The Dangers of Spec Work as a budding Freelancer

Article / 08 June 2020

You're sitting down for dinner at a nice restaurant.  Everything was going well and you enjoyed the nice dinner, atmosphere as well as the friendly service.  Then came the bill...  What's this?  They want you to pay?  What if you don't like future visits?  Shouldn't this first visit be free?

There's a trend I've noticed where budding "influencers" are asking to pay for their food in "exposure".  As an artist, I found this funny with a bit of Schadenfreude where other industries are now dealing with being paid with "exposure" bucks, something we've gone through for far too long (though, the chefs and other kitchen staff of restaurants are often already victims of this mindset but that's a topic that's outside of my purview).  

In my years working as an artist, there's been several instances where fellow artists and I have been asked for free work - be it from non-artist friends and acquaintances, to full-blown studios expecting fresh graduates to work as an unpaid intern.  While the idea of valuing your worth as an artist was hammered into us as students (at least, back in 2009), I feel that it wasn't really discussed in an extensive meaningful way.  We were told not to work for free but not warned about the various insidious ways that clients could get free work.

Image by William Iven from Pixabay  

The post Covid-19 World

Now with the Covid-19 Pandemic has irrevocably changing the world to one where remote work is more accepted, the competition for freelance artist have become fiercer than ever (though it's safe to say that it's always been fierce).  You would think there would be less people asking for free work from people during a pandemic that plunged the world into economic crisis but here we are.

So as there are more and more people looking into freelancing during and likely after the pandemic, I find it's important to go over what's likely to be considered spec work.

Spec work is any kind of creative work, either partial or completed, submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work in the guise of a contest or an entry exam on existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, designers normally lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.


Many novice freelancers have a tendency to just go along with whatever the client's asking for.  The danger is when they ask for more "proof" or design samples when you already have a perfectly fine portfolio.  If you don't have a portfolio, go make one, right now.  It's generally a good rule of thumb to simply refer any prospective clients to the portfolio.  Giving the client a benefit of a doubt, if they're unsure of hiring you after seeing your portfolio, it doesn't mean your artwork is bad (or it could, I don't know you), it simply means you might not be a right fit.  It's often best for both sides to just thank each other for their time and move on.

On the flip side, there's clients who are simply less than ethical and are outright trying to just steal free work.  They often have high pressure tactics that makes you feel as if there's plenty of people applying for the project.  It's probably true there are plenty of people applying, but if they want the best person for the job, they're likely to contact someone who's already had several successful projects with them or someone that's recommended by someone they trust rather than trolling a "freelancing" website like DesignCrowd (one of the worst freelancing websites around, avoid at all costs!).

If you must create a sample for a prospective client that you really want to work with, limit it to the neighbourhood of 30 min total work time.  You can get some practice in, but ultimately, it's best to work on your own artwork rather than someone else's project for free.  And don't forget to watermark or other creative ways of making it somewhat difficult to take your work as is.  When I work on animation for clients, I send them a watermarked youtube link with lots of slate on it so that it'll be rather difficult (though not impossible) to use for a project.

Image by minka2507 from Pixabay  

Confidence in oneself

There can be tremendous pressure to have income during a pandemic when your usual sources of income has dried up so it's understandable when artists get over eager. It's often difficult for artists to have confidence in their own work but it's very important to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth for the sake of maintaining a healthy market price for freelance work.  There's plenty of people who would love to dismiss the value of art despite their obvious need of it for their projects.  It's best to not waste energy on these people and be confident that there's someone out there that would like your work, be it illustration, animation, 3D work, or a piece of string that can dance in a certain funny way. 

Links and References:

DesignCrowd - DO NOT USE THIS FOR FREELANCING.  Everything about it leans heavily in the favour of clients and has numerous artists working for free with one "lucky" artist receiving cheap compensation.

No Spec Web Site: