Spec work & design contest pyramid

A partially impartial look at commercialized design contests and crowdsourced design. How they work, buyer risk and rewards, expectations of contest holders.

Thinking about jumping on the crowdsourced design bandwagon? You should probably spend a few minutes with the pyramid above because it’s all you really need to know.

The “democratization of design?”

If there’s ever been an issue that ignites passion in the design community, it is spec work (speculative work,) its repackaged cousin design contests, and its cousin-in-disguise, design crowdsourcing. There are two sides to the issue, and neither seems willing, or able, to give the other much sway. As with most passionate debates, a lot of the oxygen is sucked up by hyperbole, from both sides (guilty as charged,) and there’s very little attention focused on the true benefits (it there are any) and the true pitfalls (if there are any.) Some people behind crowdsourcing sites will state that “businesses are ignoring the debate” and that’s very true. They are. It’s boiled down to a “more for less” proposition that’s a terribly effective marketing gimmick. Designers aren’t “ignoring” the debate, because they’re the ones who ostensibly have the most to lose and are the ones most affected.

Opportunity or Exploitation? Oodles of choice or plagiarism galore?

So what’s the real deal? Seems time to look at both sides of the equation, warts and all, and take a somber, sober and partially impartial look at spec work, design contests and design crowdsourcing. From all angles. While I’m fundamentally opposed to spec work and logo design contests – this page illustrates one of my main beefs – I think I’m well enough versed in the issue to tackle the issue pragmatically and without railing against the practice as is usual with my scribblings. We’re going to take a look at things from the client’s point of view first.

Design contests and crowdsourcing – setting a price.

Most crowdsourcing and design contest sites claim you can “set your own budget.” Not entirely true (they offer several packages you can choose from, but you can choose to pay more if you’re so inclined.) They’re all very cagey about revealing how these charges break down, how much they take in “commissions and fees,” and how much the winning designer gets in “prize” money. So how much we talking? Anywhere from just over 30% of your dough to almost 50%. Here’s how it breaks down on two major platforms:


The same exercise on another site:


On one hand, they tell you that their service offers $299 (minimum) design services. That’s the bait. On the other they’ll tell you that setting a high price will attract a higher level of designer. That’s the switch. Weirdly, they take a higher percentage of the total in these premium contests. More charts!


And again, on another site:

prize-packages-site2You’ll notice some “add-ons” and “upgrades.” What are those? They’ll charge you extra to host a private contest, where the results and designs are hidden from view (often at a price that’s higher than small design companies would charge in the first place.) All of this seems to be at odds with their entire ‘democratizing of design’ meme, but no mind.

Unenforceable NDA (Non Disclosure Agreements.)

Many designers avoid so-called ‘private contests’ like the plague. The reason? As the contest is private, and thanks to a rather restrictive NDA they have to agree to in order to participate – those “contracts” are probably not worth the pixels they’re printed with – there’s no real benefit for them to enter unless they win. Crowdsourcing has been sold to many young designers as a way to build a portfolio. Private contests are at odds with that pitch, so many designers simply pass. While I understand the advantage of a private contest (the theory is your competitors don’t get to find out what you’re up to, or your client’s don’t get to find out you’ve outsourced their gig to a design contest,) it doesn’t attract the so-called ‘quality’ designers the host sites tell you it will. And what happens if someone leaks the “trade secrets” – the ONLY thing protected by NDAs in the first place? Will the crowdsourcing site go to bat for you? Nope. Read the fine print – it’s up to you to enforce these questionable NDAs and to collect on any damages, if you can can a judge to agree that you’ve been damaged in the first place. That, by the way, would be where the designer lived, not the courthouse around the corner from your office. Good luck with suing a teenager in Karachi, Pakistan because he/she leaked their (unpaid) concept for your company logo on their design blog.

“Good luck with suing a teenager in Karachi, Pakistan because he/she leaked their (unpaid) concept for your company logo on their design blog.”

Prize vs. entries and quality of designs.

