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Spec Work: The Design Scenario That Never Ends Well

by | Feb 1, 2016 | Articles, Design, Freelancing | 2 comments

Spec Work: The Design Scenario That Never Ends WellSpec Work Is The Enemy Of Success

It’s funny how I rely on my Facebook feed now for more web design and graphic design news and articles. The thing is, I am also a member of a lot of Facebook Groups for designers. In one of the design groups, someone posted a cute cartoon video (shown below) showing someone bargaining with a business to design their logo. It also shows some of the expenses incurred by most designers. Something deep inside of me started to boil, percolate and bubble up to the surface. On the surface, I am a pretty calm guy, but once you flip that switch, look out! I started thinking about all of the things that are wrong with our industry, and of course, spec work reared its ugly head.

True story

Posted by Michael Alfian on Monday, March 9, 2015

Bargaining VS. Spec Work

These two are not the same thing, but they are close enough. Bargaining is one of those things that is a no-no. You can’t open that door for anyone. You should have a set price for everything you do, or an hourly rate. Value based billing is also a good practice, because you base your prices on what your work is worth, and what the client is getting out of it. Bargaining is when you name a price and the client refutes it, and then you lower it to win their business.

Bargaining Hurts Your Business in The Following Ways:

  • It says you don’t know the value of your own work.
  • It shows you haven’t thought your pricing structure through.
  • It shows a degree of desperation.
  • It takes the power away from you, and puts it in their hands before you even get started.
  • It opens the door to having them negotiate an even lower rate further down the road.

spec work - A tough scenario

What Is Spec Work?

In order to understand how to avoid this scenario, you have to know what spec work is. Spec work is when you work in exchange for the promise of more work, a job, or exposure. Every novice designer falls into this trap at least once. You’re so eager to get your name out there and to get a real world project right out of college, you may be willing to do anything to feel like you’re using your degree. The problem is that schools don’t teach you enough about spec work and working in the real world to prepare to defend yourself.

Avoid The Spec Work Trap

The best way to avoid the spec work trap is to build your career the right way. If you are self-taught, make sure to only take on paying work. Even if you set a lower rate to start out, you can always raise it as you progress and refine your skills. You may start out at $25 per hour, due to your skill level, but after a few dedicated years of real world experience, you may raise your rates to $50 per hour, and even $75. Some designers charge $150 per hour, and they make it – because they’re that good.

If you are just out of college, you should already have an internship under your belt. I know it’s tough to handle while going to school, but it’s all about how bad you want success. I went to school full time 2 days per week, I had a full time job in the evenings, and I worked a daytime internship the other 3 days during the week I wasn’t at school. It was tough, but the experience was well worth it. I learned more at my internship than I ever could from a book. You need that hands-on experience!

Know Your Worth!

Spec Work is all about trying to open designers up to the idea of providing a service in exchange for a promise, and it’s usually an empty one. The first thing you need to do is set your prices. Your time is worth something. If someone starts talking about promising your more work, you need to get up and leave the table. You should refuse any work that doesn’t result in a 50% down payment and a 50% paycheck at the end.

spec work & getting paid

7 Things to Remember So You Get Paid and Avoid Spec Work:

  1. Create a contract and stick to it.
  2. Get a 50% down payment check. This avoids them skipping out on the bill.
  3. Assess all of your expenses and determine how much you need to make.
  4. Develop your pricing structure on expenses + taxes + savings.
  5. Do not negotiate your prices. Set them and stick to them.
  6. Do not release any design files until final payment is received.
  7. Bill for extra time or add-ons requested by your clients.

Stand Your Ground!

You should be prepared for different scenarios, because there is no “one size fits all” remedy for battling spec work. Some clients will be happy to pay you for every bit of your work, because, believe it or not, some business owners actually do know the value of your graphic design & web design services. However, some clients will try to squeeze every drop of life out of you, like ravenous vampires. You need to stand firm to your agreement! If they hire you for a logo, and then they want you to do a flyer, that is beyond the original agreement. They may try to get you to throw that in, and believe me, they won’t be merciful with the revisions. Cut the snake off at the head and tell them you’ll be happy to do a flyer for their business, but it will be whatever your rate is for flyer design. If they don’t want to pay for it, guess who isn’t getting a flyer?

Do You Have Any Questions About Spec Work?

It’s tough out there. You’re going to encounter all types of people. Some will be timid, some will be aggressive, and others will even be persuasive. Don’t become the prey of some sneaky snake that wants to get work from you for free. Don’t get trapped into a project where a clients skips out on the bill. Set things in place to protect yourself, inform yourself, and stay vigilant. If you have any questions about spec work, or you want to share war stories, leave them in the comments section below.

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