Spec Work

Hey kids! Today’s phrase is “Spec work”.

In the creative industries (advertising, publishing, film making, etc.) doing a project “on spec” means “work done on speculation”, in other words doing work for free in the hopes that you’ll get paid later once the project “takes off”. Young artists just starting out are especially vulnerable to such projects, but even after ten years of freelancing I still get asked to do spec work. A potential client will ask me to just “whip out a few quick sketches” for their next big project or great idea. Can they pay me? No. Or if they can pay me, it’s a dollar amount far below anything resembling a professional rate. But the project has “a lot of potential”, and once it takes off they’ll hire me to do so much work that I’ll barely be able to handle it all.

I almost always say “no thanks.”

The first tip off is usually the phrase “a few quick sketches”. Those words make me cringe. Mr. Potential Client may not mean anything by it, but he’s actually insulting me by using that phrase. It implies that (a) my job doesn’t require any real work, effort, or forethought, and (b) the artwork I’ve worked so hard to produce has no real value.

Blogger Mark Evanier sums it up well in this excellent article:

Unfinanced Entrepreneurs exist because of a fiction about creative people, so widely believed that even some of us writers and artists accept it. The fiction is that writing and drawing are not assets…they are things we whip up out of thin air and which cost nothing to create. If someone steals your work from you, you can always bat out another for nothing.

If you believe this, it’s your right, but you do our profession a grave disservice. Every time someone tramples on our work — ruins it, changes it, mauls it, damages it — it’s because they have no respect for it. And, generally speaking, they have no respect for that which cost them nothing.

They think writers and artists “just knock it out” but we don’t…not really. And even when it seems like we do, it’s because of a lifetime of developing whatever skills we bring to each project. My best pal, Sergio Aragonés, once was selling some sketches he’d done. A browser was interested in one but blanched at the hundred-buck price tag.

“How long did it take you to draw that?” he asked.

“About a half-hour,” Sergio answered.

The man was horrified: “You expect me to pay you a hundred dollars for a half-hour’s work?”

Sergio showed uncommon restraint — at least for Sergio. He calmly said, “You’re not paying for the half-hour it took me to do the drawing. You’re paying for the forty-one years it took me to learn how to do that.”

Read the rest of Mark’s article here. He clarifies the issue much better than I could.

I remember how tough it was when I was first starting out. I was hungry for work and eager to take on any project that came my way. I was also insecure about my abilities. Did I really have the talent and the chops to make a living at this? So I did a lot of work for less-than-acceptable rates. Some would say I was “paying my dues” until my skills and confidence grew to an acceptable professional level. Maybe so. But I almost never did anything for free. Even then I knew I’d be getting ripped off.

Over time I’ve learned that when you agree to do a project on spec, or for a very low rate, you are actually cheapening yourself. The message you are sending to the client is, “Yes, I agree with you that what I do doesn’t take work and doesn’t really have much value”. You’ll have a very hard time later trying to convince that client (or yourself) that you deserve a more reasonable rate. You’ve already set the bar low and it can be a heavy bar to lift.

Generally speaking, before you agree to anything it’s best to politely explain to the client how hard you want to work for him/her, and help them understand that your work has real-world value. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, then it’s better to just walk away.

Have you ever been burned by spec work? What lessons have you learned? Feel free to share any thoughts or advice in the comments section.



12 thoughts on “Spec Work

  1. Cedric, it is always a pleasure visiting your site and admiring your work. The images from Scratch and Sniff as well as Nose are beautiful, I especially like the one of the girl in the field. All the best,


  2. Amen, to that!

    Spec work is a waste of time…if the client wants “cheap” work, they can always find it…someone will be willing to do the speck work…

    …just not me! 😉


  3. Joana – my partner recently started entering these ‘contests’ during down time. Without fail, they have been a complete shambles come deadline time… they are very keen to have the ‘artists’ follow all the rules, but the organisers/commissionares rarely do… so you end up with 100s of hours of wasted work and a ‘client’ who doesnt appreciate any of it. They dont even have the respect to let people know what is happening, they just seemingly fall off the face of the earth.

