who says SPEC doesn't pay?


by: Chris Reinecke in: General Post 4 years ago

…well… everyone. But sometimes you just need to learn for yourself, the hard way.

This week, I built in a little "spare time" into my schedule, and produced a few designs on spec, in response to some "I need a cheap logo" ads I'd run across. I have said over & over on many occasions, that I think it's a bad idea to do work for free. I know there are better ways, but those take an investment of time, energy, resources… and frankly… a network I just don't have. Anyone in our profession knows the reasons against spec, so I won't go into it too much…but, I thought it would be a shortcut to some quick cash, so I gave it a try.

I justified myself. I thought of it as humanitarian (given the clients' low budgets), as creative exercise, and is a chance to earn a little cash. In the end, only one of those came true. I got a nice peice of creative fodder that will probably eventually make it into my portfolio… and it did not take me very long to produce. But, I gambled with my talent, my time, & my emotions and lost.

Any seasoned professional could tell me that I was just setting myself up for wasted time, for failure, even to be stolen from, etc. and they'd be right. The good news is that there's grace.  

I tried something that probably wouldn't work, and it failed. I'm not marred for life as an amateurish bottom feeder… I'm not blacklisted & banished to the deep recesses of "design-hell"…entrusted only to a handful of menial production tasks. I did what an artist does. I tried something out of the ordinary, learned something from it, andexpect to have a better perspective on business as a result.


D B   Level 1D B 4 years ago
Thanks for sharing! Pretty interesting experiment. 
Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
For anyone wondering what the big deal is: it's my experience that spec work is counterproductive for a few reasons.

• I spent valuable time producing work that had no guarantee of payment.
• I wasted energy obsessing over whether or not the client would choose my submission.
• spec work trains an artist, to live in his/her own head. This kind of designer-client exchange is one-sided: Designer works with minimal information, submits work, and client makes a choice-–no feedback. There's no real room for professional growth– fosters defensiveness.

If you treat spec work the same way you would pro-bono work, the dybamic changes. The financial positions on why not to work on spec, don't really hold up. But I found that the emotional energy spent was a much larger factor than I had planned on. I used gambling as a comparison—I think it's an accurate description.
Daniel R   Level 1Daniel R 4 years ago
I understand your points and I know 99% designers will say spec work is .....(add your comment here) but I want to add these:

1. I never do work for free and if anyone is looking for free I always say "i'll do it but you pay me some coffee with a $25 starbucks gift card" I know, I know what you all will say...

2. I believe and try with all my heart to practice this: "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts 20:35

Noticed the word "weak" there. The greek word refers to the poor social class, defenseless, hopeless and I would even dare to say "people with low budgets" Also notice the word "hard work" 

I know, I know somebody here will bring another Bible verse, experience, comment, etc and that is fine but I just want to say sometimes  christian designers may miss the great blessings here and eternal that comes through Acts 20:35. I understand free work will not pay the bills but Im experiencing Acts 20:35 in a whole new dimension when I decided to include helping 'the weak" more frequently. 

3. When I help people with low budgets I have a set of guidelines they should agree (like it will take more time, less revisions, less concepts) why? because in my experience people with the word "cheap" are really demanding sometimes. Like Chris said: "if you treat spec work the same way you would pro-bono work, the dynamic changes. "

4. Finally, that's where creationswap comes into game. Different Christian designers post here (most files for free) great quality, great work without the pressure of the client. I submit work here very often 95% free with Acts 20:35 in mind. It's incredible rewarding the amount of emails I receive from people saying "thanks" and even inspiring stories of people using those designs around the world.

5. Probably somebody will come here with counter points but again I'm not looking to change the game rules but sharing that I'm living a blessed life in a whole new dimension and for that I thank my awesome Jesus, the giver of my talents, gifts and creativity.

At the end, like Chris said, "who says spec work does not pay"? Have an awesome weekend you all. God bless you all.
Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
okay… I get where you are coming from. My point was simply to highlight the difficulties that come from GAMBLING with your talent.

