Maybe you’ve been approached by a potential client who is interested in your work, but they want you to complete a test piece before moving forward. Or, maybe, you’ve been invited to enter a contest to design a new logo for an up-and-coming business.

What do these two scenarios have in common? They’re both requests for spec work.

Even if you’ve been in the freelance business for years, this might be the first time you’ve come across this term. However, there’s a good chance you’ve completed some form of spec work in the past.

But don’t worry, because we’re about to go over the good, the bad, and the ugly of this controversial work.

What Is Spec Work?

First and foremost, what exactly is spec work?

Well, “spec work” is actually short for speculative work. And knowing that might give you an idea of what it means.

In short, spec work is any kind of work completed — typically by a freelance designer of some sort — before payment is arranged or even guaranteed.

Generally, if the client likes the work they see, they’ll pay you for it. But if not, you walk away with nothing but a rejected design.

Though it might seem similar, spec work isn’t exactly the same as moving forward with a project without signing an ironclad contract. Instead, spec work is taken on knowing that payment is only a possibility from the start.

Reading this description, you might wonder why any freelancer would accept spec work in the first place. Actually, though, this type of work is more prevalent than you probably think.

3 Types of Spec Work Every Freelancer Will Encounter

In the real world, spec work is rarely called by its true name. And in many ways, the culture surrounding creative freelancing allows clients to request this type of arrangement.

When designers are eager to get any amount of paid work they can, completing a project without guaranteed compensation doesn’t feel so outlandish. Although, that doesn’t mean spec work is only done by the inexperienced.

Here are three types of spec work almost every freelancer will encounter at some point in their career:

1. Pitches

Creative pitches are extremely common in a variety of industries. Because of this, they’re also one of the most accepted forms of spec work.

When a solo freelancer or agency competes for a large client’s contract, it’s not unusual to present a detailed draft of the project before any agreement has been made. Of course, the client only gains the rights to these ideas if they move forward with the project.

Unfortunately, there are cases where this level of trust backfires on the designer.

Some companies will take partial or complete concepts from pitches and run with them, all without ever acknowledging or compensating the designer(s) behind these ideas. Still, most freelancers consider the potential reward worth the risk.

2. Contests

Creative contests are probably the most controversial form of spec work, and for a good reason.

When a company needs a new logo, shirt design, slogan, or other creative work done, they could pay a design house or freelancer to do the work. Or, they could ask their customers to come up with a design.

At first, this can seem like a fun, engaging idea. Creative freelancers get the opportunity to flex their talents for a company they support. At the same time, amateur artists can get their work out there and into the public eye.

But there are a variety of problems that can arise from contest-style spec work:

First, many companies will retain legal ownership over all submitted designs. Even if a design isn’t chosen as the winner, the creator forfeits all legal rights to it (sometimes unknowingly) by entering the competition.

Second, while some contests will pay the winner for their work, this is not always the case.

Though these types of contests aren’t inherently bad, it’s easy to see how companies can use them to take advantage of inexperienced creatives.

3. Interviews

Another common form of spec work you might encounter in the freelance world involves trial work or take-home assignments.

After connecting with a potential client and discussing their needs, they might ask you to complete a small piece of work for them to show your skills. This isn’t exclusive to large or high-paying contracts, though they tend to be able to get away with more of this type of spec work.

Sometimes, payment will be contingent on the client moving forward with you and signing a contract. Other times, this request will come with a promise to pay for the work regardless.

Either way, asking for trial work isn’t necessarily a sign that a client is trying to take advantage of you. However, you should think carefully about these requests before accepting.

Why You Should (or Shouldn’t) Accept Spec Work

As you’ve probably noticed, spec work doesn’t have the best reputation within the freelance design sphere.

Despite this, we’ve done our best to look at both sides of the argument, including some of the pros and cons associated with performing spec work:

Pro: It gives you a chance to impress prospective clients

In the freelance world, first impressions are everything. Unfortunately, a brief glance through your portfolio or written proposal isn’t always enough to hook a new client.

By completing a portion of the project before putting pen to paper, you have a better opportunity to prove your skills and professional worth.

Con: It costs you time and money

It’s easy to view spec work in a positive light when you ultimately walk away with a contract. But what about those who didn’t get the gig?

Creating even a small amount of spec work can take hours of your time. When that spent time doesn’t culminate in an invoice, it’s a complete waste.

Some freelance designers might choose to take on small pieces of spec work if they think the project will pan out in their favor. However, if you do this for multiple clients, your unpaid time will quickly add up.

Pro: It allows you to build your portfolio

If you’re just starting out or are revamping your design services, spec work can seem like a way to build up your portfolio while maybe grabbing a few contracts along the way.

It’s true that spec work can serve as motivation to come up with a diverse portfolio. Plus, this work is based around a real client and their needs.

On the other hand, there are other ways to add to your portfolio with real-world examples.

For instance, consider reaching out to your local non-profit organizations and offering your services. Not only do you get to practice your skills and add to your portfolio, but you also get to give to a worthwhile organization at the same time.

Con: It doesn’t represent your best work

The best freelance designers invest seemingly endless amounts of time and energy into their client relationships.

Why? Because understanding their client’s wants, needs, and expectations is crucial to delivering quality results.

When it comes to spec work, though, you don’t get the chance to build this relationship. Instead, you’re given little, if any, context for what the client wants or needs.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t just affect your chances of landing the contract. It also means that placing this work in your portfolio isn’t the best representation of your skills and talent.

How to Avoid Spec Work Requests Like a Pro

As a freelancer or entrepreneur, we probably don’t need to tell you that clients can be clueless at times.

Yes, this applies to the concept of spec work, too.

Even if a client knows full-well that spec work doesn’t benefit the freelancer, it’s not hard to see why countless clients push for these arrangements.

Hiring a designer to complete any type of work for you — whether that means coding a website, drawing a logo, writing a script, or something else entirely — is a risk. And if a client doesn’t understand the value of skilled design work, this can seem like a risk not worth taking.

So how do you avoid spec work without losing valuable clients?

One of the best ways to avoid unpaid work of any kind, including spec work, is to know your worth.

This doesn’t just mean assigning an arbitrary value to your services. It means tracking your time, expenses, research, and the profit your work could potentially earn a client.

With these numbers in hand and the confidence that comes with knowing the value of your work, you can show prospective clients that your time and expertise come at a price. But this price will be nothing compared to how your work can benefit their business.

If you need help discovering the true value of your work, invoicely’s time and expense tracking features are a great place to start. With these easy-to-use tools at your fingertips, you’ll never question your professional worth again.