The AIGA defines spec work as, “work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid.” That may sound a bit ambiguous at first, however the author goes on to explain that this can include work that is done for no charge, design competitions, volunteer work, internships, and pro bono work. I had heard and had a basic concept of spec work prior to reading the article, and talking with other creatives, it appears to be a growing trend in such a competitive field as graphic design. Luckily, most of the same designers who are aware of spec work also know that it can be damaging in many of its forms, and choose not to participate or perpetuate the trend, including myself and my team.
In the examples listed above, only a few should be considered as being worthwhile from the standpoint of a professional graphic designer, those being volunteer, internship, and pro bono work. Volunteer and pro bono work are common and can give a great experience to the designer, especially for those needing additional or professional work examples for their portfolio. Both are done at no charge to the client. The expectations should be discussed at length with the organization, and a written agreement should be signed by both sides to accommodate both the client and designers needs and wants. Internships are a great way to get real-world experience at an established design firm, and offer educational resources to designers. Some internships even offer job placement after the internship period has ended. Unpaid internships should be education and observation focused, with very little, if any, paid client work. No one wants to work for free, and some design firms think of internships as having a junior designer without having to pay them, which is not only unethical, but also illegal. Lastly, true spec work, which has become a common trend online, entices designers with the prospect of big money, fame, or recognition for their designs. However, these contests are often entered by many, up to hundreds of designers. Only one winner is chosen, and that one person is paid. This both hurts the design industry as a whole by decreasing value to the work we do, but can also be a potential waste of time for the designer, who could be using his time to gather clients or do actual paid work.
While spec work is likely here to stay, at least for awhile, designers are the ones that have the choice and the power to say no. New designers often want to get their name out in the field as soon as possible, rather than doing careful planning and research to better themselves, their portfolio, their wallet, and the industry as a whole. Unpaid work can be helpful for designers and clients alike, as long as everyone agrees on the terms and conditions that keep the industry productive and profitable.