28 Talking Points of Spec Work

You know everything they tell you about spec work, design contests and crowdsourcing? Yeah, it’s all bullshit.

A no-holds-barred look at spec work, design contests & crowdsourcing. Designer edition. While it may be true that businesses are ‘ignoring the debate’ about crowdsourcing and spec work, designers – those who stand to be displaced by it – aren’t. In this second of a two part series, we take a definitive look at crowdsourcing and design contests from a designer’s point of view, while tackling the most often used, pro-spec talking points.

Embracing the change.

It’s been suggested that instead of “bitching and whining” about crowdsourcing, spec work and design contests, designers STFU and “embrace the change.” Personally, if “embracing change” means working for someone else for free, then I’m more inclined to bitch and whine as it’s a better use of MY time. Than working for free, for someone else. But not here. As a follow-up piece to our ‘partially impartial’ look at crowdsourcing from a client’s perspective, thought it might be worthwhile taking a look from a designer’s point of view. There HAS to be some advantages to working on spec, even if it’s only a perceived advantage, on these design contest platforms. Aren’t there?

The 28 talking points of spec work.

Though the numbers are wildly inflated, crowdsourcing and design contest sites aren’t lying when they tell us large number of “designers” (scare quotes deliberate) are participating on a fairly regular basis on their services, despite the efforts of other designers, advocacy groups and graphic design organizations trying to convince them not to. So what’s the deal? Let’s take a partially impartial look at what benefits (if there are any) and any downsides (if there are any) to participating in design contests and spec-work-driven ‘crowdsourcing’ sites. Fair disclosure here; I’m fundamentally opposed to ANY designer not getting at least some remuneration for their efforts, so I’m not exactly in the ‘pro’ camp. But once again, like the client version of this analysis, I think I know enough about the issue to cobble together a somewhat impartial look at the pros or cons. Accordingly, we’ll take a look at some of the talking points made by crowdsourcing and design contest sites, as well as the process itself.

1: It’s all about freedom of choice.

Damn straight it’s about freedom of choice. Designers are free to do with their work what they please, including giving it away for free. That freedom also applies to people who want to bitch about spec work (in fact, that’s pretty well ingrained in the Constitution). Designers, as a group, should also have the freedom to dictate how their industry plays out, as opposed to some non-designers who’ve figured out a pretty cynical way to earn their living by setting up crowdsourcing platforms all over the interwebs and inviting naive designers to work for free.

2: Designers know what they’re getting into.

Most of the ex-spec-designers I talk to tell me just the opposite – they had no idea what they were getting into. Most had no idea about abandoned contests (even those that are supposedly ‘guaranteed’ – see, design contest sites can’t offer ‘guaranteed’ contests to both designers AND contest holders), refunds on jobs with hundreds of entries, the downsizing of awards after contest ‘close’ or the rampant copying that goes on. The numbers on design contest sites tend to bear this out. The amount of active participants is but a fraction of the numbers boasted about on home pages, and a quick trip down the designer profiles indicate that most participants enter 1, 2 or 3 contests before bailing for good. Why do you think there’s such an extensive list of talking points in the first place? To convince new warm bodies that crowdsourcing it the latest, and greatest, thing. To replace the bodies whose enthusiasm has ran cold, once they discover it isn’t.

3: We’re all adults here.

No, we’re not. Don’t expect glowing reports in the media to tell you about this troubling little fact. Cause they won’t.

4: You’ll get lots of exposure.

No you won’t. At time of writing there are 73,899 designers claimed by Crowdspring. 81,958 claimed by 99designs. Do you honestly think you’ll rise above that noise by putting a couple of design samples in your profile on one of these sites? With those odds, you’d have more success setting up a website or blog, using some basic design SEO techniques, and try being found via search engines. Here’s the other thing too. Watch Twitter and blog posts for ‘glowing’ customer testimonials about this or that crowdsourcing site. Almost to a post, they proclaim how utterly awesome this-or-that crowdsourcing site was, not how great Idesignstuff101 was. I’m afraid the only people who get ‘exposure’ through your unpaid efforts is the design contest site itself.

