Spec Sucks by Jeff Andrews • NO!SPEC • Pitter Pattern

Let’s get it straight, spec work damages the design profession, big time! It’s about time we creatives got together to say NO to everyone expecting free design work from us, including spec-based design contests…

For those that don’t know what spec work means, here’s an extended definition from the amazing bunch at NO!SPEC:

Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by designers to prospective clients before taking steps to secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, the designers normally unwittingly lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.

I would like to confess before I continue, that I have been guilty of engaging in spec work a few times at the beginning of my life as a surface pattern designer; mostly in the form of design competitions. I didn’t know better and thought that exposure of this kind would be beneficial to my budding business. I was wrong and I have learned my lessons…

For designers starting up, wanting to get out there and be seen, these design contests might seem like a heaven-sent opportunity. At the end of the day, there’s nothing to lose and MAYBE something to gain. Let me clarify, the chance of gaining something from it is very, very small… On the other hand, the companies creating these kind of contests will reap all the benefits! They don’t have the designers best interests at heart, they just want to make money out of our creative talent.

It’s going to take a lot to educate businesses and designers on this matter. Businesses see a great opportunity to get work for free when thousands of designers are willing to do it. Let’s be honest, if I run a company and need a new surface design to decorate one of my products, what sounds more profitable, to hire one designer and pay them what they’re worth or to round up hundreds of them, get to see and choose from bucketloads of designs, and pay them peanuts or with the promise of ‘exposure’? I know which one I would choose (if I wasn’t a designer myself)…

That’s why I think this has to start with us, the designers. If less and less of us turn up to these design competitions, maybe, just maybe, this trend will start to die off. If all of us decide to start valuing our work and apply zero tolerance to businesses trying to take advantage of our hunger for publicity, then this profession might have a chance. If we decide not to take action, this will probably snowball out of control, to the point where all companies will expect us to work for free and we will be facing extinction! As seen on the video below, I really can’t think of any other profession that would work on a speculative basis.

If you’re a new designer and are desperate for that exposure, to get your work in front of as many eyes as you can (and who doesn’t?), you can do this without having to turn to design comps/spec work. Maybe do some work for charities or non-profit organisations, something that gives back to the community (pro bono work). Or work on some self-initiated projects. Or do some work for friends & family, after all, they have already invested in you!

Many design organisations have our backs on this. They disagree wholeheartedly with this kind of spec work. For example, this is what AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) thinks about it:

A designer shall not undertake any work for a client without adequate compensation, except with respect to work for charitable or nonprofit organizations. A designer shall not undertake any speculative projects, either alone or in competition with other designers, for which compensation will only be received if a design is accepted or used. This applies not only to entire projects but also to preliminary schematic proposals. A designer shall work only for a fee, royalty, salary or other agreed-upon form of compensation. A designer shall not retain any kickbacks, hidden discounts, commission, allowances or payment in kind from contractors or suppliers.

AIGA has also created a sample letter for speculative work. You could use this template (making the appropriate changes according to your situation) to reply to companies/organisations that request that you do work on a spec basis. You can find the downloadable PDF at the bottom of this post on their website.

Also, NO!SPEC has created a template letter you can use to contact companies that want to engage designers in spec-based design contests. Do visit their website, as it’s jam-packed with resources and very useful information about this topic.

Please join me in this cause, strength is in numbers. Take action now, spread the word, close that tab on your browser with that contest you’ve been wanting to enter and forget it…

Don’t be shy and leave a comment… Tell me what your stance on this matter is.

And next time you’re tempted by a fabulous competition, even if it’s from a company you love and the prize sounds quite good, try to remember that your participation hurts us all…

Image credit: Spec Sucks poster by Jeff Andrews for NO!SPEC
Video credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo agency

I am a designer, originally from Colombia and now living permanently in Cornwall, UK. I graduated in Product Design but since then have mostly worked in graphics for print and web. A few years ago I decided to specialise in Surface Pattern Design and I'm loving it!


