Great ideas rule, and spec work still sucks

Early this week I came across a design contest for Anne Jackson’s new book Mad Church Disease.

What they are looking for is a design of a full-page ad to run in Neue Quarterly magazine. I took one look at the contest, reminded myself I why I don’t like spec work and moved on with my day. I know, technically, it’s probably not spec work, because the winner will receive some compensation. But still, you are designing something that may or may not be chosen and if it isn’t, you get nothing. Spec work.

I don’t like spec work because it almost never produces the best work. You are usually given a few small guide lines and set lose. Usually those jumping on this bandwagon are people who know how to use things like InDesign and Photoshop but don’t really have any idea about concepting or what even makes a good marketing strategy. Great design comes out of conversations and thinking. The last step is sitting down at the computer to design. Maybe it’s just me but to make something truly great that meets a need, I need time with the client to figure out goals and target markets. You know, minor things like that.

But then my friend David emailed me some ads he’d done for the contest and asked for some feedback. Seeing the great ideas he had sparked a few more great ideas in my mind. And with that little spark, I was off, doing spec work. Why? Because of the ideas. Most designers are always looking for interesting things to work on. This was that idea. It was, to me, worth working for what will probably be nothing. It was creating an ad I’d be proud of whether I was ever paid or not.

I think the ads we came up with are good. However, with a few conversations with the client, again about small things like goals and target markets, they could be truly great and become an actual ad campaign.

I still don’t like spec work. But I do love great ideas.

I’ll post the ads to see once the contest is over on the 19th.



  1. says

    see, i’ve been designing for a decade (almost) and LOVE the idea of spec work…the ideas, the community around it. the reason we came up with the idea for the contest isn’t because we need a design -it’s because the community has already contributed so much to the book, why not an ad? Zondervan and Harper have plenty of amazing designers so one of them could have easily done it…but we saw this as a way of incorporating more of the online community into the project. and from what i’ve seen from the submissions – they are top notch. we’ll definitely present them in some form or fashion and link to the designers (and yeah, the winner gets $100 and a bunch of stuff)…but as a designer, it’s not about the money for me…if it’s something that will challenge me or cause me to grow…i’m in! same goes for writing. dear lord…i have been published in a book…you think i’d get paid to write articles? nope. hardly ever. but it’s worth it to write. to design. to try.
    just my 38 cents.

  2. says


    I’ve just never been a fan of spec work, but as I as wrote, if it’s an idea I’m on board for, I’ll happily do it.

    When I first saw the contest I didn’t have any concepts that blew me away even though I love the idea of the book. So I decided not to participate. Then David brought some ideas I fell in love with and away we went.

    I guess I just like everything I do to be spectacular (no pun intended). And I don’t think work is as strong without feedback from the client.

    So I’m generally opposed to spec work more from a “will it be great?” standpoint than a “hey, I deserve money” standpoint.

    But I did enjoy working with David on the ads and I really do support the book so I guess from that perspective it wasn’t a bad experience at all.

  3. says

    Spec work is usually another name for free work. It also usually means unorganized material to draw from. In that light, I can’t stand it.

    I do have a friend who runs a ministry that I do free work for because I believe in it.

    If the organization should pay, then I require payment. If they are doing a great work with little money to get media work done then I am more than happy to step in and help for free.

    And no, I don’t do work hoping I get the job.

    I hope that somehow answers your question.

  4. says


    I think your post sums up most designers’ love hate relationship with spec work.

    If it’s for something you support great, but more often than not, spec work doesn’t provide enough information or resources to do something great.

    Most of the time (and this wasn’t the case with Mad Church Disease), spec work is there just to get free work out of people. If that’s what a client is after, they almost never provide the resources or feedback to make it great.

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