What is Spec Work and Why is it Bad?

“Spec”, both literally and figuratively, is a four letter word in the graphic design industry. It is an issue of contention in the world of graphic design partly because designers differ in opinion on what spec work is. Broadly speaking, what is spec work and why is it so bad? The American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA defines speck work as, “work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it”. In other words, the chances of getting paid for the time you put in is speculative.

By analogy, a client that would like spec work done is like, some would argue, a customer that goes to a restaurant expecting to pay for a meal on a speculative basis. The patron can’t order from the menu and decide to pay on the speculation whether he likes the meal or not. This is not even an analogy, but just spec work in the food industry. Which brings me to one of the reasons spec work is so hated in the design industry:

It seems to be limited almost exclusively to the design industry. We don’t ask anyone else to do work for free, so why do we ask designers to do work for free? It shows a lack of respect and degrades the design industry in general to ask for or agree to do work for free. There are agreed exceptions on free work that is not regarded as spec work, such as pro bono work and internships, but where exactly the line is drawn is in debate. What do you think?