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"S" is for: Spec Work

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, March 01, 2016

“I decided to go into business so that I could work for free,” said no one ever. But is all free work created equal?

When Free is Bad

Spec work, short for “speculative work,” is a phrase meaning “doing something for nothing when you should get something.” A business that asks another business for either a trial run or a sample, without the promise of compensation, is doing so under the guise of spec work.

While many professionals loathe spec work, requests for it are common in creative fields such as advertising, architecture, writing, and, yes, design. It is cloaked in vague terms like “concepting” or comes with the promise of potential paying opportunities down the road if all goes well.

Spec Work Scenarios

Sometimes requests for spec work are easy to spot, other times not so much. Here are two common examples of requests for spec work:

Example 1: You need a new logo for your business. You go online to one of the numerous websites that promise 500 options for $50. After registering for the service, you request samples and receive hundreds of logo options from hundreds of designers. You pick your favorite and the designer of that logo gets the $50. The other hundreds of designers go home empty-handed.

Example 2: You need your website redesigned. Problem is, you’re on your third redesign in three years. It seems no one can ever get it right. Before you hire your next web designer, you want to make sure you’re not wasting money. You meet with one and ask, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, can you show me a mock-up of a new design? Then I’ll know whether I want to hire you or not.”

So What's the Problem?

Maybe you recognized yourself in the examples above. Have you ever purchased content or designs from sites where multiple professionals submitted work but only the “winner” received compensation? Or maybe you were on the other end, feverishly working on spec and hoping you would be the lucky one chosen.

If you are the bidder, it may seem like an ideal arrangement. You get lots of options for only a few dollars. But if you’re the biddee, it’s not such a great deal. If you are the bidder, you may not think you are doing anything wrong, but here are some thoughts to keep in mind about spec work:

  1. It devalues the industry and cheapens the value of the work all around. (After all, why would you buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?)
  2. It is unethical to ask someone to work for nothing. (When was the last time you went to see your doctor and said, “Hey, doc, I’ll pay you only if you cure me”?)
  3. It is ineffective. Because there is usually little collaboration or appropriate research involved in spec work, it generally results in a lower quality of work or work that does not actually solve the problem at hand.

The Difference Between Spec and Volunteering

So all free work is bad, right? Well, not quite. There can be benefits for professionals who want to volunteer their time, energy, and skills if they are passionate about a certain product or cause, or if they want to develop their skill set. As I described in my post on corporate social responsibility, businesses have the power to change the world. And, for creatives who are so inclined, that could mean volunteering their time and talents.

For a real-life example, I sat down with writer and colleague Jamie McAllister, who volunteers her writing services with two nonprofit blogs, to get her insights on the value of donating her services.

“When I started my freelance writing and editing business several years ago I had two choices,” she said. “I could either make cold calls to get my name out there, or I could connect with local nonprofits to expand my network. I chose the nonprofit route and I have never regretted it. Yes, I had to give away my services in the beginning, but I am immensely richer for it. Through my work with nonprofits I have made connections with others in the local business community and I have used my volunteer blog posts as samples to land paying clients. Most important, I laid a solid foundation for my business based on service to others and I have also had the chance to meet some incredibly amazing people and share their stories with my words.”

A Few Pieces of Advice

My advice to businesses: Never expect a professional to work for free. The best work is produced when all parties are completely involved and invested in the project. The creative process begins way before anything creative sees the light of day, and the success of the end result hinges mightily on the foundation on which it is built. Companies who are looking to cut corners would do well to consider that before starting their next project.

For business owners, it can be frustrating and expensive to get creative work done only to end up with something that's not quite right. But the answer is not necessarily to ask for spec the next time around. Instead, do your due diligence before hiring a pro and review their portfolio to get an idea of the style and caliber of the work they produce. Talk to past clients to find out what it’s like to work with them. Be willing and ready to discuss your specific objectives at length. It will take effort and energy, but the end result will be worth it for both parties.

For my fellow creatives, it’s up to you whether or not you want to do free work … but you better have a darn good reason for it! Like Jamie, seek out skilled volunteer work because you want to and because you feel like you are making a difference in the world. But you should NEVER work for free because you feel compelled or coerced into doing so.

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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