5: Participation is voluntary so design contests aren’t exploitative.

This is simply a fallacy. See, exploitation has very little to do with whether participation is voluntary or not. In fact, one of the main definitions (there are several) of exploitation is “short-changing people in trade“. Exploitation also takes the following form:

Economic exploitation; that is, the act of using another person’s labor without offering them an adequate compensation.

You’re not getting paid, while you’re providing a service to the contest holder, which is about as “short changed” and “inadequate” as you can get. Whether you like to think you’re being exploited or not, the simple truth is you are. As is everyone else that participates in spec work and design contests.

6: Spec sites represent an “opportunity” for designers.

This argument is a relatively new one. As a result of some bad PR (as well as some motivated folks with a calculator) contest sites have pivoted their argument, realizing that their ‘earn money, have fun’ come hither is wafer thin. Many no longer claim that participating in their “communities” is about making a living. Or even about making “chump change”. Now, their rason detre is now about the “opportunity” to somehow earn work in the future. They throw stats around too. Several claim (without much in the way of actual statistics – odd, considering they throw around other stats with nary a thought) that 50% of their winning designers get follow-up work. Is that true? No way of knowing actually, but the number of contest holders that launch multiple contests – a logo contest begets a stationery contest, begets a brochure contest, begets a web design contest – would seem to be at odds with this claim. But even if it is true, that’s 50% of winning designers. Which is statistically very slim. The dictionary definition of opportunity goes as follows:

“a. A favorable or advantageous circumstance or combination of circumstances.”

Are design contests or crowdsourcing sites either for designers? Well, giving work away for the hope of getting picked over a whole bunch of people similarly hoping to get picked isn’t advantageous at all. A design contest certainly isn’t favorable to any one competitor either, so no participating in any design contest or crowdsourced project isn’t, by the dictionary definition, an opportunity at all. Now, is it an opportunity for design contest companies to turn a profit while negating the number one expense – manpower – to practically zero? Yes. And is it an opportunity for contest holders to avail themselves of the free labors of a lot of designers? Why yes. Yes on both counts. So, crowdsourcing and design contest sites are sort of correct when they claim their services represent an ‘opportunity’. But not for participating designers.

7: Crowdsourcing sites are a way to make a living.

No they aren’t. That’s a pretty strong no too and the numbers bear that position out. Tens of thousands of designers. Couple of thousand projects. Average of about $300 in prizes per. That’s as close to a fait accompli as it’s possible to get. According to some anecdotal evidence (as well as some “off the record” comments from a design contest site) the number of people who make over 5 figures (closer to 10K than 20K) is about 1%. That’s one of the larger sites too. Smaller design contest sites, the number is statistically 0%. That’s right. Nobody. Don’t take my word for it. Take a gander at any of the ‘profile’ pages on contest sites, even at those who are featured as ‘successful’ designers. Some will have entered over 500 contests. Won 3. Entered 388 contests, still waiting to win anything. The win rate for decent designers seems to be about 10%, give or take. Think about that for a moment. IN a real world ‘job’ that would translate to getting paid for one hour for every ten you work. Or, if you’re a freelancer, that would work out to getting paid for one project out of every ten you complete. This is the rule rather than the exception (in a never-ending cover our ass mentality, most design contest sites now eschew posting stats of any kind and I suspect the ones that still do, won’t for very long). The bottom line is that you will not earn anything close to a living wage on ANY design contest site.

8: Contest sites are a way to pick up some ‘pocket change’.

This one’s a little less definitive. Will you pick up “chump change” on a design contest site? Perhaps, but your chances are still extraordinarily low. As word of these sites spread (often to developing countries where the “risk vs. reward ratio” is much more tenable – what is a paltry fee in a western country has dramatically more buying power in other parts of the world,) the number of entries submitted into each contest is on the rise. One ‘me too’ site spends half their day spamming Twitter, claiming that their design contests will see between 70 to 900 logo concepts (yep, 900.) While this is terrific for the business owner who wants a smorgasbord of design options, it doesn’t bode too well for the individual designer’s chances on winning any individual contest. From what I’ve been able to ascertain the “win” rate for participating designers ranges anywhere from 2.4% to 10%. Of course, when it comes to design, percentages shouldn’t really be a factor (in theory, “better” designers should have higher range, while those who are less skilled or talented, should be less.)