We can blow $300 at the racetrack, and say we made a "donation" to the care of those horses… OR… if we really care for horses, we can GIVE… 

Posting work for free on creationswap, in my opinion, is not spec work- it's a free gift.
But, responding to a contest, in hopes of being chosen, is not a gift… it's a vanity exercise.
Pierce Brantley   Level 1Pierce Brantley 4 years ago

Sorry for your pain! This a fantastic experiment. I was cringing  when I started reading it as I was afraid of your outcome but it does serve as a great example. Hopefully others will learn from what you've posted!  Keep up the good work brother!
D B   Level 1D B 4 years ago
I'm honestly curious of what this post would look like if you had won one of or all of the contests.
Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
I honestly don't know.

If I'm honest with myself, I think that getting positive feedback on these contests would have come at a price— the biggest being the guilt & shame that comes from knowing I made a profit off of work that I consider to be sub-standard. 

Yes, I did get a piece out of it that could go in my portfolio, but that was one, out of about 5. For that one, I suppose the price may have been the nagging feeling that it was worth more…especially to the client.

While I would love for life to be that easy… there's a huge part of me that knows that when there are easy times, they are the exception… not the rule. So, to win one, or all of those design contests would have been a big ego boost, followed by the disillusioned letdown.

Just under a year ago, I switched my personal design efforts away from creationSwap, and toward a t-shirt contest site. The result was that I won my first submission. Then I sold several shirts… than I began to see the unpredictability of emotion, and friend-based voting… and over the long haul, I pulled a design that was useful to many people, and sold the rights away for $25 worth of royalties. At the time, I thought it was brilliant. The contest site promised more potential in royalties… but the letdown came later, when I realized that this site was only profitable if you were comfortable ripping off well known characters and brands, for use as "parody" 

So, here I am…
Laura V   Level 1Laura V 4 years ago
I've never done "spec work" perse, but while in school (just before graduating, in fact), a company approached one of my professors and offered a logo-design contest to our grad class (of  17 students) with a thousand dollar prize for the winner. At first I wasn't going to participate. As the deadline came closer though, and I realized hardly any of my classmates were going to take the time, I decided to give it a go. I put in 2 hours and came up with a design I was really confident in. I pulled it off, and got to put $1000 directly towards my school debt a week after graduating. win! 

But you're right Chris...there was that feeling of "that work was sub par and probably not worth the prize money" even though it was completely the clients decision. I visit their website from time to time and they still haven't implemented it (over 3 years later!). I think the biggest bummer for me is knowing that I couldn't serve them the way they could have been served. I could have made the website and all their branding happen. But at the end of the day...that was their own fault :D. 

If I found myself in that situation again I'd still do it. But spec work in a pool of thousands of designers doesn't seem like a very good idea. The only reason I felt it was worth it for me was because I knew the other designers...and that I could probably come up with a stronger design. 

haha I don't even think that is helpful or relevant. Oh well, in real life I talk too much so I might as well carry over... :P
Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
I'm with you, Laura… The T-Shirt design contest in question, was one of those "it doesn't seem like a problem" experiences for me. I thought, "with the caliber of work on this site, I'm guaranteed a win." and the site boasted $400 to winners, so I thought it was easy money.

What i didn't know, was that months earlier, the site's owners changed the contest to be royalty only, and updated 90% of the site to say so… just not the part I had read.
Today the site boasts a potential earning of over $3000, based on a tiered royalty system. (but the average winning shirt sells about 25-40 shirts, so unless you order them yourself, you may never see over $50 in earnings (unless you make a Star Wars Reference in your design).

…btw… if you ever feel like giving me a dollar, I have a shirt available for sale!
Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
oh, I missed my point- The site felt like a guaranteed win. But the next month, I entered again, and lost to designs that were less professional, poorly designed, and probably would sell to nobody. At that point, i realized that this contest thing wasn't going to work.

…and yes, Based on the post above, I've had to learn the "noSpec" lesson more than once.
Robert Williams   Level 1Robert Williams 4 years ago
I entered a "T-Shirt Contest" (i.e. spec opportunity) last year designing a shirt for the Matisyahu summer tour.  The "prize" was free tickets to any of his tour stops and I had already purchased mine, but I thought it would be cool to win and come away with an official Matis tee.

