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Spec Work and Crowdsourcing: Gambles that Don’t Pay Off

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Finding meaningful work that pays well has always been a challenge for designers. You hustle to attract prospective clients, produce thorough proposals highlighting your suitability for the assignment; pitch possible design solutions; submit a bid for a budget; and hopefully get the job.

If you do, you work to develop a good relationship with the client that includes constant and thoughtful communication about objectives, goals, and branding. Based on feedback, designs evolve over time until the client is satisfied. Then you cash your well-deserved check.

But increasingly, this process is being undermined by two client initiatives, one old and one new: spec work and crowdsourcing.

Spec Work
With the economy in a freefall, more companies are pinching pennies by asking designers to work “on spec” — in other words, to produce completed creative work with no guarantee of being paid.

A typical scenario: A startup business needs a logo. The company owners have only the vaguest idea what this important identifier should look like, so they contact you to come up with some concepts. They say, “We’re exploring ideas to see what resonates. A contract isn’t necessary. We’ll pay you when we see what you come up with.” Unbeknownst to you, they’ve said the same thing to 10 other designers.

Thinking that you have the job, you produce three polished logos and give them to the client. Looks great, the client says. A few weeks drag by. Finally, the client emails you to say that the company has decided to go with a different design. You get nothing but “thanks” for your time.

Whether you’re surprised by spec or enter into it willingly, spec work is like playing roulette with your work, gambling that your time and effort will win you the gig and therefore pay off. But as with any game of chance, the odds are often against you. Instead of putting your energy into finding paying clients, you could be losing money by spending your time on speculative projects.

In response to the trend of working on spec, designers have bonded together as an organization called No!Spec. A grassroots effort, No!Spec formed three years ago after companies began soliciting work through design contests at an alarming rate. Ground central for the movement is the No!Spec Web site, which spells out what spec work is, why it needs to be avoided, and what can be done to stem the tide. These seasoned designers believe that working on spec devalues design as a profession as well as the work and skills it to takes to produce quality work. Advocates of the No!Spec movement say that working on-spec turns design into a commodity.

The posters below bring awareness to the No!Spec movement. The designers are, from top to bottom, Von Glitschka, Rob Gough, and Chad Behnke. For higher-resolution versions of these, more poster designs, and for rules of usage, see No!Spec.com.

Crowdsourcing
Another twist on working without guarantee of payment is crowdsourcing, which bypasses the paid professional in the form of an open call to anyone interested in participating. A common approach is for a company or agent to post a need on a Web site and let the world at large fill it.

The current poster child for crowdsourcing within the design community is CrowdSpring. The idea behind CrowdSpring — and its precursor, 99designs — is to attract both clients and designers with an eye toward matching them up. Clients post a design job — for example, a company in search of logo, stationery, Web site UI — on the Crowdspring site, describing what’s wanted, when it’s needed, and, most importantly, the fee. Designers respond by posting the requested work on the site. After an allotted period of time, the client chooses a “winner,” who is then paid in exchange for the work and all rights associated with it. All other entrants are out of luck.

The CrowdSpring Web site shows a grid of designs entered for each project as well as fee, deadline, and a tally of submissions. Winning designs are revealed after the contest ends, indicated by a green triangle. Click on the images to see larger versions.

Many of the designers attracted to sites like CrowdSpring are amateurs looking to break into the business. While designers have to start somewhere, the perception that anyone can be a designer without proper training and experience has ruffled some feathers. Fanning the flames was a Forbes.com article about CrowdSpring that described the company as setting out to “slash the cost of graphic design work — and democratize a snooty business.” Posts raged across the blogosphere, railing against not only CrowdSpring’s business model but also objecting to Forbes’ characterization of designers as “snooty.” CrowdSpring says that it is simply providing more opportunities for designers — and clients — in a changing econmonic and media environment.