9: The best designer, or design, always wins.

The term ‘Best’, as it applies to anything is a fairly subjective phrase, so it’s kinda difficult to gauge whether this statement is true or not. I do know that on many design contest sites, what I think is atrocious work often wins, while with I think is pretty decent work gets passed over for lesser material. At the end of the day, most commercial design projects can be considered ‘successful’ if they please the client, but whether they’re the ‘best’ choice is open to a wide range of interpretation. I do know that at my shop, the best design (using our experience and barometers) doesn’t always “win” and most designers’ portfolios feature work from concept stages as opposed to material signed off by the client. Same goes for design contests. What would be generally considered the ‘best’ design (and hence the ‘best’ designer) doesn’t always win either. At the shop, and in terms of most designer engagements, the designer still gets paid even if the client mangles their project completely.

10: Client feedback helps you develop your skills.

I don’t think designers can learn much about design, from people who know very little about design. A lawyer may learn many things from his or her clients – customer service, how to deal with the public, how to massage billing so that it’s more palatable – but I doubt that many lawyers ever learned much about law proper from their clients. Same for doctors. Mechanics. Etc. But at the risk of coming off like a ‘snooty’ designer, let’s take the basic premise as true. You will learn from feedback from contest holders. Trouble is, in most instances, they won’t give you any.

11: Contest holders appreciate your efforts

This is an odd one. Somehow, contest holders and crowdsourced design buyers respect spec designers and appreciate their efforts. Trouble is, the buyers have paid for the service (the contest) and whatever upsells they’ve been talked into buying. They don’t believe you’re working for free. They’ve paid the spec site for your work, and believe they’re paying damn good money too. So hop to it.

12: Stock logos and free vector art is forbidden.

Competing against designers who are challenged in the ethics department wouldn’t be fair to designers who put in the effort to create original material, so stock logos, free artwork downloads and copied material is verbotten on all design contest sites. Which would be cool. If the rule was enforced. Which it isn’t. Sadly, most design contest sites cannot monitor every contest that’s being run on their websites, and check box declarations that state a variant of “I pinky swear that I didn’t copy anyone for this submission” is pretty well the only policing that goes on. Accordingly, and to a large degree, picking up dodgy submissions is left up to other participants, who are then expected to notify the host company. While this ‘system’ works some of the time, with some contests it doesn’t, and copied material can even win.

13: Designers copying each other are ‘isolated incidents’.

No, they’re not. You will be copied. Read that again. You. Will. Be. Copied. That’s not hyperbolic or an exaggeration. The amount of copying that goes on in any forum-based design contest is staggering. Most sites will remove blatant knock-offs (if they agree that you’ve been copied). Other sites have cute names such as “concept copying” and while some will nuke an entry that steals your idea, others are quite cool with it. What are the rules? Sadly, there are none. The decision is usually made by an arbitrary judging panel whose decision is final. Good luck convincing them otherwise when they rule against you.

14: Private and ‘blind’ contests protect designers’ work.

Oddly, this is polar opposite to the original claim that the ‘open nature’ of design contests allow participants to monitor for copied entries. In blind and private contests, nobody sees anyone else’s work, or any comments made by the contest holder to other entrants, so you’ve no idea if your work is being cribbed or not. So why the private contests? Because they’re an upsell that moves a little more money into credit card chargeback safe harbor.

15: Win a contest. Pick up your prize

Not so fast sparky. The contest site you’re working on has promised their clients that even after contest close, and if you win a contest with one of your submissions, that you’ll be happy to revise the artwork until the contest holder is ‘truly happy’. In fact, they promise for all intents and purposes, that you’ll provide an unlimited number of revisions, edits and tweaks after you’ve won, but before you get paid. If you balk at the number of after-win revisions, you’ll be branded as uncooperative, have a negative review posted, more than likely be ‘unawarded the contest’ and maybe even get your account canceled. Spec sites don’t take criticism too well.

