How To Say No To Spec Work

How To Say No To Spec Work Requests

Last week I was contacted by a startup who needed to work with a freelance designer on a regular basis. I will call him Mr X throughout this article as this is not meant to cause them any embarassment or offense, simply to educate.

Mr X explained the work involved initially helping to steer their overall brand aesthetic in a new direction and then continue to work on and improve their website.

He was complementary, professional and polite and the conversations back and forth went well. We discussed the project as a whole, my rates, schedule and their expectations for the new brand direction.

Then they dropped a bomb.

Mr X stated they were choosing from 3 designers and in order to choose the most suitable candidate he wanted me ‘do a couple of mock pages for their site so that he could see my ideas and vision’. This was so the candidate who best understood their brand direction, be chosen.

There it was staring me in the face – Spec Work.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, ‘Spec’ is defined as work produced on a speculative basis, meaning the designer/developer invests time and resources into a project with no guarantee of payment.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment, having only experienced this type of request only twice before, It came as rather a shock to think professional businesses still thought this was acceptable.

I decided to do some quick research and read through both No Spec and AIGA for advice on how best to respond. I found a fantastic sample letter from AIGA intended as a response to any request from a firm to compete for an engagement on the basis of spec work. It is a succinct explanation of why speculative proposals compromise the profession and the resultant work.

I combined this with my own response and promptly emailed Mr X. His reply was (as usual) polite and professional and that although he didn’t mean any disrespect, he understood my position.

Moving On…

The best way to deal with Spec Work requests is as follows:

1. Take emotion out of the equation and stay both calm, polite and professional in all communications with any potential clients.

2. Aim to educate (respectfully) the client in exactly what Spec Work is, how it affects both your business and the industry as a whole.

Since discussing this particular issue on Twitter, I was asked by a wide variety of you to make available the actual email I sent to the client. I have now created a Shared Google Docs template which you can access below:

If you would like me to make this available in another format please let me know.

Moral Of The Story

Figure out exactly where you stand, how you operate your business and what you’re comfortable with. That way when this type of request appears in your inbox, you’re ready with an appropriate response.

Further Resources

Instead of focusing on whether Spec Work is good or bad (everyone has their opinion), I would like to know if you’ve experienced a request like this and if so, how you dealt with it?

I look forward to hearing some of your experiences!

45 Comments

  1. andrew says:

    have a look at this, says a lot about nowadays´ working environment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2a8TRSgzZY&NR=1

  2. Ivan Espin says:

    Good done Grace, usually the people who finally have to pay for doesn´t have with the others the same consideration they wish the others should have with them, and I can assure you that here in Spain this is a bloody situation. That email is a good and polite way of educating the possible clients.
    Sorry about my English I am not a native speaker, I have my English a little bit forgotten.
    Greetings from Madrid.

    • Grace says:

      @Andrew Loved the video, it rings very very true!

      @Ivan Thanks so much for commenting, no apology necessary about your English, I can only speak one language so you’re way ahead of me! Sorry to hear Spec Work is rife in Spain, perhaps you could comment further as to why you think this is?

      @Lucinda Well I assume they’re deliberating between the other two designers they’ve asked, that is of course if i’m the only one who has turned it down due to the spec work involved.

      I just read your experience in your article link, and love your summation: “…we are all for putting in a lot of effort in order to gain design jobs and commissions in the form of proposals and presentations, but we do not offer spec work with examples of the work we would produce for the project we are pitching for.” I think it’s extremely important to reiterate that as an industry we’re not saying we don’t want to properly estimate, discuss and present our proposal for a project, just that it’s something entirely different to compete by producing work for which there is no guarantee of either payment or the project itself.

  3. Do you know the result of the project at all? Did the company just replace you with another freelancer and did they eventually get a design? I ask because we lost a client last year due to spec work (full article here – http://www.eightyonedesign.co.uk/oh-no-not-another-graphic-design-spec-work-article/) only to discover the client fell out with the designer who won the pitch and returned to us (who refused to pitch). Spec work rarely works out for the reasons you mentioned above.

    Great template email, I spent quite a while on mine as I didn’t want to be rude and wanted to explain clearly why we weren’t pitching.

  4. Andy Burdin says:

    Good post – thanks for the e-mail template. I’ve gotten my share of spec work requests, always try to turn them down politely. Thanks for a good read!