What You Can Do
Working on spec or posting work to a site like CrowdSpring has appeal, to be sure. Designers feeling the current financial pinch might see these two strategies as a way to get work, any work. Aspiring designers may view spec/crowdsourcing as means to attract attention and build a client base. However, before you spend your time and energy, consider the following:

Accept that the odds are against you. When a client solicits spec work, you have no idea how many other designers are pitted against you. It’s a crapshoot. Crowdsourcing odds are even worse. Although sites like CrowdSpring shows a running tab of entries for a given project, these jobs can attract hundreds, even thousands, of designers, many of whom submit multiple options. For example, a recent call for a company logo on CrowdSpring received 1,749 entries — only one of which gets paid, while 1,748 won’t.

You may reason that the high quality of your work means you’ll win more often than not. But that’s assuming the client understands and appreciates quality design, and that you’ve been able to glean enough information to deliver what’s really required.

Steve Douglas of The Logo Factory explains the real cost of such odds: “According to [CrowdSpring’s] home page, designers have submitted over 219,000 entries” as of this April 2009. “If we average each entry out to an hour’s worth of a designer’s time, and that’s a hugely underrated figure, that equates to 25 years of unpaid designer labor.”

Recognize that your work has value. Becoming a designer is hard work. Designing good projects requires research, analysis, experimentation, and creation — the act of making your ideas come alive on screen and paper. That takes time and, as they say, time is money. Don’t undervalue yourself.

“The only thing worse than a potential client who does not value the efforts of a professional graphic designer is a designer who doesn’t appreciate the value of their own time and work,” says Jeff Fisher of Jeff Fisher LogoMotives.

Good design is not a matter of hacking out a logo in your spare time, either. If you post anything less than your best effort on a Web site for all to see, you may tarnish your reputation. No one can always achieve design greatness, but the mediocre stuff should remain on your computer, unseen by others except those from whom you seek feedback.

Connect with your clients. When clients contact design companies, they’re looking for a good fit. Not only should your portfolio resonate with their vision, but your personalities and work ethics should click as well. Finding such a match often requires face-to-face meetings; briefs via email and Web postings may not cut it.

As a designer, you want to understand why a client chose you. A one-off logo doesn’t help you develop your personal design identity, nor does it help the client build an ongoing relationship with you that will yield success down the line.

“Learning how to use design software is only a part of being a professional designer. To become a successful designer, you must learn how to communicate with clients in a professional setting,” says Catherine Wentworth of Creative Latitude (and one of the leaders of No!Spec).

Build a portfolio with pro bono work. If your reasons for accepting spec work or crowdsourcing include building your portfolio, try pro bono work. “I recommend new designers (or any designer) adopt a nonprofit cause in which they have strong convictions,” says Fisher. “Pro bono work for a cause in which one is passionate is much more satisfying than executing spec work for the chance of possibly being paid by a for-profit business often trying to get little more than something for nothing.” Your resume will look richer through charity.

Another benefit, according to Wentworth: “Business people are often on the boards of nonprofits, the very same business people designers are trying to meet. By working pro bono, the designer can show these same business people how they work.”

Collaborate, don’t compete. The nature of design is collaborative, whether with the client or with other designers. Feedback is an important element. But in spec work and crowdsourcing, designers compete to win. “Design contests are adversarial competitions where designers compete against each other, rather than collaborate with each other, says Douglas. “Design contest sites remove the collaboration aspect of the design process, converting the end product into a pretty picture that the buyer ‘likes.”’ The solution is to find other designers with whom you can brainstorm ideas, share leads, and critique work constructively.

Some designers believe that sites like threadless.com are a better alternative to cattle-call contests. Threadless produces t-shirts based on artwork submitted by designers. Winning artwork not only gets printed up but also bags the designer $2,000. Why is threadless different? Members of the site — designers themselves — vote on each design. It’s a collaborative community-based decision rather than the edict of a client who may not be well informed about the nuances of successful design.