In terms of pricing, and realistically speaking, there really isn’t much rhyme or reason to the number of entries you’ll get, regardless of what budget you set. I’ve seen $200 logo design contests with over 300 submissions. I’ve seen $1000 contests only receive several dozen. While contest site owners will tell you that the higher the prize, the better the designers attracted, this may, or may not, be true, but a higher prize would logically attract more designers of all skill levels.

To pay or not to pay.

Some sites have what they refer to as “guaranteed” contests – you “promise” to pay a designer or the company that hosts the contest will select one for you. Here’s a dirty secret that most design contest sites don’t want you to know. Even in “guaranteed” contests, buyers end up filing a dispute with their credit card company if they’re not happy with the outcome, regardless of how many entries they’ve received. Don’t think credit card companies are really sure what the deal is with contest sites, so most unhappy buyers are successful in their challenge. I’m not sure credit card companies are comfortable with design contest sites picking an entry for their customers (as claimed in most “guaranteed” contests) either. Having said that, charging back a credit card for a service you’ve agreed to is pretty shady, so this isn’t to be taken as an endorsement of the practice, just an acknowledgment that it happens. In fact, I’d advise against it as, once again, it’s often the participating designers who get it in the throat as the sites claw back whatever charges have been reversed. On some sites a designer will still get their design selected by committee and paid for their efforts. On others it’s approached as “hey, can’t pay anyone, the client charged back their card.” Why are we pointing this out? Well, it goes a long way to explain why many in the design community are opposed to contests in the first place, and why many top designers won’t be participating on any contest you run.

Work that’s ‘inspired’ by others.

Let’s cut to the chase on this. The volume of plagiarized logos, clip art, as well as improperly licensed stock art submitted into logo design contests (most stock can’t be used for logos or trademarks) is breathtaking.

“The volume of plagiarized logos, clip art, as well as improperly licensed stock art submitted into logo design contests (most stock can’t be used for logos or trademarks) is breathtaking.”

Often it’s stuff ripped off Google image search whole cloth. Sometimes it’s not the entire logo, but bits and pieces cobbled together from multiple sources. If you’re after an illustrative logo, many of the submissions will be traced from photographs found on the internet, some of which are rights managed, or subject to copyright claims that may or may not be apparent. Whether these stock art logos are “derivative” works or not is anyone’s guess and depends a great deal on the original creator’s tenacity. Realistically speaking, you probably won’t get found out. On the other hand, your logo may be a ticking time bomb. Does this happen with every design contest? No. But enough times to make it a concern and certainly a lot more than their well-rehearsed and nuanced claim that copying logos “is rare, but it does happen.” That’s simply not true.

Plagiarism happens with other designers too?

Design contest and crowdsourcing sites are quick to point out that plagiarism happens in ‘traditional’ design avenues as well, and to a certain degree they have a partial point. It does. The risk of business and reputation meltdown in the traditional arena makes it less likely, while the anonymity of design contests and the legal waivers that contest sites present to you on sign-up make it more so. They tell you up front that it may happen and it it does, they’re not responsible. There’s no real statistics either way, but a ripped off logo in the ‘real world’ is huge news in the media – smoking craters of careers are usually the result – whereas a pinched design being entered into a design contest is a daily occurrence and barely makes any news outside some carping on Twitter. Usually by the designer who’s work has been abused. It’s part of their DNA. Everybody understands that. Except the poor soul who walks away with a knocked off logo. That might be you.

Self-policing “community.”

In many instances, other designers will “catch” the knock-offs and tell you or the host site (they want the copycat turfed out – more chance of them winning,) but often they either won’t have knowledge of the original logo, or the gallery of designs has become six pages deep and they don’t have the time to rummage through the various designs looking for knock-offs. Also, contest sites suggest you run what they they refer to as “blind” contests – where entrants can’t see each others submissions. The sole purpose of this is to prevent entrants from stealing ideas and concepts from other entrants, either for your contest or another running simultaneously. In a blind contest, only you can see the submissions until you’ve picked a winning design.