16: Guaranteed contests also pay a designer.

Here’s a sad reality of most design contest sites. There will be contests that are never awarded. Nobody will win anything and the contest holder will simply walk away. Some sites use phrases like “the contest holder has decided not to award a prize.” In the real world, if you advertise a contest with cash prizes, you better award a winner. Or the FTC will be all over you. See, anything other than picking a winner is tantamount to fraud in the real world. I’d assume the same laws and regulation should apply to crowdsourcing and design contests. To date, they haven’t. Here’s a dark little secret of contest sites that we discovered only recently. In their terms & conditions, often several monitors deep, lies a refund proviso that is time limited. Usually around 60 days after the contest holder has plunked down their money, the refund clock winds down. They can’t get a refund. In non-guaranteed contests that means the site simply pockets the money while all participating designers get stiffed. Designers are always complaining that contest platforms extend contests, seemingly without any restrictions. Well now you know why.

17: We guarantee that a designer will get picked. And paid.

If a contest holder cancels their contest, or asks for a refund, some sites will still pick a winner and award them some monetary award. That way they can keep their “we award a prize in every contest” promise. Here’s what they don’t tell you. The consolation prize on refunded contests is a fraction of the advertised prize. A refunded $1,000 web design contest will net the selected winner a cool $100.00. Everyone else, by the way, still get Jack.

18: Spec sites “respect” creatives

In some circles, unethical behavior is even recommended by crowsourcing wonks advising business wonks how to get the most of their ‘crowsourcing’ experience. Some cat over at Crowdsourcing Results has assembled a list of 10 recommendations on how to use graphic design competition sites. Typical stuff, except for number 6 which goes something like this:

6. Take advantage of designers riffing off each other. The best entries will emerge from general comments you offer and specific feedback on each entry, allowing designers to see clearly what you are looking for. These suggestions and ideas to designers are followed by other designers. Designers might not like this, but it is great for a client who can see multiple designers. Most of the services now allow clients to reward more than one designer if they have contributed to the end result.

I’m going to let you read that and let it sink in. ‘Riffing’ refers to copying. And while he realizes designers ‘might not like’ others copying their work (a major issue with crowdsourcing sites right across the board) but he suggests that contest holders take advantage of it. That’s what these cats think of designers. Which is fine and dandy. If they were paying for the privilege of being unrepentant assholes. Which they’re not. And that, my crowdsourcing brethren is the kind of attitude you foster each and every time you submit a design into a logo or design contest. Here’s another. Whenever contest holders launch a contest they are told by the customer service people to NOT “rate” any designs highly early on. Apparently high ratings in early stages dissuades new designers from entering. That’s right. Contest platforms instruct their contest holders to lie to designers, in order to get more free stuff.

Makes you all warm and fuzzy, no?

19: Critics of spec work are Luddites. Or snooty. Or….

Luddites were violently opposed to technological change (the invention of mechanized weaving looms). The invention of the the weaving loom represented a bellwether change in the technology of the production system. What once took forty people to do, only took a few operators to accomplish. Or what took a skilled artisan to do, could now be completed by loosely trained, unskilled workers. None of that has occurred in crowdsourcing or logo design contests. Designers still use the same tools and technology. They still have to be fairly skilled and/or talented to cobble together a decent logo design or website. The only thing that’s changed is that rather than getting paid for their cobbling, now they’re not. All crowdsourcing and design contest sites are merely gussied up CMS forums. The method of production, the design process itself, remains largely unchanged and spec designers still put on their Illustrator one leg at a time.

Further, any of the bellwether changes mentioned represented the down-sizing of the work force that was needed to accomplish the exact same task, a ruthless application of capitalist efficiency. Crowdsourcing is actually the complete opposite of that. Hundreds of ‘designers’ now participate, rather than an individual designer or a small sized team. Up-sizing I guess. Crowdsourcing is not like the ‘industrial revolution’ for design but the industrial revolution in reverse. Whereas the industrial revolution increased efficiency, and reduced waste, crowdsourcing and design contests decrease efficiency and increase waste by enormous factors.

