Let's discuss design for spec

Miss Tiffany's picture

It seems the topic of design for spec is something we could use a thread for reference at later dates. I'm hoping Peter Bain contributes as his thoughts on this matter are both articulate and thoughtful.

Design for spec, in my eyes, is degrading for the professional community at large. Personally--because it is a personal decision--I do not design on spec. If I am putting mouse to desk, or pencil to paper, I have an agreement in place for compensation.

The site http://www.no-spec.com/ has many interesting things on this topic and is worth reading.

What are your thoughts? How do you handle it? Please don't use this thread as a place to vent or rant. Thoughtful contributions only please.

blank's picture

A student perspective:

I stay away from all the spec jobs out there that prey on design students. They're usually in the form of some contest or other, often for obscure non-profits or small businesses seeking cheap web design. On top of just being downright insulted by the notion that I should have to do work beyond what I present as a portfolio to land work, I just don't have time for spec nonsense. At least design firms can find ways to write off lost spec work as business development and possibly sue the client if he uses it anyway. For me taking the time to design and revise work in the hope that it might get me paid at some point means taking time from my school, which, at $11,400 a semester, is a pretty stupid thing to due without a guaranteed payoff.

It's even worse insulting when the person trying to get the spec work is in an advertising/PR/design firm. Such a person should just get an unpaid intern, at least that way some course credit comes out of the work.

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Spec work is a harmful practice.

Doing work on spec amounts to providing design work for free (or for a nominal fee) as part of a pitch for new business. Many major private and public sector clients think it is good business practice to require spec work as part of their search and selection process when recruiting the services of a graphic designer or design firm.
In fact, requests for spec work:

  • are exploitative, as they demand design work for free and without guarantee of compensation ;
  • are therefore unethical ;
  • offer no future potential ;
  • can lead to copyright infringement ;
  • devalue the profession of graphic design and lead to negative competitive practices ;
  • threaten the integrity and work ethic of the graphic design profession ;
  • are discouraged by allied professions such as the advertising industry.

Neither the designer nor the client benefit from spec work. Designers who work on spec cannot do justice to the design brief. They are unlikely to conduct the research and analysis needed to produce their best work, since they have no guarantee of remuneration. Further, their status as professionals and their role as consultants, partners or members of a strategic communications team are compromised.

Nick Shinn's picture

In Canada, barter is supposed to be accompanied by a slip from the supplier(s) detailing how much the work is worth, and this amount is taxable income.

Imagine if that stipulation were applied to those providing spec work...

ebensorkin's picture

I always tell me clients that it will harm them as much as myself not least because it's a waste of time and opportunity for them. Dealt with in a straightforeward unemotional way, and thought through clearly almost everyone I have worked with understands that it's not really a good idea. Design is a risk and somebody has to be willing to take that risk - just like in business. Often a design for spec request is a political/emotional response to not wanting to take that risk - often because the nature risk isn't clear to them. The spec approach is ham handed attempt at reducing risk. Seen from that perspective it can be an oppotunity to form a bond with the peroson or group, frame the risk for them. Same as a doctor or lawyer might. Neither can completely insure a desired outcome but they can help bolster your chances!

blank's picture

It wouldn't be hard to do that here in the States, although I would imagine the nasty lawsuits would cause problems.

Alaskan's picture

I had a truly negative experience doing a design "test" (aka "spec")for a job I really wanted. Post second interview, I was given a four page layout assignment to "test" my skills. They gave me text only, with complex organizational requirements, with zero style guidelines and no resource to inquire for further instruction. They requested I be "creative." My emails requesting further instruction went unanswered.

I really wanted the gig, so I gave it my best shot with a classic "arts and crafts" style. I produced an elegant, clean design, with seven hand drawn icons. I spent a week on the project, only to be rejected with this reasoning: "they were looking for a modern, layered style".

It's the last time I ever do "spec" work even for a "long term" gig.

Spec work, even disguised as part of the interview process, is bad for all design. It's like asking an actor to wear their favorite costume to an interview, and then, when they show up dressed as Spiderman, rejecting them because it's a Shakespeare play.


Linda Cunningham's picture

Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more common in job interviews that there is some sort of "creative" provided: it's a disturbing trend here, as job-hunting (and poaching) is rampant, given the high demand for professionals.

What's worse, this is happening at at senior level, not just entry-level. I've had supposedly respectable companies and educational institutions (not to name names publicly) demand multipage work (formal grants, large newsletters) created to their specifications, copies of successful projects that they can retain, etc. I've picked up my briefcase, stuffed my portfolio away, and politely said "thanks, but no thanks" as I've walked out the door.

(And have sworn mightily as I've headed home: there's a reason I've become excessively cynical over the years.)