  5. Beebee says:

    Much appreciated! Thank you. Have had spec work requests but, turning them down politely got me the project two times out of three, lost one because of fee issues. I can’t win from cheaper designers if the client likes cheap… Again: thanks for this story!

    • Grace says:

      @Andy Andy first off your portfolio is amazing! Polite is definitely the key word when communicating with clients. I’m happy my experience is proving useful to others :-)

      @BeeBee It’s great to hear you actually got the project for being up front and honest about your feelings on Spec Work. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Andrea says:

    Great post. I don’t think enough people quite know how to politely say “No” with an explanation that a prospect can understand and respect, so this information is very helpful.

    It is unfortunate that so many companies still ask for spec work. From my perspective much of this is due to hungry designers and developers who look for any type of work, so they try to get in by offering initial services for free. But this should immediately issue a red flag for companies. If you want a quality product and a smooth, collaborative process that meets your goals, there is a reason why good designers charge for the entire process.

    An agency that I worked for also declined spec work. However, we did run into a few prospects that were evaluating our services against others. Our approach was a consulting fee for the spec work (typically higher than our design and development fee), then if they then chose us to carry out the project, we would apply half of the fees charged in our pitch as a credit to the work we ended up performing. This let them know that we take our work seriously and we were willing to meet them half way. Once they saw that our vision meshed with theirs, they usually chose us.

    I’m always interested in learning how other people deal with these situations. Thanks!

    • Grace says:

      @Andrea Thanks for sharing your experience, It’s great to learn of your particular method of working with a client that requested this and that it worked out well in the end.

      @Justin I think it got quite a lot of attention because as you say so many of us have experienced it and have strong opinions (either side) on it. Honestly I’ve only experienced it a handful of times (with the last being quite a while ago), so it was certainly a little bit of a shock to see it rear it’s head again. Commission pay is frankly ridiculous for work produced in this industry by freelancers/self-employed, it’s just not viable if you want your business to survive. It’s great to have your input, thanks Justin!

      @KayRose Cheers Kay for your comment, I do think there is a distinction between willingly entering ‘design competitions’ and clients requesting spec work. However, it may be because of these ‘competitions’ that clients make requests like this. Do those competitions devalue our work? It’s been debated to death but still something I think is worth taking an interest in.

      @Daniel I started the email with AIGA’s stance because i wanted to express that I wasn’t just being a ‘prickly’ self righteous freelancer, but was instead taking advice from a respected professional body. This also acted as a way to respectfully point out that this was not an issue that just affected me but was something that had an affect on an entire industry and the design community as a whole. The second point is straight from the AIGA PDF and I don’t believe it’s harsh, it’s simply honest and upfront, but I do take your opinion on board and thanks for getting involved :-)

      @Brooke You’re the third person in the comments to say that by declining Spec Work you have actually landed the project and it’s worked out well. It’s fantastic to know that by taking a stance for your business ethics you’ve been able to both educate the client and create a good working relationship. Thanks for visiting and sharing your experience Brooke.

  7. Justin Parks says:

    Im with Ivan Espin (Hola Ivan, como estas!) Spec work annoys me to heaven and back and is incredibly prevelant (even demanded) here in Spain. While I’m going to assume that Ivan is referring to Spanish nationals in general I can assure you that it is not just them it includes the ex-pats and guiris (foreigners) as well.

    When I saw you tweet this the other day Grace I followed the hashtag you attached and saw it got quite a response. I was surprised that you havent encountered this before though. I think I have been away from home to long! I pretty much expect it to happen now and am way ahead of them when that question / request / demand rears its ugly head.

    In fact I’m so far ahead I usually don’t even meet clients unless they have filled in a questionnaire in advance. Taking the time to do it shows commitment and effort and without it, it just goes pear shaped or they take the mick, intentionally and unintentionally.

    Also down here is a crazy amount of “we only pay commission” for work done, and even more so than spec work this drives me right round the bend.

    What makes people think that I want to work for 12 months on the hope that they can do their job well enough for me to get paid when we have had no previous working relationship or experience working together. Its a little bit mental!

    Like you mention and and which is so true, be polite, have your answers and reason ready and move on.

  8. Really good article, personally i have no problem with ‘Spec Work’ most of the time, for example on 99Designs. However in this situation i see where your coming from and would’ve said the same.

    I only feel ‘Spec Work’ is ok when you conciously decide to do it, as i said like on 99Designs, but if your asked to do it, and in competition with other designers, i find it a completely different matter altogether.

