Why the NO SPEC Movement Isn’t Working. And, Why That’s so Awesome!

June 21, 2010 - By 

Here are some words and a short video about spec work that I have been trying to organize ever since my NO SPEC rant on a GSG Live Cast last month.

Why NOSPEC isn’t working

Spec work isn’t going away and no amount of worrying or complaining will stop it. There are a TON more educated motion designers with inexpensive tools and an internet connection then there ever have been and this opens up markets that wouldn’t be possible otherwise (crowdspring, threadless, online contests). Of course, these things drive prices down. This is happening in almost every creative industry out there.

The internet, inexpensive tools, and free training (my fault) are making it a level playing field for everyone. But, it also kills existing and traditional business models.

Digital cameras killed the traditional photography biz. Craigslist and blogs killed phone books and newspapers. Boutique animation shops killed the traditional big post house. Thats a bad thing, of course, if you run an “Traditional” business and you should be scared. But, all these same things also give ANYBODY the opportunity to make great shit. Great work trumps everything. This is the revolution. This is awesome!

Let Artists Decide

Artists should have the choice to participate in spec work.

If no artists participate, then there is no spec work. Simple as that. But, people DO participate. Most are glad that they do. There are no lies being spun or promises that aren’t kept.

The rules are put out there and people choose to participate. Sure, feel free to let designers know your stance on spec work.

Even write a letter to the organizer. But, you are usually wasting your breath. Because, It’s not the organizers of contests that make spec work. It’s the designers that choose to participate. Designers CHOOSE to participate in these projects.

They aren’t forced.

Who Are They Saving?

So, clients are happy that there are less expensive ways to get great design and many designers seem happy to participate in these contests or give a croudsourcing project a try.

So, who is the NO SPEC movement trying to save?

They are trying to keep things like they were before the revolution happened. Seems that the only people complaining are either trying to save their old business model, or they have a nostalgic and romantic view about design and the design process.

Stop trying to save an out of date business model, and start to embrace the future. A future where practically everybody has a copy of Photoshop. A future where almost everybody has the tools and the knowledge to make great work, stand out, and be noticed.

Stop whining about your business model and make great work instead. The rest will take care of itself.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts about the NO SPEC movement and about spec work in general. In what way do they effect what you get paid? Have you lost money to spec work? Is there anything we can do about it? I would love to continue this discussion in the comments. Or, @ reply me on twitter and give me your thoughts. See you there.

More thoughts about Spec Work

Posted In:  Ideas
  • adapt and change to new technologies. Old business models don’t work. Desktop publishing also killed the print layout business back in the late 80s, early 90s, but it opened up the gates to just about everyone who could get their hands on the software.

    the bottom line is true talent always wins. it takes hard work and dedication to get the client and keep the client. the one thing that sucks is that when your speciality becomes more widespread, well, it stops being so special, and clients are less willing to pay the same prices.

    thats exactly why you have to stay ahead of the curve. offer things competitors don’t. specialize in niche industries. become the expert.

    • Hi George, I agree with what you´re saying. I was there back in the late eighties with a brand new Mac SE FDHD.
      The thing is, we are professionals not artists. Clients should value our talent and pay for it, the same way we do for their services or goods.

      Talent, hard work, expertise, specialization, experience…
      The client knows what it is, how valuable is that. But they do not want to pay fot it.

      “Real talent” is like love… ephimerous. But CRITERIA is forever. If we let our clients keep bending the rules the will end up designing their own clothes. We won´t have a profession any longer.

      Spec work will be fair the same day we can walk in a BMW dealer show them a Grand and leave the place driving.

      • It’s the free market. If you think you should be paid more, then don’t take jobs that pay less than you think you deserve. If no one wants to pay what you request, then you have over-inflated expectations of the value you bring (or appear to bring).

        Spec work isn’t fair or unfair just like being paid $10 to serve burgers isn’t fair or unfair. It just is.

  • Old business always win. Relationships win. Clients pick the designers who they have great relationships with and are also talented (sometimes not talented). People forget its the relationships that you make that propel you forward, talent only goes so far and even some of the less pricey clients are worth your time. If someone is scared of SPEC work it is because A. they aren’t confident in their abilities and B. they know that they don’t create great, genuine relationships with people.

    Honest, hardworking business will always win. There are no shortcuts.

    • Precisely. Make relationships. Business (friendships, etc.) will follow. Connecting with people is first and foremost.

    • I agree with this…and Spec work seems to be another way to get more clients in your network. The majority of my clients have always provided me repeat business and bigger projects all based on past relationship and work. And the repeat projects are almost always bigger and better for both parties.

  • The willingness of people to be exploited is especially great for those who move into peripheral fields like training.

    • Who is being exploited exactly? Seems like the only people complaining are at the top or are untalented.

    • Someone giving something and not expecting anything back does not equal “exploitation”. On the contrary, it creates connections/introductions/communities sans monetary transactions. It lets people decide what is valuable, not the ‘going rate’.

      • “On the contrary, it creates connections/introductions/communities sans monetary transactions” Yeah, fun fact, paying work gets you that stuff as well, but you get money, too!

  • Now, more than ever, are individuals empowered to create their own great things—without permission. Photographers are discovered on Flickr. Illustrators are nurtured and grown through Threadless.

    I chimed in with my own thoughts regarding spec work on Jake Nickell’s blog, the Threadless founder.


  • Spec exists in all different ways in this business. When companies come to me they often say ” we are giving a few studios a chance to present this”. That is just the way it is. But I live by a few simple mantras: Nothing is free. I may do your spec project for $1, but not free. And also, why would anyone want to do something on a website like crowdspring when the chances of getting the account are so low? You could be world renowned designer and not get the job, so why not focus on more realistic work opportunities? But for the companies using those sites: YOU GET WHAT YOU (don’t) PAY FOR.

  • “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur. ” – Red Adair

  • Well…true, there’s a sucker born every minute. And this model won’t have a palpable effect on top-end design creatives.

    They will, however, do two things:

    1. Weed out a portion of crappy, nightmare clients who don’t need/get the value of stand-out work by experienced pros.

    2. Make serious money for middle-man companies like crowdspring and 99-designs who are able to push 100% of the RISK onto their ‘buyers’ and unpaid ‘creatives’.

    I see them as the fast food of the design world — full of pre-packaged formulaic crap slapped together superfast, which ‘buyers’ pick out from a ‘menu’ of designs.

    If your goal is to become an excellent, world-class chef, you don’t train by working the McDonalds grease vat.

    • Sounds like there is a great market for “Fast Food” designs for “crappy, nightmare clients”. How does this effect you?

    • It doesn’t affect me, personally, financially (I assume you mean) in any palpable way.

      Neither does crack cocaine. Nor the Darfur Genocide. Nor the BP oil spill. Nor Michael Bolton’s discography.

      But I don’t think they make things better for the little guy either — and I think for all their bluster and “revolutionary” rhetoric, places like crowdspring are not the little guy at all: They’re the ones taking advantage of the little guy (and gal) who just doesn’t know better and hasn’t found a way to hack it in the profession — who doesn’t understand intellectual property contracts, who takes on all legal liability, overhead costs and risks, etc.

      I just feel these kinds of ‘crowdspring’ models ensnare and totally stunt the potential and creative growth of those who fall into their game.

  • I’m not sure why you think spec work is the future or is in any way progress. The analogy of spec work being a car and paid work a train really falls apart for me. If free pitches (for ad agencies to clients) like the ones in Mad Men existed in the 60s, then it’s definitely not the internet that has built speculative work into a business model. Instead it has always been pure economic power -using the leverage you have to ask for something for nothing. That’s why I’m against it.

    I applaud you for doing the 5-second projects and I think it’s great to push the idea of non-commercial personal projects. But I think if you step back for a second from the idea that spec work is somehow liberating or more democratic than properly contracted and mutually beneficial design work. (And that benefit can be financial, good for exposure, whatever – that’s up to each designer to decide for themselves … ) It’s not, contests have always existed. the difference now is that the internet casts a much wider and shallower net.

    I don’t see how spec work is awesome. Crowdsourcing may be, sharing may be, open-ness and transparency are, but contests that trade work for “exposure” are BS. We can share via Vimeo, Motionographer, and our own sites, and I think the good stuff always rises to the top.

    I’m all for the Skype thing. Let’s do it.

    • It’s not spec work specifically that I’m all excited about. It’s the proliferation of the tools and knowledge that gets me pumped. Spec work is just an inevitable by-product. Maybe even a virus to some. We should definetly talk more about this on Skype. Thanks for commenting, Bran!

  • I just wanted to say I really respect the fact that you took the time to really think about what you said in a live broadcast, and really explained how you felt about it, without getting on a high horse and preaching your message with your fingers in your ears.

    Personally all the skills I have now have been based on tutorials from people like you, but rather than just copy your tutorials click by click I have tried to break them down piece by piece and learn what the clicks and number values really mean. The Wife I am about to have and house that is being built is because of people willing to share information like yourself, but also the personal drive I had to become greater than the next guy.

  • Some people consider spec work to be exploitation of designers? Really?

    Nick is absolutely right… nobody is being forced into doing spec work. It’s up to the designer to decide whether it’s worth the effort.

    There was recently a post on Motionographer.com devoted to this very topic, and frankly, it all sounded like a bunch of whining to me.