What's really sad is the number of people who actually jump though all those hoops in hopes of being "the one."

Nick Shinn's picture

Grant applications -- now there's a job of work.
I tried it recently, spent ages thinking up and refining a research project, had many meetings with the faculty before writing the proposal.
Then it was rejected by the grants foundation. I got the impression from their criticism that I should have had half the project figured out before I applied.
So yes, highly speculative. WAFWOT, never again.

nicholasgross's picture

I think when you're a young designer you're more likely to do spec work. I did it as one of my first 'paid' (more on that later…) jobs because 1. I was very grateful to be getting any gig and 2. My confidence in my own design skills were fairly low and 3. I had no idea or experience at these kind of things.

I agreed to submit some logo designs for a interstate company through a middle-man type agency and worked *really* hard and long on them coming up with many variations. They liked some (I think) so I worked these up into finished ones, for some reason or other they wanted some more, so I worked on some rough thumbnails only (not wanting to spend more time coming up eith stuff they wouldn't use) and we emailed them through to the company.

That was the last I heard from either the company or the agency, no phone call no anything, I think I rang and was told the company was changing management so… I made up an invoice of my *very reasonable* expenses, printed it out, enclosed it a stamped envelope and then kept it in my car unsent until I finally threw it away. I was ashamed that I had shown the clients rough sketches and possibly scared them off, also we hadn't discussed any kind of payment, I believed the problem was my unprofessionalism. On reflection it seems like it was a bad situation from the beginning but perhaps I would've benefitted from having the courage to resolve the issue.

My point is that spec work problem comes from designers not having enough confidence in their abilities or ability to land a job and so they see it as a foot in the door for better or worse. Needless to say I won't make the same mistake again


gln's picture

This is my form letter I send out on spec work.


The main product of our business is ideas — creative solutions to the communications problems and opportunities facing our many clients. Good ideas — creativity — can be tough to define, or agree upon. One person's passion is often another's poison. So it's no wonder that potential clients often ask us to take a project on speculation. That is, to try out our creative product in much the same way they may try out other types of products before purchasing.

Unfortunately, we must turn down such projects. This will explain why doing so actually makes us a better, more stable and reliable supplier for you to do business with.


We make money mostly by selling our time. Unlike businesses that sell products, we can't take time back and resell it. Thus, the less time we actually sell, the more we have to charge for it. So we attempt to hold our prices down by keeping constantly busy.

We also have substantial fixed overhead costs — computers, peripherals, software, etc. So the higher the percentage of our time that is productive (billable), the more we can spread these costs, and the less each individual client gets charged for them.

In addition, the only way we can recover our overhead costs is through what we charge our clients. If we accepted speculative projects, the overhead for these non-billable hours would have to be added to the
factor we already charge our regular, paying clients. We don't think this would be fair.


We are very proud of our track record of helping many different clients with many different challenges.
In doing so, we have come to understand the crucial components in producing outstanding creativity.

First, outstanding creative work requires good, complete input from our clients. It takes time and effort that's tough for them to justify unless they are committed to awarding an assignment. Yet without it, we can't show how good we really are. Or our best effort may well be misdirected; a great shot that hits the wrong target.

Equally important, great creativity requires enthusiasm. We need to be excited enough to pour all our
energy into a project. Frankly, that's impossible without knowing whether we will be chosen to go all the way, or even get paid.

And, finally, developing creativity is very labor intensive. Although we wish it were otherwise, it seldom comes in a flash of inspiration. Rather, it usually requires research and thinking time, then the working through of many different ideas and approaches. This makes it difficult or impossible to do good work in
a compressed time frame.

Speculative projects, whether done by us or some other firm, usually require cutting every creative corner. That's hardly in your best interests, or ours.


We hope our small size is what attracted you to us. It has lots of business advantages.

Because we are small, you get to deal directly with those actually doing your work; there are no “middle- men” to muck things up. It also means we're more flexible, able to turn things around faster. We can offer better, more personal service too. Because our overhead is lower than the big guys, so are our prices. In a business like creativity, size is seldom an advantage.

All these are reasons why we have been so successful. It may also be why you called us.

Another reason for our success is that we are good business people. We know that a small business like ours (probably yours, too) has to watch costs carefully and can't afford to give much away. If we weren't careful — if we did give away our time — it is likely we wouldn't be here next time you called, which means you'd have start all over again bringing someone else up to speed learning your business. We doubt you'd want that, and we know we wouldn't. We believe we should both be looking to build a long-term, mutually-productive and cost-efficient business relationship.

Truth is, small organizations like ours can seldom afford to accept speculative projects. If you find one that will, be skeptical, they may be desperate.

As for larger organizations and agencies, yes they can afford to do speculative projects, and often do. But that's the very point. If they do have the volume and staff that makes it a small risk for them, they're probably too big to give you the personal service and outstanding creativity you're searching for.