“The ratio of a major site – using their numbers – runs about 1 staff member per 120,000 registered designers. Any email reports of knocked off logos take weeks for them to get to – often well after the contest has been completed.”

You’re on your own.

Don’t look to the companies that hold these contests for monitoring of bootleg submissions – most design “crowdsourced” contests aren’t managed very well, if at all, and their sites generally play out like a free-for-all. Some even feature children designers, as young as eleven, competing with their adult counterparts. Not that this should be surprising. Managing a “community” with hundreds of thousands of members is a challenge (ask anyone who’s ever set up even a modest sized forum or bulletin board) and companies that run design contest sites generally feature small teams of salaried employees. The ratio of a major site – using their numbers – runs about 1 staff member per 120,000 registered designers. Any email reports of knocked off logos take weeks for them to get to – often well after the contest has been completed. Most design crowdsourcing sites don’t even have graphic designers on staff (most are “customer service” personnel and developers tasked with keeping the sites up-and-running, a formidable task considering the system resources these sites burn) so you’re a little at the mercy of the goodwill, and keen eyes, of the people participating in your contest. Remember what we told you about “blind contests?” How do you think anyone can monitor other submissions if they can’t see them?

Suspended, banned and moving to another platform.

Keep in mind that even when designers are “caught” passing off other designers work as their own, they’re seldom “banned” from participating in future contests unless they’ve been particularly egregious. One major site “suspends” designers for two weeks. Another has something that verges on “three strikes you’re out” policy (though they claim that they don’t “officially” have a “three strikes you’re out” policy.) In any case, there’s no guarantee that an unrepentant copycat, busted in an earlier contest, isn’t submitting work to yours. Copycat designers who are banned, just move to another contest site. Many operate on multiple platforms, entering the exact same logos to multiple contests that are for the same business category or subject.

The client as art director.

In terms of setting up the contest, you’ll be expected to supply a pretty in-depth ‘creative brief.’ As the back-and-forth between buyer and designer is somewhat muted (most design contest sites don’t want – for obvious reasons – designers and buyers talking off the ‘reservation’) that’s the entry point for most of the designs that will be presented. The details contained need to be pretty expansive, though you can change direction later if needs be. Traditional design avenues (designer, firm, agency) will usually see the creative department taking conceptual lead on your project. With design contest and crowdsourcing sites, you’re almost expected to play ‘art director.’ Now, that’s not to say every designer will take a ‘just tell me what you want’ position – some will suggest funky design options and worthwhile directions. But a large percentage of contestants are of the “hired hands with a copy of Illustrator” variety. That’s not bad if you’re comfortable with art direction. A little intimidating if you’re not. Might be worth remembering that many designers on crowdsourcing sites are inexperienced, and wary of offering up suggestions that are at odds with your original brief, lest they be branded ‘uncooperative.’

Expected comments and star ‘rating.’

You’re expected to comment on most of the designs submitted, even the ones that you don’t like, a task that can become quite challenging as the numbers of submitted ideas rises. Most sites also feature a star rating system that seems to placate most entrants if you opt not to submit a comment for their work. Pretty cynical attempt to keep designers cranking out work, but it does seem to work. Also keep in mind that asking one designer to incorporate an idea from another designer’s submission is a big no-no. Sure, the designer you’ve asked to do it will probably comply with your request, but the frankensteined design will probably be yanked and the designer reprimanded. Despite the “community” vibe that’s advertised, designers are not working together, but rather against each other, so asking one entrant to incorporate another’s work is understandably taboo though many buyers, believing they’re working in a collaborative environment, often find this concept difficult to grasp. In terms of revisions, most design contest entrants are only too willing to submit revision after revision, so there’s no cap to the amount of work that you can ask for, an arguably big advantage over a traditional firm or designer. Here’s something to keep in mind though – if you focus on one design concept, and request multiple revisions, many of the designers will interpret that as the direction you want to head and incorporate these ideas into their future work.

