In the design world, SPEC Work is short for SPECULATIVE Work. And that means...ugh... It's kinda like when you, ugh... It basically means working for free. It usually comes in two forms.
One. A client asks several designers or design firms to complete part of a new project. The client picks one winner, gives them the job and the others go home with nothing for their hard work.
Two. A client starts a contest, and gathers submissions from hundreds if not thousands of designers. They pick one winner, pay a modest fee, and the rest go home with nothing for their hard work.
So what's wrong with this?
If you are a client, the best design work should come out of a healthy relationship with the designer, where your needs and wants are understood, and ideas are developed with you from the ground up. Just because you get lots of free designs doesn't mean any of them are good, and in fact, many may be blatant rip offs.
Spec contests have actually created an underground system, whereby some unscrupulous designers will quickly enter as many as possible, as they copy work from the web and present it as their own. So that new logo of yours, may actually already be someone else's.
If you are a designer, you just shouldn't work for established companies for free, period. If you need to build up your portfolio, there are other ways. Design for a local charity, or your friend's new business, or just spend the time creating your own projects.
SPEC Work would seem absurd in most other professional industries. Could you ask several chefs to prepare your next meal for free, and then only pay for the best one? Could you hold a contest and get hundreds of lawyers to write your will, and then only pick and reward one? Didn't think so!
Perhaps it's time we start to treat designers, you know...just like everyone else. Think about it!