Dear Design Martyrs: The One About Spec Work

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs—

I have been a freelance designer for several years and like my lifestyle and most of my clients. However, when I’m pitching new work, I have been asked to do spec work for a potential client. That way, they can get a sense of my style and approach. That feels unfair—like I am giving away my work for free. Is this something I should be doing to get ahead?


Doubtful in Delaware

Dear Doubtful,

For our PRINT readers that may not be totally familiar with the concept of spec work, spec is short for speculative. A request for speculative work occurs when a prospective client asks one or more agencies or freelancers to do work for free, ostensibly to give the client a sense of how they would approach the project. That gives them a “sample” of the creative deliverable they can expect.

Many years ago, when I worked at Sterling Brands, a prominent entertainment company called and invited us to participate in a pitch for a cool project. Initially, we were thrilled. But as soon as we heard the pitch details, our excitement waned. The prominent company wanted all of the design firms pitching to do speculative work before awarding the assignment. 

You might ask, “Why is this wrong?” 

Well, we are professional practitioners who make a living by designing things. Many of us are educated, with degrees in design or business or both. Think about other practitioners; would anyone ever ask a surgeon to do work on spec? Or a plumber? Do you “try out” a dress before buying it? Wear it for a few dates and return it if you don’t get the requisite number of compliments? I don’t think so.

Asking for spec work is more than asking for free work. It’s also an abuse of power. The companies making the request have all the control. The designers have none. Asking for spec work also preys on young and inexperienced designers who think they need to participate to get ahead.

I believe that if a company is interested in working with you, they should be able to assess your work and your philosophies and strategies via your portfolio, your intellect, and your proposal. Requesting a designer to participate in a scenario wherein they deliver actual work requires an actual fee. Anything less denigrates the profession of design and all designers everywhere.

As for me and that cool company? We turned them down. As much as it smarted to say “thanks, but no thanks,” I also felt proud that we stood up for our values and ideals, and at the end of the day, we could hold our heads high.

But I also want to be transparent about my history with spec work. In the late 1980s, I worked at a start-up design firm, and we were hungry for work. (Desperate is probably a more accurate word!) We were asked to undertake spec work for the same company I referred to earlier in this post, believe it or not. They told us who was participating in the pitch and realized we were a small fish in a big pond; the other agencies were much more well known. We decided to go forward in an attempt to get our foot in the door. All the other agencies agreed to do the work except one. We stayed up for days to do great work—and we didn’t win the pitch. 

A year later, I found out that the one firm that hadn’t agreed to do the spec work won the business! As it turned out, the client didn’t like any of the free work from any of the agencies participating and hired the one firm that refused to do the work for free. 

I learned my lesson that day.

Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and expertise, we give away more than the work—we give away our hearts for free, and we give away our souls. 

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