Suppose for a moment that you want to get your house painted. You call a painter and he comes over to your house. Imagine his surprise to discover that you've called three other painters to the same job.
If you took these four guys into a room and announced “Here's the deal… I want each of you to paint one wall in this room, and whichever one of you I think has done the best job of their wall gets to paint the rest of the house!” How well do you think that is gonna go down? That's definitely a lead balloon situation, that one.
Why then, do so many designers and other creative professionals seem to jump at the chance to work on exactly the same basis? The industry term for this kind of thing is called “spec work”, which means submitting samples of your work speculatively in the hope that you will get paid.
When you do that on your own initiative, it's really not such a bad thing. But when it's in response to the request of a client or advertiser, you're contributing to a growing cancer that has blighted the creative industry over the past two decades. Actually, we're nudging three decades, but who's counting?
Working on spec is stealing from yourself
When you enter a design competition for any other reason than fun, or when you submit useful samples to a prospective client with no firm promise that you will be paid, you are stealing from yourself. You can search all day for smart, sensible, intelligent things to do. Working for free on a commercial project will not be one of them.
Working on spec harms all creative professionals
Anyone who enters a design competition for any other reason than fun, or who submits useful design samples to a prospective client, is contributing to the downfall of our industry. Clients hire us because they know they don't have the skills or the time to create the same standard of work themselves. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to pay us for doing the work. The only reason they pay us is because we require them to do it. So if we make it easy for them to not pay by giving them exactly what they want for free, then what incentive do they have to actually go ahead and pay us? None, that's how much incentive they have.
Most design competitions are only lucrative for the people who run them
Buried in the terms and conditions of a typical design competition will be clause stating that you surrender all your rights in any design you submit. So suppose that 1000 people enter a design competition. One of these folks is going to win, and they'll probably receive some token payment for their effort, but 999 other designers are going to be turned away cold and hungry.
But those who ran the competition now have 1000 designs that they can use, royalty free for as long as they like, and in any way they like. So there you are in a year or two walking around in Madrid, or Melbourne, or Mandalay, and you see some guy wearing your design on a T-shirt. That's when the penny will drop. Some guy is making millions off your work and you didn't get a dime for it.
There is one exception to this rule. If some prestigious industry body like the Museum of Modern Design was running the competition (and the theme was anything other than the Museum of Modern Design), you could safely assume it was a legitimate competition with no commercial exploitation likely to be behind it.
A competition like that is actually good for you, especially if you win, because some of that prestige will rub off on you, and a lot of people get to see your work exhibited. You still should carefully check the terms and conditions, however, to make sure that you still retain the rights to your own work once the competition has ended. It's not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility for somebody to get sued for adding their own design to their portfolio, because a competition organizer claims that the designer has no right to exhibit the work. The devil is in the details.
It's not just spec work that's the culprit
Spec work isn't the only problem besetting the industry. Competitive work bidding sites like Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com are another serious threat because they encourage competition on the basis of price alone. The problem is that many prospective clients do not understand the concept of “you get what you pay for”, and there are thousands of amateurs and students on those sites just looking to make a little extra pocket money from time to time, plus people from low income economies who can afford to bid aggressively.
This means that if you participate, you have very low chance of being awarded any work unless you're willing to drop your rates to below the level you could realistically sustain long term. You'll be doing more work for less money just to have a chance of surviving, and this means either that you won't survive or that you'll have to compromise on quality. Once you start making compromises like that, it's a slippery slope.
Spec work almost never delivers on its promises
When you do spec work, it's usually because you've been promised the chance of a big reward. This could be ongoing future work, a permanent job, or simply a cash prize. There are other incentives that may be promised, such as referrals to bigger companies, and the chance to build up your portfolio. In reality, you're very unlikely to gain much or even anything at all from working on spec.
Employers don't always know that their request is unethical
While it's wrong for employers to request spec work, they don't always know that it's wrong. They may be under the impression that it's standard industry practice. It should be sufficient for you to provide samples of your previous work, or to create original samples that are not related in any way to the client's project.