We hope you'll give us the opportunity sometime soon to prove just how good we really are.
I would be happy to show you our complete portfolio. The work we have done for many other clients with many other challenges speaks volumes about our abilities.


david h's picture

> This is my form letter I send out on spec work.

This is the State of The Union :^)

Don McCahill's picture

I want to stick up for the "test" that some companies make a designer do as part of the hiring process. Now this is evil if the goal is to "get ideas" or develop work that can be sold. But when hiring entry level staff, who often have underwhelming portfolios (or suspect portfolios) this can be useful.

For instance, a portfolio might have a few dozen good examples, but did they take three hours, or three weeks to design. And are they entirely the designers work, or more likely they have passed through an instructors hands two or three times, with suggestions to make them more professional looking.

A one to two hour test, with four or five tasks, can be very useful in determining exactly how familiar a junior is with the software, and how much training will be needed to get him/her up to speed. The test should be the same one for all interviewees, to enable comparison of the results.

Here is the reason why this is done. A place asks an applicant "Do you know Pagemaker" (several years ago, when it was an almost current program). "Sure, we took it in school."

Applicant is given a floppy with an image, a text file, and told to make it into a 3.5 x 5 inch newspaper ad (a staple of that position). Checking 15 minutes later, applicant has nothing done, but is furiously working the menus and palettes of PageMaker, totally lost.

Apparently she took PageMaker in school three years earlier in first term, and hadn't touched it since. She had totally no clue what she was doing. Hiring her would have been an expensive mistake.

aluminum's picture

"But when hiring entry level staff, who often have underwhelming portfolios (or suspect portfolios) this can be useful."

If the portfolio is 'suspect' or 'underwhelming' why hire them for anything other than an entry level position to begin with?

If I were hiring in a firm, I'd ask people to take the creative test. Then I'd only hire the folks that refused to do it. ;o)

That said, you're not talking about a creative test. You're talking about software proficiency skills. And while the person was incorrect in saying 'sure, I know pagemaker' I wouldn't have called it an 'expensive mistake' to hire her either. A competant designer can learn software in a weekend if given the chance.

dezcom's picture

There is a difference between spec work and a hiring test--at least there should be! A hiring test should not be something that would ever be used beyond that person's job interview and surely not a piece the company could profit from in any way. I am not fond of the hiring test myself and believe the portfolio, interview, and resume should be enough. I am fine with having a probationary period that the person would be paid for their work but be let go if their performance does not jive with what their portfolio showed.
Spec work is just slave labor and is demeaning to the young designers trying to get a job. The so-called "contest" is just another euphamism for free work. The only way to stop it is if nobody buys into it. Even if you are a starving design student fresh out just looking for a first job. I guarantee, you won't get it this way. What you will get is screwed--upsidedown, rightsideup, and sideways, Screwed. You will not gain confidence--you will just feel used and abused.
Design a good portfolio, join your local AIGA or ADC and start meeting people who might be able to connect you with something later. Get a temporary job as a waiter if you need to (I sold shoes) but don't bite on the spec bull S@#t.


mili's picture

Thank you very much for this thread (and the other one related), it helped me a lot in a situation I found myself in yesterday. I had decided to turn down competitions anyway, but Typophile just reinforced my decision.

I was asked to quote a price for a corporate image last week, and yesterday they contacted me asking if I would agree to make a few preliminary suggestions for free, as someone else had offered to do just that, before they decide who they are going to work with. The other company/designer was only going to give a price if their design was chosen. I turned the suggestion down telling the potential client that my portfolio should be enough proof of my skills and style and that I don't do competitions.

I have competed occasionally in the past, but they rarely turn out to be fruitful, since the job is usually given to the VP's niece's next door neighbour anyway.

Linda Cunningham's picture

ROFL! Now there's a T-shirt for designers if there ever was one.

dezcom's picture

"...the job is usually given to the VP’s niece’s next door neighbour anyway."

Or to the woman he sleeps with behind his wife's back. :-)


dezcom's picture

I should comment that the vast majority of clients out there are reputable and would not use such tactics as work for spec or bogus contests. There are some slugs out there who feed on the young and hungry designers though and these are the bottom feeders of whom we speak.


Chris Keegan's picture

Would you consider it spec work if you did design work purely on your own - as a pitch to a potential client? In other words, they didn't ask you to, you did it on your own and approached them first? Thoughts? (I read an article a while back, where an illustrator does this, and it's worked quite well.)