    I think the bigger emphasis should be placed on simply educating designers as to what spec work is: A waste of your valuable time.

  • I think you summed it up pretty well with this one sentence, GREAT WORK TRUMPS EVERYTHING.

  • What is spec work?

  • I agree with you Nick.

    This page on wikipedia presents an interesting case study. Not SPEC, per say, but might as well have been…?


  • Nick, I’m not sure what to make of this spec and no spec stuff. But didn’t you make a video not too long ago that said Just Say No to spec work?

    • Yep. I choose not to participate in SPEC and encourage others not to either. But, it’s clear that some designers get something out of it, and they should have the opportunity.

  • Should Ross Kimbarovsky be paying you for warming up the crowd for his company’s (Crowdspring) coming incursion to bottom-end motion design?

    Remember: 12 years olds choose to participate in sewing shoes in Thailand for pennies.

    Why do they want to participate?

    Because they are desperate and need money and can easily be taken advantage of.

    • Where are all these people complaining about being “Taken advantage of”? I would love to hear from them.

    • Little companies or designers that are starting or that don’t have a big group of clients yet, have to struggle with whatever comes, and most of the time, people want a free design, free site, or just don’t pay enought. BUT in those sites, it’s an option for a designer, and it’s bad for some designers whose market is the little business.

  • A fundamental law of economics says: there is no progress without competition. If big advertising companies are scared of a simple talented young man with an iMac and software, then we have a big problem. Prices are low = is a good thing. Why? Because the big companis most work harder to keep customers. Work harder = better results. Simple
    PS: Sorry for my bad English.

  • That was very useful and educating conversation Nick.I’ve no super English but, I can understand you clearly.

    In my country (Turkey) there is a lot of people call himself as a designer. But they are not designer or artist.Actually they don’t know about what’s the art it is! They just doing it because they think very easy money in this job and they fucked up the market. All they can do is download the project files for sale(most of the time illegally) or free, change it and use it! Clients don’t know about how the project prepared. And if I get a job they say to me -Hey! We can do this for lower prices. I try to tell them whats going on the market but they don’t listen me. Actually this is a very bad country for this business. I loose very money, I loose a lot of job but I keep doing my job. Because I’m not doing this for money (Of course I get right money for my project) so I can reject the lower prices. Then if I keep doing this and improve myself If anybody wants the hire me they know; This man doing great quality job and he deserves his money. Thats the image I try to build it.

    Unfortunately clients or designers are not doing art they do merchanting. (I hope I can express myself).

    Before I start this job I decided the learn about it. I learned English for tutorials first. Then while in high school, I studied extra thinks for my job. Like color science (what colors are meaning to sub-conscious)and psychology. Then I call myself a designer. I learn a lot of things from you and Video Copilot. And still learning. Because knowing to how to use program and knowing to what you’re design is different. I probably over write. Sorry for my bad grammar. I hope I can express myself. And thank you Nick for you tutorial and everything I learned from you.

  • my issues with Spec work (from the post-house world, not as an individual designer):

    sometimes your GREAT work won’t win the job because of politics. you might deliver the best idea for a product, but you lose in the end because of those ‘relationships’ mentioned above. even worse, your idea might get sniped and used and there’s not much you can do. Again, because this business is built on relationships, sometimes it’s not wise to rock the boat and call foul.

    I’m all for the proliferation of tools so that the diamond in the rough can be discovered. but knowledge is power. If you don’t know how to use a screwdriver, then it’s useless. just because you get your hands on c4d doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to make cool shit. it takes the necessary brain power to create something extraordinary. That cream will rise if it’s baked right.

    we do ‘pitches’ or ‘spec’ to try and win accounts. Sometimes our work is second to none. Sometimes it’s not exactly what the agency wants. The problem is the agency might have the ‘idea’ but they don’t own the knowledge to make that idea reality. Sometimes the NY or LA house will win because, when it comes down to it, the creative team at the agency would rather go to either coast and work rather than stay home.

    What I HOPE will happen with this proliferation of tools and creative minds is that the “the only good work is LA/NY” mindset will evaporate. The playing field is being leveled but the agencies STILL think the best work is out on the coast. Why do the agencies think that way? ironically, because they preach it in :30 increments: ‘Perception is Reality”.

    I could go on, and on, and on…

  • The day that a designer in the middle of nowhere with an iMac and some software gets a huge campaign from a major company is going to be a reason for everyone to celebrate:

    It would also be nice if he got paid for it.

  • sorry,

    he or she 🙂

  • No matter what game is played, creativity and hard work will always pay off and get noticed. Also its good to have more than one specialty. Like yard work.

  • i am a relativly new designer (freelancer), and while many of the people i know will participate in this spec work i am very against it.

    i was introduced to the idea at uni and many people there were hyped by the idea (a company came in and delivered a take it or leave brief).

    and even then i thought, hang on a minute. i havent spent the first 5 adult years of my life learning and educating myself to jump up and down in the crowd for a crumb.

    yes the exposure if you get it would be good, but not enough to temp me.

    i stood up and politely refused to enter, and what i though was strange at the time and understand now is that my lecturer had a very proud look on his face.

    anyway back to the point. the few clients i have had i have been honest with “yes you can get it for xxx and if you want that go for it, xxx is my price and i have worked hard to charge that much, you wont be dissapointed.

    they either become very good clients and preach the same to others.

    or they go off running from one place to the next with no underlying brand and just some weak imagery to front there business.

    i think its a good idea as someone else pointed out, it filters out some of the “what do we get for free” individuals.

    to me it also widens the gap between designers and “i know how to use photoshop” which is always good for the industry.

  • I participated in a music video contest for Moby a few months back. I didn’t win the competition, but I really needed more work with live production and this contest gave me the opportunity to be in complete control of the camera.

    Even though I didn’t win the competition, others have seen my work and I’ve gotten more live production gigs because of it. In this way, Spec worked helped my reel more than anything.

  • Designers and Media Artist worldwide should ask themselves this question “Why doesn’t Spielberg or Cameron have this problem?” Why – when anybody on earth can grab a digital camera and make a movie – why aren’t they up in arms about lower wages? Can you say DGA? Avante Garde video director Hype Williams tried to make a movie without union workers because it cost too much – guess what? Didn’t happen. They shut him down. And that’s why the creatives in Hollywood with unions command serious bucks. And no matter how gifted you are, how great your work – no union, sorry pal ‘no job.’ SPEC or not.

    Suffice it to say that it’s human nature to race to the bottom – there will always be Pimps and Whores. Welcome to Earth. But… If the baddest designers and creatives were to unite to form ‘ a more perfect union’ then things might change. Until then – No Pain. No Gain. If anyone is willing to give this serious thought, count me in.

  • You should only accept spec work if you are starting out, have a limited portfolio, and need to prove yourself. There is absolutely no reason to be doing spec work for anyone if you have some experience and a portfolio that the client could see and decide if your work and skill fits their need.

    I will not under any circumstance do spec work for anyone, EVER! My time is money.

    In a post I wrote a while back about finding and working with the right designer I had a section of what not to do when looking for a designer, and this was one of them:

    Do not, I repeat Do not ask for FREE Spec work. I do not have time to entertain your wild ideas on my dime, I have a business to run. If you trust me as a designer, you have done your homework, seen my work, and you are serious about your project, then please be respectful and pay me for my time and ideas.

    Read the post here: http://feedgrids.com/originals/post/finding_and_working_with_the_right_designer/

  • I think Omar makes a good point. It’s hard to get your work out on a larger scale project if everybody is required a certain piece. but if Hype Williams got his movie made he would want to get paid for his work and time.

  • This thread is awesome!
    The production company I work for is shitting bricks because they are being undercut by kids working out of their mom’s basement. They keep asking me what we should do to change the business model because “video is dead”. Video is not dead.. I agree with the earlier post suggesting that this will help weed out the talent from the template pirates. Why would you make 10 $1 burgers when you could make one gourmet burger for $10? Chef > Burger Flipper… Not to say the flippers don’t have their place either..

  • Before there is an argument on “Spec” Work, let’s please try to agree upon a definition. The majority of the comments here freely change out competitions, spec, and volunteer work as though they were the same thing. I fully feel as though they are not.

    From AIGA (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/position-spec-work ):

    Uncompensated design is not the same as spec work.

    Speculative work—work done without compensation in the hope of being compensated, for the client’s speculation—takes a number of forms in communication design. There are five general situations in which some designers may work, by choice, without compensation:

    * Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
    * Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
    * Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
    * Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
    * Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

    For students and professionals, there may be a different line drawn on which of these constitute unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the relevant risks. Most designers would consider the first two types to be unacceptable.

    In certain design disciplines, such as architecture, advertising and broadcast design, business practices differ and professionals have been expected to participate in speculative work. This usually occurs in fields where the initial design is not the final product, but is followed by extended financial engagement to refine or execute a design. In communications design, this is often not the case. The design submitted “on spec” is all that the client is seeking.

    In addition, I think it may be advantageous to define design itself. I feel as though designs main goal is simply communication. Communicative goals of particular clients, ideas, products simply can not happen without information exchange. At that point, it’s become something else entirely.

    Designers are not fighting for no spec because they are dinosaurs, untalented, or too expensive. They fight because they care deeply about design, and the integrity of the field.

