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Should professional designers take a zero tolerance position with design contests, crowdsourcing, and spec work? Or is there some ‘wiggle room’ that allows us all to co-exist peacefully in in the design industry? Turns out, it may all come down to intent. And how we define the issue itself.

First, let’s begin with a little singalong..

Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, We’re giving it away..
Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, We’re getting no pay..
Lots of spec work, brand new spec work..
For folks with no integrity, Oh, isn’t it fun..
Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, Killing the industry..
Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, But it’s all about me..
Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, My ideas are worth nothing..
Absolutely nothing, when you’re..
Crowdspecking, we’re crowdspecking, Oh, isn’t it fun..

* Sung to the tune of Night Clubbing by Iggy Pop

The issue of spec work, design contests and so-called “crowdsourcing” has been ongoing for years. It flares up, dies down and then flares up again, usually when a high-profile design contest hits the radar – usually on social media. We love to point out high-profile spec work failures – one of the most notable was probably Cadbury Chocolate ‘crowdsourcing’ contest for their Dairy Milk bar wrapper where the winning entry may have been plagiarized. – while turning a blind eye to, what one supposes, are thousands of small businesses who’ve run successful design contests. We jump on seemingly anti-spec quotes from folks like Jeff Howe (the guy behind the phrase crowdsourcing) especially when he opined that design contest sites “short-circuited” the promise of crowdsourcing itself. If anyone knows what crowdsourcing is, and what it isn’t, it would be Howe. Which begs the question, are design contest platforms offering crowdsourcing, or are they something different, a cynical attempt to conflate one concept with another? I’ve always maintained that these sites aren’t crowdsourcing as originally conceived, but simply spec work with a fancy CMS wrap. And while we can discuss the pros and cons of this stuff till we’re blue in the face (and have), today we’re going to look at the bigger picture and try to figure, as it applies to graphic design, what defines crowdsourcing and what doesn’t.

My dirty little secret.

I had my first paying design gig way-back when I was a fourteen year-old in high school – a logo design contest for our school radio station. Wasn’t much of a radio station to be honest, just a bunch of students who spun vinyl during the lunch hour from a corner of the cafeteria. It sorta qualified as a radio station by pumping the tunes through the school’s PA system, albeit at a very low volume and only into areas in which the teachers hadn’t turned the system off. I won the contest by creating an ambigram of the station’s name, Radio Chingacousy, designing a logo than spun around was no small feat with that name (I wish I could find the artwork to see how I did it). Picked up a princely hundred bucks for my efforts (though it did take almost three months to collect). The winning design (mine) was picked by students and was painted five feet tall on the cafeteria wall, giving me some bragging rights during my last few years at the school.

If that contest happened today, there would probably be some sort of anti-spec freakout on Twitter, and even though I’ve been profoundly opposed to logo design contests for years, I’d have no problem telling critics to “get bent” about this one. Hypocrisy? I don’t think so. See, I think we can all agree this kind of thing is different. As is the logo contest for the church picnic. As is a logo for a local Girl Guides chapter. As is some $50K contest for a logo design for your favorite beer label.

So why are they different?

Zero tolerance or some wiggle room for acceptance?

For the most part, I’ve always taken a ‘zero tolerance’ position for design contests and so-called design crowdsourcing. I’ve always been of the belief that designers, like any profession, should get paid for their work. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take, especially when one factors in the amount of time that a designer invests, either by a traditional post high-school design educations or by years in the trenches, before becoming good enough to create professional design work with anything approaching consistency. It seems rather brazen, insulting actually, for companies (either for-profit commercial platforms or the end-user themselves) to expect designers to pitch free design work in the hopes of their designs, be they logos or otherwise, being selected. Don’t think I’m alone it that position either.

Do design contest sites even offer design contests?

I’ve often wondered if design contest sites that market themselves as well, design contest sites, are actually offering contests at all. We can’t look to the companies behind these websites for their answer as most have been fairly schizophrenic in how they define themselves, oscillating back-and-forth between offering “contests” and “projects”. I’m still of the impression that if a company promotes design contests, then there are some very real legal ramifications of doing so. There are complex laws regarding any type of contests, and if these are contests, then the companies involved are not heeding the legalities, the single biggest one being this; if you advertise a contest, with prizes to encourage participation, then not picking a winner isn’t an option. It’s pretty well a law in most jurisdictions. It might well be fraud if a winner isn’t selected. Probably false advertising too. Major corporations wouldn’t dream of it. Read the rules and regulations of any ‘design contest’ for any major corporation. They’re pages deep, every nuance and permutation covered. So how do design contest and crowdsourcing sites get away with allowing ‘contest holders’ to walk without picking a winner? While leaving dozens, sometimes hundreds, of designers holding the bag? Here’s how. They aren’t contests at all. They are spec work projects, using the crowdsourcing meme to slide under the radar. While advertising their offerings as contests to designers. Which they aren’t. It’s almost like we need a new name to differentiate commercial spec work platforms with Jeff Howe’s original concept of crowdsourcing and design contests as we’ve come to understand them. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll use Crowdspecking (a portmanteau of crowdsourcing and spec work).
Crowdsourced platform logos

Crowdsourcing: We’re all in this together.