The contest rules stated one entry per designer, but as usual, the pool was flooded with endless variations of sub par designs.  There were a couple of really professional entries (none of mine), and I was shocked when the six "finalists" were chosen and failed to see any of the best designed pieces in the mix.

It all came down to "voting via likes" on facebook and I thought the winning design was so ugly, there was no way I would purchase it.  Strangely enough, when I went to the concert a couple of months later, not one of the submitted designs was available, but rather a professionally designed (and a bit boring), "official" tour shirt was available. I guess they had second thoughts about the quality once the contest was over.

That was the first time I had participated in spec in five or six years and it was as much as a letdown then as it was when I was trying to make a quick buck during school.  Sometimes it takes experience to help you understand why most designers are so passionately anti-spec.
Rich Aguilar   Level 1Rich Aguilar 4 years ago
I don't know Chris, 

I don't do spec work because it just doesn't pay bills. I do see how it can be challenging and fun. But, at the end of the day. I want a client who wants me! That makes doing this for a living much more enjoyable than any other job I have. I love it when I get an email saying that they,"Love your style" or "are big fans of your work". 
Not because it is an ego trip. But those clients will appreciate more what they get from you as an artist, then say the the spec work client. 

Am I off?

But, I have and will always say. Hustle work wherever you can get it. If spec work is the way to do it, then NAIL it!!!  

Chris Reinecke   Level 1Chris Reinecke 4 years ago
Rich– I'm not sure what you're getting at? 

I'm basically describing that I've learned the hard way that spec is counterproductive. I think we're in agreement.

My case is that, it's not inherently evil, either. It may be a poor choice but there's life after bad decisions, even in business.
Rich Aguilar   Level 1Rich Aguilar 4 years ago

I was as usual in a rush and obviously didn't read the post in depth! :O 

Sorry Chris. 

Yes we are in agreement. Here is my two cents regarding finding potential work. Me, Spec work is a complete waste of time. If someone wants to see a sample of your work on a certain piece before they hire you. Just send them to your portfolio.!

Ok, this is something that I do and it works out great. Now, this is how I do it. And I am in no way saying it will work for you, but I have noticed great success! 

I pick very carefully who I give ( free ) work too. This is what I mean. I have learned that in business, for me to get big accounts I need to go in slim to nothing on a job here and there just to get my name out there for recognition and exposure. Example, I quoted a very prominent Preacher in my movement close to nothing. 1. being that I knew he wasn't loaded with money. 2. Knowing that he had connections up the wazoo! So, I quoted him a job I would do for free. And he promoted me like no ones business! Now I have more work than I can handle because of it. 

Example two, I did the same thing for a local pastor for a flyer for an event and the same thing happened. This can work for any level or any client. If you don't do it for churches, this principle will work for a local mini-mall. People talk! Don't do all of your work for free, but choose very specifically who you can benefit from if you do so! I like to call it a short term loss, but a long term gain!

I still practice this today. I have done this for the past  years and I have been blessed beyond belief! 1. because I am giving back to the community or ministry and God is blessing it. 2. because I am putting my name in a position to be seen and exposed! 

You might not win that big street sign quote because you are too high. But do it for a dirt cheap price and and get your work up there for people to see and watch the results of not being to proud to always quote your rate! Smart business is Good business. 

Will you make a ton of money on the front end? no, but you will get a ton of exposure and a ton of money in the back end. 

Again, this is my two cents.

Btw, did I mention to stay away from spec work?

~ Rich
Rich Aguilar   Level 1Rich Aguilar 4 years ago
Side note:

Once your name has brand recognition and is noticed by folks and people start calling you or emailing you because they just love your work. That is when you can charge whatever you want. Because they want your work!  And your too busy to look for prospective work because your phone is ringing off the hook or you have too many emails for quotes you don't know what to do!

But, we have to hustle to get to that point. It is hard in the beginning. But, once you get there! It is awesome.....
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