How to respond to requests for spec work

Successful design work results from a collaborat­ive process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives­, competitiv­e situation and needs. Speculativ­e design processes result in a superficia­l assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process as well as the time of the profession­als who are asked to provide it. – AIGA

You’ve got to love the irony. Some potential clients, those who have sacrificed brains for bureaucracy and traded common sense for political correctness, ask – no, demand – that you present every regulatory policy under the sun as a prerequisite for working with them. They want you to present a health and safety policy, even if you do not manufacture tangible products. They want you to present an environmental policy, even if you are a consultant on a laptop. They want you to present an equality and diversity policy, even if you have no employees. They want you to present a £3,000 ISO 9001 accreditation, even if you are a sole trader.

But when you present them with your own regulatory policy – the one that counts, the one that is relevant, and the one which is a non-negotiable condition of working with you – they take offense at your governing principles.

That policy, of course, is your anti-spec work policy. It is your declaration, written or verbal, that your business will not produce creative work uncontracted and uncompensated. It states that your business does not enter designs into contests, submit design concepts with project proposals, or perform work at the bidding phase as a condition of being considered for the contract.

It is your affirmation, and your warning, that you are a professional with a business to respect and not an amateur who puts out on the first date.

So what can you do when a prospective client has made spec work – a design concept, logo design, written words, or web site design – a prerequisite of the proposal submission? How do you respond when a supposedly professional business demands that you whore yourself out?

You have two options. The first, quite simply, is to decline to submit your proposal. Save yourself the time and hassle of drafting a document which you know will go straight into the bin anyway as a consequence of your insubordination.

The second option is to set out your stance and educate. Submit your proposal, but declare within it that your business has a strict policy against spec work in place and cannot submit design concepts or preliminary work in advance of the contract. That is all you have to say. If you feel that the potential client is open to negotiation, explain that the output comes last in a creative relationship, and submitting a concept upfront would be like a doctor writing a prescription first and then asking about the illness.

This stance can work. In one instance, the potential client responded by saying that they respected me for my professionality and chose to hire me for that reason. Their question about spec work was actually a test, and I passed.

This stance can also get you removed from consideration on the spot.

But is that really any loss?

Let them work with a b-team whose desperation overrules their professional ethics. Allow them to make strategic business decisions based on ignorantly doodled mockups. Leave them to work with a field whose response to a query is “Check out my skillz!” rather than “Okay, can you tell me a little bit about the factors which have caused you to make this decision?”

You’ve got better things to do, better things to create, and better people to work for.


Spec work as patriotic duty (from this blog)


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