The Hunger Games: Are Designers Cannibals?

February 25th, 2015

Sure, many designers scream that speculative work is bad. The major creative and design organizations have written articles out the whazoo about how bad it is for the industry and even have white papers, books and entire conference programs dedicated to the “NoSpec!” movement. Still, it’s increasing and guess who’s to blame? The very people it hurts!


There are two parties of thought on speculative work. There are those that believe it’s a growing concern as it’s not just limited to contest anymore and they have noticed it has creeped into not only multiple party pitches for a project but also into being hired for a full-time position at a design firm or company.

Then there’s the party that believes it’s not threat to the creative industry at all and participating in it hurts no one.

If you could physically separate the two groups, one would be the top creative talents who are dedicated to the industry, speak at design conferences and are considered the voices of creativity. The other group is comprised of part-timers, beginners, introverts and that new term for those who are more hobbyists in design – “moonlighters.”

One of these groups are desperate for design work and will cut corners to get it. If you’ve ever met with a client who met your quote with the response, “I can get someone to do this for $50” – this group are the individuals who charge $50.

Does Spec Work Hurt the Industry?

You would probably be bored by reading the endless diatribe on not doing speculative work and already some of you are busy typing away in the comments section telling me how spec work is great and how you won an iPod or $100 in a contest and how you’ll delete the RSS feed from Noupe because of this article. Goodbye and good luck!

Please Help

For those of you left, here’s a few links to show you that the majority of creatives are against speculative work:

NOSPEC! is an organization of designers who are trying to educate creatives AND clients about the evils of speculative work. What they are probably doing is giving client tips on how to run speculative work.

This is what their “About” page has to say on the subject:

Spec work and spec-based design contests are a growing concern. So in an effort to educate those working in the design profession and the clients who use their services, a group of designers got together to form the NO!SPEC campaign.

With legitimate design opportunities increasingly turning into calls for spec work, our purpose is to give designers the information and resources they need to take a stand against this trend. We also aim to provide businesses with details on why spec work harms the design profession as well as the outcome of design projects.

We ask that you join us in promoting professional, ethical business practices by saying no to spec. If you are unfamiliar with the term spec work, read our FAQs before dipping into the rest of the site.

But before embarking, please read our short protocol and disclaimer.

Questions or suggestions? Feel free to get in touch.

Still think “bah! It’s just a few designers who are pissed off because their entries never win contests”? How about the AIGA?

Man is confused


AIGA believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients. To that end, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into client projects with full engagement to show the value of their creative endeavor, and to be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.

What is spec work?

AIGA acknowledges that speculative work—work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid—occurs among clients and designers.Yet not all unpaid design work is considered “spec work.” In fact, unpaid work may take a number of forms:

  • 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”

Not all of the above are considered speculative work, and in fact many designers choose to do unpaid work for a variety of reasons. Students and professionals may draw different lines on what constitute unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the associated risks.

The risks of spec work

AIGA believes that designers and clients should be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work:

  • Clients risk compromised quality. Little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs.

  • Designers risk being taken advantage of. Some clients may see this as a way to get free work; it also diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives.

  • There are legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.

Additional resources and sample letter for designers

AIGA has provided a sample letter for designers and firms to explain why speculative proposals compromise the design profession. The letter should be modified based on the needs of your particular situation.

To add your voice to the spec work discussion, please comment on the related AIGA Insight article.

Sample letter for designers and firms

Clients may, at times, request that you or your firm compete for an engagement on the basis of spec work. While it is up to each designer to make the choice of whether to engage on this level, this sample letter is intended to serve as a resource if you choose to communicate with these clients to explain why speculative proposals compromise the profession and the resultant work. You should modify it based on the needs of your particular situation.

AIGA sample letter for speculative work

It’s hard to dismiss AIGA as a fly-by-night collection of deeply disturbed individuals who harbor ill-will towards lost design contests and other competitions, and, while their passage about “compromised quality” isn’t the top priority for clients who ask for speculative work, surely they have a point?

Naysayers wonder aloud how AIGA can speak against speculative work and still hold design competitions with large entry fees. Is it the same thing as speculative work? This is where all of the parties mentioned before split even further.

What’s Behind Spec Work?

Design contests have been the biggest target of the NOSPEC! movement. The claim is that a multitude of designers create a design solution in the hope they will win and be paid while the other contestants walk away with nothing (so, design competitions that charge entry fees are really the same as one or a few designers win and the rest walk away actually poorer due to entry fees). Quite simply, spec work is how a company or organization gets as much as possible for as little as possible.

Most design contests require that all entries become the property of the contest owner, so when a thousand T-shirt designs are submitted to a contest, one will win the prize but the others can also be used for commercial gain. This is what has made industry supporters so crazed.