    • Also, maybe it’s a little pretentious/nebulous on my part to define the field of design in a blog comment!

      I feel as though data and communication exchange is integral to the practice of what the heck this stuff is. Inherent in “design” is “communication”, and communication is often hurt by the practice of one-way street briefs which many contest and crowd-sourced design paradigms use as their model.

      You are correct Nick, the level of particular participation in these sorts of things depends on designer to designer. A large part of our day is literally renting our talent and experience in exchange for money, and we all will make decisions in our work (and life) based on our own personal ethics.

    • I never ever see construction workers willing to do that. But I DO see tons of designers willing and ready to do free work every day. Seems like a poor analogy.

    • That’s the point. Other trades never engage in free work (and when they do, they’re somehow being compensated for it anyway). Chefs, builders, lawyers, doctors, writers, you name it. It’s a good analogy because apparently journeyman designers are supposed to be cheap whores, but journeyman X still get a small payment.

    • i’ll preface by saying that i only got 11 minutes through your video commentary and lightly skimmed the commentary here so i apologize in advance for inevitable redundancies.
      i applaud your effort to foment this conversation even if i think it’s a much bigger topic than many folks realize or have time to investigate. i also applaud your actively discouraging spec work among folks who ask you about it.
      you regard spec work as a market inevitability and i agree. that being the case, i’m a little confused when you regard some of the stronger analogies made here thus far as weak.
      spec work is a market inevitability in a market where labor is disorganized and desperate for work and only a few people have resources to mete out and do so on their own terms. what are alternatives to this dynamic? are there any?
      this is the big(ger) topic i was alluding to and can only really scratch the surface here. actually, construction workers do frequently “compete” for work. temp agencies like manpower inc and others are some of the fastest growing most affluent employers. what they do is find workers for companies who want a job done as cheap as possible but without the annoyances of having a longterm staff with concomitant raises, benefits packages, etc.
      spec work is one small facet of the economic “race to the bottom” that’s plagued the U.S. and global economy since the early 70’s and especially since the 80’s. it’s in league with the now blighted but once booming, working to middle class production based cities across the US. what happened? employers decided they could pay workers in some other, more desperate labor market less and maximize profit. either that or they found ways to pay the existing labor force less with mechanisms like automation, layoffs, paycuts, etc. often these actions were met with considerable resistance and strife on the part of the laborers and communities afflicted, with varied success.
      i apologize as i’m reading over what i’ve written and realizing it’s a little stream-of-consciousness. i’ll just wrap up by offering some food for thought: wages for the majority of american workers have stagnated (and in many cases declined) since the mid 70’s. (http://www.tcf.org/list.asp?type=PB&pubid=482) what’s changed about economy since then? are employers less profitable and less able to offer wage increases? certainly not:



  • “The quickest way to devalue your time and knowledge is to give it away free or cheap.”

    Do it for free once and you have set your future pay rate.
    People that expect you to do free work do not value you, or what you make.
    Free = No Value

  • I like your approach to this topic. It’s a very controversial topic and I like the way you view it with some optimism. I know that there’s a lot of emotion flying around this topic as many peoples way of life is being affected by it. I respect you for being so open and vocal on the subject and in a lot of ways leading this important discussion.

    There are some scary negative side effects of spec work. That said I don’t see this trend decreasing anytime soon. If anything it will only get worse due to some of the shifts in the industry that you mentioned in your video. Namely technology improving and becoming cheaper. CS5 is not that expensive for what you get out of the bundles. Look at what can be done on a DSLR these days. A t2i with kit lesns is like a $1,000. To get that quality out of video 5 years ago would have been closer to $10,000. The flood gates have opened and a small production house business can be started by Grandma if she has a high speed connection to the net. It scares the crap out of me how competitive this industry and market has become, especially since I’m at the early stages of staring up a freelance motion design business. But I’m passionate about what I’m doing and if I want to pursue this path I will just have to find ways to stand out and adapt. I LOVE MOTION GRAPHICS. At this point I don’t see myself doing anything else, so I will adapt.

    I participated in two contests recently for motion graphics and I hesitated a little in doing them because they started up right around the time that the no spec movement got really heated. The contests were the Digieffects Challenge at Motionworks and the Zaxwerks Challenge at AETUTs. I did not really view these contest as spec work but if someone wanted to look at them with that perspective I’m sure they could skew them in that direction. Both had rules that you needed to use their product to create the animations as well as use their logo somewhere with in the animation. Both offered prizes of their full line of products as well. I had seen interviews with both Robert Sharp from Digieffects and Zax Dow from Zaxerks on Motionworks’ Unplugged series and they seemed like smart and stand up guys. I took all of this into consideration before doing these contests and ruled that for myself this is the best opportunity I can ask for right now.

    As Nick mentioned in his video the designer should be able to determine for themselves whether or not to do work knowing there’s a chance you may not get anything in return. The way I viewed these contests was as a fantastic opportunity to create really nice, goal driven animations with a deadline for my reel. In this case, competitions were very beneficial to me. I won both, got a ton of plug-ins to help grow my business out of it, made many new and amazing connections to people in the industry. It allowed me to network a bit with some of my heroes in motion graphics like John Dickinson and Harry Frank and helped get my name out there. I look at a guy like Robert Leger who won the Unplugged opener challenge on Motionworks (which I also entered). Before he did that I had no idea who he was and now I’m subscribing to his blog (which has a link on GSG) and excited anytime he puts up a new tutorial. When you’re trying to make a name for yourself there can be more benefits to doing contest based work then there are to doing client gigs. Most client work has more restrictions to it that prevents you from doing something more experimental or showcasing the exact type of work you want to be doing. Winning the two competitions recently has already landed me new freelance gigs and meetings lined up for more. That Sesame Street contest that sort of set off this whole thing had a pretty big prize attached to it. It could have been the contest that launches a new artists career. How is it even possible to tell an entire world of creative people to not enter?

    I’ve read the letter to Sesame, and read a lot of comments related to it and continue to follow it. I understand the very real concern behind the no spec movement. Personally I’ve decided to never do any work for free unless I see a legitimate and equal benefit for myself win or lose.


    • Great stuff here, Ryan. The motion world is certainly changing. There are those that wish it to be different and those that use all this tech and knowledge to make things even better. Thanks for bringing such an epic comment.

  • Maybe the people who are saying spec work is a bad thing, aren´t confident enough about their work/skills.
    Another thing is there are thousands of students coming out of design schools,etc.. every year!! trying to get in the industry, sometimes these kids trying to get their name out there or even just make some projects to put on their reel, and if in the process they get poorly paid but still paid may resolve in spec work.
    The internet, with crowd sourcing widened the gates, no doubt!, but if big companies are complaining because they are loosing clients to lower quality projects, they should go look in the mirror, and figure out if they really want clients who focus on cheap work undermining quality, or if their work is really that great..
    Some clients go to talent, some clients are cheap period.
    There are more and more ppl going into this industry every day. People need to be better at what they do… to survive.

    • I agree. Improving is what it’s all about so you can be that elite and talented artist/designer and therefore, more money. Technology, visual fx, and design are very fast paced. You need to keep up with software, techniques, trends, etc. Master as much as you can and you will always make more than the new BFA graduate or hordes of people doing spec in hopes for money or template whores in hopes for small residual income.

  • I think things like Threadless and the 5 second projects are great. It’s something that people do for fun and practice.

    But things like logos and real designs for businesses… I don’t like the idea of spec for that. When I was in school I got “bamboozled” and my design was stolen. Often these things that promise to pay you if you “win” don’t come with contracts.
    I also did some free work for a woman while I was in school so I could use it in my portfolio. After I graduated, she asked me to do some more work. When I told her my hourly rate, she got enraged and said I should be doing this for free for her (cuz, you know, designers just do this for fun why should they get paid?). I’ve never been yelled at by a client before for wanting to be compensated for work, haha. Maybe those two were just bad situations.

    So needless to say I’ll never do spec work again, unless it’s just for something fun like Threadless. For real jobs/clients, I think one’s portfolio should speak for itself and you shouldn’t need to waste your time basically working for free.

    I just worry that because of spec, businesses will expect this sort of thing more and more and this whole pain in the ass sort of thing will happen a lot more often:


  • I agree, for people who want to boost therir portfolio, things like 5 Second Projects are great ideas and are meant to be for the experience. But young designers with alot of talent but not the experience are the ones most susceptible to being ripped off by these Spec sites and spec situations. And just because someone disagrees with Spec sites shouldn’t be construed as being ” untalented “. If saying that people who disagree with the topic are untalented then who is going to be willing to debate the topic?

  • Old business is still alive. I think they are still Marketing managers responsible for product, advertising agencies, Ceo, etc, are the ones who really handle accounts of enterprises.
    It´s not the time(yet) when comes a kid with a PC (by pas talent that has), and impersonate these bosses who BTW. are really who handle the business, and at the end are they who (Not the independent artist) decide what to be done.
    Dont forguet: we don´t handle this business.
    This is a business, and like all business, the people who sell (marketing managers, sellers, etc) are the ownwer of this business, not the artists.
    So, atm. only who have relationships, and make what they whant, (not ever the best work) will work
    I think…

  • Like internet itself, there are positive and some negative points to spec work / contests. The key is for everyone to educate themselves, regardless of whether your a motion guru, photographer or illustrator.

