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Spec Work—Here to stay?

9 Mar, 2009 McKell Naegle


Spec work (sometimes called “proof of concept”) has often been frowned upon by the design industry, and for good reason. It often undermines others’ efforts in trying to get work and creates unfair advantage as many groups and individuals are bidding on the same project.

It only takes one design group to work for nothing, and the playing field suddenly isn’t level anymore.

Take an example:

A $10,000 project is up for bid. Five different agencies are invited to submit an RFP. All five create great responses to the RFP, but one actually spends an additional 30 hours creating new creative assets showing how their ideas would be put into effect if they were chosen by the client.

Suddenly, one group has a huge leg up on the others.

However, is this really unfair, or does it just reward one group that puts in the hours and extra effort?

In his post “Designers: Why Spec Work Is Not Going Away–How You Should Respond,” Jeremiah Owyang makes a strong case for why spec work is not going away, and also how it will continue to increase during the current recessionary period.

Some of the points he makes in the article are:

  • Spec Work and Proof of Concept is a Common Business Practice.
  • Crowdsourcing isn’t anything new, and will only increase, especially during the recession.
  • Crowdsourced Design Meets the Needs Of Long Tail Market–But May Lack Quality.
  • Designers should not embrace No-Spec–instead, know the right and wrong time to do spec work.

I am still a strong proponent of avoiding spec work whenever possible. When spec work occurs, the client is the big winner and there can be a lot of potential losers on the agency side. As the old saying goes, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?”

However, I am not such a hardliner that I feel it should never occur. There are times when just seeing an agency’s portfolio is just not enough. In these times, it makes sense to do some things to impress and go the extra mile to let the prospective client know you are serious about becoming a partner. This, however, should be the exception and not the rule.

On a related note, an agency needs to be savvy enough to copyright all concepts before showing them to avoid the unscrupulous folk who are out to pirate ideas and just use others for their creativity. Unfortunately, this does happen, and agencies should take the steps they can to prevent their intellectual property from being taken without due compensation.

How do you feel on the subject of spec work? It is hotly debated. I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below.

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