Say no to spec.

Earlier this week I dealt with an issue that many in the creative world face on a regular basis. I received an RFP for a publication redesign and within its list of requirements was this statement:

To be considered for this position, candidates should submit a simplified designed prototype of  X that includes a cover story, one feature spread, one news spread, and one social page. Text and photos will be provided. The prototype should be created using design elements that the candidate feels will best achieve the goals and outlines set forth in this document.

This, my friends, is called spec work. The only required response in this situation is one word:


My hope is that every designer who receives this RFP has the confidence to respond with exactly that. However, I gave it some thought and drafted a more articulate response.

Dear X,

I read through your proposal and would like to address the process in which you are using. What you have labeled as a “prototype” in our industry is referred to as Spec Work—of which I, and the majority of design professionals, am ethically opposed to performing. Not only is this concept detrimental to our industry, profession, and community as a whole, I want to let you know why it’s an ineffective way to go about finding a design partner for your publication.

  1. What you are in need of is brand development for your new publication and to properly design and develop a strategic brand, it needs to be grounded in research and problem solving. Without a clear understanding of your objectives any design or potential names submitted would be superficial and a futile exercise in decoration resulting in a decision based on those traits alone.

  2. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process, and a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design as well as the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. This approach, therefore, reflects on your organizational practices and standards and may be harmful to the professional reputation of both you and your business.

  3. You are opening up yourself to issues concerning intellectual property and legal action. Consider if at launch your new publication looks anything like that of one of the rejected designs—what will that designer have to say?


I know it is challenging to evaluate designers when our range of past work and experience can be so different. However, the most efficient way to do so is to ask us to submit examples of our work from previous assignments along with a statement of how we would approach yours. Judge us based on our ability to solve problems and on our ability to get results for other clients.

Instead of thinking about what the designer will create you should be asking how the designer will arrive at their solution. What is their process? How do they work with their clients? In the end, this approach ensures a more successful, professional, and evaluable response for everyone involved.

If you would like to work with me through a process that will benefit you most and maintain the high business standards I expect of my clients, let me know. Your consideration of these professional design issues is greatly appreciated.

Carrie Walters

I realize now this email was a wasted effort since their reply was just as vapid ( “this is how we’ve always done it” is not a valid argument). However, since I know this is an issue that too many designers face I thought I’d post it here. Feel free to copy and paste my response the next time you are asked to work for free—if none of us do it, it will stop being expected. Moreover, it is not acceptable, it is not ethical, and any organization that expects you to provide your services in this manner is not deserving of your talent.

For more resources on the no spec stance, please check out: 

Stay strong and just say no to spec.