    1. As long as the people running the contest are not putting a User Agreement out there with fine print that says: “As soon as you submit it, your work belongs to us whether you win or not and we have license to use it in any way we want”, then at least the artist maintains control over his or her work and needn’t not worry that it’s being repurposed and used it without payment. If you enter a contest like that without looking first, you deserve what you get.

    2. I’m not sure I buy the “good exposure” argument. While it IS possible that a respectable (potential) client will see your work among the hundreds of other entries and act on it, the very fact that these things are so popular and easy to enter makes it tough to stand out, no matter how great your work is. It sounds so anti-internet, but maybe there needs to be some type of screening so that the numbers of people aren’t so huge. Then it becomes easier for all who make that cut to get noticed. Otherwise, branding yourself becomes almost as important as the quality of your contest entries, because if you don’t make it easy for people to remember you and find you again so they can track you down (you the real person), it’s all for naught. 🙂

    There are SO many people who post here and on other cool creative sites, that it’s hard to remember who did or said what each week. We’re all just a collection of friendly Gravatars with some cool links… in a sea of amazing demos. Of course the winner is always recognized AFA contests, but that’s not the theory behind “getting exposure”; the theory is that everyone can get recognized, but I think the reality is much different. Think of it like Google Page Rank. You could have a totally amazing site jammed with uber-content-galore, have it up for a year, updating stuff every couple days… and still get a page rank of 32. Out of millions should awesome but still low enough that few people will notice you, unfortunately.

    3. Contests for fun and contests for hire should be separated because the motivations and implementations are like night day. Nick’s contests are great but I imagine there are some that are beyond sketchy, with cheap clients trying to milk everyone for all they’re worth. I think the key here is to avoid the generalizations. All those professionals who are really passionate about this should find the sites that have abusive licensing terms or whatnot, and really rail against those guys and make those specific sites change for the better. Rather than trying to end the whole concept of spec work / contests. As Nick says, you can’t undo what’s already done. Better to make the sketchy guys get in line with the spirit of things by dishing out a little negative PR, etc.

    • By the way I meant to say contests for hire vs. fun should be EVALUATED separately. Obviously they’re not one and the same. It’s just hard to make blanket statements about the larger concept because they’re not implemented in similar ways if I understand it correctly.

  • Great topic Nick, Thank you once more Bro!

  • One thing worst then spec work… Free work for your friends… work without contracts or creative licences suck

  • Perhaps this is a slightly different take on things, but…

    What I am seeing is that it isn’t about one model caving into another. A spec-centric market isn’t overtaking the older agency or post house model. Neither is going anywhere. What’s happening is that there are actually multiple markets and systems existing side by side.

    I’ve had the experience of dealing with the big dollar post and production scenario, and also the super small budget, aka the spec scenarios. Both from a hiring and getting-hired perspective. And this is happening across all creative fields, btw. From web to print, to video, to ideation, and so on.

    Folks who work within the market that supports or allows spec work, or what I like to call the “chicken fight” model, are always trying to get in on the action within the big dollar world. Sometimes they get in, and all is well. Sometimes the big dollar world, depending on the project at hand, dips down into the chicken fight world to cut corners. But nobody in the big budget world (who knows what they are doing) does so without a backup or understanding the simple ‘you get what you pay for’ guideline. The world of kids rocking cheap software out of their mom’s basement isn’t all high noon gunslingers producing top notch work. It’s like anything else – lot’s of curd before you hit the cream.

    I think there are two things in the big dollar world people forget about and leave out in this kind of discussion. In the big dollar world (your post houses, your old agency models, and what have you) a huge part of the price tag is accountability. Accountability has a value, and it goes a long way in many cases. Accountability is everything from dedicated account or project managers, to just the ability to call up your vendor and yell at them. You don’t get that with low cost freelancers. (No, you don’t. You might think you do, but you don’t.)

    The other is simply the old boys club. Who does some CEO feel better about – the guy has the same lawyer as him, who’s charging 100k, or the kid who says he can do it for 5k. 4 out of 5 times, it’s the former.

    Anyway, point being, it’s not that it’s one over the other, I really think from work that I do, you have multiple business and competition models happening simultaneously. Given the rapid evolution of communication and the availability of hardware and software, this will continue to evolve.

    Both are fine, and both serve and interesting place within the whole.

  • My feeling is that you must adapt to the new business model. Clients will still want the best graphic design for their services or products. Whether they have to pay for it or not is at the individual artist / designer’s descretion and the willingness of the client to pay. It simply challenges you to be the best designer you can be and to value your own work. In this new multimedia world designers of all abilities will be needed and hopefully compensated for their abilities. The no spec work movement really is the no sense movement.

  • Spec work doesn’t exist.

    Clients who want cheap work, and designers desperately seeking exposure, however, do exist.

    It’s not like there’s a IKEA-like supermarket full of designers, and clients pick up the expensive professionals and say: “Ohh this is nice, I wish I could afford this!” then move onto the clearance aisle to scoop up some spec work out of a bin. That may be what it feels like to us, but the reality of the situation is different.

    In any industry, there are customers and clients on a tight budget, some would say an outrageously low budget. There are clients that might have money but don’t know any better. There are clients out there that downright disrespect the design industry, and don’t feel like an “artist” should get paid much at all (although in my experience this is pretty rare). And there are amateur designers that are nervous, student designers looking for anything at all, and some decent overseas designers that simply operate on a completely different economic scale.

    There’s dozens of factors on either side that create a need for this industry. It’s a niche, and it’s been filled. It’s inevitable.

    Sites that offer and promote spec work aren’t the culprit, and the designers or clients themselves aren’t to blame either. There are simply situations where both parties are looking for something easy. Spec is easy for the designer, and easy for the client, so the industry exists.

    I think most clients look at maybe 5 people/companies when they’re shopping around. If they’re huge, they’ll be sending RFPs to a handful of successful firms. If they’re small-medium sized, they might Google a handful of smaller companies (that’s how people often find me). And if they’re cheap, desperate, strapped for cash, who knows, they’ll scour the internet (or ask students) to do the work for nothing, or pay for a contest.

    We should all be super happy that our industry is so huge that this range of activity is possible. There are firms that can make a website for 2 million dollars, companies that will charge $9,000, Students that might charge $200, and spec sites where you might get nothing at all.

    It’s a bit insane to think about, yes, but it’s great that all that opportunity is there. Millions of designers and clients can all coexist on the same playing field, and there’s still enough work to keep all of us afloat (if you’re working hard).

    Just accept that this is part of the design industry. But also know it doesn’t truly affect you if you avoid it.

    We aren’t the VHS tape industry, we aren’t the Newspaper industry, we aren’t going away. There’s just a small section of the design world that’s cheap and crazy, so screw it.

    Go make shit, and have fun doing it (and make a living doing it if you’d like).

    • “In any industry, there are customers and clients on a tight budget, some would say an outrageously low budget.”

      That’s 80% of the industry. Only 20% of any industry has the money to ignore costs. I’ve had clients that never even looked at invoices because their primary business had costs an order of magnitude larger than my design project. On the other hand, I’ve had cheapskates and deadbeats who counted every cent.

      The less people pay for this work, the more they feel entitled to control of the whole process. Obviously, in spec work they have all the control. The designer just designs little crappy logos in a hurry and sends them off into a void. Only in this industry is this not seen as ludicrous and self-defeating, but as an opportune action that “may” bring “more work” down the line.

  • I’m sorry, but YOU know more than I do. YOU are better than I am. I cannot ‘yet’ compete with YOUR quality. So the only why I can get work to pay my bills is to work cheap. Why should I starve just to preserve your ego? And why would you want to work with clients willing to sacrifice quality just to save a few bucks? Seems like I’m doing you a favor.

  • before i jump into this i just want to say that countless people have turned the world upside down armed with nothing more then a serious case of the “whys” and a “dump truck” size imagination and i am all about that. i don’t know why people get so nervous about being replaced. there are no new ideas. (there never were) if that were the case the cave man who was inspired by a log rolling down a hill would have went home and turned his cave into a cadillac dealership. creativity is a gradual process where great ideas are built on other great ideas; to inspire is to be inspired.

    ok. here we go…
    (please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times until the ride has come to a complete stop)

    i’m an art director on the agency side so the term “spec” has a slightly different meaning for me. i can tell you that i do more then my share of non-billable “spec” work for all kinds of brands. like bran_dj mentioned earlier … “spec” is how agencies win clients and it comes with every new business pitch. it has always been that way and i don’t see that changing anytime soon. that’s just how the game is played. it’s only annoying when six months later you see your ideas (in one form or another) being executed by the agency that won the account. very rare but it does happen. (what? no reach-around?) welcome to the business of selling “ideas”.

    granted it’s not easy to put 150% into something that you know will most likely never see the light of day; even if you win you usually start from over from scratch when it’s time to do the work. that being said … i have always looked at spec work as “creative exercise”. it’s usually under the gun and you almost always learn something new. truth be told, i’ve have done some of my best work under tight deadlines. let’s be honest … where would your book / reel be w/o spec work?

