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.

8 responses to “Spec work and design students”

  1. I own a small marketing agency and often hire college interns or recent grads for part time freelance work. I’m so sorry to hear about the experience this student had. However, based on what I’ve seen and heard from the students I hire, most colleges do not offer graphic design students any business related course work. The colleges also seem to be behind the curve of software and technology as well.

    While a small handful of universities are now offering degrees that combine design, marketing, business and tech, most universities do an extremely poor job in preparing these students for the real world.

  2. Thanks for the article. I’m continuing on to a University level of study for Graphic Design next year, and I had only recently been exposed to ‘spec-work’ websites, such as 99Designs. I thought it would be a great way to get some extra cash over the Christmas break, but to my surprise many of the times I submitted work to the ‘client’, they ended up choosing a design which didn’t follow the client’s brief in the first place.
    Only until now do I realise what an insult to the design industry that website is.

    PS – Most of the links on this site lead to a 404 – Page not found error screen. Including the ‘Contact Us’ page, thus, I couldn’t contact you about this matter.

  3. Harley, we’d like to hear more from students so if you want to enlarge on the situation, or know of other students in the same position, feel free to contact us.

    Btw – We updated to the latest WP and after your alert the pages (not posts) were found in the trash. Strange. And thank you for the heads-up.

  4. I too was misinformed about spec work when I first graduated last year, I just thought it was the way it was, much to my dismay. I figured out the hard way that it would be impossible to make a living, and immediately became concerned for my industry.

    Thanks to No-Spec and designers like Mr. Airey I’ve regained the necessary confidence and my freelance business is picking up real clients.

    I also think that eventually the market will be saturated with so much pseudo-design that potential clients will start to see this and there will be an influx of people shopping for a real designer.

    No-spec is good for one thing: It weeds out the clients we wouldn’t want anyways.

    Thanks again.

  5. I followed a link to this site while reading unfavourable comments about potent.com, which applies the spec “contest” model to videographers for commercials. This is even more depressing than for graphic design, because producing a broadcast-quality 30-second commercial requires thousands of dollars of equipment, several people and hundreds of cumulative hours to create one entry among dozens more – and as many people have noted here, you’re shooting in the dark because even when the client says they know what they want, they often don’t and are in fact using these contests to go fishing.

    The only consolation is that companies resorting to these methods usually have a very poor corporate image and practices (who the heck leaves their advertising tragedy to a game of “pin the tail on the donkey”?) and serious professionals wouldn’t want to waste time with them.

    BTW, I am starting to do much better after a year struggling as a corporate videographer, and I never had to do spec work. I did do a few pro bono gigs, but they were for charitable organizations and the celebrities involved did wonders for my portfolio.

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