Linda Cunningham's picture

I'd like to follow-up on Chris's comment about hiring tests -- one of the best ones I ever took (a number of years ago, for a regional Canadian book publisher) had some useful questions like Don's talked about (identifying samples set in TNR, Avant Garde, Palatino, and Helvetica), but my favourite question was:

Draw a freehand map of Canada and label at least one place in each province with its appropriate Canadian literary connection. Extra points for additional places correctly identified in novels or non-fiction, giving title and/or author.

Too bad they took three months (!) to make up their minds and weren't paying much more than minimum wage: I was offered a better-paying gig in the interim before they offered me this job.

dezcom's picture

"Would you consider it spec work if you did design work purely on your own ..."

I think that is a different beast. In that case, youare creating a portfoio piece.


Norbert Florendo's picture

Unfortunately there seems to be a common practice in the US for agencies to compete (generally at the potential client's request as RFP) to win an account.

This process involve throwing LOTS and LOTS of creative development into proposing ad, TV, print and web campaigns just in order to compete for the client's account. Rewards can be big, but it's still basically "on spec".

dezcom's picture

RFPs that involve doing design as part of them should include a pre-established proposal fee for each submitter.


BruceS63's picture

This was posted on Craigslist just the other day, then removed because too many people were offended by it. Too bad requests for spec aren't removed by all the offended designers! Here it is (author unknown):

Every day, there are more and more CL posts seeking "artists" for everything from auto graphics to comic books to corporate logo designs. More people are finding themselves in need of some form of illustrative service.

But what they're NOT doing, unfortunately, is realizing how rare someone with these particular talents can be.

To those who are "seeking artists", let me ask you; How many people do you know, personally, with the talent and skill to perform the services you need? A dozen? Five? One? ...none?

More than likely, you don't know any. Otherwise, you wouldn't be posting on craigslist to find them.

And this is not really a surprise.

In this country, there are almost twice as many neurosurgeons as there are professional illustrators. There are eleven times as many certified mechanics. There are SEVENTY times as many people in the IT field.

So, given that they are less rare, and therefore less in demand, would it make sense to ask your mechanic to work on your car for free? Would you look him in the eye, with a straight face, and tell him that his compensation would be the ability to have his work shown to others as you drive down the street?

Would you offer a neurosurgeon the "opportunity" to add your name to his resume as payment for removing that pesky tumor? (Maybe you could offer him "a few bucks" for "materials". What a deal!)

Would you be able to seriously even CONSIDER offering your web hosting service the chance to have people see their work, by viewing your website, as their payment for hosting you?

If you answered "yes" to ANY of the above, you're obviously insane. If you answered "no", then kudos to you for living in the real world.

But then tell me... why would you think it is okay to live out the same, delusional, ridiculous fantasy when seeking someone whose abilities are even less in supply than these folks?

Graphic artists, illustrators, painters, etc., are skilled tradesmen. As such, to consider them as, or deal with them as, anything less than professionals fully deserving of your respect is both insulting and a bad reflection on you as a sane, reasonable person. In short, it makes you look like a twit.

A few things you need to know;

1. It is not a "great opportunity" for an artist to have his work seen on your car/'zine/website/bedroom wall, etc. It IS a "great opportunity" for YOU to have their work there.

2. It is not clever to seek a "student" or "beginner" in an attempt to get work for free. It's ignorant and insulting. They may be "students", but that does not mean they don't deserve to be paid for their hard work. You were a "student" once, too. Would you have taken that job at McDonalds with no pay, because you were learning essential job skills for the real world? Yes, your proposition it JUST as stupid.

3. The chance to have their name on something that is going to be seen by other people, whether it's one or one million, is NOT a valid enticement. Neither is the right to add that work to their "portfolio". They get to do those things ANYWAY, after being paid as they should. It's not compensation. It's their right, and it's a given.

4. Stop thinking that you're giving them some great chance to work. Once they skip over your silly ad, as they should, the next ad is usually for someone who lives in the real world, and as such, will pay them. There are far more jobs needing these skills than there are people who possess these skills.

5. Students DO need "experience". But they do NOT need to get it by giving their work away. In fact, this does not even offer them the experience they need. Anyone who will not/can not pay them is obviously the type of person or business they should be ashamed to have on their resume anyway. Do you think professional contractors list the "experience" they got while nailing down a loose step at their grandmother's house when they were seventeen?

If you your company or gig was worth listing as desired experience, it would be able to pay for the services it received. The only experience they will get doing free work for you is a lesson learned in what kinds of scrubs they should not lower themselves to deal with.

6. (This one is FOR the artists out there, please pay attention.) Some will ask you to "submit work for consideration". They may even be posing as some sort of "contest". These are almost always scams. They will take the work submitted by many artists seeking to win the "contest", or be "chosen" for the gig, and find what they like most. They will then usually have someone who works for them, or someone who works incredibly cheap because they have no originality or talent of their own, reproduce that same work, or even just make slight modifications to it, and claim it as their own. You will NOT be paid, you will NOT win the contest. The only people who win, here, are the underhanded folks who run these ads. This is speculative, or "spec", work. It's risky at best, and a complete scam at worst. I urge you to avoid it, completely. For more information on this subject, please visit www.no-spec.com.

