Everything that you Need to Know About the Spec Work

“Contest Alert- give your best design and win the first prize with an exciting gift!”- How many of you have heard of this or have actually participated? I guess many! The same happens for freelancers as well.

Prospective clients asking you for samples or requesting you to attempt a test to exhibit your talent before agreeing to compensate, is a common scenario. And, that is what spec work is all about. You do it in the hope of getting paid, but there is no certainty that you will. Being competitive in the freelance market requires bidding on jobs but what comes, in turn, is the request to perform work on spec.

So, what’s this all about! Let’s discuss!

What is spec work?

Speculative work or in short ‘spec work’ is a kind of work that is completed before payment is guaranteed. This kind of situation arises for most freelancers in the guise of a test or exam. If the clients like your work they’ll pay you or else you will get nothing. A client can even adopt unethical means to exploit a freelancer by getting the job done as per requirement and then rejecting the freelancers. As there is no fear of legal repercussions in this freely-gained work due to the absence of freelance contracts. Therefore, it is essential to know how to respond to spec work requests and how to avoid them if you feel negative about the client’s approach.

Well, the arena of spec work is wide and diverse. Before you lose your way and end up working for free unnecessarily, check out the various types of spec work.

Different forms of spec work

Just because spec work involves completing a project without guaranteed compensation, this does not only involve inexperienced people. Even though these kinds of work are not known by their actual name in the real world, these are quite a demand also. Here is the list of the most common spec work that every freelancer has encountered in their career.

1. Pitches

Creative pitches by agencies are common in most industries. It is a common scenario where a solo freelancer or agency pitches for getting projects from big clients. Presenting a detailed draft of the project before agreeing, is not unusual. The only thing that can backfire is the trust issue. Not winning a project after all the effort made impacts not only freelancers but agencies of every size.

2. Contest

The creative contest is the most common and controversial form of spec work. These kinds of contests are held where freelancers participate to get paid for their work. This happens in companies that look for designers to create logos, slogans, shirt designs, etc. It’s fun engaging in these types of contests where they can flex their talents. But these contest-style spec works often give rise to varieties of problems, like issues with legal rights of the design. Whereas, some contests do pay the winner after winning the competition, though this is rare.

3. Bidding of work

If you have just started and want to build your portfolio, then freelance bidding may seem tempting. But make sure you do not lose creative rights before being awarded the contract.

4. Interviews

Trial work or take-home assignments are another common forms of spec work that include interviews as a part of the decision process. Connecting with prospective clients would involve completing a small piece of work to exhibit your skill. In some cases, payment is contingent on clients moving forward with you. In other cases, they promise to pay while requesting the work. In either case, you need to be careful before accepting the request.

Hey! Do you know that work that does not involve compensation is not always a spec work?

Types of non-spec work

Going in-depth with the theory of spec work, you must also know which are non-spec work. Take a look at the points below!

1. Internships

If you are placed in a working environment as part of an educational course or initial phase of professional development, then those are known as internships. These kinds of work generally do not compensate you. Some may do, but mostly these are done to gather professional experience and build a portfolio under a mentor. These do not come under spec work as this kind of work certifies you after successful completion of the internship despite the fact that it may or may not compensate you.

2. Volunteer work

If you agree to work without compensation for any organization, then it is not considered spec work. This could be either for a social cause or simply to build your portfolio. Volunteer work is often done to gather experience.

3. Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is getting work done and paying only those who work for it. It may seem like spec work, but there is a fine line of difference. A client wants a logo design and asks a forum to design it. The client pays the only one whose work they approve. This is spec work. Whereas crowdsourcing is completely different. This client pays for multiple logo designs and asks a forum to vote for the best one.

4. Pro Bono work

This is more of volunteer work that involves working without compensation for a social cause. Therefore, this is not considered a spec work.

Fact check!
Do you know, in 2013 the Federal government crowdsourced over 85 prize competitions? This is just to get a creative solution for improving astronaut gloves to block unsolicited ‘robocalls’.

This is what crowdsourcing is and it’s way different from spec work. Wanna clear your doubts? Go through the section below!

Difference between spec work and crowdsourcing

The first and foremost difference is that Spec work is the work done for free and crowdsourcing is a non-spec work. For better understanding the difference between these kinds of work let’s take an example.

Suppose, a poll is organized by a company to choose the best design for their T-shirt or any other product. An open voting system is launched where people will vote and this is how the company will get the best choice by counting the number of votes polled for each design. This is what crowdsourcing is where designs are pre-designed.