Now that we’ve done that, let’s try and differentiate between the three, starting with the new media darling, crowdsourcing. As it was original conceived, crowdsourcing was the idea of a large group working together to solve a goal, where usually the entire community benefits from the effort. Think WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and even programming languages like PHP.

Ownership isn’t really the issue, so by their very nature, many crowdsourced projects are open source, an anyone can jump in ‘community’ vibe. I think we’re all down with that. Crowdsourcing can be an effective way to build something with online colleagues and allows people, perhaps missing the official qualifications, to participate in a worthy endeavor. It’s a great way to get new ideas. Solve problems and complex tasks. Too, in may instances, the community itself is involved in the selection of a winning, or applied, solution. The ‘leveling of the playing field’ we’ve all heard so much about. I don’t have an issue with any of this, and I’d be a hypocritical bastard if I did, as you’re reading this on a WordPress blog, a poster child for the ‘crowdsourcing’ phenomenon. The PHP language that forms the WP backbone is too.

Design contests: Fire and forget.

Design contests have been around forever. The original Toyota logo (long since changed) was the result of a design contest back in the 1930’s. The original Volkswagen logo was a result of an inter-office competition that was won by the engineer that had designed the original engine. Major corporations use them to promote everything from beer, to radio stations, to movie releases and more, often offering large prizes to encourage fans to get involved. Here’s the thing though – all of these design contests are of the ‘fire and forget’ variety. Work up your design, send it in via some branded website (but not before entering your e-mail, Twitter or Facebook account info) and then wait. Hoping for the best, naturally, because that twenty-five grand would come in handy. By the way, if the company doesn’t pick a winner, go straight to the FTC, because in most jurisdictions, there’s usually a law that tells them they have to.

“..if the company doesn’t pick a winner, go straight to the FTC, because in most jurisdictions, there’s usually a law that tells them they have to.”

Obviously (as far as I know) there’s no such laws when you enter a logo into a contest for the local Girl Guides. You did that because you’d love to have your logo featured on the arm band of your daughter’s Girl Guide uniform. In terms of selection of the winner, that’s often left to arbitrary selection by the contest holder, but in this social media era, the winner can also be selected by participants, or anyone else that’s interested. Usually through ‘vote for this design’ polls which are often decided by which participant has the most internet friends. Which brings us to Crowdspecking, the last in the triumvirate of ways to pitch your artwork, without pay, to someone who might use it.

Crowdspecking: Spec work on a website.

Let’s get all high-browed and talk about economics and game theory. Let’s talk about The Tragedy of the Commons:

The Tragedy of the Commons” is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen. The essence of the commons dilemma has been discussed by theorists since ancient times, but not under that name. It has also been studied more recently, such as in game theory.

Central to Hardin’s article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s view, it is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer..”

Unlike crowdsourcing, crowdspecking doesn’t involve community participation, unless you define being part of a community as having a website username and password. Designers don’t work together in any real sense, but compete against each other in what amount to spec work projects. Other than the CMS, and the larger than normal people participating, crowdspecking sites are tired-and-true spec work Request for Proposals with a fancy website wrap to toss the RFP onto. Unlike design contests, there’s no fire-and-forget principle and designers are expected to perform revisions to their work throughout the project, at the whim of contest holders who aren’t regulated in the amount of work they request.

Community and the issue of ownership.

Ownership is very much an issue, with the winning designer being expected to transfer whatever rights they have, to the company running the gig. If you read any contest platform TOS, there’s a clause that talks about ‘irrevocable license.’ What that means is that whenever you upload an image to a contest platform, you give them the rights to do whatever they want with it. Forever. There’s very little community input into the project, either in how the work pans out, or which design is eventually selected. That’s generally an arbitrary pick-of-the-litter by the project holder. Like corporate design contests, crowdspeck affairs feature a prize, but it is often far below the market rate. While it may be true that crowdspecking sites permit designers with little or no experience to participate, there’s usually very little benefit for them to do so, save working up a few pieces for their portfolio. Any real benefit of this participation goes directly to the site owners themselves, who can add numbers to their community statistics as a selling point, and add the designers’ work to their online galleries.

