. However, when entering a competition, designers submit work that

has already been created for an actual client (and presumably has already been paid for). If the

designer doesn’t place in the competition, he is out the entrance fee, which goes to support the

organization running the competition – usually a professional industry organization. However,

winning a design competition can be invaluable to the designer’s career, and is worth the gamble.

Becoming an “award-winning” designer is a way for him to establish himself as a competant

professional and to market himself to future clients and employers.

As Michael Bierut remarks in Design Observer, “... if I’m doing a project, I devote myself to it

single-mindedly. I expect the same kind of single-minded focus from the client.”3 This statement

sums up the main issue with spec work: The designer is as much a professional as the client, and

deserves the same consideration.

Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

One particular design contest site, 99designs, tells the prospective client,

“We help you run a ‘design contest,’ where thousands of designers compete to create the

best possible design to meet your needs. All you need is a clear idea of what you want

designed and how much you’re prepared to pay for it.”4

The thousands of designers who are “competing” are working for free. Clients pay the site

a fee to post the “design brief,” which is extremely simplified and does not contain enough

information for the designer to get a sense of the client’s business and target audience. As a

result, designs are generic and may not be the best solution for the clients’ needs. Seasoned,

professional designers would not participate in a design “contest,” so the talent pool is going to

be primarily of amateurs, some of whom are not actually designers, but are trying their hand at

it in order to try and make money. Having the client set the “budget” is corrupting the client-

designer power dynamic. In reality, the freelance designer has an established hourly rate on

which to estimate the cost of a project. Many designers are willing to work within a client’s

budget, within reason, but the designer determines his own rate, as does a professional in any

other industry. Most of the design feedback given from the clients on crowdsource sites is not

coming from an understanding of designer’s role as an expert. The designer typically makes

design, color and font choices, etc. based on what they have learned that, through experience

and education, will work for what the client is attempting to accomplish. When a client makes

countless revisions based on his own personal tastes, they are doing themselves and their

business a vast disservice by not following the recommendations of a professional.

Choosing a design professional is an important decision that should be made carefully, based

on the designer’s portfolio and his understanding of the client’s needs. Forming a good working

relationship is imperative to the success of the project and the client’s business as much as it is
Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

to the designer’s ongoing reputation. This type of professional relationship cannot be built by

arbitrarily choosing a “winner” from a sea of mediocre applicants. The client will have no sense

of the designer’s personality, work ethic, and ability to provide a successful solution, and the

designer has no idea if the client’s company culture will work with his work process and personal

ethics. Like any relationship, a business relationship must be built on trust, understanding and

mutual respect, and there is always the possibility that those involved just will not mesh.

It is important that new designers be aware of the dangers of doing spec work. It propagates the

lack of respect for and understanding of what a designer’s work entails, keeping the esteem of

the industry below that of other professions. New designers should also be aware of the negative

effects of taking spec work, both on their own careers and on the public perception of their

chosen field.

Designers in all creative fields, as well as the design community, are affected by spec work.

Clients are also affected, by not realizing the negative effects that bad design can have own their

own business, or the value and increased revenue that good advertising and branding can bring.

Clients, and designers who accept spec work, routinely support it with the following rationale:

• The Appeal to Pity: “But how do designers in poor nations get portfolios?”

• The Appeal to Authority: “We talked to thousands of designers from around the world.”

• The Appeal to Belief: “It has been done for thousands of years.”

• The Appeal to Common Practice: “Look at all the projects!”

• The Appeal to Popularity: “Thousands of designers are doing it.”

• The Bandwagon: “If it ok for shirts, it is ok for other things.”

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• The Circumstantial Ad Hominem: “He is just against it because he is a designer.”

• The Questionable Cause: “Clients are looking for a fresh way to act with designers.”5

In fact, design contests are a poplular way for designers in third-world countries to make money.

However, taking advantage of a person’s desperation and poverty in the guise of “giving them a

chance” doesn’t make the client any more ethical. Just because something has been done in the

past does not make it ethical, either. Designers willing to work for nothing will most likely not

provide the highest quality work. Selecting the “best” work from the mediocre submissions of

thousands of “designers” doesn’t actually give the client a larger field to choose from, just more

inferior choices to weed through.

One well-known site holds “contests” for T-shirt designs; contestants submit work that is judged

and voted on by their peers, and the winning design is featured on T-shirts for sale. The work

not selected is still owned by the designer. Although questionable in practice and in what the

designer gains from this site, it is mainly meant as a design community where artists can have

exposure for their work and receive recognition by their peers.

In an article posted on Forbes, which is now infamous in the design community, one of the

founders of CrowdSpring ( a crowdsource site) says, “The beauty of our site is that it doesn’t

matter if you have a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design or if you’re a grandma in

Tennessee with a bunch of free time and Adobe Illustrator... if the client likes the grandma’s

work better, then she’s going to get the job.”6 The article goes on to say that a challenge for the

site has been “...dealing with the pushback from the established design community, which has

started a campaign called No!Spec, urging designers not to work in advance of getting paid.