Tell clients, “No spec.” This is the probably hardest thing for a designer who’s beginning — or hungry — to do. But it’s important to cross that Rubicon. While you may lose in the short term, you’ll gain respect in the long run. You’ll also lay the groundwork for a career that’s based on respect and principle. “Once a designer accepts spec work offers, it’s almost impossible to get that client to understand the work has any value,” says Fisher. Adds Wentworth, “Working spec tends to take an important element out of the working relationship: contracts and the agreement that a designer’s time has value.”

So how exactly do you tell a potential client that you won’t work on spec? Be polite and explain why spec work undermines design. Provide a useful analogy that non-designers would understand; for example, you can say that spec work is like ordering and eating dinner but paying only if you like the food. Explanations such as this should hit home for companies that rely on customer payment.

“I usually ask the individual if they initiate any interaction with other businesses with a request for free work as a condition of engaging the contractor or business as a paid resource,” Fisher says. “I often send people asking for more information to the NO!SPEC Web site.”

What Next?
Crowdsourcing and requests for spec work aren’t going away. Ultimately designers and clients will choose the approach that’s best for them. But it’s important to understand the issues so you can make informed decisions. Once you go down the spec path, it may be hard to turn back.

Ross Kimbarovsky, a co-founder of CrowdSpring, admits that while crowdsourcing is gaining momentum, it’s not a hit with everyone. “Others in the design community are not pleased with the changes — they find themselves indirectly impacted,” he says. “CrowdSpring is one option among many for designers. Seasoned designers who have regular paying clients don’t need to do speculative work.”

But as the demand for spec work and crowdsourcing becomes more widespread, even seasoned designers have to respond to the pressure. Decades ago, typesetters didn’t react quickly enough to the threat of desktop publishing. While design is a more expansive discipline than the mechanical process of typesetting, the precedent remains. Designers must recognize the changes around them and act accordingly. To ensure that good design endures, educate yourself, your colleagues, and your clients, and say “No spec.”

Pamela Pfiffner

Pamela Pfiffner

Previously editor in chief of CreativePro.com, Pamela Pfiffner developed content and information tools for the site. A Mac user since 1984 and desktop publisher since 1985, Pfiffner has been editor in chief of several publications, including MacUser and Publish magazines. She has a BA from Northwestern University and a Masters of Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also taught classes in print publishing and Web design. Currently, Pamela is a writer, editor, and jack-of all-publishing trades in Portland, Oregon.
Pamela Pfiffner

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Posted on: April 27, 2009

Pamela Pfiffner

Previously editor in chief of CreativePro.com, Pamela Pfiffner developed content and information tools for the site. A Mac user since 1984 and desktop publisher since 1985, Pfiffner has been editor in chief of several publications, including MacUser and Publish magazines. She has a BA from Northwestern University and a Masters of Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also taught classes in print publishing and Web design. Currently, Pamela is a writer, editor, and jack-of all-publishing trades in Portland, Oregon.

58 Comments on Spec Work and Crowdsourcing: Gambles that Don’t Pay Off

  1. I was under the impression that Crowdsourcing and Spec work were different things, it seems that they have been cross referenced quite a few times in this article so I was wanting some clarifications;

    In my opinion…
    Crowdsourcing: Vote for our new logo, we will use the one you all like the most!
    Spec: We need a logo, someone design one for us and we will pick the one we like.

    Assuming this is so… wouldn’t crowdsourcing be a win win (assuming the logos were not designed on spec)? And spec be a lose / lose situation?

    I think the confusion comes because sites like 99Designs and CrowdSpring use the term “crowdsourcing” to deceive and hide the fact that what they are actually endorsing is speculative work.

    I have quite a large post coming up either this week or next week on this topic and will come back here to share once I have posted it. :)

    Thanks for educating the masses.

