We’ve all done it, we’ve all learned our lesson and now don’t do it. The word “spec” should be added to the 7 dirty words list made famous by Howard Stern.

Speculation work is a huge design industry abomination where potential clients/buyers approach a firm or designer with an enticing project — often an RFP that request work be done BEFORE a contract has been signed or payment has been received. The kicker is the work you create is ONLY paid for if it makes the cut. Not only are you putting in valuable time, you’re also extracting free creativity from your noggin and problem solving a solution without a single guarantee on return. Of course, what also frequently happens is they request the working files (ie native PSDs, InDesign etc.) to “show their boss you really created it” — don’t believe it. Whether you get the project or not (typically never) even if they like your work they don’t tell you, they certainly won’t pay you, and now they have your final working files to do as they wish. Pure scamapolooza.

Think of spec work like a really bad designer knock-off version of American Idol, many designers will apply only one will be awarded the project — ah. . .no thanks. Not only is this a huge scam but it’s considered very unethical in the design community.

The AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) strongly advises its members never to design on spec, and we know of no professional design firm or agency that disregards that advice.

Most potential clients who’ve initially requested that we submit designs along with our proposals understand our reasons for saying “no.” This is the primary reason every design company houses a portfolio on their website so potential clients can gain a sense of their expertise by way of examples before green-lighting a project. Those who insist on getting free designs anyway are simply advertising the fact that they would not be a good fit for our firm.

If business is slow especially in an economy of uncertain times, freelancers and new designers listen up: BEWARE: the risks far outweigh the potential benefits.