Speculative work is a plague on the graphic design industry. Our Toronto graphic design company doesn’t work for free and we would never expect anyone else to work for free either. The core principle of business in general is to exchange services for a profit or gain. Services rendered by graphic designers or graphic design companies should have a clear return on profits. Graphic design, in all of it’s facets, is a business like any other, yet it may be the only industry where speculative work is regularly expected and requested by clients. Designers that practice spec work are not only hurting themselves, they are hurting the design industry as a whole.

What Is Spec Work and Why Is It A Harmful Practice?

In context with the graphic design industry, doing work on spec is the practice of providing design work for free (or for a nominal fee) as part of a pitch for new business as defined by the RGD. Some private and public sector clients mistakenly believe that requiring spec work as part of their search and selection process for a graphic designer or design firm is a good business practice. When in fact, a request for spec work:

  • is exploitative and unethical, a demand for free design work without guarantee of compensation
  • offers no future economic potential
  • can lead to copyright infringement
  • devalues the profession of graphic design and leads to negative competitive practices
  • is discouraged by allied professions such as the advertising industry
  • is unlikely to meet a client’s marketing and communication objectives.

Spec work threatens the integrity and work ethic of the graphic design profession. Neither the designer nor the client benefit from spec work. Designers who work on spec cannot do properly fulfill the requirements of the design brief. They are also unlikely to perform the research and analysis needed to produce their best work as they have no guarantee of compensation or sufficient time to plan for the project and develop a strategy. Furthermore, their expertise as professionals and their roles as consultants, partners or members of a strategic communications team are exploited.

As an member of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario our Toronto graphic design studio is prohibited from doing spec work, but like many Toronto graphic design companies, we’re approached from time to time by clients and prospective clients alike, who are dangling that proverbial carrot – the promise of future work – in exchange for free work.

A common avenue that prospective clients will take to obtain free work from graphic design agencies, either knowing or unknowing, is to request design concepts included within a proposal for new work so that they can gain a sense of the graphic designer’s vision and design aptitude and ultimately how it relates to their proposed project. The worst part is that many Toronto graphic design companies will oblige these requests in order to win new business without realizing that it is most likely their portfolio of existing work that has attracted the prospective client.

In these situations we carefully craft a response to the client educating them on the design process and that this “work” they want to see in advance is precisely what they would be engaging us for and ultimately compensating us for our time and expertise.

How Do We Fight Spec Work?

Simple. We do not participate in it. Ever.

Like many Toronto graphic design companies, we prefer to educate our clients on the reality and hazards of performing spec work. We’ve used this email for years in response to client requests and RFP’s that require spec work included:


Dear enquirer,

Thanks for your interest in working together.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to pitch for your project as you’ve asked for free speculative design work as part of the process for us to try and “win” the project.

“Spec work” invariably leads to frustration for you and encourages a sub-par standard of work from the designers pitching in our opinion.

From a business point of view it makes no sense for your company. Graphic design companies have to charge higher fees to cover work they produce but don’t win. If you choose an agency that does spec work, you are paying for all their failed pitches as well as the one piece of work you are interested in.

A good design is an informed design. This only comes through research and collaboration with the client through the strategy stage of the project — you know your audience best. A visually pleasing ‘best guess’ created upfront as part of a sales tactic is never a good design. Anything created without being informed is at best a pretty picture.

Unlike advertising agencies, we are not in the business of selling. We love our work and we love showing off the diversity of work we’ve done and invite your to view our portfolio. That’s because every project is crafted with thought and research, and with respect for our clients. We put all our resources into every client that engages us because we don’t need to save our best ideas to sell ourselves to potential new clients.

We aren’t unusual in our position on declining to partake in speculative work. Here are some links to just a few respected graphic designers who feel the same way, and why:

We understand you want to get the best work possible for your project, so we hope you able to understand and accept our reasons for declining spec work.

We’d be delighted to discuss with you how our best projects got off the ground, and how we could do the same for you.


We’d love to know your thoughts on spec work whether you’re a graphic designer or work with graphic designers. What has been your experience with the practice and how did you handle the situation? You can join the conversation by commenting below or by connecting with us on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.