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Spec work: Free up front but bad for your bottom line

freeSpec work is the practice of performing a task for free – in this case design work – with the expectation that the initial offering will eventually lead to some sort of payment. It may or may not. People who request spec work are asking to receive materials, such as website layouts or logos, with the understanding that they will pay for the designs only if they are happy with the work.

Some sites specialize in convincing designers to perform spec work by offering “contests” in which some lucky winner will be chosen to be paid for their logo or other design. Every unlucky non-winner simply gave away their time and expertise for free.

Asking for spec work is like walking into a bakery, eating five different pastries and then deciding whether or not you want to pay for any of them. The proprietor would not allow it. Or, to make a more apt analogy, going to five different law firms and asking each of them to draw up a contract or negotiate a divorce and then deciding who to pay after you see the results. It is a practice that is not seen in a lot of other industries; you are expected to pay for products or services at the time of purchase. The world of design should be no different.

The temptation to perform spec work is understandable. When designers are just getting started, the prospect of being able to have your abilities recognized in a very competitive market is admittedly alluring. The temptation to ask for spec work can also be strong, marketing is a big investment, but it should be fought. Here are some reasons why:

You will not have rights to the work. Without an agreement, your designer could decide at any point that he or she could benefit more from selling the work elsewhere. There is nothing to stop them from doing so. When you begin a relationship with any marketing firm, you should sign a contract that lays out each party's obligations, and make sure that contract gives you rights to all work done for your firm. You should, for example, own your website design; you should not have to pay again to move it to another provider. Without such a contract, however, the designer has complete ownership of his or her work.

You want to work with experienced professionals. You do not want to trust your firm's brand to a marketing company that has too much time its hands. People who are willing to do spec work often really need the job. To be fair, this could be because they are young or just starting out, but it could be for other, less benign reasons as well. If a marketing firm has built a solid reputation by doing good work and engaging in good client service, it will not have time for spec work. Nor will it have the interest.

You want to foster a strong relationship. Marketing, branding and design require short and long-term thinking. And above all, successful projects require good communication and a level of trust with your design team. You want to develop a look and feel that will carry you for many years and that will help with whatever growth strategy you have developed. High expectations are fine, but can only be fulfilled if you are working together as professionals. Spec work tends to create a tenuous bond in which the designer has no loyalty to stick with the project or really think in your firm's long-term best interests.

You want the firm you hire to actually do the work. Remember the software engineer who was caught outsourcing his own job to China? Don't let that happen to you. There are plenty of firms from which to choose that churn out quick, generic work for pretty low prices. Designers who are not being fairly compensated often sell projects online to the lowest bidder and then pass the work off to clients as their own. This is not the kind of thoughtful approach that you need and deserve for your marketing. Your designer should respect your firm and work with you, keeping your goals and the needs of your clients in mind.

When you hire a design team, you are paying for quality and time (and rights to the work). Because quality takes time. From research to brainstorming, to sketching and planning, to revisions, and through implementation, good websites and logos and other marketing materials require a considerable amount of effort. Of course, some of your firm's new business will come from word of mouth referrals, but, often the first contact a prospective client has with your firm may be online. They will see your website or other online profiles before they call your office. The choices that are made during these first stages of design will to affect what people think and how they react when they come into contact with your firm. You want that reaction – the connection you create with clients – to be thoroughly thought out and implemented effectively.