“We’re all adults” goes the defense for crowdsourcing and design contests. Turns out that’s not necessarily true.

My position, and that of many in the design community, is that spec work and design contests amount to nothing more than unpaid labor. Designer after designer pitching logos, website designs, brochures and what have you, all in the hopes of getting paid. Something. Anything. The argument about spec work is an ongoing one, often percolating over when a particular issue, or event, comes to light.

We’re all adults here.

One of the main arguments from the pro-spec side of the design crowdsourcing and contest sites is that “we’re all adults here” and entering design contests is a matter of “choice”. Fair enough position, I suppose (albeit ignoring most of the pro vs. con points of the issue). My definition (at least as it applied to MY kids) of “being an adult” was, and is, 18 years old (as it is in most Western countries). What if I told you that many of the designers on design contest sites aren’t 18, but 17. Close enough to adult to ‘bend the rules a bit’? Fair enough. What if I was to tell you that many designers on design contests are 16? Still within the ‘boundaries”? How about 15? How about 14? How about 13? 12? How about an 11 year old (already having entered 6 contests without winning)? Would you still be cool with design contests and spec work then? Still up with this ‘democracy of design’ bunk? Don’t think I am. Let’s take a look at some of the profiles from leading design contest site, 99designs (I’ve screen grabbed them, as they might disappear into the ether a few minutes after I hit the ‘publish’ button. I’ve blurred out the user IDs because it seemed a little icky publishing these kids’ names in the open) –

These profiles are but the tip of the iceberg. With a few simple, and obvious Google searches, we can find some more. I’d hazard a guess that many kids, eager to get in on the fun, simply withhold, or lie, about their ages so there’s no way to project any accurate, or total, numbers. However, and with the ‘ick’ factor notwithstanding, a couple of questions come to mind. As a supposedly professional designer, are you okay competing with children in the cut-throat environment of design contests? (I know I wouldn’t be. Truth to tell, I’d always be rooting for the little guys to win). As a buyer of design services, would you be cool knowing that some of the free pitches you’re getting in your $200 logo design contest (and either not giving feedback to, or being brutal about in your critique) are coming from kids who write “I like horsies” or “I’m 12 today! Hooray!” in their design profile? I know what my answer is.

Youngsters are often very talented.

Don’t get me wrong. Most designers I know of (myself included) started drawing, painting and designing at a really young age (my first illustration experience was drawing Frank SInatra album covers on the living room floor with my father, Sinatra being his favorite crooner). Some teenagers show remarkable talent early on, in a cool ‘tussle their hair’ kinda way. I get it, but that isn’t the point. If you believe that spec work is unpaid labor, then this is tantamount to the unpaid labor of children. Being promoted to companies as the ‘evolution’ of professional design services and a superior way to obtain it. And while it’s generally accepted that exploiting adults is okey-dokey, albeit morally bankrupt, it’s another thing entirely to exploit children. Read some of the comments from contest buyers. Things like “you think this is professional design? I could have drawn better using my foot”. Now realize that these comments may be aimed at teenagers. Or younger. Puts a whole different spin to the often posted comment “my kid could have done better”, huh?

It’s all about the numbers.

To be honest, I expect this kind of nonsense from design contest and crowdsourcing sites. The reason they can exist in the first place is that they don’t play by generally accepted rules (I wrote an earlier article that wondered if logo design contests are even legal). As I pointed out in my last blog post on their participating designer claims, these sites are reluctant to put ANY type of restrictions on their registrations in order to inflate their claimed ‘members’ of their ‘community’, and to keep the new recruits signing up. Trouble is, there are all sorts of legal ramifications for minors submitting to these sites. There are privacy issues. Adult responsibility issues. In terms of ‘karma,’ teenagers submitting unpaid work to clients paying the host company has a really, really bad vibe. At least from where I’m sitting.

But it gets worse.

Free pitches from kids?

99designs now offers white label contests through internet giant Network Solutions and Quickbooks software manufacturer Intuit.

Intuit Design Center

If you didn’t know, white label is simply when one company uses the resources, business model (and in this case, the web platform itself) to offer the same, unbranded services as another. Basically, Network Solutions and Intuit have their own versions of 99designs’ platform. And community. Which means Network Solutions and Intuit customers, who use those companies to launch design contests, may be getting designs pitched from kids as young as 11. Maybe a 12 year old. How about the ripe old age of 13.

Intuit Design Center

Gives one a kinda warm and fuzzy feeling about this crowdsourcing deal, no?

But kids mow lawns.

Obviously, I’ve used the most extreme examples I could find here (we’re all guilty of confirmation bias) and some of the examples illustrate participants who haven’t been around the site for a year (which doesn’t prove anything – their profiles are still active and no doubt included in the home page tally of the sites discussed). Some might even argue that kids mow lawns, so why not enter design contests?

I’ll tell you why.

When I hire a kid to mow my lawn, I generally pay them more than what they ask, and usually have to mow the lawn myself anyway. After I send them off with a hair tussle and a “nice job” compliment. They’re not competing against supposedly professional landscaping companies, and in doing so are cutting my lawn in hopes of getting paid. Nobody is making a percentage and/or a ‘contest’ fee in making lawn cutting kids available to those who want their lawn cut. On design contest sites, the companies involved ARE making a cut from fees paid to access unpaid labor, these kids AREN’T getting paid, getting knocked around in the comment sections (so much for encouraging their endeavors) and treated just like adults who’ve “made a choice”. Because the contest holders probably don’t know they might be talking to kids. I expect that many wouldn’t be cool if they knew. I least, I hope they wouldn’t be.

If they are, perhaps it’s time that I got out of this game.


I had originally titled this article “Child labor on design contest & crowdsourcing sites” but as provocative as that title was, I changed it at the last minute. Here’s why; according to Wiki, child labor is defined as “(U.S. child labor) refers to the employment of children at regular and sustained labour.” As none of the sites mentioned actually ’employ’ designers, none of the examples technically involve the legal definition of “child labor”. Wiki goes on to explain that “In many developed countries, it is considered inappropriate or exploitative if a child below a certain age works (excluding household chores or school-related work). [2] An employer is usually not permitted to hire a child below a certain minimum age. This minimum age depends on the country and the type of work involved. States ratifying the Minimum Age Convention adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1973, have adopted minimum ages varying from 14 to 16. Child labour laws in the United States set the minimum age to work in an establishment without restrictions and without parents’ consent at age 16.

Thought I should clear that up.

Related posts:

  1. The dirty little secret that most spec, design contest & crowdsourcing sites don’t want designers to know
  2. Numbers – The ever-shifting realities of crowdsourcing and design contest sites.
  3. Forbes: Why designers hate crowdsourcing
  4. Snippets: The crowdsourcing, writing on spec & design contest follies edition
  5. Are logo design contest sites even legal?