    having said that … developing spec creative for an agency pitch and crowdsourcing are two very different animals. first of all, agencies have an annual budget specifically for pitching new bis and a large one at that …so while we always try to win we still get paid if we don’t. keep in mind that an agency is only going up against a handful of other shops (3-5) … all of which are there by invitation only as opposed to crowdsourcing where every tom, dick and harry with a copy of creative suite can try their luck and spin the wheel. another thing to consider is that in most cases, agencies are only presenting concepts and ideas to the brand … not finished work. i would imagine the same is not true of crowdsourced entries.

    now as far as crowdsourcing goes. i don’t care how you slice it or how much sugar you put on it … it’s crap. no matter if you organize it, host it or participate in it … you are part of the problem. crowdsourcing is nothing more then what large chain retailers call a reverse bid system. invite as many people to bid as possible, let them see the lowest bid and the sale price will fall. what people don’t realize is that while this tactic is effective at driving down the market price it also lowers the quality of the delivered product. (the idea is far from new but thanks to walmart and the internet it much more common then ever)

    without a doubt organizations like 99 designs, crowdspring, brandstack and to some extent threadless cheapen the craft and it will be a sad day when the terms “lowest bidder” and “creative” are used in the same sentence but is it worth getting upset over? should you be worried … i don’t think so. first of all we live in a capitalist society and that’s just how business works, someone is always going to try and sell what you make for less in hopes of making a quick buck. i won’t deny them that right for the same reason i’m ok with the fact that you can’t buy a rolex at walmart. the bottom line is this… there is no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for so if “binder & binder” and “jg wentworth” want to buy crowdsourced creative … by all means, let them. i sure as hell don’t want to do it, do you?

    what about the cheap tools? it’s true that the tools for the job are very obtainable. now more so then ever but there is a HUGE difference between knowing how to use the tools and being able to make cool shit with them on a regular basis. this is why if you look at an ad for say … “joe’s morgue and jerky outlet” from 1950 it looks frekin great … fast forward 50 years and that same ad looks like “joe” made it himself. why? because he did, but does that make him your competition? no. ability does not come with ownership, if that were the case every golfer on the pga tour would break out in a sweat every time dicks sporting goods had a sale on pro v1’s.

    nasa did a big study on creativity several years ago where they measured the ability of several groups of children starting in kindergarden and followed them through the12th grade. while they discovered that 95% of the children tested scored very high in terms of creative problem solving ability in kindergarden, only 5% of the group retained their abilities by the time they graduated high school. interpret that as you will. personally i have always believed that creativity is not something that can be taught or learned, it can only be found. you just need to be curious enough to look for it in the first place.


    • Interesting point in your last paragraph there – there’s an interesting TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson about that very phenomena. His theory (and I agree) is that kids are basically having their creativity educated out of them as they go through the school system. He is calling for radical changes in the education system to counter this.


      A bit off-topic (apologies), but interesting nonetheless…

    • Agencies that use crowd sourcing do NOT have to pick the cheapest, and therefore by your reasoning ‘worst piece of crap’, as the winner. If clients are willing to accept crap for their advertising simply because it’s cheap, then the fault lay with them, NOT with those who participate in the process.

    • I think the one thing your missing is that crowd-sourcing sites tend to have a client set price for a project upfront…and a designer has a choice to compete or not. With that said it isn’t the lowest bidder that wins…it’s to design that works best for the client that wins. With that said, It can be argued a designer or agency is more likely to get undersold for lesser quality if they are putting in a bod for a project as opposed to participating in crowd sourcing.

      BTW, just to give some background. I have worked in an in-house art department for a long time and now I work in an agency-type setting where we have to win work…I have also always freelanced as long as I can remember…My freelance work has not been affected and the types of projects I work on for my current employer are much more involved than just a logo or brochure so there is no threat there. In the end experience, talent, and relationships are compensated.

    • You pay your designers while they work on a “spec” projects, don’t you? Even if you don’t win the contract, you all get a paycheck. That’s not how it works for freelancers. Get a clue.

    • @dave: agencies for the most part don’t use crowdsourcing, CP+B did for one project as an experiment but it’s very rare.

      @maulsmash: sorry for the confusion, the reverse bid and crowdsourcing work a little different in terms of price but they both leverage the increased number of participants to get what they want.

      @ivan: so who do you think pays the agency when they loose a pitch? nobody. it’s called the cost of doing business and they plan ahead for that. you have to spend money to make money. trust me … if we never win, we don’t get paid, we get laid off.

  • Woa there are some people very against this. I’ve never really looked at both sides before. However I can see its Innovate or Die.

    Look at the struggling music industry because anyone and everyone with the right musical talent can release a debut album.

    Same goes for all Industries in the digital world. Accept that the world is constantly changing and that for you to stay relevant you must change too.

    Or become a one hit wonder and lose your awesome amazingly epic job!


  • Of course you are correct, it’s up to the designer to choose what to work on and there’s no point attacking companies that are reaping the benefits. I also think that it will become much more prevalent in the future. Thanks for you opinion on the matter. I also think what you said about pushing yourself and learning with spec work is a good idea, which is why to combat spec work I would like to see more things like your five second projects. Instead of spending time on cheap clients, you spend time on projects you can personally use, with input from your peers.

  • I’m glad you’re here to talk about this and express your opinion. Those trying to break into the industry could be trapped into this thinking that it’s the way.

  • Exploiting is such a harsh way of saying it. Doing Spec work is one of the bridges you have to face as a designer. Is there really a difference between doing Spec and an unpaid internship? Just because you get CRED(street and college) for working at that cool little boutique shop you are still working for free. I’m finally entering into the freelance field from working in studios the past year and a half. I try to find friends or family who need help, so far it’s working. To each his own. I had a friend who started out doing bands websites and t-shirt designs for free at first. But now he is making a very very very good living because he is a good designer and met awesome people thru his work. The same people that bitch about spec work are the same people that blame their computer for not being fast enough or having the latest technology.
    That was long sorry.

    • The big difference between working an internship and doing spec work is that at an internship, you go in with the expectation that you are learning from and experiencing the world of a professional designer. If you are in an internship where all you do is work, you are in a crummy situation. Internships are all about learning -how- to work, and how design firms solve problems creatively. Internships, like apprenticeships, are all about shadowing the masters to learn their methodologies so that you can use that knowledge in your own practice.

      Spec work, on the other hand, is work without any form of compensation. You learn very little about how the industry functions because you are not working under the auspices of a legitimate system.

  • Love it! Best Blogpost ive read in a while.
    And by writing that i wanted to mension this.
    Marketplace fruit and vegetable section…
    Everytime i pass and say hello to the owner and have a chitchat he gives me apple, and the most intresting thing happens.. i keep coming back. Im buying my fruit and vegetable over there.

  • Couldn’t agree more! But then I’m reading Linchpin at the moment and having my eyes opened…

  • If you know how to make shit look good you will rise to the top, and none of this will mean anything to you.

  • As Seth writes in Linchpin, everyone has access to the factory. Partly because of that, spec or no spec was inevitable because everyone now has access to the tools.
    You remember the world’s great artists for their creative output: da Vinci, Picaso, Van Gough, Mozart, Lennon-McCartney. All of them did work where they were underpaid, and all of them did projects for free.
    Spec or no spec has been going on since we began drawing on cave walls.
    Doesn’t make it right.
    But the world still turns.

  • http://www.pompom.in/2010/05/indianrailways-gov-in-indian-railways-rs-5-lakh-logo-competition/
    thats the competition held by my country.. i never felt that it made the professional logo designers of india were waste.. its just made them run for the money they get paid.. all those who have a prob with SPEC work, should really get better an beat ppl through these contest an show us that we dont deserve to win.. its simple.. grow up “PROFFESIONALS”.. most of SPEC work Doers are students with new and fresh ideas.. old ones tend to rot.. keep up ur good work Nick.. im glad ur not one of them..

  • I am an artist in Afrika (Zimbabwe) and Spec work runs a vicious cycle where clients will come to a skilled artist, get some spec work done for free then go to less talented ones and use the spec work for directions.


    • Then “protect” every spec works you do !
      this is kinda rule for creatives.
      Not sure this will apply for Africa, being a creative in Africa was the hardest work i did so far.

  • Hello Nick,

    Interesting, very interesting, and awesome sharing points of view.
    there’s a sentence that i like to remind me of : do it for love not for the money.
    As far as a subject is interesting, motivating and that you can dedicate the correct time for it, then i go for it. No matter if you win or / loose.
    But there is something that is very important to me now, is how i feel the customer :
    I did some spec the year ago and for one case i was very frustrated : the winner was not that much innovative nor creativ
    so i had to consider the lake of taste of this customer. Furthermore when i digged into the history of this demand, it revealed
    that the game was already played BEFORE they asked me for anything. In some cases customers might be honest but in some others they wont.
    This is happening i guess in every business, the competition is fake.
    This is why i remind in every job i do : do it for love not for the money,
    and be prepared to be disappointed or facing the lack of taste of your customer.
    That said, we all love our work, we are passionated people and creatives, customers know this.
    This is the exact same position between them and us :
    they need creativity to make their products or brand going into something different or new,
    we need real demand in order to have real constraints and a real shared relation.
    But artistic works lack so much constraints !! ideas burst everyday, which one to catch !
    Customers do give you a framework.
    It’s hard for a customer to give you a job because however good you are, however they like your creations,
    they always expect what you’ll do for them and for that reason they have to feel before they buy.
    When you buy something / example : a product, you already know which need it will satisfy, and you know it will do the job.
    But in our cases, it’s hard to deliver the feeling that it will do the job before it will effectively do the job or an idea of it.
    I’d say this into the DNA of our mission on earth.

