Spec work and design students

We regularly receive letters from design students and those new to the design industry. In their correspondence the students often explain how they were not educated about spec, and/or were sent to contest sites by their instructors.

Earlier this year we discussed the subject with a design student, Thomas. One thing led to another and he agreed to share his experiences with you.


I am a university student in my final year for Graphic Design/Illustration. I actually started out in a medical degree but I took a chance that my hobby of drawing would provide a career. I was always told growing-up it would amount to nothing. Sadly, so far in the world of freelancing I am proving my parents right as there are starving artists, and my university professors have very limited guidance to the contrary.

My university has taught me the more published work I have the better my chances of finding work; therefore, online freelancing seemed to be the best choice. So I searched for every opportunity online I could find, and I asked my professors for guidance.

My professors seemed to know nearly nothing of online freelancing other than it does exist. They told me that a few of the students finishing the degree did freelancing online. Talking to the students wasn’t much better. They said I was competition and I was on my own.

Next I asked my professors about spec work and the contest sites online anyway. The best answer I got was the work was likely unpaid; however, with more questions and classroom instruction in the following weeks lead me to believe it was a necessary evil for all starting designers to prove themselves. It seemed that spec work was a way for designers to get started.

With no work in sight I started to sign-up to the sites. After searching for more information about 99designs, I came across the NO!SPEC website. Thankfully I found out what spec work truly was and what it does to designers and businesses alike. I can say I have not done any spec work, and have informed my fellow students of spec work and online freelancing.

In all honestly I learned a lot from my university time about software and design, but any training on real world (especially freelance) jobs was nothing. I got the feeling spec work was just the way things were done, and getting paid for any freelancing was the best to hope for. I feel a bit mislead and betrayed after all it seems most projects from my university have been nothing but spec work.

Many of our class projects seem to have been contest style spec work. We received a grade for the project; however, the projects were often for real world business use. All the students would work on the projects in the given details and create designs. Then a business would judge the projects and choose a design to use.

I hope my college training regarding freelancing and spec work is not typical, but sadly I imagine it is.

Thomas Cosby Jr


Thank you, Thomas (and apologies for this coming out so late).

If you are a design student, perhaps consider doing the same as Thomas did by educating students at your school. And it wouldn’t hurt if more instructors were equally knowledgeable about spec work.

On our site you’ll find a general section for students. All of the sections are chock-full of information so please don’t stop there. For instance, if you are looking to pad your portfolio, learning your way around pro bono work is a must.

By the way, if you’re a design student and would like to share your spec experiences, drop us a line.

Design Students Create NO!SPEC Video

As the recipient of a multitude of emails on the subject of spec, I never know what’ll be arriving next. Some emails offer suggestions, others request information, and others still are peppered with not so clever rants about how evil we are for insisting that designers get paid for their work.

Just recently, student Yasmin Kercher sent over a NO!SPEC video created in a design workshop.

From Yasmin: The suffering people in the video are all visual communication design students of Augsburg Universtiy of Applied Sciences.

I got at least 40+ people discussing spec work this week and the numbers are rising :-)

Great job that you’re doing btw!

Nice one Yasmin!

If you too have a video or article you’d like featured on NO!SPEC, go ahead and contact me.


When Saying No Politely Gets You In the Door


Just wanted to share a recent email exchange I had with a prospective employer who asked candidates to do a test design on a new project. I liberally stole and altered sections from an article posted on your site: “Why Speculation Hurts,” by Robert Wurth. I’ve taken out the name of the company and person I corresponded with.

Dear ###,

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to complete the design test. This week has been incredibly busy for me and I would have had to turn away paying jobs in order to work on it. In thinking about it, I’ve found that I feel this kind of test is not a good way to choose a designer. In my case, not only would it require me to pay for the privilege of being tested, because I would loose paying work, it also wouldn’t give you the information you’re looking for to make a hiring decision.

Without any briefs, discussions or research with ***, the design would lack the benefit of strategic thinking and would rely on speculative style. Even if you liked the way it looked, and it appeared to be on target, it wouldn’t show a design with the best solution.

When more information about the plan of action and goals of the project can be absorbed, design guesses are replaced with pragmatic insight. That way the designs develop with a context more relevant to ***’s business needs, and that makes for better working design solutions.

A single design doesn’t tell what a long-term relationship with the designer might offer. Also, the idea of working hard on a project unpaid, and one that I give up any rights to ownership of my work, on top of the possibility of being passed over would feel unfair and humiliating.

With that said, I’m sad to walk away from the possibility of working for ***. I really think it’s a brilliant approach to publishing and I would love to be a part of it. I truly wish *** all the best. This note is not meant as a rebuke, but rather an offering of a perspective you may not be aware of.


Hi Gregg,

Thank you so much for the email. I really appreciate your honesty and insight and I think you have some really valid points. I think you have a great resume and portfolio and would still love to bring you in to meet the team. I hope this is not a deal breaker and you would still be interested in coming in in person.

If so, would it be possible for you to come in early next week, either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday? I can work with your schedule to find time to meet with our VP of Marketing and some other team members.

I am off to the airport but will have access to email over the next few days so please let me know your thoughts. Again thank your for the email.


Dear NO!SPEC: The Two Faces of Spec in the Music Business


In the music business, ‘spec’ has 2 faces.

As a composer, I have seen many situations similar to the graphic design examples as you describe. Most independent film-makers do not think to budget any money for music. At the very low end, they simply use their favorite CD’s, thinking they won’t get caught. Many enlist musician friends or local bands to provide music. There are those who have professional knowledge and, like bar owners, don’t want to pay for music. They know many musicians are willing to do it free and unaware of the legalities.

