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For some the term spec work is foreign slang that may lead to guessing its about sweaty people exercising their spec muscles. Actually it is designers exercising their sweaty mouse fingers — its short for “speculative” work — free work in hopes of getting paid for it.

I understand the motivation for potential clients to ask for it; especially if they have been less than thrilled with previous designers they contracted with. I can name a dentist, an auto mechanic and a tax-preparer that I wish I had gotten spec work from. It’s frustrating to spend money on bad service.

However there are good reasons professions like graphic design should not provide spec work:

Sleeze factor

It puts creative services in the realm of drug dealers who give samples of their Acapulco Gold, bennies, barbs or charlie (yes, I had to google drug slang words). I have heard the opposing case that it’s like test-driving a car – test-drives should be free. But, a car is a reproducible product, whereas a creative process is not repeatable no matter how similar projects appear to be.


I have done spec work once… maybe twice for an employer. I equate the experience like flying a kite in the dark. Not that getting paid makes the sun come out, but rather the experience lacks the collaboration between client and designer. Everyone is trying to limit the time investment so the general direction is “just make it pretty”. What is loss is the strategy or the understandings – the two things that make design a tool to problem solve.

Stink bombs

Because little energy and thought typically go into speculative work, the work is not a good example of a designer’s ability. Remember the test drive a car analogy I spoke 30 seconds ago about? Imagine going into a BMW dealer and they give you a goat in a wheelchair to test drive. You may say: “I love goat cheese especially free goat cheese” but your project deserves a high performance vehicle.


Simply put, Clients who are paying for design services should not have their projects interrupted by spec work.

Economic Recovery

Wanna see our economy spring back faster? Designers are known for their spending, not their saving. Feeding a designer, feeds the marketplace. Brightly colored plastic Louis XV furniture you say? Where’s my credit card.

Have a counter point? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Michael Schafer
Michael has spent the past 25 years applying his experience and superpowers to further the missions of social-good organizations, and has no plans to stop.