  1. I have been a designer for many years. I saw early on the traps the spec work, contests are. They are like the shiny carrot. I don’t do spec work, I stopped doing contests years ago. I do pro bono, I do work for charities/non profits. We all as designers need to have solidarity on this to send a message that our field/talent deserves respect and compensation.

  2. Trina

    Hi Veronica,
    Yes I totally agree. We’ve all done that disheartened reject pose – but I will say that Spoonflower briefs are good to get you ‘doing’. I think it’s good to treat them as quick exercises – I’ve often done a few myself but not entered just to see if my interpretation is correct.

    • Hi Trina, nice to see you around here! I think Spoonflower is a different story… When you submit to one of their competitions you’re actually designing for your benefit and with the possibility of adding that design to your Spoonflower shop, which in turn will make YOU some money. So it’s not like a company taking advantage of free work and profiting from it. It’s just really another POD site which happens to have briefs to encourage people to design more!

  3. Alexandra

    What about when you are a student and still learning?? There is a well known online course that gives briefs from companies to its students-do you think that is a problem when you are just learning and starting out??

    • Hi Alexandra, good question! I think I know what course your referring to and the answer to your question depends on what the objective of these companies is. Are these companies profiting from it? Are they making money by using designs that they paid nothing for? If so, I believe it’s wrong… On the other hand, if they’re supplying these briefs as part of an educational process with no monetary gain for them, then by all means go for it!

      Too illustrate what sort of thing can go wrong with these practices I will tell you a personal story. A few years back I took part on one of these online courses. We had a brief from a well known company to design a few pattern designs based on a theme. If they liked what they saw you could end up in one of their products! Sounded good… Well, mine didn’t get selected… A few months later I went to a trade show where this company was exhibiting. Out of curiosity I had a look at the designs they were offering, just to find one of them looking very familiar! They obviously had liked what they saw on one of my submissions and decided to borrow some of it… Doesn’t sound so good now, does it!

      I hope this helps… Have a lovely week.

  4. Hi Halee, thanks a lot for your message (and your RT on Twitter)! It makes me immensely happy that the post has given you something to think about. I was once in your position, starting up and craving extra exposure but I can assure you you’ll be just fine without having to resort to this kind of competitions. Have a lovely day and come back to visit soon!

    • Halee Holland

      I was wondering what are your thoughts on using websites such as Spoonflower, Society6, Print all over me and so-on to sale your artwork? Wouldn’t these sites be very similar to using contests to become known. Where do you recommend beginners such as myself begin? I have found this to be the most daunting and overwhelming aspect of surface pattern design. Any advice you have is very much appreciated. Thanks!

      • I think those sites are a different kettle of fish (I use many of them)! They’re a great way to get your work on products and get paid for their sales, always. The amount you earn will be dictated by the amount of marketing and promoting you do yourself. All sellers on those sites have the same chance to get their products sold. It’s healthy competition as in every market. Completely the opposite to a design contest where one person will take in some small, usually one-off, reward and the rest will be left disappointed and disheartened.

        These POD sites are only giving you an opportunity that a few years ago was only but a dream to many designers wanting to get products made but had no budget. They’re offering a service, printing your designs on products and delivering to customers. They’re the middle man. If you were to produce let’s say your own cushions, you will still have to pay for the printing, the fabric, etc… Then when sold, you would get a small profit. That’s exactly the same scenario as in POD sites. We’re just lucky that we live in the age of technology and, as self-published authors and all their e-books, we have the chance to get out there and sell our products with little or no financial outlay.

        Hope this answers your questions!

  5. Halee Holland

    Thank you so much you sharing this information. I never really thought about it in these terms before. As a new designer myself it feels like these contests are the only way to be seen, but I hate undermining my hard work and talent for others. I will definitely be exploring the links you shared. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

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