  9. Daniel Ellis says:

    I’m still really deciding what my personal stance on spec work is, so I won’t get into that here. However, I do have two points of contention with the letter in specific.

    First, I don’t know if I would lead with saying “I’m against this because some professional group says I should be.” I think it would be better to state something like “It’s my policy not to accept speculative work, and here is why…”

    Second, I think the second point is very harshly worded for a ‘polite’ email. I think most requests for spec work come from a lack of understanding, not a lack of respect. Most people simply don’t understand what a true designer does. They think it’s as simple as putting together a little powerpoint presentation, and don’t realize what goes into a true creative design process.

    I think the first point in your letter is stated very well, and could stand on it’s own, perhaps with a little bit added about how the design community in general won’t appreciate these requests.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Great article, thank you.

    I dealt with a similar incident last year with a large project I really wanted, and mine thankfully had a happy ending. I gave a polite explanation and refusal, and the client responded with respect for my professionalism and ultimately awarded me the project.

    Good luck, I hope you still get the project!

  11. @Grace Yeah i see your point, i have to admit not as much effort goes into any spec work i ever do, ok then again i’ve only ever done maybe 2 or 3 pieces.

  12. Daniel Ellis says:

    @Grace I do see where you are coming from, and to someone who has never heard of the AIGA, that may work as an approach. Personally though, having looked at a lot of content from them, they seem to emotionalize the issue more then anyone; In one of your links, the AIGA president says spec work is “giving away your soul”. That doesn’t seem very professional to me…

    This kind of language is far more ‘prickly’ and self-righteous then simply stating that spec work is a bad business decision for both parties. For the designer because they invest time with no compensation; for the business because they don’t get the full benefit of the true creative design process.

    Thanks for your additional input. :)

    • Grace says:

      @Daniel I do agree it’s rather over dramatic to say its giving away your soul, and it’s really just a case of replying to such a request in a way you feel comfortable with. The client in question still wanted to work with me after that email was sent, even though they knew my position so I don’t think they viewed it as harsh or rude, however as I stated in the post it just wasn’t a process I was happy to go through. Cheers again for coming back with a sound point of view, discussion and feedback are particularly welcome, especially on this extremely sensitive subject. I hope to see you around the blog more often now ;-)

  13. jack says:

    I show them my portfolio of work and do a front and back-end (CMS) demo for them and call it a day.

    IMO, Spec work is evil and the client is asking you to embarrass yourself (how great is any work when hastily prepared without extensive thoughtful consideration to the problem at hand?) in the expense of them getting free work and learning about web design. these clients are not ideal clients anyway as they don’t understand how to properly evaluate talent (usually).

    i think it shows the type of designer that the person/studio is if they are willing to do spec work or not. I might get blasted for this but I think it’s true.

  14. I’ve had a request for spec work on several occasions, and my response has been the same for each of the, although probably not as polite as it should have been.

    A simple no, listing my reasons as spec work is essentially free work, and should my work not be selected, i would have to still submit it to you in the hopes of you choosing it. That would be a situation I am not comfortable with.

    Thanks for the post! Nice write-up.

  15. Daniel Ellis says:

    @Grace Thanks for having an open mind and discussing where your point of view comes from. :)

    @Jack I agree that if you are a quality designer, a client that requests spec work is probably not a client you will want to work for. However, I don’t agree with your last point. For the young or part time designer who does not have an extensive portfolio, and is interested in a project for experience rather then for making a living, spec work isn’t a bad thing.

    Food companies/restaurants give away free samples and services often offer free trials, all in the hope that the potential customer will see the value of what they will be paying for. As long as spec work is used in this way, as a marketing tool, deliberately offered by the designer, I see no issue with it. The problem is when people solicit free work from designers (or worse multiple designers) in the hope of getting knowledge/ideas and effort for free.

  16. Thanks for the letter template Grace. I think the professionalism you showed was the most important part of this article. You have earned that clients respect and if the designer he went with fails to produce who do you think he will be contacting? You. Great Job.

  17. Very professional response Grace. I think it is very important for the client to understand why, and you certainly got your point across in a very professional way. I think it is great when designers take a stand against no-spec work. It is also important for a designer to understand that you aren’t missing out on a great project or a pay day because at the end of the day trusting client relationships are much more rewarding and dependable than the ‘possibility’ of being paid.