...The gatekeepers are fighting had to keep the staus quo... Now if you live in India or Peoria you
Lisa Winand Spec Work | 

can buy a computer and sophisticated software for a little bit of money and compete with big

agencies – and they don’t like that.”7

Many designers were infuriated by this article, which chides designers for actually wanting to

get paid for their work, referring to the industry as “snooty.” The article was directed at small

business owners, to inform them of an easy, inexpensive way to fulfill their design needs.

A rebuttal to the Forbes article, written in heavy sarcasm but with wonderfully clear insight on

the downfalls of spec work, replies, “Freelancers spend years learning their craft, taking courses,

some even working for aforementioned design firms, learning about professional aspects of

design. Reputations and names were on the line, so designers and firms are always mindful of

producing quality work, using skills they’d picked up over the years. Thankfully, design contest

sites have eschewed these snooty formalities completely.”8 It goes on to say (in irony), “When

‘creatives’ submit a logo to your contest that includes a stock image that you could download for

a few dollars yourself, it has no bearing on the value you’re getting from holding your contest.

Even though you have to pay extra for the clip art. If it was legal. Which it’s not... rather than

having names and company reputations on the line, these ‘community of ‘creatives’ go by cute

anonymous handles and usernames, so you don’t know who they really are, or where they’re

from.... Which is probably why all these sites all have wordy legal disclaimers telling you that

they’re not responsible for anything their ‘community’ does, produces or submits to your contest,

even though they took your money.”9

Although written in support of the design community and meant to be critical of business owners

that would actually use Crowdspring, it nonetheless gives several good reasons why businesses

seeking design services should steer clear of this and similar sites, focusing on the low quality

of the work, submitted by inexperienced designers or by users who may not be designers at
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all, in addition to issues of copyright and other legal issues, and the dangers of working with

anonymous “contestants” who may be located on the other side of the world. As the article

illustrates, spec work is detrimental to designers and to business owners alike.

There are several resources available for designers to utilize when confronted with the prospect

of spec work. AIGA, The Graphic Artists Guild (GAG) and No!Spec all give valuable guidance

on what spec work is and how to handle it as a professional.

AIGA’s web site ( has design contracts available for free download, as well as a

wealth of information on design ethics and sound advice on the business of freelance design. It

has pre-written letters also available for download, free of charge, that designers can send or post

to the instigators of design contests. Oftentimes, contests will unwittingly be posted on forums

for professional designers by business owners unfamiliar with the design field, and these letters

are an educational, professional way to get the point across that spec work is not appropriate.

The Graphic Artists Guild publishes a book entitled Graphic Artists Guild Handbook, Pricing

and Ethical Guidlines, with new editions released regularly in order to stay abreast of legal

information and current competitive price rates. This book also has valuable information on

how to price work and negotiate contracts, as well as business ethics for designers. The Guild’s

web site ( also provides resources for legal advice, and the Guild’s

purpose is to help creatives understand the value of their work.

No!Spec ( was created with the mission of bringing awareness to the public

of the value of design through the efforts of the creative community, and has a myriad articles

and resources available to promote these efforts.

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Designers have several options on how to deal with spec work when it is presented to them. The

simplest option is just to choose not to take spec work, and to advocate this to other designers in

the form of public forums and petitions. Upon discovering or being approached for a spec work

job, designers should educate and inform the client why this is degrading to the design industry,

how it reflects badly on the client, and how good design can benefit the client. Designers can

access the web sites mentioned above for help in explaining spec work and why it should be

avoided. There, they can access the materials provided to forward to requestors of spec work in

order to educate and inform the client.

When coming across a posting for a design contest, designers can leave a short message as to

why this type of offer is innapropriate, and post a link to No!Spec. They can also send a letter of

protest to the offending client explaining why spec work is unethical. No!Spec requires that in

order to reference them or post a link to their site, the message be polite and professional.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has materials free for download to members and

non-members alike. AIGA’s standard no-spec letter is a very well-written explanation of why

clients should not request speculative work. Designers can post or mail the letter under their own

name of the behalf of AIGA in an effort to inform the public of why spec work is unethical.

Educators should inform students on spec work practices and explain why it should be avoided.

Designers should be proactive about admonishing spec work and make sure that fellow designers

avoid it. By working on spec, designers perpetuate the unethical treatment of those in the creative

industry and the misconceptions of how our business should be run. Designers can become

involved in this movement by being active on sites such as No!Spec, where they can sign the

organization’s petition against spec work and print and distribute its materials to schools or

professional organizations in order to spread the word.

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Many new designers resort to taking spec work in an effort to build their portfolios. There are

alternative ways of doing this without sacrificing the designer’s integrity or the value of his work.

Pro-bono work is a way for designers to build a body of work while giving back to the

community. One good resource devoted to this cause is Design 21 Social Design Network

( Contributing designers don’t get paid, but are providing a valuable

community service by donating their work. Pro-bono work is legitimate work that a designer can

show to prospective clients, and provides the experience of working with a client and providing

real-world solutions to a client’s needs. A tax professional can give advice on tax liabilities for

this type of work.