Let’s share a real-time example:
Starbucks collected over 2.16 lakhs ideas for improving its ambiance, payment systems, social responsibility and even beverage types, on its online portal since its initiation in the year 2008. The crowd provides fast and actionable ideas that are beneficial for large companies.

But in some cases, contests are held to get the best design. Companies reach out publicly where all the designers can take part and give their best shot. The one which will be selected as the best will be approved by the company and will be paid accordingly. So, in this case, the designs are not pre-designed. This is a kind of spec work and should not be confused with crowdsourcing.

Is Spec work evil? Maybe or maybe not! To figure out what it is actually take a look at the section below!

Pros of spec work

  • Helps you to impress your clients: The freelance world runs on first impression logic. Despite all your hard work and a strong portfolio, you may not always succeed to impress your clients. Therefore, by completing a portion of the project you can impress your clients and win the contract.
  • Allows you to build your portfolio: If you are planning to revamp your portfolio, spec work can be the best form to rebuild your professional identity. Performing spec work gives you exposure to the real world, allows you to practice your skills, and gains a worthwhile organization by winning a big contract.

Cons of spec work

  • Involves a lot of effort and money: Spec work has got a positive background only when you walk away with the contract. Otherwise, simply investing your time and money and you end up losing the contract may seem frustrating. For such cases, spec work is risky and not at all trustworthy.
  • It does not reflect your best shot: For freelancers, spec work consumes a lot of time and money for building client relations and winning the contract. It takes a lot of time to understand what the client wants and is expecting from you. As a result, placing this kind of work in your portfolio does not give a high impression about your skills and efficiency.
  • Plagiarized work: It goes without saying that contests or spec work lead to legal troubles. This is because in most cases the work done is mostly plagiarized.
  • Lack of creativity: Another reason why spec work does not always serve the purpose is it lacks creativity. Individuals use template work for other clients as well which are unoriginal
  • Inferior quality: In most of the cases of spec work in the form of contests, designers are not aware of how to communicate with the company and as a result, they don’t have an idea of what the design is intended for. Hence, it results in inferior quality and does not serve the purpose.
  • No contract-no protection: In most of the design contests there is no contract and hence, the individuals are prone to a higher risk of copyright issues, legal restriction, and others.
  • No research involved: Questionnaire session with clients is vital for maintaining quality and serving the purpose. Whereas, in a contest, there is no such communication and there is a lack of clarity as to what is expected from the designers. Hence, the work is not up to the mark.
  • No review of the work: There is absolutely no scope of review or revision in a contest. Designers are asked to create and the best out of so many designs are selected. But in general case client-designer relation is based on mutual interaction where designers are asked to bring about changes. Therefore, a lot of review sessions are involved before bringing out the final result.
  • Very little or no communication: The main problem in contest or spec work is a lack of communication. This results in a lot of misconception which does not allow the designers to deliver the best which is not the case for full-time designers working for a particular company.
  • A negative relationship with a client: The fact that the client asks several designers for a single task to generate the best design. This results in trust issues and leads to negative relationships.
Must be wondering, does a freelancer always have to work on spec before getting a project? Hell! No. To get rid of such a situation, know how to say a convincing ‘No’. Here it is!

How to respond to spec work requests

There will be many instances in your freelance career where you may have to come across spec work. Giving your best and walking away with just a ‘no’ may become a normal phenomenon in most cases. But you must learn how to respond to the spec work requests because you deserve to get paid and work needs approval after all the effort, time, and money you invest.

Here are some of the tricks:

  • Explain to the clients the working methodology that you follow. Make them understand that you do not work without a written agreement. Convince them that spec work is not good for either side and it would affect the work quality.
  • Break the work into phases and offer your clients the freedom to step out whenever they want. The positive side is that you receive payment with completion of each phase, as you have a proper contract in place.
  • Spec is always risky for the freelancer. Hence, offer your clients a guarantee that you would return the half or full payment if they do not like your work. But in this case, you need to be confident about the project that you would complete it as per the client’s guidelines.
  • Lastly, you have one option available all the time. Refuse the project by explaining why you won’t work. Getting emotionally attached to a big contract is normal, but do not compromise with your skill and what you deserve. Therefore say a ‘no’ if it does not suit you.

Wrapping up!

Spec work is not always an ideal situation for all freelancers. The scenario may be tricky sometimes where you may feel that prospective clients are taking advantage in the name of spec work. It is rather better to establish your own business to get valued customers and high-standard projects. This way you can improve customer satisfaction without putting a question mark on your professional credibility.