Thursday, August 8, 2013

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.

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


  1. As a freelance artist/illustrator in a tiny community market, I find all of Lauren's posts to be invaluable in helping me understand the business side of art - thanks for your well written, straight forward sharing of experience!

    1. thanks! you keep reading em ill keep postin em

  2. Lauren, who did these quirky little illustrations?

    Love this series. I've done spec for good and evil clients. Most of the time I've found that you can do a lot simply by askin for a nominal fee. Sometimes the AD has a bit of leeway and can toss you dough if you actually ask for it. It's not the best situation, but it can dull the sting.

    1. eep! bad AD. well, sleep-deprived AD at the end of the season. just added credit!

  3. How do you feel about spec for royalties? Our company, Xist Publishing, publishes children's ebooks and we have a track record of 170 titles with quarterly royalties. I know that a project without an advance isn't for everyone, but we've had it work very well for a number of illustrators, particularly for those looking to move into a new market.

    1. Royalties still count as pay, absolutely. But it is riskier than advance fees. It's really up to the artist to decide if thats a good arrangement for them, but I think it's totally a viable option.

  4. Lauren,

    Your words of wisdom are invaluable as always. Thank you!

    "Trusting your gut" is probably the best advice in the world of unpaid jobs. I've worked unpaid jobs before, and have been screwed over by a number of people, but it's all a learning curb. You are right about avoiding sites such as 99designs. No conversations, amateur direction and no guarantees in garnering clients are always red flags.

    I'm currently working with 2 clients that offer no monetary compensation. HOWEVER:

    1) I have contracts with both of them.
    2) Since both clients have potential for big-time market sustainability (this is where the "going with your gut" part comes in), I've made it a point with them at the very beginning that I'm fully committed to a long-term professional relationship as long as they are as well.
    3) I've been very fortunate since both clients have gone above and beyond in terms of their time and offering alternative means of compensation for my work (1 client has been paying me in season tickets for sports events---which I happen to love). This to me is a good hint that the client is committed and is willing to take care of me.
    4) Lastly, I have 3 other paid freelance jobs that I'm working on at the same time. It's good to cover your butt first before jumping at working an unpaid gig. Sure, an unpaid gig might be a good stepping stone for one's career, but how long is it going to take until the good fortunes of the future arrive? I don't know. Your client sure doesn't. No one does.

    Be smart, go with your gut, make sure you're taken care of and prioritize.

    1. All good advice. And I love bartering! I really don't have much time for freelance, so mostly it's for friends, and my last friend freelance job paid in leggings. TENTACLE LEGGINGS. I consider that money in the bank.

    2. Tentacle leggings! Haha.

      Thanks again for all you do for our industry.

  5. Really the point of all of this is to say there's no hard fast rules about this stuff, and like I said, trust your instincts. But absolutely no artist should feel pressured to do nonpaying work by clients who say that its how the biz works, or by huge promises of future exposure, or anything else. There is no industry standard, and you shouldn't feel like you HAVE TO do unpaid work.

  6. Yay Lauren! I'm so glad that you've joined this blog. I will be sharing this article with my art school buddies, I'm sure they will find it educational.

  7. Great post Lauren. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. Looking forward to the "Getting You Paid Part 3".

    All the best!

  8. Just a month or so ago I took the plunge and started working on a non-paid (for now) project. When I was contacted, the client sent a very informative letter with links to linkdin accounts, project artwork that was ongoing, and terms of eventual monetary reimbursement. I took the time and asked ALOT of questions and researched names and former projects the team worked on and everything came back promising. So far so good. Going-with-the-gut!

    Thanx for the posts, Lauren!

  9. nice your site thanks for sharing love you all team good work keep it up

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  10. Every time you post, I wonder why I am paying to take a business practices class.
    Thanks so much!
    James Gardner Art

  11. Great info, Lauren! This is just one piece of the "making a living through art" puzzle.

  12. Thanks a lot for doing this series of posts, they've been really helpful!

  13. Great post! thank's for shareing all those info!
    In italy there are lots of contest made to recive as much illustration for a book/cover/advertising/etc as possible,so they can choose what they like the most, without giving any real benefit to the artists who partecipate: they usualy retains all the pubblication rights and the "payment" for the winner's work is visibility. It's not fair, i think, when big publishing house use this way to gather art, beacuse they could afford to pay an artist for his/her job, and doing this they devalue the work we are making!
    (sorry if my english it's not perfect!)

    1. no i agree, thats not an ethical practice at all, and I would hope the artists is italy start boycotting them. start sending that No Spec website around...

  14. Great article. Thanks for writing it

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  17. Bravo Lauren (or is it "brava?"). Working for little or no pay also creates a general sense that we artists are lucky just to be able to be making pictures for someone else, to have our work "recognized." Any artist undervaluing his/her work is affecting all professional artists, pushing down fees, turning it into a buyer's market, creating an exploitive environment. It's hard enough to run a freelance studio like a business, so I cringe every time I hear experienced artists telling newcomers to "do whatever you have to in order to get your foot in the door, including working for free." This type of approach is so bad for all of us in the long run. I seem to remember the last time this issue came up on MC I was in the minority though... hmm....