  • My thoughts on spec work are pretty clear. Do whatever the fuck you want. You know who does the most spec work? Giant advertising companies. Why? Because they can afford to spend $75,000 to create an amazing project and in return grab a 3 million dollar a year client.

    Large companies know they can do this and they will rarely pay right off the bat. They have the power.

    If you think that Crowd Source is SPEC work then you are not a designer. That is a playground. Companies that either A. do not respect the power of effective communication or B. do not give a shit, are the ones on there trying to get something for a discounted rate.

    Also, with regards to SPEC – it’s a choice. Fucking relax. If you think every designer in the world will revolt and not do free work, your wrong. There are millions of us out there. Its competitive. Work harder than everyone you know — that’s the way to succeed.

  • Great thoughts Nick.

    If the mom ‘n pop shop puts something up on CrowdSpring, more power to them! The fact that they’re even pursuing a half decent logo for their business is a major step forward as far as I’m concerned. They weren’t going to spend thousands to pay for a logo anyways, so if there are people who will design it for a fraction of that, then that’s great.

    Spec work is also a great way for new designers to build up a portfolio. Sure, they might not actually “win” the job, but they got real world experience solving an actual real world design problem.

    The folks who complain about spec work are either crappy designers or bad business men/women.

    If you think spec work is hurting your ability to get work, then either go spend more time making yourself indispensable or take a business or marketing class and learn how to actually score design gigs.

    • Hey Josh, which would you rather: take a chance to win a hundred bucks designing a logo or “build up your portfolio” doing the same, but without the whole “design for a client I don’t know, never met, and haven’t spoken to” thing? I don’t get this rationale of “build up your portfolio while motivated by chump change.” You want to redesign Nike’s site and put it in your portfolio, do it. Don’t bother with making a “mom ‘n pop shop” site on spec. If the likelihood of you getting paid is about the same, why not put a huge brand in your portfolio instead of a business that can’t even afford a proper site?

      • Using a known brand to do fake spec work is even worse in my book. Pretending you did a Nike or Gatorade animation wastes everyones time. It either embarrasses you as the designer if it’s not good enough, or it causes confusion during the hiring process when you have to explain that you didn’t actually do work for Nike. Designing something for the small business up the street, however, is a great idea. Then you have real constraints and can show real work.

    • Errr, sorry, wrong use of words there. Didn’t so much mean “build up a portfolio” as “get their feet wet.”

      Certainly not suggesting anyone do fake spec work and then try to pass it off like they _actually_ did work for a big brand or make a portfolio piece.

      For the record I don’t think spec work should ever be put in a portfolio…but I do think it can be a good way for new designers to wet their chops to at least learn some new skills.

    • “For the record I don’t think spec work should ever be put in a portfolio…but I do think it can be a good way for new designers to wet their chops to at least learn some new skills.”

      Why limit it? If it is good work that you produced and you feel it is worthy, then put in in the folio…

    • I do agree that doing mock brand work for a big name brand and putting it in your portfolio just does not go well in an interview.

  • Spec work isn’t the future, it’s always existed and always will exist. Spec work is easy, building a working relationship often isn’t.

    You can’t successful brand a business using Spec work. If someone can provide an example showing me otherwise please do. You can spec out a logo, website or promotional t-shirt – but more often than not the brand suffers as a whole. Then eventually when a company finally gets around to hiring a consistent designer they try to make him/her shoehorn a logo in that they paid an amateur $1k for in a contest, and they’re stuck trying to polishing a turd. Time after time that’s where I see spec work ending up. The situation is not exclusive to spec work, but it’s definitely the norm.

    That being said, I feel that spec work devalues the idea of creating a relationship with a designer as a whole. Would you rather have a few consistent clients to work for or just one massive pool of contests that you hope to win so you can get a paycheck? The idea is just so incredibly unstable that if someone tried to live solely on spec work they’d burn themselves out doing non-paying work in a matter of a few years.

    Actually, how about an experiment – is anyone out there willing to attempt to make a living out of doing only spec work? I’d read that blog.

    Anyway, I don’t care what other people do usually – if you want to do spec work then do it. Just don’t try to devalue the way I do things by claiming that it’s the way of the future or some “revolution”. It really isn’t and has never been. Tape decks are going to ruin the record industry.

  • I don’t see the threat by more people having access to the software. Yes I have spent years in school and in the field…and my work and abilities show that and I am not threatened by anyone who gets Photoshop and decides to jump in the game. If they stick to it they obviously have a passion for it, besides we all have to learn somewhere and just because a person is self-taught doesn’t mean they are not talented. Can you honestly tell me art school taught you everything? Sure they get you in the right direction…and help you gain knowledge of the tools, but ultimately you learn on your own in the field.

    I think sites like crowdSpring are misunderstood. You cannot underbid anyone…a project is set for a fixed price and you can choose to compete. In the end the client chooses the best fit for them (not the cheapest). And the untalented, non-creative, or novice designers are obvious. As I stated before, you are more likely to get underbid in an agency setting bidding on a project. And in the end the types of full blown projects agencies are bidding are are often far greater and more complex than what you see on crowdSpring (or the like). So the two are not really that comparable anyway.

    In the end it is an alternate option for those seeking creative work that is most likely too small and/or low key for an agency. As someone who freelances in my spare time…most of my work comes from my network of folks I have relationships with…and I see crowdSpring as a tool…not a replacement. All in all there I don’t see the threat as big brands aren’t likely to use this type of model, in fact just looking through briefly it seems to attract non-profits, small business, and start ups mostly…and from my experience the amounts they seem to place on a projects are pretty much inline with what they tend to spend.

    Overall, if you are one of those upset over this, then I would say these are not the types of clients you are targeting anyway. It’s your choice to do or not do spec work…It is just another option in the broad array of options for both designers and clients, it isn’t replacing anything.

  • eh, I’ve got bigger problems in my life than worrying about people doing spec work.

    -I’ve never lost a paying job because there was someone willing to do it for free.

  • one word why spec work isn’t a real threat:


    -how many insane client revisions is a spec artist willing to make?

  • If

    (Prize Value * Probability) > (Real Cost + Opportunity Cost)

    then go ahead and do spec/contest work.

    Unless there are other significant variables (exposure is rarely one), this equation tells me not to do anything on spec. The opportunity cost is time I’d have to work for good causes for free and gain real contacts.

    This idea comes from this article by Kjerstin Erickson about crowdsourcing promotion, which, because it exploits non-profits, is even worse than crowdsourcing design, I think:


    • That’s the way I feel in a way. I have no problem doing work for free for a good cause. I have another job (totally not a graphics job) that pays the bills, and I do my work for free for the cause of my choosing. But I think working for a cause is totally different than the kind of rat race to the bottom that spec work seems to be. And at the same time, I am improving my skills without a third party parasite I mean middle man.

  • If I have time, and I can crank something out without putting a lot of time and money into it, I might do a spec commercial.

    The spec contests that I avoid are those that have a winner based on a viewer vote, or those with a very small prize. Viewer vote is skewered to those who have a large following or a lot of friends. You could have a brilliant commercial that looses to something absolutely stupid, just because the guy who did the stupid video has a ton of friends on Facebook or subscribers on YouTube.

    If I lost a commercial, I at least got experience in refining my skills, and something to ad to my portfolio.

  • Is the agency model really “spec work”? I think how agencies land million dollar clients and a “design my logo for Facebook exposure and $250” contest are apples and oranges.

  • I honestly couldn’t have agreed with you more. You’re a great speaker and you have a lot of experience (it seems, about 250 xp) and I love to hear what you mean, and I love it when I agree it you. You can’t stop the market from doing its thing, you can’t stop people’s urge to learn.


  • I heard Walmart is now selling video in a can now. 20oz. can get you roughly a 30 second spot. 😉

    I agree, people will keep doing spec work but I think reputable businesses know they will have to pay for quality work.

    Something YouTube has shown me with millions of people shooting and editing videos is now my work looks a billion times better in comparison.

  • I think Nick is correct and saying no one is forcing artists to participate in spec work. So many people out there want to break into this industry and get their work seen by professionals in the field. If this is the door they want to step into then let them. They aren’t taking anything away from you. Step it up and create better shit. The better design will win. So be the one who takes design to a different level. Push your own limits and find ways to make yourself better. Just because you have been in the industry for 5-10 years does not mean shit. You don’t have the golden ticket. If you don’t adapt to the culture of this industry you will fall behind and be left in the dust. I think we call can benefit from the spec movement. Like Nick says, “gives ANYBODY the opportunity to make great shit.” The better design wins. Its that simple. So become better and push your craft and your skills to new heights.
    Stop complaining about something you can’t stop.

    • Well said, Adam. Thanks for the comment.

    • How optimistic Adam.
      So you think it´s all about pushing yourself to a new height?
      Next time you go and tell your first REAL client “this time i pushed myself to a higher hight, Mr client”.

      Clients are like clay. They like these things.