So to artists/designers/illustrators looking for work, do everyone a favor, ESPECIALLY yourselves, and avoid people who do not intend to pay you. Whether they are "spec" gigs, or just some guy who wants a free mural on his living room walls. They need you. You do NOT need them.

And for those who are looking for someone to do work for free... please wake up and join the real world. The only thing you're accomplishing is to insult those with the skills you need. Get a clue.

Alaskan's picture

Bruce -- What an AWESOME post! I'm on my feet, screaming, clapping and stomping my happy feet as if it were the very last minute of Bush's presidency!

I for one, will flag every Craigslist post looking for spec work from now on. Are you all with me?


Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Hey Bruce (and everyone else), Unbeige has a post about that Craigslist bait-and-switch ad -- seems lik it is still up after all!

Jackie Frant's picture

Nick - in the USA we are suppose to get a bill and give a bill in a barter situation. It is suppose to be counted as income -- but it is a practice most tend to forget. For others, they belong to "barter" clubs -- where there is a network of people offering services. I do work for a community theatre that this year was able to get all new carpeting for their lobby and theater aisles - because of this type of club.

As for spec work. It looks like we are all agreed - it's a no-no. I just wanted to put my little old 2 cents in for the new graphic designers out there -- and maybe it will one day help someone. I already referred someone to this in another thread that was here. That said, the advice is -- you have a price in your head of what you would like to charge for the job. Instead of spec - offer a 33% reject fee. Or rather, ask for 33% down and offer your sketches after the check clears the bank. If the customer is unhappy with the thumbprints - then... keep the 33% as a reject fee and move on. If the customer is happy, get the next 33% and upon finalization and fulfillment - collect the last 34%.

Hope that helps someone one day.

Bruce's picture

Just a fast note to say that Jackie is right on in his recommendations, and I agree with what others have said above.

I never do spec work -- it drains away time that can be better put to other things. In my opinion, spec work is like buying a lottery ticket, which I consider to be a tax on the poor. We designers as a species tend to be not paid very much as it is, so why not keep our precious energies for either true paying work, or for generating portfolio work on our own time that is exactly the way we want it to be.

Chris Rugen's picture

Eben has hit the nail squarely on the head, and what I like most is that he frames it in terms that a business client will understand (an important skill in a designer):

"Design is a risk and somebody has to be willing to take that risk - just like in business....Seen from that perspective it can be an opportunity to form a bond with the person or group, frame the risk for them."

This is exactly how I describe it as well (and have done so with clients). It's completely logical for someone to try and reduce their risk in this way, just as it's completely logical for a designer to push back and explain why. For design to work best, both sides must be committed to the process and to contributing the best input they can provide. In other words, they need to have a stake in the game. Otherwise, it's a well-trained shot in the dark.

hwhite's picture

As a small business owner on a budget....

(with a personal interest in graphic design - but with no talent & skills yet - but it's one of my goals - so consider me a pre-newbee and please don't kick me off this board)

.....I just want to say that I have always and only 'paid as agreed' once the contracted work was completed. Not having the budget for some agency - I usually made my decision on "who to hire" based on viewing a pre-existing portfolio of work and the artist bid price.

Since I've only used eLance so far to find my artists - I have never even thought of getting the work done on spec. (Not an option on eLance.)

But now that it's come up - I don't think its fair to lump all small business owners looking for cheap web design into a group that would require 'on spec' work.

I agree with the lot of you - that considering what's involved in your line of work (way too much variable information) it's just not right for anyone to expect work of this nature to be done for free.

My day job involves Real Estate and real estate agents are also conned into this work for free stuff.

For example there are millions for fly-by-night and legitimate BPO companies that offer agents almost nothing to run around in their cars - often 30 to 50 miles out of their way, expecting them to take pictures of some house and then go back to the office or home and spend another 2-3 hours doing a detailed BPO (Broker's Price Opinion - like a mini appraisal,) and then uploading all the details and the property photos online. The BPO company get's $150-$200 from the person ordering the BPO and the agent is lucky to get $30-50.

Many agents get hooked on doing these - especially when business is slow - because every once and a while - a BPO turns into a future listing (the odds here are as likely as winning a graphic artist contest.)

Total waste of time in my opinion. (ask me how I know)

Many of these companies never even pay.

But - there are 100's of new or otherwise struggling Real Estate agents ready to do these 'bit' jobs and plenty of folks "selling" lists of these BPO companies encouraging agents to sign up and make extra money.

