An important and lively discussion arose on popular design blogs late last year about the issue of spec work. Clients occasionally will ask for spec work (short for speculative work) when they apply for jobs. These assignments give a glimpse into how different designers would perform at the given task. In some cases, designers are asked to complete the entire assignment and then they are assessed against one another.
Some watchdog groups have denounced this practice as exploitative, stating that designers shouldn’t have to work without the promise of compensation for their time and effort; the hope of being hired isn’t enough to justify the practice, these groups argue. They want to stamp out all forms of spec work, big and small, in hopes of standing up for the rights of designers.
AIGA, the professional association for design, has also come down hard on these requests. “Lawyers are not asked to write new briefs to show whether they can do so,” said AIGA executive director Richard Grefé. But not all volunteer work is necessarily spec work. Some designers have been known to take on pro-bono work in hopes of landing a greater gig or as a way to build up their portfolios. What’s crucial though is for clients to recognize “the value of a professional relationship with a designer,” Grefé said.
This debate at its heart is about where to draw the line on spec work. Some designers have a hard time standing firm on their principles if a particular assignment — and potentially their livelihood — is on the line. Freeman Robinson says that spec work he turned in helped land him a recent gig. “It’s kind of hard for me not to feel very positive about it,” he said. Still, Robinson opposes these types of requests. “As a general rule, I’m not in favor of it.” He said he’s seen an increase in these requests as the industry has become even more competitive.
Freelancing of all sorts demands a certain competitiveness and the knowledge that others are vying for the same work. A veteran designer who’s created work for contests run by99Designs, a marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design, said she only enters contests that suit her needs, availability, and interests. While she found an array of new client leads through 99Designs, she also sets boundaries and encourages others to do the same. “I know when to pull out of something when they’re expecting more than the designer can handle, or if it’s not right or fair,” she said.
Robinson wonders, however, if clients are asking too much of prospective designers before a relationship has been hatched. He recalls a time not too long ago when a portfolio of his past work was all that employers requested. Robinson spends time working on his portfolio and tailoring it to the potential client at hand, which he deems to be a worthy investment. But when mock assignments are part of the application process, then how much weight does his portfolio carry? It’s the combination of the two that has Freeman rethinking the process. “It’s too much work to do both and have no guarantees,” he said.
As the creative economy continues to evolve over the coming years, it will be interesting to see how attitudes surrounding spec work develop.
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