A Rule of Thumb for Spec Work

Digital Artist Toolbox has an interesting post that asks six designers their opinions about spec work. They managed to get some pretty heavy hitters from the designer/blogger world to participate: Veerle Peters; Andrew Houle; Ryan Putnam; Jacob Cass; Jeff Finley; and Chris Spooner.

The responses – almost all negative – made me think more about my own opinions on this topic, which I touched on a few weeks ago in a post about responding to RFPs.

While I’m definitely more open to the possibility of there being value in speculative work than most of these interviewees, I agree that it’s not right in every instance, and in some cases, it’s a horrible idea. Unfortunately, the standard recommendation to just look at these situations on a “case-by-case” basis isn’t all that helpful, which led me to come up with this simple rule of thumb:

When someone asks for spec work, don’t do it.

In other words, be wary of the following approaches from potential clients:

      • We’re asking five firms to design/write/produce ________ for us, and the firm that presents the most appropriate solution will get the project.
      • Why don’t you show me a couple of concepts, and if we like one of them we’ll buy it from you.

In the first approach, you are doing spec work that really isn’t going to give you a decisive competitive advantage, since the other firms are doing the work as well. Sure, maybe your work will be better and you’ll get the project, but in most of the cases, I don’t think the odds are favorable enough to justify risking your valuable resources on the effort.

I shouldn’t even have to tell you what’s wrong with the second approach, other than to point out that it’s getting dangerously close to the tactic that Mo Fuzz, played by Don Cornelious in the 1988 cult classic Tape Heads, uses to trick Tim Robbins and John Cusak into producing his record label’s music videos for free.

And the right time to do spec work?

The best time to do spec work is when the client isn’t asking for it, or even expecting it. By showing extra hunger for the project, and also giving the client an idea of how you work, you’ll yourself apart from the competition, which might make the extra effort worthwhile.

I’m not advocating this for every opportunity you pursue, but if it’s a project that you really want (or need), then don’t hesitate to do some research on the client’s customers or competitors, develop a strategic approach, or even produce some design concepts.

You’ll probably increase your chances of getting the job, and the fact that they didn’t ask for spec work also increases the likelihood that it’s someone with whom you’ll actually have an enjoyable, and profitable, relationship.

Photo by thatonecoolkid94.

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