  2. I am a Graphic Designer with a degree and have been working since 1980 and never did spec work, so I wholeheartedly agree with this article. However, I take exception with the “Nannies with Illustrator” remark. I am a 60+ year old grandmother. Creativity doesn’t die as we age. Youth doesn’t have a lock on it. I love my work and have gone from the working with a t-square and rapidiograph pens. Creativity grows and develops with maturity. So take a break from the “age” remarks.

  3. Brava! This article is such a value statement for the design industry about the slippery slope of spec design. I have been a designer for over 30 years and even as a young designer I did not create spec design for clients. I do volunteer my design time to non-profits and believe all designers young and experienced do so-the benefits to the designer and the community are shared. However, providing spec design is degrading to you work and career. From experience one of my clients of 10 years asked me to spec an ad and poster design for his retail shopping center. I politely said no. He was amazed that I would refuse. I used an analogy. I told him to let me have one of the painting he had for sale in his gift store at the shopping center and I would display it on my wall at home for 6 months and then decide if I wanted to buy it or not. He immediately said no way…then after a “light bulb moment” apologized to me for asking for spec design and respected my business practices. We continued a great client/designer working relationship for years to follow. Designers must unite…just say no to spec!

  4. The first commentator makes a great point, about how sites like 99designs and crowdspring, are effectively passing off the idea of spec work (what they offer) by giving it a prettier label — crowdsourcing. Aren’t the two terms quite different, with the former (what these sites thrive off) being ‘work for free’?

  5. The person who commented that crowdsourcing and spec work are not as close as this article paints them makes an interesting point. At one time, they were different things. However, I think that sites like Crowdspring have forced a definition change on us. “Crowdsourcing” has, at least on sites like Crowdspring, become spec work.

    I do think that other “-sourcing” isn’t always the same as spec work. For example, fansourcing — where fans of something such as a movie or book series create materials related to that movie or book without expectation of payment — is not the same as spec.

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  6. Times are changing and business models are being trashed and reinvented across the business spectrum. Design is no different. You can continue jousting at windmills, but this is a wave that will not go away.

  7. To the commenter who said, “You can continue jousting at windmills, but this is a wave that will not go away.”

    I guess you didn’t make it to conclusion, where Pamela clearly states, “Crowdsourcing and requests for spec work aren’t going away.”

    Business models will forever become reinvented, but what no-one should put up with is a fallacy that anyone should work for free. Those who spread this injustice should be ashamed.

  8. For those creatives that continue to turn down opportunities that require ‘spec’ work, I thank you. Like many other industries, we must meet customer demand. More demand now comes with strings attached in the form of ‘spec’ design.

    I am embrace these opportunities as I typically win the work and more. I can appreciate that some creatives don’t like to participate in ‘spec’ design. I applaud your for standing up for what you believe in. I believe in feeding my family and ‘spec’ work does that nicely.

    Please continue to stand on the sidelines as it does help to thin the pool.

  9. I’m so glad you commented! I’d love to hear more from people who make a living on spec sites.

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  10. I think we can all agree that this is an issue that will continue to grow… it is like beating your head against a brick wall. I believe the underlying truth is that humans in this modern age have a distorted sense of entitlement … we want and expect more than ever before.

    With nearly every product we buy, there are multiple choices and options available to find that perfect fit. The problem with graphic design is that what used to be a service is quickly becoming a product. Just like any other product, consumers want options… and whether we like it or not, consumers will win out in this debate.

    When it comes to design competitions, I tend to agree with theories suggesting that too many options will ultimately lead to chaos. I think the chaos comes when clients choose a logo based on how “pretty” or “cool” it looks, and not giving proper thought to how well it will reproduce across a broad range of media. This is my main concern with this topic, because I see so many logos on these types of sites designed using special effects that make me cringe.

    I assume that many of the designers competing in design competitions already have a steady paying gig, and they probably get a certain satisfaction from the competitive nature of these types of sites. I imagine that they figure why not simply try and make a little dough on the side in their spare time… can’t hurt right?