Designers, on the other hand, have never been opposed to technological change, having embraced it long before the people now bleating about their ‘innovative’ contest platforms. The industrial revolution event for designers was the advent of desktop publishing. And rather than acting like Luddites, designers embraced that true innovation wholesale. The idea that wanting designers to get paid for their work makes one a snooty, or elitist designer is not only a patently stupid one, it’s an offensive one. The people who are so vociferously arguing for the rights of others to work for free, for them, are usually making quite a profit from those efforts. Is it any wonder they’re so vocal in their arguments – the only way their businesses can exist is if nobody that’s producing their product gets paid (save the winning designer, if there is one).

20: Design orgs and critical designers are like the RIAA.

Critics of spec work are often compared to the supposedly “irrelevant” RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and their mostly in-vain attempts to control the music industry and P2P file sharing. Well, that’s just bullshit. On several levels. The main bugaboo that the RIAA faced was that rather than embracing technology, they sat back as P2P file-sharing grew up around them. Rather than getting with the program, and seeing pre-iTunes digital downloads as an incredible source of profit (an important distinction), the RIAA, one of the biggest lobbyist groups in the US, used their clout with the federales for strong-arm tactics over copyright issues and massive lawsuits against teenagers and grandmothers to prove their point. The RIAA even convinced the US government to hold Russia accountable for P2P sites within their borders, sites that happened to be following Russian often weirdly generous copyright laws (mostly hold overs from the Communist era Sovier Union) and threatened Russia over their membership in the WTO unless they closed them down. Russia did. See, here’s the thing. The RIAA figured that they could monopolize the industry the way it was, rather than find new ways to sell their product. Profitable ways (emphasis, once again, on the “profitable”). Everyone agrees that the RIAA stayed far behind on the technological curve until the toothpaste was already out of the tube but no-one ever suggested that the RIAA should have encouraged their members to give away music for free. Nobody. While we’re at it, as P2P enthusiasts are often pirates and copyright abusers, it amazes me that pro spec-work folks throw their metaphorical lot in with people that are quite arguably criminals. Further, designers as a whole never avoided or ignored technology – they embraced it, often years before their business counterparts, including, I might add, those now bleating about the latest ‘evolution of the design industry’. Before the rise of design contest and spec sites there was no monolithic counterpart of the RIAA in the graphic design industry. None. The AIGA had tried to get some control over the industry a while back with membership restrictions, of their own members for chrissakes, for working on spec, but were told by the FTC to get bent. The feds decided that this was tantamount to ‘price fixing’ and was a trade no-no. Even now, any official letter that protests spec work and design contests is peppered with “like”, “could be” and “in our opinion” to avoid potential sanctions. So much for gatekeepers protecting their ‘ivory towers’. They couldn’t even set restrictions on how their members conducted themselves financially.

And by the way, if you want to see exactly how “irrelevant” the RIAA and their watchdogs are, keep a folder of downloaded tunes in an open file-sharing folder. And hope that your ISP stands firm when the RIAA legal beagles demand that they release the identity of the customer that’s parked at your IP number.

21: Crowdsourcing puts you in charge of your career.

Define or be defined. It’s simple. Either you define your own business, your identity, your reason for being or you let others do it for you. In terms of working on spec sites, any designer doing so is allowing others – the people than run these sites – to define them. And to take whatever crap they dole out. If you cause a fuss about some of the site’s rather Draconian policies, watch how fast your account is shut down. You’ll lose all the work you’ve submitted too. Do you really think you matter in a ‘community’ that’s supposedly hundreds of thousands strong? Well, you don’t.

22: The democratization of design?

