Yes, I said it. Spec work...gross.
For those of you who are not familiar with spec work, here is an excerpt from No!Spec, a website dedicated to informing the masses about the unethical nature of spec/speculative work.
"Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by designers to prospective clients before taking steps to secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a "test" of their skill. In addition, the designers normally unwittingly lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion."
This is really messed up.
Let's put this in an analogous format so it's easier to see the unethical nature (and because analogies are fun! Yay!).
John (our fictional villain) walks into a five-star restaurant and sits down. He notices there are three different chefs working. let's call them Chefs A, B and C. John rises from his table and walks into the kitchen, past the restaurant manager who is yelling the kitchen is for employees only, and speaks with the chefs. He informs them his favorite food is salmon and he wants each chef to prepare his dinner for him. Perplexed there is a random man in the kitchen, the chefs proceed to create three unique salmon dishes. John eats each meal, exclaims they are all great but Chef B's was the best, hands Chef B a coupon for a free six-inch sandwich at Subway, and leaves the restaurant. He just devalued the culinary profession and set the precedence that cooking shouldn't be paid for because it's not worth it. He didn't think about the chefs' years of training to hone the skills necessary to prepare the five-star dishes he just ate.
Here are the reasons this is different than design work. Oh wait, it isn't. If you hold a design contest and say, "You can submit your designs and the winner will be given a gold star and a limp-wristed handshake," you are willfully promoting unpaid labor. You can also expect a bunch of terrible submissions from people who parade around and call themselves designers, because all the designers who do it professionally won't lift a single finger to help you.
So I say this: Designers, don't sell yourself short by doing spec work. If you do work for free, you, too, are devaluing our profession and craft.
Other people, don't ask for/expect free design work. Like other professions, you get what you pay for, and if you don't pay for anything then...well...enjoy looking at a bunch of MS Paint nightmares.