ICoD position on unpaid work

The official ICoD position on unpaid work is as follows: The International Council of Design upholds professional design conducted in a manner consistent with accepted professional standards of practice for fair compensation for design work and discourages all practices that engage designers in any kind of speculative, uncompensated work, including competitions of a speculative nature. Such practices undermine the value of design and the professional standing of designers.

To uphold the professional standing of design worldwide, it is necessary to have a shared professional ethos and a sense of common cause. How designers are paid and under what conditions, is sometimes tricky terrain to navigate. There is a difference between unpaid work—professional work that is done without traditional payment, but may be compensated in other ways—and uncompensated work—work that is not compensated in any way, whether for money or for some other type of benefit. This paper differentiates between a range of work situations designers may encounter and find unclear, by naming them, then evaluates them according to their professionalism, or lack of it, and finally, provides guidelines to help designers uphold professional standards of practice. This is not just an issue for designers, this practice has detrimental impacts on the quality of business outcomes.


NAME: Spec Work

Speculative practices (also called ‘spec work’ or ‘free pitching’) are defined by the Council as design work (including documented consultation), created by professional designers and organisations, provided without compensation, for a nominal fee, or for the promise of possible future compensation should certain conditions be met, often in competition with peers and often as a means to solicit new business.

Free Pitching is a type of Spec Work that exists in certain industries. This practice is very clearly unethical. Free Pitching happens in a business or B2B situation, where designers or design companies compete for a contract or submit work to secure a contract without guaranteed remuneration.

NAVIGATE: The Council strongly recommends that all professional designers avoid engaging in speculative practices.

NAME: Pro bono work

It is widely misunderstood that the Latin ‘pro bono’ means ‘for free’. In fact, the term means ‘for good.’ To work to advance a deserving cause is encouraged. The precise working relationship between the designer and the recipient should be carefully determined, defined and described in an agreement. The conditions of undertaking Pro Bono work, including ownership of rights and expenses, should be adhered to strictly. The value of the design services rendered should be communicated clearly to the Pro Bono recipient.

NAVIGATE: As professionals with a desire and obligation to serve society by contributing their capacities for the public good, designers are urged to provide their services without market compensation in appropriate circumstances within precisely agreed-upon terms.

NAME: Volunteer work/unpaid internships/'quid pro quo' work

This includes work being done as a personal favor, in exchange for professional training, in exchange for a professional service, or in exchange for educational experience, without the expectation of being compensated.

NAVIGATE: This category can be particularly touchy as the line between exploitation and mutual reward can be unclear. The precise working relationship between the designer and the recipient should be carefully determined, defined, and described in an agreement. The conditions of unremunerated work, including ownership of rights, should be adhered to strictly. The value of the design services rendered should be communicated clearly to the recipient as should the value and detail of the services being delivered to the designer in return.

NAME: Design Competitions

Most design competitions award existing work. In such cases, the designer has already performed their professional work and been paid for it. The act of submission of the work might entail some time to prepare but it is not considered unpaid work. In some cases, there are other ethical issues involving fees (see our document on Design Awards for more). Some Design Award Competitions, however, seek new or original work. They ask designers to work to create designs based on a theme or cause. Those competitions that are unpaid or uncompensated are unethical.

NAVIGATE: If the cause is deserving (socially or environmentally, for example), not for a commercial entity, and the conditions of the work (ownership of intellectual property rights, clear understanding of usage) are respected and there is demonstrable value in the outcomes, these competitions can be considered equivalent to pro-bono work. Often, these conditions are not met and competitions simply use designers to create free work that they can leverage for their own promotion. In particular, attention should be addressed to the organisers and sponsors. There is a difference between non-profits organising efforts for the public good, or addressing topics of social relevance, and commercial entities undertaking public relations efforts.

