How NOT to get work as an illustrator or designer

I recently received this email from my website (emphasis mine and edited to protect people’s privacy):

Hi Jon,

This is [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] and we are fascinated by your work. Congratulations! I’d like to extend a personal and exclusive invitation to you to join our […] Studio platform.


What’s in it for you?

• […] Depending on performance we pay selected artists for every 1,000 card sends from the US & Canada for 2 years for every creation. This can help you add on a regular stream of income, in addition to your existing sources.

• […] We are offering $6,000 every month in Cash Rewards, with top winner getting US$1,500 if your creations are sent by at least 5,000 people across US and Canada in the month, and you are amongst the Top 10 artists in the month.

• […] From time-to-time we hold contest for ecard designs, to appreciate new and existing talented artists at Studio. […]

• […] We enable 95million visitors every year to express themselves to their friends and family the world over. How would you like to help them with that? How would it feel if over 20 million received your cards?

Please consider this opportunity and let me know what you think or if you have any questions. We would love to have you as part of our community and be a star artist with us.

Admittedly, upon first read, this seems like a pretty cool opportunity. I make cards and get paid for them. Sweet gig, right? Well here’s the thing: they conveniently added the caveat “depending on performance”, and I’ll only be paid per 1,000 cards and only for two years. If my product sells 999 units, I won’t see a dime. Also, even if I do break 1000, I’ll only be paid for two years. Otherwise, this company gets to profit from my work, free of charge.

For reference, this is what the Graphic Artists Guild says about greeting cards. For an original design, GAG suggests $600–1,500, with a $500–1,000 advance on royalties, and 5–10% royalties. Also, the license is typically good for 3 years. That means you stop getting paid after 3 years, but the client also stops using your design, unless they purchase a new license from you; in which case, you’d get more money. Do the math and you’ll see that if I agreed to the terms laid out in the above email, I’d be getting shafted.

These kinds of practices have become quite pervasive recently, and is oft referred to as “spec-work”. “Spec-work” is short for “speculative work”. This is where an artist is asked to produce work without guarantee of compensation. It can take many forms, such as the one seen above, or crowd sourcing websites, design contests, etc. Many aspiring illustrators have probably heard the phrase, “Hey, I want to make a comic book. I’ve already written it, but I want you to draw it. I don’t have any money right now, but I’ll split the profits with you 50/50.” Payment, of course, is contingent on this comic book making any money, which is, frankly, dubious at best.

I wanted to talk about an experience a friend of mine had recently. She works for a startup that has less than 10 employees. In hopes of attracting more investors, the management wanted to rebrand. So they hired a design consultant and asked my friend, who has a design degree, to help with the process. I know for a fact that this design consultant was paid an acceptable amount, and was even offered equity in the company. This is how creative professionals should be treated. Well, I wouldn’t really expect equity with every job, but definitely being paid market value should be expected.

My friend and the design consultant got to work on rebranding and came up with some pretty good designs (obviously, I can’t show them for privacy concerns). The designs were good, but not quite there. So, rather than spend the time and money asking my friend and the consultant to iterate endlessly on the designs, they decided to open up a contest on well known design crowd-sourcing website. They received over 500 entries from 150 designers. They were only required to pay the designer they dubbed “the winner”. This designer was compensated $500 for their winning design.

From there the winning design was recreated in vectors, cleaned and finalized by my friend and the design consultant. Having seen the winning design, and the final logo, I know for a fact that they’re really only conceptually similar. Visually, they’re not similar enough for that designer to ever recognize their work in the wild. (For the record, the final logo looks beautiful.)

So, I now have heard from the perspective of those that employ spec-work techniques. I’m very familiar with the other side, having to constantly turn down such work, but I’ve never been privy to the perspective of the other side. Initially, one may feel a little enraged that these practices are so pervasive. One may feel disgusted that a company would employ said techniques. But the question remains, is this practice unethical?

I’m actually not going to answer that, because it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because, ethical or not, companies will still be employing this money saving technique as long as it remains a viable option. Companies are not human beings, they are wild beasts, whose only purpose for being is to survive (read: make money). Really, it is rare that a company will do anything that will hurt its profits, or anything that will cost more money, when a cheaper and equally effective solution is readily available (“equally effective” is debatable, but this is how a company’s management might see it).

In the example above, there were two designers that were paid market value for their work (both have equity in the company), and one who was, admittedly, shafted. The company above used spec work to augment its already extant design team. Many companies will use spec work in lieu of a paid design team. This is the real problem for creative professionals. Imagine a world in which all companies used spec-work. How the hell would any of us pay the bills in this world? You could pull an 80-hour week and not see a dime!

We’ve already established that companies will do anything they can to maximize their profits. If that means treating creative professionals unethically, you can bet they will. But keep in mind, in the example above, two designers were treated well, and one was shafted. Which one was shafted? The one that accepted spec work as a viable way to make money. Furthermore there were another 149 designers that never saw a dime. These were also designers that accepted spec work.

There is a lesson for creative professionals in this: Companies won’t suddenly start treating us better until we demand it. 

Under no circumstances should you accept spec work. Not only does it hurt the creative industries by lowering the bar of compensation, but it also hurts your own career. If you’re building your portfolio $100-500 logos at a time, do you think any design firm, or large well-paying client is going to take you seriously? I think that question answers itself.

For the record, this is what I sent back to the email above:


Thanks for the kind words and considering me for your program.
If I understand you correctly, it sounds like there is no guarantee that I would be paid for my work, and that my payment is contingent on my product breaking a certain threshold. That sounds an awful lot like spec-work to me, and it’s something that I can’t do. Furthermore, it appears that if I were to make a very successful product, I would only be paid for two years, regardless of whether the product continues to be successful after that. Again, if that is the case, I can’t agree to that arrangement. If I’m misunderstanding you, or you’d like to negotiate a different arrangement, I’d be happy to hear you out.
Jon Laing

No one will start respecting you as a commercial artist until you start respecting yourself as a commercial artist.

Best of luck.

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