So, having done a fair few of these in my life - I can appreciate where you are all coming from when you talk about doing work and not getting paid.

Even now - I'm still in a profession that only gets me paid at the END of a transaction, IF and only IF we can close the deal. So, sometimes I put in hundreds of hours on a transaction - only to see the deal fall apart.

But I don't mind, because the prize is a nice healthy commission check. My risk is justified by my potential reward. And as long as I have a constant flow of transactions - it won't kill me when one or two don't close.

But that's for a real commission - not a lousy $50.00.


Back to your world....

That CL post above that talked about how RARE real graphic artists and illustrators are -- is that really true???

Maybe that's why I've had so much trouble finding anyone really good to help me design my various websites and company logos and marketing pieces.

I don't have the funds to hire some local hot shot advertising agency. And even if I did - I'm sure I'd still be considered an entry level client - so I'd expect even them to spit out something relatively mediocre - even if it's wrapped in prettier paper.

Bottom line - as a small business owner - I am willing and eager to pay fair prices for quality work. But it's so hard to find the right person.

So far - for my various business/real estate projects - where I've needed artistic input - I've only used eLance to find illustrators, graphic artists, etc.

Have I been looking in the wrong place?

And even though I wasn't always blown away by the results - I always paid the agreed amount once the product was delivered.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's difficult being on the other side (my end) - you know - needing the creative input - and yet not wanting to have another round of mediocre work put in front of you after agreeing to pay X for it.

Still - I don't think I'd want to hire an artist who was willing to work for free. I'd feel guilty and I'd think they had no real confidence in themselves.

Are there any ways to test if an artist is creating original work, can actually draw or illustate, and is not just manipulating clip art?

I always end up picking the artist that has in their portfolios the most beautiful illustrations - such as the restaurant logo with rendered wine grapes or ivy wrapped around some beautiful font declaring the restaurants name - with multiple shadow affects on the box, etc.

Then after I've made my choice - I always get presented with some under whelming collection of truly un-attractive, poorly designed, poorly balanced - choices -that even I can see aren't good or well thought out.

Often these images incorporate recognizable clip art graphic elements and have bland type faces that do not appear to have any kerning capability. (if that's the right word for spacing between letters.)

So I ask the hired graphic artist, "Can you incorporate a cute illustrated house that looks like those grapes in that restaurant logo?"

"Oh no, those are more expensive logos....that's not what you're getting here," says the winning eLance bidder.

So I take the best of the boring and tweak it - suggesting improvements until it's almost OK or at least no longer offends my sensibilities - and THEN after I've paid for the work and received the files, I realize the logo is inside a White Box, the blue background is too light to use in print media, and the image won't work on anything that doesn't have a White Background.

Now what???

Usually - the artist is gone, non-responsive or when they get back to me - wants me to open up another order.

Perhaps one of you can write a book for the small business owners:

"How to Select and Hire an Independent Graphic Artist and Illustrator to Enhance Your Business Image without Losing Your Shirt."

If so - I'll buy the first copy.


timd's picture

“How to Select and Hire an Independent Graphic Artist and Illustrator to Enhance Your Business Image without Losing Your Shirt.”

There is a resource on the AIGA which might help Client’s guide to design.

Part of what you describe is the risk that Eben describes and it seems to me that impersonal web-contact is an added risk. I would recommend you actually meet face-to-face with a local designer or agency, needn't be a hotshot agency, for each hotshot agency there are many more grounded, realistic agencies (at least, I hope so, I am in London and don't know the situation there).
Since you are aware of kerning and have an interest in design, I would guess that you have an advantage over many clients, use that advantage to create the brief for the job.
Provide an indication of objectives; the functions of the piece by priority; the target audience; if possible, copy and images; any legal requirements. You might provide a ‘mood board’ of colours or looks that appeal to you (or appeal to your target audience). You aren’t trying to design the piece but you are giving them as clear a guidance as possible, this could include dislikes or definite no-no’s. You can agree a budget and a timeline for proof(s), approval, sign-off and production. Different designers work in different ways, spend some time to find one that you can get along with professionally, an experienced designer will be able to assess your requirements and advise on the achievability of the project. You could, I suppose, ask your competitors who does their design (if you admire it, obviously).
Hope you keep your shirt,

Kristina Drake's picture

Here's my two cents on the subject. I'm learning on-the-job and each time I edit/design/produce something, I put a few copies aside. However, given the job I have, these are all pretty plain publications. I get little to no opportunity to work with colour, but I would like to learn. I also would like to work on something other than academic material.

So, when a friend of an ex-boyfriend (should have recognized that as a warning sign immediately) called up asking if I wanted to be the designer for the literary/arts journal, I was thrilled. She said they hadn't secured a publisher yet, but that if they did, the gig would become a paying gig. I was happy to be given the opportunity, even without the cash, because I figured it would be something to add to my portfolio, and I'd learn a few things (which I did, just not what I thought I'd learn).