    Do I agree with crowd sourcing, design competitions, or spec work…. NO… at least not yet. What I do believe in though, is that in today’s fast paced marketplace, the rules are changing whether we like it or not. Designers are going to have to change and adapt to meet the demands of the consumer… if we don’t it is blatantly obvious that someone else will.

    Posted by superdave4eva – follow me on twtter @superdaveh4eva
    http://www.manifestbozeman.com

  11. Thanks for all who comment on this article. When researching it, I did find myself at times saying, “Well, why not work on spec if it means that I might get work when I might not work otherwise?” But it’s a very slippery slope, one that merits considerable thought about your own work and it’s perceived in the marketplace.

    And as I say, it is _not_ going away. You need to decide what’s best for you.

    I would like to clarify that I never said “Nannies with Illustrator” as one designer commented. That’s someone else’s terminology. not mine. I don’t care how old — or young — you are. Good design knows no age!

    Thanks,
    Pamela Pfiffner

  12. A former boss of mine once said, “i will work for less, but i won’t work for free.” Come on designers, providing a product/service to someone under the idea of spec is not the evil you make it out to be. Also, it is not the spec work or “crowdsourcing” that is the issue–it is the issue that there are a lot of people out there who need, want and will fill the void of spec work logos, design, etc. and people will get paid for it–as much as other so-called “real design” jobs? No. Everyone knows that. Stop beating that drum. We get it…

    If a saleperson researches, calls on, sets up appointments and has 10 demos with prospective clients, but only one of those demos actually buys, were the other 9 “spec”? Was their time less valuable, and are they suckers for doing it? Is their desire to give the best product and service possible less valuable than a series of logos, that may or may not be chosen?
    Without consumers, design is a pasttime, a creative outlet. Design helps people with their businesses through creating a visual I.D., and many/most business owners and entrepreneurs are not experts in design–and whether this is done through spec or not, it doesn’t matter. Design is for consumers. Consumers, and we are ALL consumers–will shop around, look for what is in their best interest, “kick the tires”, and go with the best choice. The question is, what is THEIR best choice? Guess what–someone will give it to them, whether it is labeled spec or not. You don’t have to engage in it. If you don’t like the channel, change your TV.

  13. I agree with the author wholeheartedly. My example is like going in to the supermarket and tasting everything there and then deciding which item I’ll pay for.

    We work to get paid. You always have the option of seeing our past work to get a feeling of our style and clients.

    In these economic times it’s more important to look for paying clients and work toward their needs, than wasting our time chasing after “what ifs”.

  14. Amen, sistah! Thanks for showcasing the real dangers of spec work and those online contest sites.

  15. In these economic times, as a filmmaker and corporate video producer it is often difficult to find work. I sometimes find myself looking on job boards for freelance opportunities just to get something. Then I slap myself and remember my 10 years of experience and the low bids jobs that always caused the most pain.

    I can categorically support that the lower the price (free or lowball) the more difficult the client. Almost always, the people that want to pay the least have no idea of what they truly want in a final product and make you jump through dozens of hoops until your relationship is strained and you’ll never work with them again. I can’t express how many times taking any opportunity just to get some money is the worst idea. You have to ask yourself who do you want to do business with? Who are your favorite clients? Most likely it is those that value your services and pay for them at a reasonable rate. Who are the clients that have given you the most trouble and the most headaches? The ones that have paid you the least. Why would you want to spend time developing a client base that doesn’t appreciate your experience and work and pays you half or less than your best clients? Your time would be better spent developing and networking clients that you want to work with – even if there is no business in the short run. Who wants clients that pay less and give you the most difficulty?