      Please do not insult experience. In this very complex industry being able to succeed for 5 – 10 means a lot.

      If you survive 5 years you´ll think different.
      Grow up Adam.

    • Let’s keep it adult! Snarky comments don’t prove anything but ignorance. Experience is great, and valuable, but so is the product you are delivering.

    • Thanks. I am optimistic. Forgive me if I insulted anyone with experience. I fully respect those who have been in this industry a long time. All I am saying is that everyone should keep an open mind and try not to dwell on the negatives and look at the positives.

  • Alright Nick, I’m going to put my money where your mouth is 🙂

    I’ll admit, I have a lot of reservations about the SPEC “movement”, but I’ll give it a shot before making a snap judgement. I just joined CrowdSpring, and I hope it turns out to be the right move.

    Keep rousing the rabble.

  • So, if free training is your fault does this mean the end of your tutorials unless we pay for them?

  • I can’t help but think about the arguments people make against the minimum wage when you talk about the willingness for someone to do spec work.

    That being said, the amount of spec work that gets offered to me should be put in the context of the amount of no-bid projects that get offered, which I think makes everything even.

  • -bustin’ chops here.
    -Nick, enough with the “revolution” talk. So overplayed by everyone. Shit, doesn’t every product that Apple makes claim to usher in a “new revolution”? haha. Once the corporate world gets a hold of it, that’s it. done.
    I heard a newscaster talking about a youtube video of a smoking baby that has “gone viral” as if somehow in the middle of the night it became self-aware and uploaded itself.

    also I don’t agree with the concept as you see it. Democratization of software is fine and good. Yes ultimately it is the work -the cream will always rise to the top, but I worry about the general mindset (certainly amongst, let’s say twenty-somethings) that all software, music, movies, etc, should just be free. I’ve had arguments with other freelancers that feel like they shouldn’t have to pay for software, because after all “I’m not a big company” A sense of entitlement.

    -Now, I have seen some great solutions to this by companies that have different rate structures for freelancers vs. shops. Very good. But there are plenty of dudes out there with laptops loaded up with 10-50k worth of hacked software. using it on paying gigs…not cool. And ultimately not sustainable, no-one pays for software, no new software is developed, no more free toys. Some revolution. -crap, now I’m using that word.

  • this reminds me of an article denny wrote a while ago:

    added points:
    i believe that, when you do work for no fee, you the artist/design company maintain ownership over it. as soon as a dollar changes hands… the work is owned by whom ever paid for it.

    sometimes its better to do something for nothing. because then you, the artist, can better control the expectations and relationship. As soon as money changes hands, even a very small amount, the paradigm shifts… and a client will feel entitled to way more then they are actually paying for.

    in the end though time and talent are worth money…
    but its ultimately an individual decision on a case by case basis.

  • I have to laugh at spec work.

    Really, not from a designers point of view. But from a business point of view.

    What is amusing to me is the conversation your having here about it, is to some degree open.

    What isn’t open is that many agencies are all owned by one umbrella corp. So business’s think they are getting a choice, as all trade under their original names.

    It’s interesting that this spec work has become more apparent and prevalent since these umbrella’s have take taken control of the industry.

  • I agree with a couple of the comments here about doing spec work only as a beginner in the industry, if you have next to nothing in your portfolio. It’s a dirty way to at least get a few professional things done as a student, but once you gain experience, you have to take the training wheels off and rely on your talent, not your willingness to do bitch-work for free… otherwise you’ll be doing bitch-work the rest of your life.

    Is doing spec work bad for someone like Nick? Well, of course! But like he said, it’s his choice if he decides to take on a project on spec. Who are we to cry foul?

    Create great work, make good money, and do it the way you want.

  • interesting to hear so many different POVs on this subject. some really good points.

    i totally agree with nick’s point about being an adult and knowing what your getting into. no one is forcing anyone’s hand and if your just starting out it’s probably not a bad place to get your feet wet. the more i think about it … crowsourcing reminds me of the pshop battles that were big a few years ago. a little bit of healthy competition can do wonders for your design chops.

    on a side note … “ADC young guns” is another outlet for this type of work if your just getting into the industry and looking for some experience/exposure.


  • Nick, I think what some may be reacting to is not necessarily a question of argument, but of tone. I don’t know of anyone who thinks spec work, as a business model, is awesome. Sure, it has it’s place in the agency world (where it means something very different). Sure, it can be fun to do if you don’t care about the money. And yes, it can give you experience when you are starting out. However, especially with these last two examples, we are no longer talking about a business model. And that is what people tend to get riled about. As a business model, it’s a necessary evil. No one is sitting there, excited about the idea of doing work with no guaranteed payoff. That’s not “awesome”. That’s merely a fact of the market. That is similar to saying the factory in your home town was shut down due to market forces, and that’s awesome because the market is awesome. Sure, places pay below the minimum wage because there are people who will work for it. That’s not “awesome”. It makes one wonder how the 5 day work week ever came about, if there are always people willing to work 7.

    So I think some of us might agree with your basic argument but disagree with your excitement. I am also excited about the democratization of the means of production! However, celebrating what is generally regarded as one of the worst parts of creative work (I mean, you don’t do alot of spec work, right? I know I try to avoid it!), especially in a difficult and very competitive economy, can come across as a bit glib. And writing off those who don’t as either dinosaurs terrified of the brave new future or hacks who are just afraid of competition (from what? from people who are doing the work for free?) can make the glibness sound downright crass.

    That having been said, I am big fan of your work and especially enjoyed your reel critiques. I applaud the work you’ve done, along with others, in creating a more connected community of animators and motion graphics-ers and people who just “make cool shit”. This is a subject with a million different viewpoints and I look forward to seeing us hash this out both as individuals and as a loose community. Keep up the great work and thanks for all of the time you’ve given all of us out here.

    • “…writing off those who don’t as either dinosaurs terrified of the brave new future or hacks who are just afraid of competition (from what? from people who are doing the work for free?) can make the glibness sound downright crass.”

      Totally agree with your sentiments.

  • I want the Showreel Smackdowns back!!! 😀

  • Thats interesting nick, because its the same problem here in germany.

  • Just out of curiosity…

    …how can you have a discussion about the Business and *not* include a ‘Clients From Hell’ link?


    It’s as instructive as it is hysterical and sad.

    Work for Cheap, Work for Free- hell, work for a bag o’ rice!

  • I don’t think an even playing field should be brought up at all. I’m a designer and most of the designers at my major firm will do spec work during their free times of working at a real PAYING job and at no other time will they work on these projects. They often win too, which is really not fair to the unpaid entrants trying to get a leg in or for the very small amount of money at the end of the contest. Spec work, in my opinion, devalues design and art. It’s odd to encourage it, unless you plan on setting up these money making contests to profit off of it. People who run these are the new CEOs taking everyone’s time, money and ideas while getting rich. Even having your losing design featured on one of these contests completely devalues the work and idea. It makes a potentially good idea sit forever in the category of “loser of a lame design contest.” Furthermore, currators have made art great for all of time. Take a company like Threadless for instance. Let everyone vote and the products end up too in the middle and overly similar. I can spot a threadless t-shirt from a mile away even though they were designed by people from all over the world. Making art better or making a few people and corporations richer? I say, save your ideas, spend time on your own work. Be proud of it and don’t get involved in these bizarre things. I could go on forever on this topic, but I hope I’ve made a few points at least.

  • just in case, that was to nicks post, not anything else.

    It kinda sounds like the declaration of independence in some places.

    keep it up =)

  • Spec work isnt good in anyway. It shows you will work for free. and once youve done one peice the organiser of the competion or business you did it for will tell his freinds at other business’s about you and they will try and get you to work for free by telling you the same things the first guy did. that you will learn new things and get experience, when infact your been used.

  • Hi, I used to work for a magazine that offers designers and copyrighters to WORK just for the exposure they can get, not for money. (it wasn’t rolling stone or new yorker, just a cheap ass one). thats spec work right?

  • I agree with what some of the other people have expressed in this post, if you you are going to do something for free, do it for yourself.

    I have been in the design business for more years than I would like to mention and I haven’t done spec work for at least two decades. From my early experiences, a company asking for spec work does not truly respect you or your work, they are simply trying to get a more “talented” designer to come up with solutions for their product so they can turn around and hire a cheap hack to emulate your ideas. I won’t even discuss ideas with a client anymore until I have been hired for the job and have a deposit firmly placed in my bank account (in other words, making sure their check doesn’t bounce). My simple philosophy is this; if you can’t tell that I’m right for the job by my portfolio then we shouldn’t work together.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my two cents worth.

  • for me, its like entering a big restaurant, say “hello , i would like your best wines for 2 dollars”, the waiter call dozens of wine makers who are coming, quick, some of them are quite good and open their best bottles. they serve you the full bottles, so you can taste them all, for free!!. after that, you may cancel the tryout saying that none of the wine tasted are good enough for you or at least you can pick one of them, the better and ask to have his taste changed a little bit, and.. well the color too, maybe the texture and also the logo, the sticker and the color of the bottle. when the wine maker is starting to get so mad at you because its no longer his creation, finally you pay the 2 dollars to the waiter (who takes his purcentage) and ask politely for having the chemical formula of that wine so you can make yourself the final changes before being able to sell it in your own store.

    usually you spit back the wine in a bucket when testing it, not to finish drunk after few tryouts. in our spec work case, the wine testers spit your best wine back in the bottle so you can serve it again later… for very cheap because it is no longer a good bottle.

