Within the broad realm of Art, there has always existed a perhaps broader spectrum of opinion regarding it as a profession, more so than perhaps any other occupation. Art can sometimes be lucrative, and other times so undervalued it can scarcely be given away. Hence the popular term, “starving artist” and equally understood notion that artists work is only, or at least best appreciated after the artist has died.
Regardless of one’s opinion about art, particularly design, it is work and deserves compensation. The NO!SPEC organization offers a good resource for bringing awareness to what spec work is and why it shouldn’t be a valid form of conducting business. It’s surprising to me that there is even a debate about this issue, but the main fault lies with designers who are willing to do spec work, not with those who offer it. Contrary to popular thinking, saying “no” to design work whose only reward is an “opportunity”, a “portfolio-booster” and “good future prospects” doesn’t hurt. It helps. It sends the message that work = pay, not work = a chance at getting paid (which is closer to the definition of gambling).
If you want to do work for free and pitch a design to someone, fine. Then do it of your own accord. The ball’s in your court; you’re willing to accept success or failure. But if someone requests that you do free work, decline it. This should not be an accepted practice.
And if you’ve got an extra minute, read this. It’s completely relevant; a shrewd response to a request for spec work.