    Also I completely agree that these crowdsourcing and competitive sites where you gamble at winning the bid don’t serve you well. Much like going to Vegas, chances are you won’t win the job and your work is then discarded. Can you really show the piece to another perspective client as part of your portfolio? I don’t think so because you’re showing them something that wasn’t even acceptable to the previous client. It was the LOSING entry. Why not, as others have said, approach non-profits and offer your design services for free (which you are doing on these competitive sites anyway)? You’ll be able to showcase your work to other clients, you’ll have satisfied references for future business, you can proudly promote this work, and you’ll actually be helping fellow human beings. Now that’s a concept worth designing.

  16. I recently stirred up some trouble with the local chapter of the American Marketing Association. They ran a “design a logo for our chapter” contest (the Central Virginia AMA) in which there was not even a prize offered. I thought there must be some mistake… but nothing. After I contacted them (and called them ‘skinflints,’ which they were VERY offended by) I was told that “recognition” was the reward.

    Interestingly, the winning ad agency belongs to the chapter’s founder and leading board member. What a surprise! After some very unpleasant, very defensive emails it became clear they didn’t want to even discuss it. I was told that “the AMA is not for designers” and that was that. The chairman offered to discuss it but then backed down when I agreed to do so.

    The so-called contest provided for no education or collaboration between their members who, like me, are designers (several designers belong to this chapter) and the other members who are marketing specialists. A huge opportunity to benefit the entire AMA chapter (by offering a chance to learn together what each had to offer in developing brand identity) was squandered.

    Needless to say, I’ve resigned from this phony, “let’s give ourselves another award” good-ole-boy club! To their credit, they did refund a pro-rated amount from my membership fee, but a bad taste remains.

  17. Anyone giving away their value and rights needs to slow down and think a little here. Just as it is so easy to take a picture and email or post it to the world, it is that easy to give away your value and rights to your designs.

    Your value is that you and a client can collaborate on a design. Giving you time to research and brainstorm and then test it in the office, on friends and family.

    So rather than seeking approval from strangers you will be part of the collaboration and grow as a designer.

    As far as rights go, I own my art until I decide I am done with it. Does any spec work take my rights into consideration? No, never!

    These comments are great, but the best use of this article (and I hope more like it) would be to email the link to colleges and friends in the biz, young and old, production and design, audio, video and print. Start the conversation at lunch or dinner.

    Education begins at home, continues in school and never ends. This is another digital living and learning opportunity – share it.

  18. 25 years of unpaid work. Based on a 2000 hour work year at, say an average $30 per hour for example, that is a million and a half dollars that could have been taxed. I’m no more a fan of taxes than anyone else, but no one asks doctors, or plumbers, or carpenters or other professionals to do spec work. The IRS regulation on interns is that they must either receive credit or pay or both. Why should anything less be applicable after they graduate?

  19. Yes, the internet has made “cheap” more accessible. There is and will always be cheap. Cheap clients looking for cheap designers, neither really respecting the other because it’s all about how cheap it is.

    When crowd sourcing first arrived, I tried it and quickly found that it simply wasn’t worth the effort. Invariably, the clients have seen and respond to design that costs substantially more, yet want the same thing and become quite demanding. The designer is not viewed as either a marketing partner, professional or even a trained expert in visual communication; merely a necessary evil by the commissioning company to improve their business.

    Why would anyone pursue that as a personal and professional business model? The crowd sourcing companies are merely tapping into a market that’s always been there. The thing is, there are the same amount of “good” clients that understand the value of design. I know which ones are worth investing my time, technology and talent into finding and keeping.

    And the clients loyalty is as deep as their pockets

  20. We were hired to design a book cover, and not long afterward, the client “discovered” 99designs. Once she found out she could buy one of the ideas submitted there for 10% of our charge, nothing we presented was sufficient. Never mind that the spec designs were awful. They were good enough because they were cheap.

    I’ve been in this business for 36 years and have always turned down spec work for the reasons stated above. No designer can compete with a crowdsourcing site that allows a client to see 100 comps before choosing a “winner.”

