Web Design: Say No to Spec

No really, you should! Spec Work is defined as producing a piece for a potential client with no guarantee that your work will be chosen and/or paid for. With the influx of sites popping up all over the web that allow a company to have their brand developed as a contest where designers are asked to contribute their time, training, and developed skills for free, it’s easy to see how this practice could devalue a profession over time.

In this article we’ll take a closer look at the downsides for both the client and designer in the hopes of awakening people to the harm it’s doing to a community.

Web Design: Say No to Spec

Clients Don’t Understand What Looks Good Or What Will Even Work For Them

This is perhaps the biggest defense for not working spec, and the one that will ultimately only hurt the client in the end. The premise of these sites is that they are helping businesses that don’t have the budgets to hire professional designers. But clients oftentimes don’t know what they need.

Spec Work Client
Image credit: cstnc

Good design isn’t merely decoration but the process of understanding and solving a problem in the most appropriate way. This is achieved through understanding the user’s needs and goals of the design and in some cases conducting stakeholder interviews. Spec work completely ignores the design process in favor of “what looks good.” Mind you, what looks good may already be out there in the design world.

As less emphasis is paid on the design process, coupled with the fact that you’re probably not getting paid for this work, it’s easy to see how a designer would rush to get the job done. After all, what’s the incentive? Plagiarism is quicker and easier than designing from scratch, especially if there’s a risk that you might not be compensated. The client really isn’t benefiting here.

You can’t create an appropriate design because you don’t yet know what problems need to be solved.

It's Fast Food of the Design Industry

Clients just want the cheapest, reasonable solution. They also don’t have to worry about up-front fees, contracts, meetings, and design iterations by engaging with a designer the traditional way. Another argument is it’s easy money for students or those living in countries with less-strong currencies.

In turn the demand over time lessens as an epidemic of less skilled and qualified designers emerge, ready to push their fast, often-plagiarized designs at a client who doesn’t know any better. This concept of discounting the integrity of design then shifts perceptions of those outside of the industry, who now discount the process more so than before.

It's Fast Food of the Design Industr
Image credit: BlueisCoool

Additionally, clients disregard the process that goes into professional design, and the accompanying rates, because they now see that the work can be done faster (even if it’s truely not indicative of professional work) and believe that much work isn’t necessary.

As cheap, fast design is widely available, those charging what should be seen as reasonable rates are looked at as greedy overchargers.

It Doesn't Foster Positive Working Relationships

We’re in the design industry because we love what we do – that’s a given. But you also must consider this a practice of more than just "loving what I do." You’re a professional and should be taken seriously as such! Nobody is looking out for your interests in the Spec world – and it can get you into an unhealthy rhythm of churning out designs as fast as possible, only to have the client select none, or cancel the project, putting a blow to your confidence and productivity levels.

Designer Client Relationship

If you’re a young designer looking to broaden your portfolio, seek out local charities, small businesses, etc. These people are usually looking for help, and the value of your work will be retained. They’ll also provide you with free advertising in the form of a 'shout-out' on their website on completion of the project. This article discusses the benefits and how to go about doing so.

"AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project." – AIGA.

Rules of Business

Even for designers who don’t participate on these sites, there are practices you can take to combat clients who may not understand the protocol of the design industry.

Designer Contract
Image credit: nategarvison

The most effective way to protect yourself is to get everything in writing before the start of a project. There are plenty of free, easy-to-understand contract templates available for you to download and modify to fit your needs.

Never do any work without first taking a deposit. If your client makes a fuss over it it could be a sign that you don’t want to do business with them anyway.

You own your copyright unless you sign a written assignment giving copyright ownership to someone else. In that case, your contract with your client will say something like you "assign all rights, including copyright".

It’s best for your license to track how the client intends to use your work, instead of giving them full rights to your copyright. This prevents the client from adapting and changing your design down the road without further compensation for you.

Most importantly, work on your working relationships to develop a win-win situation for the both of you!



We have the opportunity to correct the issue of Spec Work by simply not partaking in it. The minimal financial gains you may receive as a result of winning one of these contests isn’t worth the price you’ll pay in the long run if you’re a budding designer. You should also consider whether clients that are comfortable using this medium are ones you’ll be proud to say you designed for – the people who you feel contributed to your success as a designer.

It may be worthwhile to stick to your guns and be recognized over time as the professional worth paying for. On the other side of the coin, it’s a dangerous lottery for companies to play as they aren’t aware of whether a design is ripped-off or not.

What are your thoughts on Spec work and its impacts on the design and development communities? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Onextrapixel.