Dealing With Speculative Work

A year ago, I was offered a contractual design job for a middle-sized corporation, although I knew there were other candidates. At the end of my interview, I was told that they would call me to let me know if I’ve been hired. What actually happened was the opposite – they called me to ask me to execute 3 different drafts for the project, and if they liked what they saw, I would get paid.

I was surprised that such a seemingly professional business would ask designers to do speculative work. Of course I declined – it’s never a good idea to do any work before a contract is mutually signed.  However, I was even more surprised that they asserted that I was being unprofessional and that this was how they got all their design work done.

Speculative work, or simply “spec work”, is an experienced web worker’s enemy. In this set up, you’re asked to do the job first before the client decides whether it’s good enough for them to pay for it. Usually, it’s the new freelancers or working students that receive offers on spec projects. But what if a more experienced web worker is offered spec work?

Why do clients ask for spec work in the first place?

Sadly, some clients have a misunderstanding of how the creation process actually works. This is especially true if this is the first time a client is paying for this kind of project. They aren’t aware of the problem-solving and research that goes into the final product, taking your final work – whether you’re a designer, programmer, or online writer – only at face value.

Signs that you’re faced with spec work

Clients that want you to do spec work won’t bother with your customer questionnaires, negotiations, or contracts. If they are evasive or refuse to discuss these things outright, then you’re left unprotected. After you’ve done your work, they can easily say “I’m not going to pay for something I don’t like”.

Or, like in my case, they might also say outright that they’re “shopping around” for ideas from other freelancers and/or firms and will select the ones they like best.

How to get around it

The first thing you should so is to be completely honest, but don’t become overtly angry. Not all people who request for spec work are malicious or out to steal your ideas. Sometimes, they just don’t know any better.

If that’s the case, it’s best to have a dialog with the client. If you’re looking for a way to start the discussion, anti-spec group NO!SPEC has a template letter you can use as the basis of your reply. You don’t have to use the template itself, but the ideas mentioned in the letter might be something you’ll want to bring up.

For larger projects, you can follow up with an actual meeting where you can discuss any concerns or questions your client might have on the subject. Some of them might be open to this kind of dialog, while others will simply say that this is how they’ve always done things and it’s not negotiable.

But if they are willing to talk, be prepared to show them how spec work hurts both their business and yours. Also, take this as an opportunity to show the value you’ll provide to the project, and how hiring you will benefit them. Showing this kind of professionalism can work in your favor, since most clients appreciate hiring people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than they are.

It’s also important to present some alternatives to the spec work method. You can show work from your portfolio that is similar to what the client is looking for, and they can decide based on that. Asserting your level of expertise in the field also helps.

Of course, if you simply have too much work on your hands, or if you’re not that interested in the project, then decline the offer and plainly state your reasons for doing so. This allows you to move on quickly while giving the potential client your opinion that their style of hiring doesn’t really serve their best interests.

Spec work doesn’t always have to bring out a heated debate between web workers and their clients. If we’re willing to find common ground, we’ll be able to come up with better ways to go through the hiring process – without wasting each other’s time or money.

Have you ever been offered spec work? What is your usual response to such offers?


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