The Island Alien

Say No To Spec Work


On Monday 18th May, several people received this email from a marketing company:

Some of those people, like me, had applied for this job two years (or more) ago, and had never heard back until this. Even more unusual than that was the sudden demand for a full marketing campaign, including a script for an animation, for totally free, and to be done within the period of 3 days time during a pandemic. Immediately I felt like they were fishing for free ideas. This certainly couldn’t be real. But as I shared the email with my friends, more and more people started coming out and saying that they, too had received the email. How many people did they contact? A mass email trying to test ‘potential candidates’? Some of whom hadn’t even been interested in the position for years. Sketchy, right? You might think so at first, but this is all leading to an even deeper issue.

But first, some of you might be thinking, ‘this doesn’t sound too bad, lots of companies test potential employees before they hire’, and you would be quite right. But when during the hiring process do they do a test like this? Certainly not before an interview, right?

In most cases, there is usually an interview or two, then a short list of candidates is made. It is in this step a company would test the potential employees and then proceed onto hiring. In this case, you’ve already been building a relationship with this company and you might soon be signing a contract (hopefully), so bringing out the big creative guns to do a test for them doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. But immediately after applying? Definitely not! Why would I do this huge project for you? If you want to take it to the next step and interview me, surely you’ve looked at my CV, Cover Letter, and entire Portfolio? What’s the point of submitting all these things to you then?

This company is engaging in what the creative industry calls ‘Spec Work’.

What is spec work?

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

Why is spec work unethical?

The designers work for free and with an often falsely advertised, overinflated promise for future employment; or are given other insufficient forms of compensation. Usually these glorified prizes or “carrots” appear tantalising for designers who are just starting out, accompanied by statements such as “good for your portfolio” or “gain recognition and exposure.”

In reality, winning or losing rarely results in extra work, profit or referrals. Moreover, designers must often agree to waive ownership of their work to the people who are promoting this system. A verbal agreement is ineffective in protecting the rights of designers in a court of law. As a result, the client will often employ other designers using similar unprincipled tactics to change and/or resell the creative work as their own. This promotes the practice of designers ridiculously undercharging themselves in the hope of “outbidding” potential rivals, in the process devaluing their skills and those of the design profession. Promoting this method encourages some clients to continue preying on uninformed designers for menially valued labour.

The world of intellectual property is something that’s difficult to navigate. It may seem like people steal ideas and the work of others, or use without giving proper credit daily. But that doesn’t make it okay. When you’re dealing with intangible things such as creative ideas, and all aspects of creative work, it’s easy to get quickly flustered. You may be thinking, ‘how will I know if I like a logo design unless I see if first?’. But I can easily  counter this with, ‘how will you know if you like the taste of a cake from a bakery before tasting it first?’ You’ll never see people asking a chef to taste their food first before eating at a restaurant. Or asking an architect to design a house and then paying them only if they like it. So how is this fair for creatives? The short answer is: it isn’t.

So what do we do when we want to get a custom cake for our birthday and we want it to be amazing? Normally, we’d ask our friends, family, and acquaintances to recommend a baker. If we’re looking for a plumber to fix a leak in our house, we’d get a reference for a skilled worker from someone we know. We rely on trust.

Where is the trust with creatives?

It’s pretty easy to see how we can trust a creative worker. They have credentials, a portfolio of past work to look at, and references from previous jobs. Yet the vast world of spec work exists. There are constantly ‘design competitions’ for all manner of things happening everyday. And these things continue because young creatives think it will help them build their portfolio. But this is all totally unethical. These companies are essentially asking for free work and at the end, they get to ‘choose’ what they like best, while all the other participants get what for their hard work? Absolutely nothing.

I say it’s time we put a stop to spec work. I find it preposterous that it even got this far! This should definitely not be a thing. Pay creatives what they’re worth!

And hey, Anonymous Marketing Company, if you want to hire the best candidate, take a look at our portfolios and interview us! You can’t possibly expect us to do this level of free work in a couple days, especially when we know you’ve sent this exact email to hundreds of other applicants! It’s totally disrespectful to us as creative individuals and it shows us that all we are to you, are pieces of meat vying for a grand prize of employment. It’s dehumanizing.


Stop spec work.


And yet still, all of this ignores probably the most awful part of the email… the terrible butchering of what appears to be an attempt at making up a French company name (why didn’t they just use Google Translate?!) Haha, I’m just kidding….. or am I? Hmm…

2 thoughts on “Say No To Spec Work

  1. Pingback: Say No To Spec Work - ReidDesigns

  2. Pingback: The Spicks & the Specs of Spec Work - ReidDesigns

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