    • I think Nick is right about Spec work. The internet has changed everyone’s lives forever. Look at the music industry. Lots of people enter competitions and/or spec work to learn new skills and challenge themselves while working to a brief with a deadline. It gets them noticed as designers or animators which is good, especially if they have recently become unemployed due to recession, or have just finished college and there are no jobs in their area. You can’t stop progress, you can up your game though. I think the biggest fear is that designers or animators in poorer countries will soak up all of the work by working for less, for example in China, India, which is similar to a fear of outsourcing. Great ideas and unique ideas can come from anywhere in the world and everyone’s going to have to get used to that idea, we’re globally connected now and the internet is here forever.

  • um… this is retarted.

    sorry, now i didn’t read all the comments, so i dont know whats been said..

    but this blog went on a huge rant like 6 months ago about how one should NEVER do spec work (i commented on that one too). I believe the reason being “you cant do it better than the original, so dont do it at all”

    now it’s opinion has been completely reversed in a way which makes it appear as though you supported spec work this whole time…


    • My stance still is not to do spec work. You are better off doing your own stuff. Especially if your learning. This post is all about why spec work isn’t going away and how some of the things that make spec work possible, also make great work possible. It’s all about the choice to do what you want, no matter how many times I say not too. Thats what I support. I would re-read the comments. It may make things more clear.

  • also,

    heres some spec work I did:


    i dont think it sucks at all. (but you supported me this whole time didn’t you !)

  • Nick you handled my stupid late night rant very well. props to you sir !


  • I am not a designer, I am an owner of a medium sized business.

    I have been looking to get some work done for a while. We were planning on spending 15-25k on logos/webpages/brochures. I read all the “education” on the NO!SPEC site, but it completely missed the point. The most attractive thing about these contest sites is not the low price point, its that you only pay when you are happy.

    To me its the risk of paying some company 20 grand to design a bunch of logos and brochures and then me not being happy with them that is my biggest hesitation to going with a traditional design company.

    If working without a guarantee of getting payed is so evil, paying with out a guarantee of getting something your happy with also should be just as bad. And yes I know, I know nothing about design and am not a qualified judge of graphic design, but in the end its my cash.

    With spec work it seems the tides have come back into my favor, and maybe a little to much. But I think there needs to be a way where the designer and the client share the risk in a more equitable way than both SPEC or “200 dollars and hour take it or leave it”

  • Hi Nick wasn’t sure where to put this?


    I used some for your simple texture techniques and bounced the light. Space horror theme.

    Keep it up mate.

  • Doing work and not getting paid (majority of participants on a spec entry) or getting paid peanuts if you win is not a new business model.

    It is a very old one for which a lot of people have fought very hard to get out of.

    Don’t kid yourself. No one, on average, is making a good living out of this.

    I do agree, though, that designers have to give “more” if they want to get good jobs (research, for one). The problem is that this “more” comes basic to actual graphic designers, and potential clients aren’t aware that what graphic designers have to offer is much more than pretty pictures. Sites like 99 designs misinforms their clients on what graphic design is by pretending it is what they offer, while it actually limits itself to fast pictures.

  • I know this thread is kinda old but 6 months ago I joined crowdspring..(before I read this thread) and I was really impressed and inspired by people’s work. Over half of the design/logo submissions were grade A. But after participating for about a month… I realised that it pushed me to work really hard to come up with original concepts. Which turns out why I give it one thumbs up and not two because I also feel that it really made me feel like I was playing the “lotto” or gambling.. like russian roulette style or throwing a penny into a water fountain…
    Not sure If I dig that… especially when there’s hard work and student debt involved. It’s a bit degrading.

  • Hey

    Good video, I think another good point to be made about Spec work is that it works well for people not living in, say, the USA. for me I live in South Africa so getting paid in dollars works out to alot of money because of the exchange rate. I do spec work and have been paid doing it its not always worth my daily rate but it does make me money and to spend an hour a day maybe working on one logo is good practice and you have the chance to add more work to your portfolio especially for a student or somebody looking for work has a chance to create work for there real and have a theme much like your fsp

  • I wonder how many people would participate if they didn’t have a pirated version of photoshop and illustrator

  • I really liked your vlog buddy and I agree with you, we cannot stop it..

  • I’m a web designer and I won’t use crowd-sourced logos in my designs. You want pro, you have to go pro. It’s exploitation, plain and simple. No one who gets the outsourced crowdsourced logo wants to work for free – they just want to spec designs for free. It’s hypocritical, and it’s nothing new. This sort of exploitation of talent has been going on since before the middle ages. It’s not going away, but we don’t have to call it “a cool idea” it’s just not.

  • spec work is crap,modern day slavery for designers

  • I rewrote one of your paragraphs…

    Let Women Decide
    Women should have the choice to participate in the sex trade. If no women participate, then there is no sex trade. Simple as that. But, women DO participate. Most are glad that they do. There are no lies being spun or promises that aren’t kept. The rules are put out there and women choose to participate. Sure, feel free to let women know your stance on spec work. Even write a letter to the police chief. But, you are usually wasting your breath. Because, It’s not the pimps that make the sex industry. It’s the women that choose to participate. Women CHOOSE to prostitute themselves in these encounters. They aren’t forced.”

  • Interesting article but I disagree with your comment that “There are no lies being spun or promises that aren’t kept.”. You can see from reading the comments on these contest sites that many designers are getting annoyed with rules not being properly enforced by the crowdsourcing sites – issues range from fraud to copyright infringement. Clients and designers alike are up to dodgy tricks on these sites and you can see examples on SPECWATCH.

    Because someone participates in something voluntarily, it doesn’t mean it’s not exploitative! So if I give little 5 year old Tom $1 a week to go 50ft down a coal shaft and spend 12 hours a day down there, that’s ok because he wants to do it? An extreme example, but that’s the logic that “no one forces them to do it” seems to be based on – free will. And how many contests do you know where it’s perfectly fine to terminate before awarding a prize and to ask entrants to revise their contributions multiple times?

    A lot of designers are not aware that in many instances, they cannot use the work they produce in their portfolio due to strict NDAs. If they want to gain experience, why not do spec work for a charity – someone who really needs creative design with a minimal budget, rather than for a profit-driven entity who may or may not give you the job?

    The vast majority of winning designs I have seen were in no way the most professionally designed entries and some were just plain wrong, even from an objective design viewpoint. It hardly encourages healthy creative flow for other budding designers who maybe don’t have the opportunity or money for a professional course so see a shoddy winning entry and think “Ah…so that’s how I should have done it!”

    To those living in countries where their currency isn’t as strong as the dollar, I absolutely hear you that the internet opens up ways of earning a living that might not have been available previously. However, I would encourage designers to set their own rates and price depending on the individual project requirements – either using one of the typical freelance sites or if you have some experience (e.g. from not for profit organisations/friends, etc. as I mentioned above) and a portfolio, get yourself a website, learn lots about marketing and have a go at it alone. If you’re good enough at design and marketing, there’s no reason why you can’t make money away from these contest sites.

    In response to Joseph’s comment about it being just as bad to potentially have to pay for something you might not like – would you expect to try a meal at a restaurant and then not pay for it if you didn’t like it? Sure, if it was undercooked or had a hair in it, then the restaurant would be obliged to bring you another meal or refund your money.

    If it just wasn’t to your taste, then that would just be unfortunate but presumably you would have made your menu choice based on recommendation from a friend who’d had that dish, or because it featured one of your favourite ingredients, for example. Obviously, if you ordered venison and didn’t really like game all that much, then that’s another story.

    The point I’m trying to make is there is a difference between objective and subjective views on a designer’s work. It boils down to clients doing research, asking designers the right questions to ascertain their suitability, looking at their portfolio, asking for testimonials – all the usual things you’d do when hiring someone who’s offering a professional service. I don’t see why designers should be treated any differently. Most designers won’t ask for full payment up front regardless – this usually happens in stages as each element is approved.

  • Reading through many of the comments, my sense is that a lot of up and coming designers are excited about learning and creating, but are unrealistic about actually surviving. The “spec” issue is really only a symptom of a larger problem for anyone working in any creative industry now: supply and demand. 15 years ago when I opened a motion design shop, we would land 50-100k projects on average, and now those same clients–people that I already have a long standing relationship with–are handing out 2-5k projects, and still expecting the same amount of work. They do it because they can, and it’s their job to stretch their budgets as far as possible. I know for a fact that big-name shops with huge reels, top designers and large sales forces are taking big losses on jobs for 60k that have 700 deliverables, take 3 months, and a team of 6-8 designers, just to try to develop new business. A quick look through jobs on Motionographer turns up numerous offerings for $150/day, which, in Washington State, would be a *minimum wage* job. That meanins that knowing Cinema, After Effects, PS, etc, well enough to work in a professional environment is as economically valuable as knowing how to lift a box, dig a hole, wave a sign on a corner, or work in fast-food. I don’t have a solution, and I’m not clinging to an old business model, but anyone who thinks they’ll be ok if they can just “work hard” and “stand out” is fooling themselves.

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