You’re a creative. So you like working for free, right? You’ve probably heard that before. Now that I have your attention, a few years ago I would’ve thought working for free was just for poor musicians. But alas, it’s everywhere; people wanting illustrators, graphic designers and writers to work for free. It’s called spec work. It goes something like this: “We just need a few solutions. We’re not that creative so we’d like you to show us what you envision…and then we’ll decide what to pay you if we think it’s worth it.” It’s never said plainly, however.

It’s the age-old tale of the creative: They toil and trial, design and write but they don’t get a paycheck. The mathematician or the scientist: Yes. They get paid for their efforts. You wouldn’t make an appointment with an accountant, ask them to fill out the forms, do your numbers, show you the results and send in your tax return for free would you? Or you wouldn’t expect a doctor to run a lab test with expensive equipment and a staff of ten for no charge? The answer is no. But creatives deal with this kind of mindset every day and, yet, we continue to dream…

1. The Learning Curve
I remember trying to break into the writing industry. It’s been the same argument for years: “You can’t get experience unless you have experience.” I understand having to prove yourself and that’s what internships are for. But if you ever want to grow in your career, working for free should stop cold immediately after the internship ends.

This brings up a sticky situation. For the sake of this scenario, let’s say Company X is owned by an acquaintance of ten years. They need a new logo and brochure but their budget is tight. You’ve heard this before: “Maybe an intern could handle it as a challenge of their skills and dedication.” The intern needs experience and your client needs a job done. If the skill level is there, then you’re golden. But what if the client is not happy with the results? How many rounds of edits are you then going to do for spec? Agencies don’t have that in their budgets either. But now you and the client have a big problem.

2. Fear Factor
In order to create a solid brand, you have to look at what is and isn’t working for a company. Get your creatives together and figure it out. Find solutions. We’re not hanging from trees and taking mind-altering drugs to do this like they show in the movies either. We’re digging into the client’s history, discovering their goals through interviews and researching the target market’s psyche to develop breakthrough marketing campaigns. Not only does the company’s image lie in our hands, but it also stems from our own originality and technical skill.

Unfortunately, with spec work very little thought or energy goes into it and the risk of sending low-quality work out into the world is high. This work represents the agency and it represents your client, and you can’t take it back.

3. No Dice

The whole point of marketing is to develop a brand for staying power and to increase customer recognition of your brand. That creates motivation for the consumer to buy in and choose your brand next time.

With spec work, creatives are generally not doing their best work because they literally can’t afford the time to think of alternatives. They’re going with the first idea and pumping it out. It’s more about being pressured for a product than making an educated branding choice. Basically, spec work reduces the economic value designers can offer toward the client’s long-term goals. And that diminishes the work all together.

4. Proof in the Pudding
It all goes back to tangible and intangible results. People like tactile things they can touch: hard numbers, the bottom line and rules. But when it comes to things you dream up – pink unicorns…why is cotton candy blue? – it gets harder to keep under your thumb. More likely in marketing, what name and look should we give our company? How do I get a catch phrase to catch on? Creative solutions are very real solutions to a client’s very real marketing issues.

Businesses need solutions and creatives have those solutions locked away in their imaginations. With spec work, companies find their way around paying artists by saying it’s a “contest” or “good for a portfolio builder.” As a creative, you must value your work first and foremost and put a dollar amount on your services. College and internships are the place to learn from volunteer and freebie projects. Professions are for professionals, because they create tangible results.

5. Butts on the Line
So back to the beginning, when you work for free and the client doesn’t like the results, whose ass is on the line now? The answer is everyone’s. Sacrificing the design quality to get a “good deal” isn’t usually worth it in the end. Moral of the story, if you own a business or work for a business, you should never work for free. The work suffers and both you and your clients are going to have a lot of messes to clean up in the long run.