Refunded, cancelled and abandoned contests.

Project holders can get away with not awarding a prize because there’s probably no law (unlike that for a typical design contest) that tells them they have to. Laws don’t cover spec work, and any type of regulation by governing bodies, the AIGA for example, has been met with anti-trust threats from the feds. Some crowdspecking sites have tried to institute their own versions of payment guarantees, often with the best of intentions, to placate designers. Such guarantees (which bascially involve ‘strong-arming’ the project holder into picking a winner, or selecting one on their behalf) are impossible to enforce because of the way clients usually pay, by a credit card, and the rules that surround chargebacks.

It’s all about the intent.

The most important difference between design contests, crowdsourcing and crowdspecking comes down to intent. When Cadbury holds a design contest for their label, the design is actually a secondary part of their intent. Maybe even third. It’s not about a giant company getting a whole bunch of design work for free or on the cheap, it’s about marketing the brand itself. The thrust of the Cadbury contest was to get fans of their chocolate to get involved. Enter Facebook information. Put in their e-mail address. Join the Cadbury community by fanning their Facebook page. Using social media as part of their overall brand awareness campaign.

In Crowdspecking, the only intent is to get a lot of design work on the cheap, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. “More for less” is how these sites market their projects. It’s also how enthusiastic customers describe their experience when they chose to tell us. When Bob’s Auto Body holds a $200 spec work project on some website, Bob’s not interested in developing a “community”. The people entering the project don’t know Bob, don’t care and aren’t terribly interested ihis garage or his business. They’re only tossing a few logo designs onto a server for the chance to win a couple of hundred bucks. Just like your typical spec work RFP. They’ve never heard of Bob’s Auto Body before the contest, and probably won’t hear about him afterwards. They aren’t fans, in any sense of the word, and Bob doesn’t have any use for the people entering his contest once the winner has been selected.

Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that crowdspecking is a cynical method of getting a whole bunch of people to enter a stranger’s design contest with little, or no chance, of picking up the meager prize. Commercially branded design contests are well-intentioned method of engaging the company’s established fans, as well as picking up new ones, to enter a contest with little, or no, chance of winning a substantially larger prize. One is about love for a product, company or service. The other is a spec-work cattle call. That tries to call itself something else.

Does the money matter?

Design contests are very much about the money. That’s one of the primary reasons people enter in the first place, probably in equal numbers to people who’re excited at the prospect of designing something for a team, brand or company that they dig. Crowdsourcing works because it’s not primarily about the money but in its purest sense anyway, about the greater good for all involved.

“Many pro-spec advocates will claim that crowdspecking isn’t about the the money. But of course it is. It’s all about the money to the sites that are hosting them. It’s their business.”

Many pro-spec advocates will claim that crowdspecking isn’t about the the money either. But of course it is. It’s all about the money to the sites that are hosting them. It’s their business. It’s all about the money to clients who are utilizing these sites. That ‘more for less’ philosophy that we talked about earlier. And ultimately, it’s about the money for designers participating too. One of the raison d’etre of crowdspecking sites is that they “level the playing field” for designers. Inexperienced designers can access the same gigs, and stand to earn as much money working in the field as experienced designers. Like many of their claims, this one is a little disingenuous, unless your idea of “leveling the playing field” involves mostly unpaid labor, with the potential of an occasional “award” that’s far below a living wage. See that’s the issue. Once again, Crowdspecking sites offer prize money that’s either on par with going rates, or more frequently, a fraction thereof.

Design contests, the Cadbury Chocolate offering for example, offers a prize (over $20K) that’s significantly higher than the going rate for most freelance designers. Both are a lottery of sorts. One offers a prize that’s, well, not lottery like. Most of us understand the idea of buying a $5 lottery ticket for the chance of winning $20 million. Very few of us would buy that same lottery ticket if the jackpot only amounted to $50. I would tell you I’m not a gambler. Which I’m not. But every year, the Mrs. and I buy a $250 lottery ticket. The money goes to the local children’s hospital. Which is cool. The prizes include mutl-million dollar payouts, houses and a $250,000 Ferrari. Which is even cooler. Seem we all understand the concept of the ‘long shot’ in a one-of contest for surreal prizes. Crowdspecking sites present the ‘long shot’ in every single one of their projects. And present the “long shot” as a way for a designer to earn a living.

Which considering the non-lottery-like winnings, it probably isn’t.