Spec (speculative) work is when a client or organization requests designers to submit design solutions or concepts on the chance that they might “win” the contract or a prize. 

Speculative work – specifically, the request for it – simply put, is creative work performed without fair compensation.



Avoid developing design without payment

The creation of effective and appropriate design solutions are the product of consultation, research and considered design direction. Professional associations across North America and abroad prohibit their members from engaging in submissions that request designs without guarantee of compensation. Professional communication designers do not develop design concepts without payment.

“Crowdsourcing” is often used as a euphemism for spec work, but it’s the same thing — enticing designers with the prospect of winning a project or being compensated if their work is chosen.


A better way to aim

The professional and ethical approach for securing a designer for a project is to request interested respondents to supply examples of previous work they have already successfully competed. This provides a tangible demonstration of the applicant’s competency and style of work. Clients and businesses are then quickly able to gauge the competency of the applicant(s) and in turn ask them to submit an estimate for their services and scope of work.

Organizations greatly benefit when they eliminate the request for spec work as they instead select an applicant that is appropriate for their project. Futher, the client is no longer tasked with having to decipher through an inundation of design submissions. This is also a huge time-saver and better for a business.



For clients that cannot determine which designer will be best suited for a project, DesCan recommends an honorarium approach where all proponents receive a determined payment reflective of the preliminary work that will be delivered. Ownership of such design work remains with the designer.

The only scenario DesCan supports unpaid work is for design related to social and global messages, ie. world peace, climate change, global health, and alike. These designs are for the common good and not for commercial gain. Ownership of such designs remains with the designer.

What you can do if you come across spec work.

Your skill, critical thinking, and ideation have inherent value, and while there’s no “i” in ‘team’, there is one in ‘ethics’.

You’re not alone. Designers being canvassed or tempted by spec work should be reminded of their individual ability to influence change. New designers can take comfort in knowing when they say no to spec work they’re backed by all major international design organizations. Spec work is universally discredited by the Design Professionals of Canada, the AIGA, and the International Council of Design (icoD).

More information on spec competitions: icoD and spec competitions

More information on spec competitions: nospec.com 

If you come across an RFP or contest requesting spec work contact us at: ethics@descan.ca

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