    I think if a client really wants you as a designer for their project your portfolio and personality should be enough for them. If that is not enough for them, then their possible business was not meant to be.

  18. Catherine says:

    Creative Business has a well crafted letter – http://www.no-spec.com/info-for-businesses/no-speculative-presentations/

    It might be a bit long for the average busy business man/women, but it does explain where we are coming from.

  19. Frazer says:

    Great post Grace, a very important topic for freelancers. The key issue is the competition for briefs, in this financial climate you can always find someone to work for less.

    I am currently working with design agency blur Designs, they are taking a firm stance against spec work and promoting ‘fairtrade for designers’.

    In order to get the best quality designer for the client, and for the right price the answer may be in social networks, and helping designers collaborate rather than compete. That or a bad client blacklist like you suggested in your last post!

  20. SaraKate says:

    Grace, this is wonderful. I don’t anticipate doing any work of my own anytime soon (since I’m in my job for a while and am just getting started with design classes this year – fingers crossed), but I am certainly bookmarking this to use at a later date. Great advice and it was so generous of you to include a template. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will come back to this post!

  21. Johnny says:

    Hi Grace… To add on to @Ivan, I live in Spain too and spec work is pretty rampant around these parts. From my experience there is less of a “normal” business relationship where you contract a service and pay a fair value for what you get. It’s more of a “I want the whole world and would rather not pay for it” attitude and relationship.

    That’s not to say that it is always this way. I have very good clients here but you have to be careful who you work for in Spain as well.

    • Grace says:

      @Jack I do agree that Spec Work is nothing more than ‘making something pretty’ without the essential research and planning into the audience, organisation and design goals. Unfortunately many young or inexperienced designers think that Spec Work is the only way to build a portfolio, however it’s important for designers to remember they are not construction workers.

      @Justin I think your approach is pretty close to mine, stating the reasoning behind your decision and why you would be uncomfortable using this approach serves not only to show your professionalism but also to educate the client on why the practice is not one to be taken lightly.

      @Daniel Thanks again for adding so much to the discussion, it’s been great to hear your input and opinions.

      @Chris Thanks Chris, appreciate the great feedback :-) I would have no problem working with this particular client either, he was nothing but polite and professional in our discussions. Unfortunately his approach to working with a designer was just not something I am ever going to be comfortable with, both as a designer and small business owner.

      @Antonea Thanks so much for your brilliant comment. I wholeheartedly agree that working with trusted, professional clients who value both your business practices and work is extremely important. Our portfolio, professionalism and approach to project discussions should be more than enough for a potential client to evaluate a designer. To put it onto context, if you were building a house you certainly wouldn’t think of asking a builder to build a ‘sample’ house without any plans or payment just so you could evaluate his skills!

      @Catherine That’s a fantastic resource, I actually read that before I emailed the client. Thanks for stopping by.

      @Frazer Very true – there is always someone cheaper willing to do the job, just like in any other industry. It’s really key then to be firmly aware of how you choose to operate your own business. You raise a great point in that collaboration and to a certain extent – education are vital in the design community to further combat this issue.

      @SaraKate That’s great to hear your taking design classes, let me know how you get on :-) I’m super glad to know it was of help and that the template has been beneficial.

      @Johnny It’s extremely sad to hear that Spec Work has such a grip in Spain. I wonder why it’s so prevalent over there compared to other countries like here in the UK where it’s more uncommon than common.

  22. Robin Denker says:

    Hi Grace: How appropriate is the U-Tube link you provided in today’s world. I would love to show it to prospective clients that would like me to come out and do a measure and consultation for F R E E… Which, by the way I charge a fee for, that is fully credited to the client’s final invoice for their purchase. If not, I consider my fee to cover my 30+ years of expertise and design time. F.Y.I. a plumber doesn’t come to your home for free – the minute he walks in the door it’s a basic charge and I bet he didn’t go to college for a plumbing degree. He deserves is fee too, for his expertise and experience. The surgeon charges a fee for his/her 2nd opinion (I know as I had to pay this out-of-pocket) and they went to college and medical school. Dare I ask for a discount? Gosh no, and to think about it if I did they may remove the wrong part of my body.

  23. Greg says:

    Once upon a day for a permanent graphic design position, we asked interviewees to bring what amounted to what you describe. Only, in at least an attempt to acknowledge that their time is valuable, we focused on using it as a discussion piece.