NAME: Work for ‘promotion’ or ‘exposure’

Increasingly, it is becoming common to work in exchange for some un-quantifiable 'promotional value'. Designers are being asked to work for free to showcase the value, not only of their own services, but of design as a whole. This should not be the role of individual designers, especially not those that have no basis on which to speak for the entire community. Government promotion agencies and sometimes even important industry leaders that have a lifetime of success and accumulated credibility, industry recognition and financial resources, do and often should take this role. Design promotion is a laudable and necessary undertaking and we encourage designers to be active in their communities to support the promotion of design. But when individual designers accept to work for free, they diminish the perceived value of their services, undermining the very objectives of the effort.

NAVIGATE: The Council recommends that professional designers decline to engage in work for ‘promotion’ or work for ‘exposure.’

NAME: Hiring Homework

"Hiring homework" is a practice whereby prospective employers demand that candidates complete assignments in order to 'demonstrate their abilities' as part of the job application process. In design, these 'assignments' can range from simple design projects to full-blown campaigns requiring the creation of multiple assets and collateral. Unscrupulous employers compound the inherent unfairness in this practice by having job applicants work on actual projects—that they can profit from — without compensation for the designer. This is an extremely unprofessional practice that seems to be appearing in North America as a derivative of the tech and web sectors. Companies may even incorporate the applicant’s work in the final deliverable regardless of whether or not the applicant is eventually hired. "Hiring homework" is unethical and unprofessional, and may lead to legal issues for the client if it can be proven that the use of the uncompensated work constitutes copyright infringement. While applicants to staffing agencies are sometimes legitimately required to complete a standardised, theoretical test for their proficiency in skills such as software programmes, proofing, and coding, such testing is fundamentally different from "hiring homework" which constitutes a request for uncompensated professional design services. There are far more professional, respectful, effective and fair ways to consider candidates for employment: interviews, portfolio reviews, recommendations (all without payment) or appropriately compensated internships or limited-period employment.

NAVIGATE: The Council recommends that professional designers should flatly decline such demands.


Designers—as representatives of their profession—should be aware that their personal decisions impact not only the long-term viability and reputation of their own practice, but also reflects the collective standing of the profession. In each case, designers must use their judgement to understand if their investment is worthy and justified, and, if so, to assure that the value of the professional service is recognised adequately. Some risks of these practices becoming commonplace are:

Devaluation of professional quality
The conditions of speculative practice preclude the possibility of a complete design process. Without the structured client/ designer interaction, an important part of the initial research and discovery phase is eliminated. Solutions can only be superficially thought-out and considered without sufficient understanding of client needs. Moreover, the cost of speculative practices and uncompensated work means that insufficient time, energy, and consideration will be invested in each project, as studios need to create more and more pitches to assure that their costs are covered by the work they are compensated for. This brings down the quality of the design work tremendously.

Devaluation of design practice
As these practices proliferate, clients will learn to seek out more ‘free’ work. This drives down the going rate for design work and diminishes perceived value of the work. There is no benefit to the design community or the client in commodifying design.

Legal considerations
Depending on the agreement or lack thereof between the client and the designer, there are legal risks for both parties with respect to IP ownership and rights.


Advocating for appropriate compensation establishes the designer as a professional in the eyes of the client. Trust engendered in the capacities and professionalism of a studio or designer leads to better, more innovative design outcomes. Trust builds safety, and safety creates a productive environment in which bolder, more effective solutions can be developed. Trust demands transparency, leading to a more open relationship between the designer and client. Without trust, that relationship is hampered by miscommunication, disengagement, and a lack of confidence in the designer’s capabilities, to the detriment of the final outcome.

Furthermore, appropriate remuneration enhances the perceived value of the work and the client's appreciation for the designer’s time, labor, and expertise. This increases the likelihood that the client will invest their own time and attention in the project, improving project outcomes.

The reputation established by a studio or designer is built by developing healthy client relationships which permit the creation of innovative, effective work. Unprofessional practices, including uncompensated work referenced above, increases the chances of attracting the worst clients – those driven by a misguided cost analysis, or unwilling to invest the resources needed for the designer to produce work of true value.

Achieving professional standing begins with self-awareness and self-definition. Only when the broad community of practitioners adopts a shared approach can wider society be expected to acknowledge the professional status of the discipline. Once these standards are established, the discipline benefits from enhanced respect, status and influence, independence, and assigned value.