There were two women driving the project -- both of them with impressive (to me) credentials: an Oxford scholar and professor, and an editor at a large publishing house. Since they were in England, everything would be done by email, and that was ok by me. I was totally enthusiastic. When she sent me the specs, I eagerly got started designing a couple of sample spreads. I sent that back to them and waited for a reply. And waited. And waited. When it finally came, some 3 weeks later, she apologized for taking so long, and then had a list of changes they wanted to see. More affirmations about how the journal was progressing, how busy they'd been, and when they expected to present the proposal. I made the changes, feeling twinges of annoyance that she had been so unprofessional about getting back to me. I sent the changes and again, I waited over a month before I heard anything. This time, the response was that they liked the design, they were going to use it in the proposal, and that "we have listed you as part of the core journal team, as head of deisgn."

That's when I knew.

Any time someone tries, unprompted, to bestow upon you titles that will make you feel important and reassure you of your (until then unquestioned) place in the group, take a look at the way they're acting. Chances are they're just trying to use you a little longer by appealing to your ego.

I received that last email in October and haven't heard boo since. Not even a "hey, sorry, things didn't work out". Nothing.

Which also makes me think I *should* judge people by who their friends are.

On the other hand, I do free editing for a friend at work. He desperately needs, and greatly appreciates the help. It gives me a chance to practice and it turns into a mini language lesson for him. He's learning, and he buys me lunch at the end of the semester.


Linda Cunningham's picture

And you've learned more than a few valuable lessons, Kristina -- most of them good ones.

As designers, we get to pick and choose, like anyone else, who we want to volunteer our time for. I don't look at doing umpaid work for causes I believe in as doing work on spec, and I've even chosen to volunteer for something simply because it would give me the opportunity to either learn something new, or make contacts that in the future, could (and have, in the past) turn into paying jobs.

But that's a choice we make, not one imposed on us by others.

(And sure, everyone has an ego. I got suckered into a job like that for a friend of a friend, with grand promises of, well, grand promises. Turns out that he did this to every design firm he ever worked with.)

It gives me a chance to practice and it turns into a mini language lesson for him. He’s learning, and he buys me lunch at the end of the semester.

I've got a client like this as well. She pays out-of-pocket to me to tidy up and buys good lunches: wish I had ten clients like her, as I'd have enough work to keep me busy and never have to buy lunch. ;-)

Don McCahill's picture

> That CL post above that talked about how RARE real graphic artists and illustrators are — is that really true???

Real graphic artists are rare. Throw a stone into a crowd, and it is unlikely you will be hitting a GA. You could even through a lot of stones (at least until the police come to get you.)

However, there are a lot of "wannabe" Graphic Artists. They bought Photoshop (or downloaded a pirate of it) and expect to make a living at it. Throw as many stones at these people as you want.

timd's picture

Designing for an as-yet unpublished magazine or journal can be a risk, sometimes it turns into acrimony but can be sublime, I have done something very similar, even down to the ex-girlfriend, and although it took time, did work out after a (long) while and with some of the spreads in my portfolio I was able to move on having passed on the work to a friend of mine who had just left college. OTOH an ex-colleague (who, frankly, should have known better) did something similar and ended up having her credit card cloned and identity stolen and now faces all kinds of legal hoops and hurdles.
Pro-bono can be satisfying, but isn’t speculative work, in the situation of paid pitch work I suspect I put more into it than the payment warrants, so I can't truly claim that I refuse to do spec work.


dezcom's picture

Don nailed it pretty well with his post above. Years ago before computers got into the business. It was too hard for a wannabe to make a showing so there were far fewer. Today, anybody who buys software and clip art thinks they can do it. These folks dilute the marketr for the skilled designers--mostly they affect the younger recent grads trying to make their way. They also rarely understand production and prep for printing so clients get burned by having there jobs fail to print as expected. Clients then get annoyed and blame the whole profession. As designers, we owe it to our clients to guarantee that our work will print as specified (given the printer knows his job too).


timd's picture

Couldn't we be more creative and hurl old puck-shaped mouses?


pattyfab's picture

I only "audition" for design jobs if there is a fee for my spec work. Both from the standpoint of paying me for my hard work and also hedging against them stealing my ideas and going with another designer. If I've been paid then I feel they have the right to my ideas, even tho I'd be mighty steamed if I saw them in another person's work.