    Basically, the option was open to instead of creating mockups, whiteboard an approach to a redesign as part of the interviewing process. We were more interested in how they planned to tackle technical challenges than if they could whip together something fancy in photoshop in only a few days.

    Now I’m wondering if that was the right approach.

    Since the conversation was more important, perhaps giving them a few days of prep time with the ‘subject of conversation’ would have been better. Reason being: 4 out of 5 candidates made mockups, some of them actually pretty good and with obvious work put into them. We felt badly that we could only hire one person.

    I guess the main point I’m getting at is… it’s a bit unclear what line to draw when getting a candidate for a salaried full-time position to do similar work as part of an interview process. I know that many government positions, for example, require some fairly involved interview processes which amount to “homework” of hours or even days in length.

    Still, if the conversation was the important part (and it was) I suspect we should have left it at that.

    Greg

  24. Spec work is becoming a constant practice. In some cases, it is also a mandatory step, especially in larger companies. Spec work sucks! but nowadays, it is hard (perhaps foolish) to turn away any kind of work. The only saving grace is that some companies will put aside a limited budget for spec work. What ever it is, it’s better than free!
    Thank you for sharing your letter; I’m sure it’ll become handy very soon.

  25. Brian Hart says:

    Thank you very much for the great read. I work with audio but I suppose design work is design work regardless of the medium and spec work can be a real problem in my industry too.

    And especially thank you for the letter template, that’s very helpful.

  26. Teri Alexis says:

    Gads! I get tons of requests such as you mention. I always politely decline. I figure if I don’t value my work no one else will. Would someone ask a construction contractor to just build a few walls for free so they can see what kind of work they’ll be getting? Of course not!

  27. I like that Teri! Very funny. I might have to use your line with the next person that asks me to spec a job.

  28. Eric Leitzel says:

    Great article. I appreciate the standards you set for yourself. I’ve had to develop similar standards. Usually the client just needs a little education, and once they understand your position they change their approach, but not always.

  29. Not sure if you’ve seen this but it’s a great protest to people wanting free work.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

  30. Peter Simcoe says:

    Hi Grace,

    Great to see this article here. It does require some thought in how to respond to these requests and your advice seems good. I’ve also written an article about speculative work which touches on some of the same ideas…..I always get concerned about the terribly precious way designers can portray themselves and so aim to quietly avoid speculative work rather than make a big point of it. I ve been burned several times by spec work back in the day so I learned the hard way and I always ensure that I treat people I work with in the same way I expect to be treated.

    You can see my article on this subject at:
    http://www.design-design.co.uk/speculative-design-and-you/

    Would you like to add that to your list? I would be quite keen to link to your article from my site and you can write a comment on it if you want or I ll add it for you.

    thanks, Pete

  31. rob torres says:

    I’m right there with you Grace as we would never even consider becoming involved in such projects. The sad news is there are “designers” out there who still jump at any bone a potential client waves at them which is what makes this trend so difficult to eradicate…

    As for your response, this is only my opinion based on my own style of dealing with similar situations but I probably wouldn’t have gone that direct. My reasoning:

    If Mr. X was as polite and considerate as you suggest, he probably meant you no disrespect and quite frankly didn’t realize how ridiculous his request was. I would have thanked him for the opportunity, and simply explained in my own language that the arrangement he is suggesting isn’t something I’m comfortable with…

    With emails being, well emails that level of directness could come off as a bit of a slam to him leave a negative opinion of you with him. Had you spoken by phone, he would have heard you lovely speaking voice so that same message wouldn’t have been quite so cutting;)

    Just my opinion Grace, you know you rock!

    -rob (digital reaction)

  32. Heather says:

    Hi Grace,

    Quite a number of WordPress professionals have been repeatedly targeted by a spec work offer. He’s a seriously dodgy character who specifically trawls WordPress communities under the fake identities of various busty blondes (no joke) looking to recruit WP professionals.

    The full details are at the LinkedIn WordPress group at
    http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=154024&type=member&item=20875170

    The group is well worth joining!

  33. Roger Marlowe says:

    Hi Grace,
    I’m with you 1000%.
    Unfortunately, the whole industry of web design and programming has fallen prey to outsourcing. You’re in competition with vast numbers of Indians and Chinese who will happily work for $2/day.
    We all thought we saw a pot of gold when we were working hard for our CS degrees but who knew that the Internet itself contained the solution to its own tech worker scarcity.
    Stand fast!
    Good luck.
    R

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