Why And When Doing Spec Work Might Be A Good Idea

Christian Vasile once wrote an article about spec work in which he explained what spec work is and why saying no to it is a good idea. Most people seemed to agree with his take on the issue of spec work in the article. However, a comment left by Alex caught our attention, because she made several thoughtful counter-arguments to Christian’s take, showing that the issue of spec work is not as black and white as it might seem. What is Alex’s take on spec work and why? She will tell us herself in this interview!

Alex Bilusic is a graphic designer from Croatia. She has an MA degree in Graphic Design and Visual Communications. Alex has been working as a designer and an art-director for seven years, including freelancing for the last several years.

In this interview, Alex discusses:

  • How doing spec work helped her during a tough time of unemployment.
  • How spec work led to a long-term relationship with high quality clients.
  • Why spec work is not a black and white issue and what are the shades of grey here.

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I’m Alex, a 31 y.o. female graphic designer from Croatia. With formal education and MA in Graphic Design and Visual Communications, I have several years of experience working as a designer and art-director in advertising agencies and graphic design studios. For the last couple of years, I have been working as a freelance graphic designer with clients based worldwide and many of them acquired through controversial crowdsourcing sites.

2. What is your experience with graphic design in general? 

I did lots of graphic design work — from designing ads, layouts and book covers to corporate identities, logo design and print design. I prefer to do identity design (logo design) because I find it to be the most exciting part of every project and the basis for building a brand.

3. What is your experience with spec work and what’s your take on it?

I found myself officially unemployed a few years ago after quitting my last job because I had no time for a private life. Most spec-work websites had just started to roll out then. I was looking for a new job with normal working hours (and not spending 12+ hrs/day at work as I did at my last agency) and with the start of a global recession it seemed nearly impossible to find one. Many of my colleagues got fired, forced to go back and live with their parents because they couldn’t find a job and things did not look optimistic at all. In our country, the design profession is not as valued and there is a prevailing opinion that “anybody can do it”; not to mention the ridiculously low fees we are expected to charge if working as freelancers. I even got rejected at several job interviews because I was… well, over-educated so my minimum wage would have to be higher than that for someone less educated. I figured out that I still have to find a job of any kind to support myself, and between doing the dishes in a restaurant and working in my own profession I chose the latter.

It was the time for me to figure out my own way of finding new clients. I tried dealing with clients in my country, but for the above mentioned reasons it was not as fruitful; so I discovered some existing design “crowdsourcing” sites. I registered on many of them, tried out several and found the one which suits me best. Each of these sites was different in terms of designer “prizes”, payouts, requests, rules etc. I found 99designs to be the best fit (and this is not advertising!) – they are different because they actually encourage designers to establish long-term relationships with clients, and they don’t force you to do everything through their website (and at the same time pay a huge commission to them as well). I found that site to be of great help when I first started out as a freelancer because now I had to figure out my own way as a solo-designer: improve the (English) language, improve the written conversation, cope with refining my communication skills and of course brush up my graphic designer skills. Having a degree doesn’t mean you can just sit back and stop improving your work. the way, what do you think about the anti-spec movement going on at

I totally understand it and – although it might be a paradox – somehow support it. But each medal has 2 sides so I rarely embrace *any* particular movement in full, especially when it’s so strict – everything has pros and cons; while their reasons do sound legitimate, I have my own example to prove the opposite to many of them.

4. Spec work websites seem to be encouraging people to work without any guaranteed payment and this is the main reason it is getting so much criticism in the design community. What’s your take on that?

In my country, both students and educated designers are often forced by circumstances to work for free because that’s just the situation now. They work for peanuts (minimum wage, often the same as they’d earn as a janitor) or they work for “glory” hoping they will get noticed or work hard enough so they would be lucky enough to get a full-time job some day. They are in the same situation as those who are not as experienced or educated, which is not fair and which basically degrades our profession, education, value, skills and time invested in becoming a professional designer. That puts them in basically the same situation as those who choose to work for those spec work websites.

When I work outside of those crowdsourcing sites, I never work for free or for just a possibility of getting paid. I have been asked directly to participate in pitches, but I always declined, no matter how attractive the possibility of future work might sound or how exciting the project itself might be. I prefer the work like that only on 99designs site, because they at least have some guarantee and they do their best to protect designers. We can argue about how ethical these sites are, but I would like all of those who strongly oppose them to try them out first, figure out the process and see how it all works.

To be very honest: there are tons of bad designs on those sites. Sometimes a real bad design ends up as a contest winner. But that is also a part of the thrill: to educate a client about it, to offer advice and help them figure out how the whole process works and in the end to make it possible for a good design to win a contest. You would be surprised how many great designers work there and how awesome some of their work is. I have my own website with a portfolio and some client recommendations on it so clients can contact me directly with any inquiries.