Spec work devalues your skills
If you create a public profile on a spec work site that can be linked back to you personally, if people can identify you through your profile and your work, then they will be able to see that you do not value your time or your creative work very highly. It should also affect how you feel about yourself. Being willing to sell a $200 design for $2 should make you feel intense levels of shame. Did you really spend all that time learning your craft only to become the digital equivalent of a street walker? You're more classy than that, and you shouldn't forget it.
Spec work puts you on the back foot when it comes to negotiating further work
Just suppose by some amazing chance your spec bid actually is successful and you're the “lucky” designer chosen to continue working for the client. Now you have a really difficult problem to face. In order to win, you will have spared no effort and produced your greatest piece of work that you could offer them. So at this point you've already given them your best work for free, and now you need to negotiate a fee for completing more work for them.
The problem is that you've already shown them that you're willing to work this hard for no money, so if you now try to charge a reasonable sum for your work, your fees are likely to be rejected as being too high. You don't value your work highly, so why should they?
Spec work cuts out some vital steps in the creative process
When you're hired directly to complete work for a client, there is hopefully an in-depth discussion with the client about their company, brand, products and vision. If you're not engaging clients at this level, you're not really doing a professional job. Whatever designs you create for a company should be really in tune with the image they want to present, and you can only achieve that if you have a good understanding of them.
Professional designers conduct market research and apply industry best practices to all stages of the design process for a superior quality of design that will best serve the interests of the client. This is impossible in a spec work situation because there is no solid discussion with the client, no research, and very little incentive for the designer to invest more time or resources into the project than is strictly necessary.
The client and the designer both lose in this scenario, but often the client is too naïve to recognize that they have lost anything. They focus entirely on the cost savings or the commercial exploitation value they have gained, and thus they'll never know what might have been possible if they'd taken a more professional approach to meeting their design needs.
How you can get around this problem
There are three primary reasons why a client may request spec work. The first of these is simple naïvity, they don't realize that it's wrong to do this. The only counter for naïvity is to educate the client, but you probably will be forfeiting the job in the process. The second reason is greed or commercial exploitation, and all you can really do in this case is to avoid being duped.
That leaves the third reason, which is the one where you actually have some options. This reason is that the client has too much fear that they'll burn their money on a bad design. They may have had a bad experience in the past, which will reinforce and justify their fear.
You can potentially win in this scenario, and it's certainly the one where you have the most chance, but the chances are still slim due to less competent and knowledgeable designers complying with the spec request. You're going to be the odd one out, but your sole advantage is that since you're not wasting time creating a design for free, your response is going to be received before any others.
What you need to do is make a sensible counter-proposal that addresses the fears, nullifying them with an offer that allows the client to perceive your heightened professionalism and that they will have nothing to lose by working with you.
If you're good at selling, call the client, or otherwise email them. Make it clear from the outset that you don't work on spec, but that you understand their need for reassurance. Let them know that you're representing a professional design agency, that you're able to provide them with work of the highest standard, and that there is greater value in working with you. Be sure to tell them that only amateur designers do spec work.
Follow up this opening spiel that outlines the three correct phases of professional design work (initial consultation and research, prototyping, final design and implementation), and promising an ironclad money back guarantee if they decide to part ways with you at the end of the protoyping phase.
You'll notice that you're still taking some risk here. Essentially you're still working for free because the client can back out after prototyping is done and you'll have to refund their money, but the key difference is that you'll have been paid at least a deposit upfront and you have a firm promise of payment if they decide to continue to the design and implementation phase. When clients have already committed financially, it is less likely that they'll make decisions lightly.
Now all you have to do is impress them with your incredible design prototypes, and hopefully you nail this. If there is any indication that the prototypes didn't quite meet their needs, offer to create more prototypes (don't do this until your first offering is rejected). If they decline, just bow out gracefully and honor your promise to refund their money. At least you may leave them with a favorable impression and they will possibly be more likely to come back to you in the future. There's also the remote possibility that they're just testing your integrity, and you may still have the job after all.