The number of submissions.

This is the main advantage of the design contest or ‘crowdsourcing’ model. And it’s true, you should receive a lot of concepts to choose from. Most design contest sites feature a “get x number of submissions or your money back guarantee” but most contests will go over that number by a wide margin. If it’s close – say the guarantee is 25 and you’ve received 28 – unless there’s something there you really like, it appears that many buyers get the refund anyway. There’s generally a few similar entries, say color changes and what have you, that it’s always arguable whether you received 28 submissions or 21 with a few variations that don’t count enough as unique. Again, I don’t think this is fair to the designers that participated (I might go as far to say that guaranteeing a number of designs, from people who aren’t getting paid for those submissions verges on asshattery, but we’re trying to be somber here, so I’ll leave that for  someone else.) And here’s another aspect of crowdsourcing sites that as a designer I’d be horrified, but as a buyer, I’d think is just lovely. The usual way these things work is that your “contest” or “project” runs for a certain amount of time. The designers have been told that once the time frame is up, and as long as the minimum number of entries has been submitted, you have a finite amount of time to select a winner. If, after that time frame (usually a week,) you haven’t selected a winner, the host site will pick one for you. Designers like these sort of promises, as someone is guaranteed to win. Here’s the dirty little secret. Most design contest sites hate picking a winner for you, especially if you’ve paid with a credit card and if you ask them, they’ll simply re-open the contest for more work. It’s terribly unfair to the designers who originally entered in good faith, but it is what it is. Also, even after you’ve selected a winner, feel free to ask for further revisions on the final entry. Turns out that most design contest sites don’t even expect you to take your selection ‘as is.’ Some even suggest that there’s no limit to the amount of post-contest revisions you’re ‘allowed’ to request before accepting the design as final. This may sound wonderful, but it’s yet another reason why many professional and established designers will turn down your invite to your contest.

The end result.

At the end of the day, you’ll probably end up with a serviceable logo, brochure or website. I’d positively love to tell you that you won’t – these things are an anathema to my profession – but I’d be lying. Will you receive stellar work? Slimmer chance, but yes you just might. The main concern you should have with any design contest is originality (in terms of logos) and the rights managed images (brochure, web site, etc) featured in your work. The problem here lies in the issue of what designers rights the designers agree to give these sites upon submitting work. The designer ticks off a little check box, indicating that they own the rights (or adequate rights) to the work they’re uploading. The number of blatant knock-offs that are found on design contest sites tend to show that a fairly large percentage of participants don’t put any credence into those check boxes at all. The designer usually has to agree to transfer a non-revocable license to the host site (supposedly, so that the host site can show the artwork in their galleries.) One little hitch. All stock image sites strictly prohibit the transfer of any of THEIR rights or license (for obvious reasons – it weakens their control over products). Bottom line – how can a participating designer give the design contest site a license for stock art or photography, when the original licensor strictly forbids them from doing so? I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this little bugaboo is a wrinkle that’s going to bite someone in the ass at some point.


Are design contests and crowdsourcing an effective way to get design work done? Yes. No. Maybe. In terms of the amount of concepts you’ll get pitched at you, there’s no comparison between working with a design firm or a freelancer. They simply can’t match the output if output is your thing. And that number is going up. Some outfit even suggests that you’ll get up to 900 concepts for a few hundred bucks. Soon it will crack 1000, so if you wait a few months, I’m sure some site, now in BETA, will offer that. Crowdsourcing sites don’t technically pay their ‘workers’ (my main quibble), so there’s no practical limit on the number of revisions and ideas you’ll get. Are they all good ideas? No. A majority of the ideas you’ll get pitched are sub-par (to be charitable) and as we’ve discussed earlier, run a rather high risk of being work that’s pinched from somewhere else. Realistically speaking though, there should be a few pearls in the pile to ultimately choose from. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I don’t think that’s a particularly efficient, or effective, way to design anything. But if raw numbers, for an often paltry price, is your thing, a design contest might be the Doctor’s prescription.