What is the difference between spec work and pro-bono?

I have always considered pro-bono work to be a form of spec-work, but I notice that the AIGA position states:

Yet not all unpaid design work is considered “spec work.” In fact, unpaid work may take a number of forms:


  • Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

Is this a generally accepted position? If so, what differentiates work "for the public good" vs work "for the portfolio" (or any other typical justification for spec-work)?

  • Thank you for asking this! As a person who might be shopping for design work, I want to make sure I phrase my ask correctly, lest I risk angering a large audience of people!
    – Aarthi
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


Yes. That's generally the accepted difference.

Pro Bono, meaning "for public good" would be along the lines of designing posters for an anti-drug campaign in schools. Or Anti-smoking literature for non-profit groups like the American Outreach Association (which don't actually sell a product or service).

Essentially, if the project is geared towards helping anyone viewing it rather than simply generating sales, leads, or customers/clients then I consider it pro bono.

I'd have no problem designing a brochure for free to help keep children off crack. I would charge for a brochure advertising a rehab facility to keep children off crack. The difference being the rehab facility makes money from the advertising, even if they are a non-profit entity, they still gain funds directly from the design work.

Spec Work = Someone makes money at some point
Spec work is generally about acquiring something. The business gains either a name, customer, phone number, lead, money, website traffic, or some other tangible resource which they can then use to further their own goals. Spec work asks the viewer to take action in terms of "sign up", "call", "e-mail" and then supply some personal information.

Pro Bono = no one profits at any point
Pro Bono work is not about acquiring anything. The work ends up simply floating about the universe educating or informing but not directly pointing viewers to any one resource or asking for anything in return. Pro Bono work seeks to improve the education or lives of its viewers without any direct return.

And it's important to remember that simply because a business is classified as "non-profit" that doesn't mean they don't make money. Non-profit projects are not immediately seen as pro bono to me.

  • So, not to harp, but if PBS came to you and said, "Scott! You're so awesome! Help us out, design a poster for our pledge drive!" Would that be pro-bono or spec?
    – Aarthi
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:51
  • That would be Spec. PBS benefits from the advertising. This is why I added that last paragraph. Non-profit does not mean pro bono. You can certainly provide work to non-profit entities at drastically lower rates or at cost. But realize that most "benefits" are money makers and while their goal is to supply the beneficiary with donations, they aren't a pure non-monetary operation.
    – Scott
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:55
  • Okay, now what if PBS says, "Hey Scott! Your design work, it inspires us! Can you make a poster that encourages kids to play outside more?"
    – Aarthi
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:56
  • Each situation is unique, but off-hand, I'd say that's pro bono depending upon the intended use. Television Public Service Announcements would easily be pro bono.
    – Scott
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:57
  • Excellent! I appreciate your patience with my very contrived examples. :D
    – Aarthi
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 21:58

I think Scott's answer is valid and one way to look at it.

I'd use a slightly different explanation.

Whether it's spec or pro-bono work, you're not getting paid, and someone is benefiting from your work (at least, there's a perceived benefit).

The difference is that with pro-bono, the project is treated as a proper project. There's a schedule, there's a budget (of time), there's requirements, ways to measure success, strategy, consultation, revisions, etc, etc.

Spec work tends not to posses any of the key steps that a project requires to produce good work.

All that said, I'd use these definitions:

  • pro-bono work: A mutually rewarding relationship between the graphic designer and the client where all aspects of a graphic design project are met with the exception that in lieu of payment for services rendered, the designer is donating their time to the cause. Designers typically offer up pro-bono work to non-profits, friends and family, and the like.

  • spec work: Spec work tends to fall into two camps:

    1. Client Pitches based on RFPs. Extremely common in the ad agency world (and, for some odd reason, the architecture industry). Large clients send out RFPs asking firms to produce creative briefs and present them. The logic is the clients feel they are prestigious enough that agencies will want to compete for their account. Agencies then spend actual efforts to produce creative work with no guarantee of a paid contract. I don't agree with it, but can appreciate the fact that, at least for traditional ad agencies, a big client equates to huge amounts of media buys which can be a lucrative gamble

    2. Design contests/"Show me what you got before I hire you". These tend to attract clients that have no interest in the proper design process, strategic planning, or paying for value. They believe quantity is the key rather than quality. As such, these types of spec contests attract designers that tend to lack the same.

In general, pro-bono work can be a good thing. The designer is still treated as a designer, the client is still treated as a client, and the project is treated as a proper project. In the end, the solution can be a quality solution.

Spec work, not so much. There are no real projects, no real strategy, and no real design thinking involved. Much more of a crap shoot and rarely produces quality work for any party involved.

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