That’s a lovely sentiment, but alas, patently untrue. First of all, any democracy of design would involve designers participating in the outcome whatever contest they’re in. As it stands now, their role is restricted to tossing free work into the ring at the beckon call of contest holders. If this were the “democratization of design” designers would have a vote on what entry wins this or that contest. They don’t. Design contests and crowdsourced events are actually the complete opposite of “democracy” – all the power is handed over to the contest holder who gets to set the price, set the schedule, request as many versions and revisions as they like and arbitrarily picking a winner. As the ‘client’ has all the power, and designers have none, design contests represent the Oligarchization of design, but that’s too hard to say (and isn’t a real word). If we’re going to use political metaphors, rather than the democratization of design, crowdsourcing and design contests represent the Balkanization of the design profession – paid designers and unpaid designers. I know what kind of designer I want to be when I grow up. How about you?

23: You’ll get lots of practice.

This is true.

24: You’ll build a great portfolio.

This is also true. Sort of. You’ll be able to use the material you create for your favorite crowdsourcing site in a portfolio, unless you’ve entered it into private contests that require those NDAs (another upsell I’m afraid). The NDA you ‘signed’, even it was worth the HTML that it’s written in (which it probably isn’t), states that you can’t use the work you’ve entered. Even if the project goes to refund and nobody gets awarded. Crowdsourcing sites will tell you that you can use the work entered into NDA-ridden ‘private’ contests, if you change your entries into made-up, pretend, companies. And that, my friends, defeats the entire purpose of participating in crowdsourced contests. Oh, and by the way? One of the other talking points of crowdsourcing advocates is that “a portfolio doesn’t matter.” Some food for thought I suppose.

25: Crowdsourcing is ‘innovation at its best’.

Design contests are nothing new. Forum based design contests are nothing new either, they grew up hand-in-glove with the Internet (HP’s Logoworks used a contest model in their ‘backroom’ site Arteis since around 2001.) Design contests are nothing new – they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Forum software was awesomely innovative back at the turn of the century, but now? Meh. And while we’re at it, take a look at a handful of design contest and crowdsourcing websites and I defy you, once you’ve got past the layout, logo and skin colors, to tell me the differences between them.

26: Crowdsourcing is simply The Free Markets at work.

This point is sorta true. Crowdsourcing and design contests have become increasingly popular with the business set, so technically “the markets have spoken.” But that’s almost exclusively from a host site and contest holder’s perspective. Giving your services away for nothing is the antithesis of the capitalist system, so the sentiment doesn’t quite hold out for designers. Though if we’re going to throw around economic game theory, I’d suggest that design contests and crowdsourcing is the graphic design equivalent of Tragedy of the Commons. That’s a theory that suggests a handful of people can muck everything up for everyone else, even if, at first blush, their activities seem perfectly justified and reasonable. Continuing on, anyone with an MBA will tell you that there is a ‘risk vs. reward’ formula that suggests you don’t risk anything more than 10% of what the reward might be. As we’ve ascertained, the ‘risk vs. reward’ ratio is far less than that on almost any design contest or crowdsourced event. Finally, one of the main factors of free markets is a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” – if you’re not up to snuff, you won’t survive. Spec sites give people who should have packed it in a long time ago a platform. See, not everyone can design. Not everyone is creative enough. Craft stores dot the retail landscape. There’s only one Martha Stewart.

27: Crowdsourcing levels the playing field.

The internet already leveled the playing field. So did the advent of desktop publishing software.

28: Participants are from all over the world.

This is true. Sort of. The majority of participants in crowdsourcing and design contest sites are from South East Asia, Russia and poorer countries in Europe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but $200 goes a lot further in those countries than it does in North America. See, you’re competing against people to whom $200 is a helluva lot of money. So don’t be surprised to find out that IT companies from S. E. Asia are ‘flooding’ some contests with entries, often frankensteined together from their client archives. See, when you turn design into a competitive sport, it’s no longer about design. It’s about winning a few bucks in any way possible. When that’s the formula, there’s very few lengths to which some people won’t go.


So what does it all mean? Well, at the risk of sounding cruel, elitist and snobby, there’s very little difference between entering design contests than pan handling. In fact, pan handling requires little effort on your behalf and probably has a higher payout ratio. Design contests on the other hand, are screwing designers wholesale.

While they line up for the privilege


Creative Director