5. It also seems that spec work websites target people who are most vulnerable, such as designers who are only starting out or designers from developing nations, and take advantage of them. How do you see this situation?

With the risk of sounding cruel and heartless – it’s just the way things work these days. The design world has changed. A lot. Yes, I would probably also like to be employed in a big agency where my skills would be valued, I would be paid for my work appropriately and fair (including paid for overtime which is generally not paid separately here) and I would like to be treated as a human… but the situation at the moment does not allow it. If in some third world country the average monthly income is $200, a designer from that country can maintain a really high standard of life if he only wins 1 or 2 design projects a month. In Croatia, you can not live with the support of the state like in some Scandinavian countries or elsewhere – you’re just on your own. In that situation you have to choose the way to make your living by either finding a new profession, staying as a parasite with your own family or doing what you can to stay in your profession, continue to educate yourself and earn a living while doing that.

6. There is also the client issue. People who go to spec work sites instead of hiring a designer are not likely to be the quality clients with which designers really want to work with. However, I know that you’ve developed several long term relationships with the clients you’ve done spec work for. Can you tell us more about it?

Let’s be honest – there are clients from hell everywhere. smile I have had some great and some absolutely terrible clients with whom I had to work when employed full time. As a freelancer, I can choose my projects and clients. With some of them whom I’ve met through the 99designs site I have established long-term relationships, so they come back to me whenever they need any graphic design work done. We even just drop a line occasionally to see if there’s any news… Maybe it would be too much to say that we’ve become friends, but we hope we will meet some day in person and we stay in touch – at least that’s easy these days. It’s also a great feeling when someone from another part of the world – e.g. Australia – drops me a line to Croatia saying he is so happy with the logo and business cards I did for him, and that he received many compliments and recommended me to his friends/colleagues… It’s priceless, and I’m not thinking of the financial side here.

People often think that designers doing spec work are basically screwdrivers – merely the tools for those clients who do not have enough knowledge to execute their own (sometimes terrible and sometimes great) ideas. It’s not always like that as you need to keep the professional standards and not just execute what clients expect you to do. It’s even easier to do it as a freelancer as you have the “power” and the luxury to decline a client by yourself or let him go if you see you’re not a good fit – instead of just having to deal with someone because you’ve been told so by your superiors.

7. There’s is a big difference between pro bono work and spec work. Most web designers favor pro bono work when given the choice between the two, but you seem to have a different opinion. What is your take on that?

Very simple: while pro bono work is, without a doubt, noble and might lead to new opportunities in the future, it does not pay the bills. I live in a rented apartment, I have to pay the rent, utility bills and eat, every month (O.K., I do eat every day, LOL). I do not want to rely on my parents to support me, as at this age and with my education that would be humiliating for all of us. When you sum it all up, working on spec work (crowdsourcing) sites is really not such a big deal.

You do everything you can to keep working and at least support yourself with what you’re educated and trained to do. Even if that means joining “one of those” notorious design crowdsourcing sites and shopping for new clients there, simultaneously filling up your portfolio with some great work. The only thing that matters is to maintain your professional and ethical standards, no matter where or how you work.

8. What would be your advice for people who are considering doing spec work? How can they avoid being taken advantage of and use spec work to fuel their career?

Weigh your options carefully.

“Nulla dies sine linea” – an old Roman saying attributed to Apelles – meaning “Not a day without a line drawn” can be applied here. I enjoy my job and I sometimes do things just for fun. I mostly work on design contests for the thrill of competition and as a way to get in contact with new clients; it’s also useful for brushing up on my skills and I always get inspired when I see anything new. I really don’t know where else I could get in touch with a Florida-based company looking for a designer and get hired for lots of projects with them! Sometimes I don’t win a contest, but the client likes my style, communication abilities and skills and we end up working on some other project directly.

So the biggest value is you get to brush up on your skills and connect with new and interesting people from all around the world. If your current situation allows it – try it, so at least you can judge from your own experience. People who have solid employment or work in great companies or have their own studios find it very easy to start flamewars and argue about how spec work should be erased from the face of the Earth – while some of their arguments might be valid, I would like them to take a walk in my shoes and try things out themselves – after that experience, I would appreciate them sharing it. My standing on speculative work was very similar to theirs in the past, but…things change. Times change.

 9.  Last, but not least, what would be your advice for people who are already doing spec work?

If you find it to be too frustrating or if you can’t handle it, if your ego gets hurt a lot – stop doing it and find another way to earn a living. If you enjoy doing it or find some value in such work, and if you are fully aware of your own value, you will not get frustrated and you can avoid all the traps of feeling underestimated or feeling like an idiot while working for a “possibility of getting paid”. You just have to define your goals and find your own ideal way to work. Personally, what I enjoy the most is the possibility to work from home, choose projects and clients and define my own schedule. I can also work tirelessly for a few months and then take some time off and go to vacation for 2 months.

What do you think of spec work? Share with us in the comments!