The Way We Work

By: Alex Hornbake

Your butcher wouldn’t let you take a roast home, cook it, eat it, and then only pay if you enjoyed the meal. So, why would you ever consider doing the same with your own time and resources?

Working speculatively has become unfortunately too common in today’s economy . The advent of “design contests”, and other euphemisms for working without a secured payment, are only making matters worse. If you’re a freelancer, it’s important to value your time appropriately, and if your a consumer of freelancer’s services, it’s important to understand that only amateurs work for free, and you get what you pay for.

Let me quickly clarify that I don’t consider RFP’s (requests for proposals) as spec work, unless they make requests for spec work, and that although they do take time to respond to, they are part of a dialogue between you and your clients. Also, the term amateur doesn’t as a rule exclude talented people, but does generally exclude the kind of experience needed to guarantee success in a project. Additionally, I’m going to assume that if you have no portfolio, are a student, or have no track record in a particular field – be it design, programming, writing, etc – then working on spec, or on passion projects that are unpaid, is not “stupid”, it’s a normal part of building your reputation as a pro who can command top rates in the future.

The Buyer: Back to the Drawing Board

If you are currently or are considering being the consumer of spec work, then you’re an amateur too. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful in your project or search for a solution on spec, it likely means that (a) you don’t know what you want, (b) you aren’t sure if you know how to get it, or (c) you can’t recognize what skills are needed to get the job done. Your project may lack direction and vision, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board and get a better grip on the situation.

The Provider: How to Say “No”

thumbs_downSaying “No” to spec work doesn’t have to close the door to potential work. Here are some tips on how to turn speculative clients into a paying client.

Know your worth. Be realistic about your rates, and be clear what your work process entails. Your clients will respect your process if they can see the passion that you put in to your work.

Be Firm. Confidence in your abilities and the value of your time will send the the message to your potential client that they’re working with someone that means business, and can get the job done. Spec works assumes that you “mehh… might do good work.” Accepting work under those conditions shows a lack of confidence and decisiveness on both your part and your client’s part.

Put it in perspective. Tell the spec client that you don’t work for free, use their field of work as an example. If you’re a graphic designer asked to do letterhead work for a woodworker, ask them if they make a habit of building and installing custom kitchen cabinets for free, hoping that their clients might approve and pay for them later .

Your honesty will show your integrity and confidence, and if they decide not to use you, then rest assured that they were not a good fit for you as a client. If they can’t afford a proper solution, don’t know what they want, or are just too inconsiderate, then they aren’t the kind of clients that you’d want to build long term relationships with.


Not sure how you feel? The spec debate has been roaring for some time, particularly in the world of design. Below are some links to some other opinions that you may find interesting. Share your own opinions in the comments:

“Is Spec Work Evil? The Online Creative Community Speaks” – a podcast of a SXSW panel of the same name.
“Spec Work Analysis: Here To Stay –But Not For Everyone” – Jeremiah Owyang-a panelist in the above discussion-offers a levelheaded analysis of the spec marketplace.
The fine line between laziness and crowdsourcing” – Jefferey Kalmikoff’s notes the differences between spec work and community-based crowdsourcing. – an entire site dedicated to not working on spec.
“The Rise of Crowdsourcing” – The wired article by Jeff Howe that coined the phrase “crowdsourcing”-also his blog is worth a visit.