    As a ‘real world project’ to practice on, they may have some value but dont waste your time on them for any other reason.

    btw, I heard that exact same story about Sergio Aragonés except the version i heard involved Picaso and a doodle on a napkin… maybe its just an urban myth, but the sentiment certainly hits home.

  4. I think it can depend on what type of “contest” you are talking about.

    Most contests are scams that take advantage of struggling artists. For example, a software company might run a contest to see who can design their new logo. It works out great for the company–they get dozens or even hundreds of free designs to choose from. But if 100 artists submit, the 99 who aren’t chosen get zilch for their time and effort. What’s worse, some of these contests have fine print on the submission form giving them full ownership of all rights to the design. So the software company gets 100 pieces of free art. It’s a racket.

    However, there is another type of contest which I think is fine. Professional organizations and magazines (i.e. HOW, Communication Arts, etc.) will often have competitions or awards where the winning entries are published in a future edition of the magazine. The artist may even pay a small fee for submitting. In my opinion these competitions are valid because (a) you are submitting art you’ve already created and been paid for; (b) there are often dozens of winners instead of just a handful; and (c) being published in a professional magazine can give you terrific exposure and be a valuable way of promoting your work.

  5. I’ve learned to use this approach as a lawyer – the client is not paying $30 for 6 minutes of time. They are paying for the time and the seven+ years it took to learn to do the work, and the risk we take by doing it, and the cost of the insurance if they sue us, and the i.t. so we can do it, and the rent so we have a place to do it in, and the support staff so we can get their call and get the letter typed and not have the system crash and get the letter to the post office, and etc, etc. People are sometimes more understanding when I phrase it that way.

    I hope one day to be able to apply this in creative work.

  6. great post Cedric.

    After 30 years in the graphics business as an art director, designer and illustrator, the concept of ‘spec work’ makes me just as mad now as it did when i started. when a potential client wants you to do work for free or at ridiculously cut-rates, an aspiring artist should deal with them the same way one deals with a skunk – you stay away from it. the chances are very good that the materials that eventually come out of the transaction will probably look like the ‘client’ meddled the designer’s input out of it anyway and you can’t put it in your book and claim it, and you dont want to.

  7. Some once said to me in passing ,”Oh anybody can do that.
    I know photoshop” I wanted to slap the Sh@t out of them. As if
    Graphic Design was limited to some smuck simply learning a
    program. It seems no one has any real value for the field other
    those within it or the arts. Does anyone else hate the phrase,
    “Yeah, I’m creative”. I always respond, “Yeah, so is my dog”

  8. I’ve been burned by “spec” work before.
    It was foe a major book publisher. I can’t tell you their name but there logo is a bird who lives where it’s cold and he doesn’t fly.
    I had met the art director at a SCBWI conference when she was reviewing my portfolio.
    I believe I met Cedrick at the convention that year.
    She liked my work and took several samples with her.
    She called me up a couple of monthe later to ask me to do some spec work for her. I made it known that I would require payment for my time and she agreed.
    The work went fine and she paid my fee without any problems.
    How did you get burned then, you ask?
    Well, it was the second time she came back for spec work on a new project. She was looking for drawing samples for Atomic Betty.
    We agreed that I would be paid for my time like the last time.
    I did a couple of test pieces and then the Atomic Betty people decided they would do everything “in house.”
    So the project was over and I still haven’t been paid for my time.
    It’s been 2 years now and just to see what happens I resend the invoice to her every 6 months to see if I’ll get any response.
    Needless to say, I don’t do spec work anymore. So don’t ask me.

    I think Sergio has the right attitude.
    When people ask me how long it took me to draw something I tell them “It took me 40 years to be able to draw that.”

  9. Oh, man. It took me years to gain the confidence to agree with Sergio. I absolutely love the quote at the end, it’s spot on!

    As a professional illustrator, I see this all too often. As a graphic designer, I even had a client tell me once (after one of the artists on my staff had completed a marathon round of excellent graphics and custom illustrations), “I could have had my secretary do this.”

    I’m sure you could come up with the same thoughts I had in my head at the time. Thankfully I was diplomatic, yet firm on the outside.

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