TBiddy's picture

Gerald and Bruce's posts were awesome. Whenever I get an e-mail from someone telling me "it'll help me build my portfolio" I'll send them the latter response. :)

inarges's picture

Heidi - I'm sorry you've had such bad experiences with freelancers. I don't actually know much about eLance (okay, next to nothing), so I couldn't say why in particular you've had bad experiences through them, though as someone said above, the de-personalizing effect of the internet is part of it.

However, one thing that I've observed is that all of the best designers and art directors I know are employed full-time by various agencies, or they've started up their own agencies.

I think that small business people in particular like to do business with a single freelancer because it tends to be a little less expensive and maybe feels more comfortable - but the niche of being a self-employed, solo, GOOD freelance designer or art director is really small. If you're good, you tend to get snapped up by an agency. So the solo freelancer is a person who has enough just enough entrepreneurial spirit not to want to work for someone else, but not quite enough to go ahead and establish their own design firm and start hiring other people. I think that's a pretty rare situation, and tends to be an intermediate phase for most people.

I also think that a good freelance designer or art director is liable to be getting work through her personal network, word of mouth, existing contacts, etc. That person is far less likely to sign up with eLance in the first place, much less rely on it as a source of income.

That is my opinion - I've got nothing to back it up but my own life experience.

As far as having better experiences for the future, I would echo Tim's advice & look for a small local firm where you can feel out the designers yourself and get local references / recommendations.

Good luck.

mjpatrick's picture

There is lots of good advice from some very wise people to be read here.

Unfortunately, I was not so wise. I did quite a bit of spec work when I started on my own. I didn't have many contacts and was pretty desperate for any work or exposure I could get. Most of the spec work I'd chosen to take on was tailored towards creating elements I thought would help bolster the portfolio I'd built at school.

I also saw a need to keep myself sharp design-wise, and although I wasn't thrilled with the idea of designing for free, I saw it at least a little more legitimate than if I'd simply created my own projects to fill the void.

Looking back a lot of the experiences that came from them were fairly damaging. Lots of time lost on jobs that went nowhere. Initial bewilderment and then disgust with individuals who requested countless design changes with little if any respect to my time or efforts. And it never helped much with paying the bills of course.

Also, very little of the spec work I did wound up in any portfolio. Some work was left unfinished because I got tired trying to make some cheapskate vision see the light of day. As for the work that did get done... that usually came with so many headaches I never wanted to look at it again.

Design for spec was also the first experience I had where an artist took artwork I had submitted on good faith and credited himself for it.

I should note that I don't write the experiences off as a complete loss; they certainly taught me to read people and what they are actually asking for better. They also gave me experience, although not the kind I'd thought I'd get....

Thankfully those days seem to be behind me now. When I read the comments about designing for spec devaluing not just the work itself but the profession as a whole, I can only remember what I went through and agree 100%.... don't do it, it's not worth it.

pattyfab's picture

However, one thing that I’ve observed is that all of the best designers and art directors I know are employed full-time by various agencies, or they’ve started up their own agencies....but the niche of being a self-employed, solo, GOOD freelance designer or art director is really small. If you’re good, you tend to get snapped up by an agency.

Whoa there. That may be true of advertising or branding but not so at all in other areas of design. In fact one of the great things about being a designer is the ability to make a good living without being full-time employed.

I also think that a good freelance designer or art director is liable to be getting work through her personal network, word of mouth, existing contacts, etc. That person is far less likely to sign up with eLance in the first place, much less rely on it as a source of income.

This I agree with. I built up a roster of clients by doing freelance work on the side when fulltime employed. When I set out on my own I already had them in place plus 15 yrs design work and all the contacts I'd made thru those years.

Nevertheless I was asked to "audition" for a design job recently by doing something on spec. I was paid but the experience was very frustrating especially since the author (Chuck Close) really wanted to work with me and the publisher was being pissy and insisting they choose the designer. I didn't get the job and think it was a powerplay by the publisher. But since I did get paid I can't say I was ripped off. A small fee for spec work is pretty standard in editorial design.

inarges's picture

Like I said, this is from my own anecdotal experience. I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that there aren't good self-employed designers out there.

It sounds like you work in book design, which I'm sure is a bit of a different field from advertising and branding, as you point out.

But I know a lot of people who are good designers, and just don't want to deal with the business side of things - for them, it's a lot easier to be an employee somewhere, get healthcare, and leave the biz dev and accounting to other.

It takes a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit to be self-employed, and just because someone's a good designer doesn't mean they have what it takes to manage their own business. So I do think that a person who has both creative and business ability is more of a rarity than someone who just has one or the other.

If you have both, I think that makes you special. Take it as a compliment :-)

Thomas Phinney's picture

I'll note that the CL post talked specifically about "professional illustrators," which seems to me to be a *much* smaller segment than, say "people who call themselves graphic designers."

Still, it's a great post. I've written to the poster asking if they want to be credited for it or would rather remain anonymous....



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