Steve Douglas on August 5th, 2009

Series of Spectacular links - emphasis on Spec

Rather than dying the death that pro-spec advocates predicted, the debate about spec work, so-called “design crowdsourcing” and design contest sites seems to be heating up across the internet, as more and more designers become aware of the issue, with many seeing it as a threat to the graphic design profession itself. On the pro-spec side, there are a few more design contest companies rolling out their websites, presumably as more people figure getting a whole load of designers to work for free and selling the work to their clients is an awesome business plan. With summer vacation schedules, working on our new logo, retooling our website and focusing our brand, I’ve sorta been out of the loop for a month or so and thought a trip around the webs might be just what the doctor ordered.

Without further ado, here’s a few places where spec work debates have flared up in the last few weeks or so, as well as a look at the latest design contest sites now trundling down the pike.

The Marketing and Tech Blog opened a floodgate of comments when site-owner Douglas Karr suggested that design crowdsourcing ‘marketplace’ Crowdspring was an ‘Agency Killer‘ with it’s spec-driven business model. As part of dialogue with Crowdspring co-founder Ross Kimbarovsky, you’ll find a couple of my comments as we got into it on whether or not design contest sites signal the death-knell of the graphic design industry, or are a previously untapped avenue of “opportunity” for designers just starting out in their careers. Speaking about Crowdspring, they’ve posted a Crowdspring by the numbers featurette, no doubt in an attempt to quell critics who’ve been vocal about the site. Don’t know how to introduce this post, so let’s just point you in the appropriate direction and quote the title of Brian Jung‘s opinion piece Crowdspring Blows Donkey Balls.

Professional blogging consultant Problogger probably didn’t expect the designer pushback he received, both on his blog comment section and via messages on Twitter, as designers railed against his promotion of blog design contests on Australia-based 99designs, the largest and most prolific of all the design contest sites currently operating. But once his Run a Competition to Find Your Next WordPress Blog Design was published, rail they did. 99designs pushed back, adding a few snippy comments, one of which I couldn’t resist answering. Before you think that everyone’s feeling the hate towards 99designs, I should probably hit you up with a link to Tim FerrissDesign Competition: Want to Design My Next Cover? post in which he directs readers to submit their work to a contest he’s running on 99D and as per usual, his comment section has turned into a pro cs. anti gripe-fest. Worthwhile noting that Ferriss is the author of The Four Hour Workweek, a principle that probably doesn’t apply to poor bastards slogging away, without pay, on his next cover artwork.

Couple of weeks ago, we told you about SpecWatch, a designer initiative that’s been documenting some pretty surprising goings-on at design contest sites via their Twitter account and causing quite a stir with online designers. UK graphic designer David Airey managed to score an interview with SpecWatch for Web Designer Depot that reveals some interesting stuff about the hows and whys of the apparently publicity-shy outfit. The comment section is particularly compelling as designers and design contest management chime in to express their varied, and often strong, opinions.


Self-described “creative and crowdsourcing specialist” Jason Spector waded into the fray with his positively beaming article Why Starting Designers Should Crowdsource which tells young designers of all the lovely reasons why design contests and spec work are a healthy choice for their careers. In an effort to be even-handed, he looks at some of the risks but in toto, his outlook on spec work is an enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’. Can’t say I agree, which probably explains why his article isn’t quite as snarky as our similarly-named Why You Should Crowdsource Your Logo feature from a few months back. Or it’s companion piece How To Win a Logo Design Contest. Spector’s blog post is worth a looksee if you’re interested in how pro-spec work people tend to think.

A couple of new design contest sites began announcing that they’d be launching soon, no doubt to recruit designers before contest holders come a-calling. One, Design Tourney, promises that it will be “the biggest threat to Logo Tournament, 99designs, and Crowdspring” when it opens up shop this fall. Another outfit, Freshly Branded, promised that their contest site would launch in July, but recently revised that to an August date via their website once the clock chimed 12:00 July 31. Over at, some cat called “Charlie B. Johnson” has been pimping an in-BETA design contest site, the oddly named via an article here and in the thinly disguised pro design article entitled Spec Work – Curse or Blessing?. All of this ‘excitement’ is kinda odd because is currently nothing more than a couple of place holder pages with a come-on for designers to sign up for contests “launching soon”. Makes me think that good old “Charlie” has connections to that are a little more involved than meets the eye.

Pre-designed logo and brand ‘marketplace’ Brandstack (abruptly renamed from the much nicer IncSpring, shortly after Crowdspring hit the scene) is now taking some fire from designers who are viewing the service as spec work, rather than than the pre-fabricated logo agency BrandStack would like to see themselves as. Bad boy designer Toni Zova has penned a provocative piece Why Brandstack is The Silent Killer in which he opines that far from being an ‘opportunity’ for designers to sell unused concepts, Brandstack is something else entirely. Almost simultaneously, designer Fatima Mekkaoui explains in fairly dense detail why she pulled all her logo designs from Brandstack. I’ve always been non-plussed about IncSpring, whoops, Brandstack, so it’s interesting to read others’ perspectives on the service.