It’s not so much that the project of designing a T-shirt has been lost to one individual – it’s the sheer audacity of the contest owner, grabbing all the free work they can – and anger at those who empower it by willingly participating.

man in a suit throws money

Speculative work has become viral. More contests, more competition, more willing fools who set the low bar. Still, there are those who say it doesn’t matter, that there are plenty of clients who respect design and understand the value of a one-on-one interaction with a professional. So, how does one explain the exponential growth of 99designs?

Not so long ago, advertising agencies and design firms that competed for a big account were paid to make a presentation. That seems to be a thing of the past. Some agencies spend upward of a million dollars for the biggest account pitches. If they don’t get it, how do they make up the lost revenue? People lose their jobs and freelancers have to take less on current projects. That certainly affects the industry, doesn’t it?

And now, the latest evolution in speculative work seems to be working for free to be hired as a full-time employee. Compete against other candidates by working for a week or two… or four, for free so the company can see if you “fit” in and can “produce.” Unfortunately, this seems to be confined to only creatives. Bookkeepers and marketing staff don’t seem to go through the same requirements. Their résumés and recommendations seem to be enough. As I once said to a marketing vp who demanded to know why I didn’t create the dozen design projects of logos, billboards, menus and other assigned design ideas to get a design job at a local casino, “my portfolio and client list should certainly show I have a history of great design solutions across many industries.” I added, “did you have to work 24/7 over two weeks for free, giving away intellectual ideas to get your position?”

Acrobatic man with a computer

He had no answer for that. Nor did the company that wanted me to design an entire seasonal line of products for free to get an art director position

They Can Ask But Who Says “Yes”?

Naturally any business will try to get work cheaply or for free. THAT is business! Demand drives prices and when there’s a pool of vendors willing to underbid each other, the bar for pricing gets lower and lower. Why is gas cheaper these days? Oil producing countries are competing to sell their oil on a glutted market. Great for consumers but bad for the countries selling their oil.

Design is no different. More designers willing to give away their work drives fees down. So, can we place the blame solely on the shoulders of business?

Fiverr, although not a crowdsourcing site is one frightening example of complete reckless abandon of professional standards and places the value of a professional design at $5. Naturally, what a client gets for $5 is horrid and unusable. So, how does it continue to work? Because the people who use this service value design at $5.

Supporters point to the fact that just about everyone on Fiverr and 99designs are from foreign countries with low cost of living and $5 or $50 is a great deal of money. If you look at those who join these sites, you will notice a great deal of participants are from the United States, as well as other countries with much higher costs of living.

I’m sorry to say but spec work has even entered the large corporations that were known for their larger fees for freelance projects and respect for great design. I have watched my Fortune 100 clients start to pitch that instead of paying me to create products and designs, that I would need to present concepts and would be paid for those they accepted. Unfortunately for me, most would be turned down (enough being accepted to keep me submitting more concepts) but I would always notice that the following year would bring the production of the same concepts they had turned down. The defensive response was always they had the same idea in-house, but the similarity to my design concepts were just too close.

The unfortunate remedy was to stop submitting ideas completely, hoping they would suffer from the loss of income from accepting/stealing my ideas. The answer was easy and predictable – they just produced crap and lived with lower sales.

Is There a Solution?

It hurt to pluck up the courage to stand my ground, ethics and income but where does one draw the line when 100% of your income is derived from design? When I hear someone whose spouse earns enough to support both people comfortably and the designing spouse complains about taking on a $50 project, I tremble and fight the temptation for murder. Bloody, hideous murder! I want to scream, “GET A JOB OR FIND A HOBBY THAT DOESN’T TAKE THE FOOD FROM THE MOUTHS OF MY CHILDREN!”


Unfortunately, when I write that I want to do that, I get flooded with responses that call me an “elitist,” “bastard,” or some other inappropriate name with suggestions of sexual acts I can perform on myself. Am I? Should I?

No one has a gun to their head when it comes to spec work. No company can enforce it legally and no creative has to agree to it. So, how would you stop creatives from accepting speculative work? Is it a sin to participate in lower fee or speculative work? Does it affect the design industry or is it a minor annoyance and can be ignored because the majority or clients still see the value behind higher cost design solutions? Will speculative projects and hiring practices continue to grow and even become the norm of the industry? I suppose the comments below will tell what people think.

Images ©GL Stock Images


Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.

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Dieter Petereit
Noupe Team
1 year 7 months ago

Comments weren’t intentionally off. Sorry for the inconvenience…

Randy Asplund
1 year 7 months ago
Well, one option would be to unionize, but I’d think a more effective approach would be to: advertize educated good business practices to new artists, and encourage art schools to actually teach business and art law for artists. My favorite option is to lobby for legislation guaranteeing a minimum pay per hour or per number of copies in a category sold, or some similar model, with penalties for ignoring the law. Business practices would change, and some business models would no longer be available. Tough. Everything changes. If some small exploitative business folds because they couldn’t afford to pay fair… Read more »
Cary Kelley
1 year 7 months ago

Great article, thanks for sharing. I definitely think that designers should all come together and say no to speck work!

Sohan Dewan
Sohan Dewan
1 year 6 months ago

It’s exciting !