Design Dictionary: Spec Work

Recently a friend of mine had a bad experience applying for a job she really wanted. It was a job that matched her skills perfectly, but because she didn’t have a lot of projects that showcased those skills, the company was skeptical. So they asked her to do a “test” project, and they wanted it for free. Womp womp. Wouldn’t you know it, after she spent the better part of her weekend on this project, she turned it in and held her breath. They came back with a very short response that they were “going in another direction”. Bummed, but not abated, she wanted to know what she could have done better, so she followed up and said “how could I have achieved your goals in a more successful way?” and then guess what…. silence.

She kicked her self, realizing she had just done free work that they were probably going to use and not pay her for AND not hire her for the real work… or maybe that WAS the real work. Sneaky ass holes.

What my friend just experienced was “spec work”. This is where you do work upfront to show your “concept” or “prove your capability” to do the job before they make the decision whether or not to hire you. And designers absolutely HATE it. Who wouldn’t right? You put in hours of your time into a fake projects only to not be chosen or compensated?

On the other side of the coin, businesses want things as cheap as possible. Period. They don’t want to choose the wrong designer and lose a ton of money in the process. It happens more than you would think. And some would say that if students or inexperienced designers didn’t take on free work, they would never have enough experience or projects to prove their skills.

So here’s my advice. For those of you who are in that awkward stage of your career where you want “that job” and you know you can do it even if your portfolio doesn’t show it, you can do a few things:


1) Make a few personal/passion projects that reflect the skills you need to prove you have. This way when you’re applying, people can see that you’ve done similar work and hopefully that will be enough that they wont ask for “test” projects.

2) Suggest a down payment method. If the potential client asks for a free “test” project, I would suggest proposing this: Say you will do the test but have them pay you a flat fee for it upfront. If they hire you for the real job, tell them you will take the amount of the fee off the final invoice. This way, you get paid for the work if they don’t go with you, and if they do, they have nothing to lose because they aren’t paying any extra.

3) If you have to, protect yourself. If they insist on free unpaid test work and you are willing to do it, at the VERY least make sure you give them low res flat file. Do NOT give them your working files. If they say they “want to see your file organization”, take screen shots of your layers or folder structure. Avoid giving them a editable file at all costs, because remember, these “test” projects are supposed to be fake. They aren’t supposed to just get free work out of you.

4) Get a time estimate. Once you’ve decided to not heed my advice (it’s ok, I’m not hurt) and take the spec work, you might be asking yourself “how long should i take to make this?”. If they haven’t given you a deadline, I suggest you ask them how long it typically takes their designers to finish a similar task/project. This way you know if you can accomplish the same deadlines they can.

I really hope this helps. I’ve been in this situation before myself and I struggle with the balance between loathing any business that thinks it is acceptable to get work for free and wanting “that dream job”. In the end it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it or not.

Here are some other resources about Spec work:

AIGA’s views on Spec Work
Pros and Cons of Spec Work



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