All this spec stuff kinda makes me want to get into the mix with yet another ranting, railing anti-spec work special that will bore half our readers and jazz up the other half. Be right back…




Related Posts

  1. Again with the design contests
  2. Design is a ‘snooty’ business: Forbes
  3. AIGA softening positon on spec and design contests?
  4. SXSW “Is Spec Work Evil?” panel transcript
  5. Battle for hearts and minds continues

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11 Comments to “A really, really SPECtacular series of links…”

  1. Darrel says:

    I’m neither a huge fan nor a huge detractor of BrandStack. It’s an interesting idea and one that I and I’m sure many others have thought about in the past.

    Is it spec work? Sure, but I’d say it’s more closely related to stock photography and illustration rather than contests. I think it has a place and is much less detrimental to both the designer and the customer than any of the contest sites.

  2. Nathan Sarlow says:

    There was also this doozy over some work a new church needed

    Got quite heated, but I think the issue was more with non-designer people not understanding the problem of spec-work more than anything. I thought [most of] the arguments from the anti-spec camp were measured and well noted, but seems the public just don’t want to hear it.

    Most notably, I found it interesting that the natural reaction from many PRO-specers was that professionals should just move along and not bother entering rather than just suck it up and submit.

  3. Carson Shold says:

    Love it. Although I’m a little hurt my recent blog about this didn’t get honorable mentions :P

    If you guys are looking for one more designer’s thoughts on the subject of spec work and logo design competitions, check out one of my recent posts –



  4. Ian Houghton says:

    Nice summary of the situation. I’ve been following @specwatch and coming across articles here and there (like the Problogger debacle) but some of this is new to me. Thanks!

  5. Rebecca Caroe says:

    And for a bit more background and a hugely public argument that happened at South by Southwest conference in Austin Texas earlier this year, I liveblogged a panel session “Is spec work evil?” with Jeff Howe – Wired magazine chairing this list of luminaries
    Mike Samson
    David Carson David Carson Design
    Lydia Mann AIGA
    Jeffrey Kalmikoff Threadless
    Jeremiah Owyang Forrester
    here’s the post and a host of comments
    Rebecca Caroe

  6. @ Darrel – Thanks for dropping by. As mentioned in the article, I’ve never been concerned with BrandStack or its precursor IncSpring. I did find it interesting that some participating designers are being vocal in their criticisms, but whether those criticisms are valid is anyone’s guess.

    @ Nathan – Agreed. Many people who are advocating spec and design contests think that designers should just “get over it”. Not sure how much “getting over it” is actually going on. Not too much, if the link you supplied is any indication. I did find the comment section of that post interesting. Thanks for that BTW.

    @ Carson – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on spec (we’ll list your blog post next time).

    @ Ian – You’re quite welcome. I found the various debates and opinions interesting, especially the SpecWatch interview and Problogger blog design contest dust-up. One thing’s for sure – while some are quick to opine that “spec work is here to stay” (I tend to agree), it’s safe to say that the debate about it is too.

  7. Brian Jung says:

    Thanks for the trackback, and let me tell you the mental image of blowing donkey balls just about made me lose my lunch. I’ve seen a pair of donkey’s balls before, and let me tell you it’s nothing like a jawbreaker.

    I don’t buy the whole “fostering creative up-start talent” thing. It’s a bunch of slop. When i was a creative up-start there were no blogs, social media, etc. (and i’m not that old even). My point is that today it’s more easier than ever to get involved and self educate yourself on all the creative that’s out there, and is being done. There are numerous online creative communities, websites, blogs, forums, and chat rooms that are run for and by creatives for the sole purpose of exchanging and educating on creative. There’s NO money involved. Why? Because it’s not about making money, it’s about learning and if you’re a creative up-start you should know and leverage that. If you want to do spec work to bolster your portfolio with fake brand case studies, than fine – go for it. But do it for yourself, by yourself. CrowdSpring is full of shit if they think they’re filling that role for the good of the creative community.

  8. @ Brian – thanks for taking the time to comment. No problem in the mention – with your article title, I couldn’t resist. I also think you make some very valid points (as you have in your comment) that designers should take a few minutes to read. Your observations about “Work for Hire” clauses on spec design sites is particularly noteworthy and something that’s being overlooked in the discussion.

  9. [...] The Logo Factor fills us in on the continued debate between the good and evils of spec work and crowdsourcing. [...]