They offer exposure (as if they can provide it) and often run contests like the ones you describe. Usually, the terms dictate full ownership of the work with no compensation for the artist and perpetual license for the producer. One such film offer, recently posted on CL (craigslist), promised exposure in a movie distributed world-wide. Upon scrutinizing their contract, there was no provision addressing copyright, publishing, performance rights, licensing or performance reporting. I declined to send any music.

As all my musical works are copyrighted, owned by me and licensed through BMI, a ‘spec’ film can be profitable if all the proper contracts are signed. If a producer has already secured distribution or air-time, then there will be a performance royalty. If the producer agrees to file broadcast and theatrical performance logs, then it can be worth it for me to waive license fees. Even a full custom score can be worth doing for ‘free’ if the paper work is done right and there is a retail or broadcast revenue stream. Ownership of publishing rights and especially copyright would have to be a separate part of such an agreement.

In the recording studio, ‘spec’ means something entirely different.

It means the band wants you to record them for free because they are so good.

“You are undoubtedly rich because you own gear, and being so lucky, you owe the world something back for it, so why not start with our band? We are so amazingly great that you will make millions from recording our album.”

The truth-

The band usually does not get signed, More often than not, they break up within months of the recording, which languishes on the shelf.

If the band gets signed-

Any recording that has not been released AND sold 10,000+ copies is considered a demo and will be re-recorded by the record company with funds LENT TO THE ARTIST FROM FUTURE SALES which are collected first ahead of any payments to the band itself.

There is no royalty structure for engineers. If you mixed it for free, you’re screwed.

The record company will not recognize or honor any ‘spec’ commitment made by the band before their involvement. The producer of the original recording will not qualify for any percentage from the label unless his recording is released by them. He will get 3% of the net if it is. Most often, a new producer is assigned by the label and the old recordings are forgotten. Inevitably, both the band and label’s attorneys will insist that the original studio and producer need not be paid and will not have the strength to fight the issue.

Occasionally, a band makes it just like the fairy-tale and the original ‘raw’ rccord is a hit, elevating both band and producer. To say it happens once in every 100,000 such bands would be quite generous. The problem is that these instances are portrayed in promotional materials and media as commonplace, enforcing the belief by millions of young musicians that any ‘producer’ can make them famous.

As a studio owner, ‘spec’ means ‘free’, so the band better be really important to you to record them for nothing. Since studio reputations are best spread by word of mouth, it can be advantageous to record a group for free simply to get them hawking your services around town. Know that this is a give away and any speculative deal with the artist would have to be honored by them out of their own pocket. The label will not recognize your involvement unless they are buying a successfully distributed product.

With advent of online distribution, this may change. Nonetheless, a solid understanding of copyright, performance rights and mechanical royalties is crucial for a studio dealing with original artists.

I hope this viewpoint is useful to you. Keep up the good work.

Brian ‘Cousin B’ Ascenzo
Location; Las Vegas

Photographers speak out on NO!SPEC


I’m hoping you can let visitors to the NO!SPEC site know that graphic designers are not the only ones being plagued by requests for work on spec. On spec or as it’s come to be known in the photography industry “Custom Stock” is a growing trend.

Companies are trying to legitimize a model which is based on asking multiple photographers to bid on a chance to provide what is in effect a custom assignment but at stock photography rates and royalties. Photographers who are chosen must also finance the shoot out of their own pockets with no guarantee that their images will even be chosen.

These “Custom Stock” shoots are presented to stock photographers as an enhanced “stock” opportunity. At the same time, these are presented to clients that this is an sensible business practice that will allow them to acquire professional quality assignment images, shot to their specifications at no risk to themselves and for stock photography prices.

What “Custom Stock” actually is though is “competitive spec”. Multiple photographers are asked to “bid” on a chance to provide the requested images. Out of those that provide bids, maybe up to five are chosen. From the images provided the client may then choose the image or images they want to license at the previously agreed upon fee. However, the client is under absolutely no obligation to license any of the images. If an images is licensed, the agreed upon fee for the service is then split between the company providing the service and the photographer with the commissions varying by company.

This trend was actually started by OnRequest Images who in fact, coined the term “Custom Stock” but others, including more traditional stock agencies are beginning to follow suit. Index Stock Imagery has also jumped into the pool with its Index Custom Stock service which closely follows the OnRequest model. Other are sure to follow.

The Stock Artists Alliance (SAA), an industry association which represents photographers who produce images for rights-protected license has more information on its web site concerning OnRequest Images and the “Custom Stock” model.

The SAA web site can be found at:

More information about OnRequest Images can be found at:

Index Custom Stock service from Index Stock Imagery can be found at:

Jim Hunter
Assignment – Stock – Fine Art

Did I mess up big time?


I checked out the NoSpec site and have a quick question on mockups and I would really appreciate it if you could give me some advice. Here’s the scenario. I just got off the phone with a potential client who’s looking for someone to design his logo. This happened a couple of hours before I checked your site. Oops.

He can’t draw so he just needs someone to draw a design based on a rough image he sent me and after he gets the sketch he’ll finish the rest himself on Photoshop. Now, he happened to mention that he’s getting designs and quotes from other illustrators and he’s going to check out everyone’s mockups and choose from there.

So now the question is, did I mess up big time? If so, what do you suggest I do about it? He’s also expressed some interest in buying some of my more expensive art later on, which if he does, will be much more expensive than this logo so I’d like to fix this without ruining the potential business relationship in the long term.

Please let me know what you think. I’d appreciate any advice you can offer.

Hungry Artist