Spec Work, Working for Exposure, and Competitions

-By Lauren Panepinto

Note: Getting You Paid Part 3 is coming, it's become a bit of a beast and I'm trying to pull together a good template contract for people to be able to download and use. Waiting on some answers back from smart legal people who know more about this than I do. Meanwhile...

The issue of working "on spec" is a pretty constant issue in the design world, and students are advised, or at least educated, by more established designers and by our professional organizations to steer clear. However a few different conversations in the past two weeks have made it clear to me that this needs to be discussed in the illustration sphere as well, and especially in SFF art.

Let's define terms! People use the term "Spec" work as an umbrella term for any unpaid work you do, but let's be a little more specific. I am paraphrasing from the fabulous AIGA's Position on Spec Work, which you should go read. FYI, AIGA = American Institute for Graphic Arts. Mostly designers, but there's a lot of resources on the site that are relevant to illustrators and other creatives, so go check it out.

Unpaid Work:
—"Spec Work" is "Speculative Work", or work done for free in the hopes of getting paid for it later.
—Work for Exposure is doing unpaid work to promote your career.
Competition is work done for the hopes of winning a prize, whether that is an actual prize or just publication in an annual.
Volunteer Work (or Pro Bono Work) is work you're doing as a donation without the expectation of ever getting paid. (You can lump all those family and friend favors in here.)
—Unpaid Internships or Apprenticeships are a trade off of work for education.

I imagine most of you have done some kind of unpaid work as defined above. And this isn't automatically bad. But there's a lot of gray area here that can easily become a slippery slope that ends with someone being taken advantage of. And usually that ends up being the creative side. So when is unpaid work ok and when is it not ok? It's a personal choice but I think it all comes down to intentions. My personal belief is that almost all Spec work and Exposure work is morally taking advantage of someone, and there are ways to avoid it. If a client doesn't have the money to pay you for what your art is worth, maybe there's another form of payment. Maybe you can barter. Maybe you can take stock as payment. Or you can work out a budget that matches what they can pay for the amount of work you are going to do. This is where taking an hourly rate sometimes helps. I think most times you can work out some kind of payment. However, in the case that a client is trying to commission a lot of artists and cherrypick what they like, which is the basis for horrible sites like 99designs, designcrowd, and the rest, that's laziness and taking advantage of creatives. I only link to them so you can see what they look like and avoid them like the plague they are. Again, these sites are aimed at designers, not illustrators, but the idea trickles down. Once clients think this is ok for design, they think it's ok for any creative work. 

As far as Exposure work goes, to me it's always felt like the hot guy or girl in high school that only dated people lower in the social hierarchy that would feel lucky and adore them and do anything they wanted. I'm not going to say never to do it, but make sure it's with someone really really hot. The Exposure should be a guaranteed payoff, not the hopes that what you do might get popular and might be seen.

Ok, how about Competitions? First of all there's a difference between competitions and annuals (although a lot of places use the terms interchangeably). An annual like Spectrum or a magazine like CommArts is publishing work that you've already made, even if it's personal work. So no moral qualms there for me. Same with The Society of Illustrators competitions, even when they're for scholarships - it's work you've already done. That is the proper kind of Exposure - getting applauded for work you have already done for another purpose. We've already discussed that competing for a job is not really a competition it's spec work. What about things like Art Order? That to me is perfectly fine. You are competing for the prize of having professional ADs crit your work...and everyone who enters wins that prize. Placing in one of the challenges is really just a bragging rights bonus. There's no monetary prize involved, and everyone knows that from the beginning. Is there a gray area where people can say thru an Art Order challenge you're competing to work for one of the ADs who is judging? Is it tryout work? Well, that's where you have to go with your gut and intentions. I believe Art Order is a great resource for artists to get honest professional crits, and the fact that Jon Schindehette is also the Creative Director of Wizards of the Coast is completely separate. Without that position he wouldn't have the professional connections to get the ADs to come in and look at your work. I love Art Order, I've been a judge a few times, and I've sent a lot of people who weren't quite ready to work yet there to find projects to develop their portfolio.

Volunteer Work is pretty clear morally, but I will add the caveat that just because it's volunteer work doesn't mean you shouldn't have a contract. Usage and limitations are still important. Is it ok to sell merch with your work on it? Do they own the rights forever? What happens if their mission statement changes, do you have a cease-usage clause? These are all things you should be thinking about. Unless it's volunteer work for your family. Then you know you're being taken advantage of. Hopefully you get some of grandma's cookies out of it.

Internships and Apprenticeships are ok in my book too. I think big companies who can afford to pay interns should (I'm very glad my company does), but smaller ones or individual artists often can't pay in money. They should be paying you in education. Or at least, in resumé clout. I did an unpaid internship at MTV and I never regretted it. Was I being taken advantage of? Absolutely. But I was also taking advantage of them. Again, here's where your gut has to rule...was I doing work for exposure? Totally. Remember what I said above about making sure the exposure clients were really hot? MTV was really hot at the time. Resumé star material. So I considered it worth it. Apprenticeships are also a case by case basis - this comes up a lot in the tattoo world, where a lot of people are taken advantage of in the apprentice system - but if you find the right mentor, it can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. 

If you've been reading along with my posts, you'll know I'm a big believer that most people are not trying to rip off artists, it's often the issue that non-creatives just don't understand what we do, how we do it, or how much work goes into it. And that takes a little explanation and client education. I'm going into that in-depth in the Getting You Paid series, but for now, here is a fabulous letter from the AIGA that you can download and use as a response when clients ask you to do spec work.

AIGA Spec Response Form Letter

And here's another great website that really goes into detail about Spec and Unpaid Work issues:


Remember, these cases are usually not black & white. You have to look at a client's intention, and take an honest look at whether the situation is going to truly benefit you in some way upfront or if it's just the hope of something good coming out of it.

And remember, if it feels slimy to you, it probably is. Trust your gut, people!

Illustrations by Dooder on shutterstock

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