Another option is Fair Exchange. Fair Exchange is the act of trading design services for goods

or services of equal value with another business. It is also a good way to build your portfolio

with legimate work, while helping other local businesses and receiving their help in kind. Barter

memebers receive Trade Dollars that can be redeemed for goods and services by other members.

One such barter service is Florida Barter ( Check the tax liabilities in

your state for Fair Exchange.

In conclusion, designers should be advocates against spec work, and take action to stop it

whenever they see it being done, by educating and informing the public in a professional manner.

They should insist on proper compensation for their services, and always make the client sign

a contract stipulating the amount of the down-payment, balance and any additional fees; the

timetable of how the services will be completed and how many revisions are covered under the

original quote; and what usage rights are included under the contract. This contract is binding

and can be used to legally persue an unpaid balance if necessary.

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Designers should understand value of their services and that of the industry of the whole. They

should be proud representatives of their chosen field and the design community, and demand the

same respect as a professional that is given to those in other fields.

Many clients are not aware of the value of design and how it can increase their business. They

don’t see it as a “real” profession or understand the creative process or the amount of strategic

thinking that goes into each job. By being advocates of educating the public in a professional

manner, designers can bring a better understanding of what they do, and how working with a

competant design professional will be a mutually rewarding exchange.

According to Steve Douglas in his blog, The Logo Factor, “...Spec work, design contests and

so-called design ‘crowdsourcing’ are here to stay, whether designers embrace the concept or not.

...There will always be folks who are willing to exploit, and people willing to be exploited.”10

Sometimes it is the nature of business to want something for nothing or to get the most

return possible at a bargain price. Clients know that new grads need to establish themselves and

to start making money; therefore, they are more likely to take spec work and to work for wages

below the industry standard. Many new graduates or struggling designers early in their career

feel obligated to take spec work in order to “get their names out there” or “build their portfolios.”

By starting out their careers this way, designers are beginning a pattern that will be hard to break

once they try to raise their rates. They will then already be established as someone whose services

are “cheap.” They are also perpuating the habits of the public of not wanting to pay designers

what they are worth. If new designers need to build a body of work, pro-bono work or bartering

system is a much better choice than working on spec, because these afford the designer a chance to

establish himself while giving to the community.

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Ending spec work starts in the education system, and in the beginning of a designer’s career. It is

the duty of the design instructor to make students aware of how working on spec hurts the student

as well as his compatriots and his chosen industry. It is also the duty of the new designer to become

a professional of integrity, and to advocate the ethical treatment of those in the field. However, this

cause doesn’t end there – as designers, we must be committed to a lifetime of professionalism and

pride in our work, and stive to be a valued member of the business community.

1. Miller, E. (n.d.) What is Spec Work? Retrieved May 7, 2009 from

2, 3. Beirut, M. (2006). The Road to Hell: Now Paved with Innovation? from Design Observer. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

4. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

5. Hyde, A. (2009). Spec Work is a Ponzi Scheme. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

6, 7. Steiner, M. (2009). The Creativity of Crowds. Retrived June 10, 2009 from

8, 9. Why You Should Crowdsource Your Logo. (2009). From The Logo Factor – Design Blog. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from

10. Douglas, S. (2009). SXSW Panel - Is Spec Work Evil | The Logo Factor Design Blog. Retrieved May 31 from http://www.
Lisa Winand Spec Work | 14


Miller, E. (n.d.) What is Spec Work? Retrieved May 7, 2009 from http://graphicdesign.about.

Beirut, M. (2006). The Road to Hell: Now Paved with Innovation? from Design Observer.
Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Hyde, A. (2009). Spec Work is a Ponzi Scheme. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from http://andrewhyde.

Steiner, M. (2009). The Creativity of Crowds. Retrived June 10, 2009 from http://www.forbes.

Why You Should Crowdsource Your Logo. (2009). From The Logo Factor – Design Blog. Re-
trieved May 6, 2009 from

Douglas, S. (2009). SXSW Panel - Is Spec Work Evil | The Logo Factor Design Blog. Retrieved
May 31 from

Wurth, R. (n.d.) Why Speculation Hurts. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Bruno, B. (n.d.) What is ‘Working on Speculation?’ Retrieved May 31, 2009 from http://www.

Tortorella, N. (n.d.) Ten Reasons to Ponder. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Fisher, J. (n.d.) A Winning Strategy: Industry Awards As a Marketing Tool. Retrieved May 31,
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Open source. (n.d.) From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Miller, E. (n.d.) What is Spec Work? Retrieved May 31, 2009 from http://graphicdesign.about.
Lisa Winand Spec Work | 15

Wurth, R. (n.d.) Design Contests Are Dangerous For Your Business. Retrieved May 31, 2009

What YOU Can Do. (n.d.) Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Alternatives to Spec Work for Students. (n.d.) Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Spec Work Outline for Educators. (n.d.) Retrieved May 31, 2009 from