Unpaid Internships Are A Form of Spec Work

Why is spec work so prevalent in the design profession when it’s not in other professions? Increasingly, companies – creative businesses included – are offering unpaid internships instead of hiring designers outright. In offering an internship,  they even go through a selection process similar to that involved in standard hiring practices.

Unpaid internships are harmful to the industry and should be legitimate only as part of a work-study program for students, involving evaluation, grading and course credit. They can be a viable part of a student’s education, where he or she works at a firm for a specific period of time in an unpaid capacity to gain real-world experience and earn credit toward their degree or certificate. Student internships are great opportunities to gain practical knowledge, and may lead to employment with the firm or to referrals and recommendations. A great benefit for the student is the relationship they build with the firm and the connections forged in the industry.

However, any unpaid work as a professional is inappropriate unless it’s a pro bono project undertaken because the designer chooses to offer his or her services in that manner.

It’s peculiar that the design profession is full of unpaid positions, spec work and expectations that we’ll work for credit or simply for the love of making art. These expectations are propagated by people in the profession who do accept work in return for experience alone, and who even accept abuse from a client simply to “get something in their portfolio” or for the hope of proving themselves and obtaining something secure down the road. These practices hurt the profession, degrade the value of design and debase all design practitioners. Such practices propagate a general lack of respect that is ordinarily accorded professionals in other industries.

I don’t advocate spec work, the use of online bid sites or unpaid gigs in any form. Design is valuable and is worth the investment. Unpaid internships are purely speculative and offer no security and no value. They are entirely inequitable. And as for being unpaid while “in training” for a position, let’s compare this to practices at banks, law firms, grocery stores, the military and all other entities where one is paid equitably during on-the-job training.

The AIGA has published its clarified position on spec work. Spec work is any form is unethical and should be discouraged. It is of no value to the designer and is entirely unfair. Designers should not engage in it but instead should negotiate fees, deliverables and intellectual property rights that are reasonable and competitive.