    I’ve been monitoring the sites. The prices started out in a reasonable range…say $500 for a logo. But, of course, that’s not the case anymore. I was recently contacted by another client for a book cover. When I Googled his name, I found he had recently acquired a logo for $19 at one of these sites. Yes, $19. What a big spender, eh? I wonder why he didn’t spring for $20? I sent him a quote, but I knew I was wasting my time.

    I used to own a typesetting business and weathered the transition to desktop publishing, then the transition to freelance sites. This transition, in my opinion, will destroy the design field completely. It’s certainly enough for me to seriously consider another career.

  21. Sorry… I had to get that off my chest!

    As for spec work, I find there’s often at least a whiff of the dishonest about it. If the client is up-front and honest that other designers will be considered, and that a likely result is receiving no pay, then I’m not especially against spec-work per se. The example in the article posited a case where the designers were NOT told others were being considered. That’s simply dishonest.

    I’ve also seen the case where a local software company, even though up-front about the spec-nature of a job, then denied there was any satisfactory result from any of the designers who did participate. They then had their in-house designers produce a logo that looked very suspiciously like one that had been submitted. So they were able to stiff ALL the spec designers! I’m surprised nobody burned their building down after that.

    Personally I don’t enter contests or do spec work. I don’t have enough spare time for such risky behavior. Plus, as mentioned elsewhere, these are clearly the MOST troublesome, least respectful and least knowledgeable clients you’ll find. Who needs that?

    If a client can’t judge from my portfolio whether I’m capable or not, then they’re free to keep looking. At the same time, some judge my work by the caliber of clients who’ve trusted me in the past, and find that’s enough credibility.

    Some clients want a relationship with a designer… they WANT to work out the details with a trusted partner. Contest/spec clients don’t. They also won’t be able to supply the background and granular information needed by a pro to bring out the best, most custom solution.

    Still I can’t fault any design-ignorant client for going to a bidding site like these. IF they’re able to be satisfied by such a stab-in-the-dark, hope-for-the-best process, good for them. Maybe next we can get our health care and auto repairs this way.

  22. Nice stand, but you missed an opportunity to recognize that more and more business clients (I speak from 30 years serving advertising and marketing clients) don’t see nor place high value in long-term relationships unless they are saving money. Sad, but true, as they have not been mentored as their predecessors were. They are under the whip to turn things out FAST, and keep costs down. Not much room for relationships.

    In addition, the nuances that make up the higher skills of the graphic design, like kerning, print quality and details, are not as important as they were before due to changes in what the public experiences in media today.

    Two decades ago, in the 80’s, typographers who knew how to kern type skillfully commanded up to $30 an hour (in 1980’s dollars, so adjust for inflation). Today some of those same people if they are in the business are making about the same amount in today’s dollars.

    My point? Adjust your expectations about the outcome. If you don’t do spec, you will lose work, and you need to be OK with that. Realize that the value of our work may not be respected as we see it by the clients that have money to spend. They survive because they know how to drive a hard bargain. Don’t whine, because that just reinforces the ‘snooty designer’ perception that is out there. Oh, and remember: Clients who will stay in business are watching out for their bottom line first, and your ego last.

    For the record, I don’t do spec, and I am OK with the consequences.

  23. I looked on the internet for the pysician spec site and or crowd sourcing website and I couldn’t find it. But then he went to school or a LONG time. So then I looked for lawyers offering crowd sourcing fees, not there either. Well, how about an architect, surely they don’t have the huge expensive education like a doc. No architect crowdsourcing web site either. Wake up! These guys are professionals and have found a way to make their investment in education and experience valuable and their services paid for. What is wrong with the artistic community? From photography sites that sell stock for $1, to graphic designers willing to give it away, until you see yourself and your profession as valuable as other professionals, we’re doomed.
    r Sue Lowery
    Windsock Media Publishing

  24. This was filled with great comments and insight, but the fact of the matter is that anyone with a computer and some graphics programs can call themselves a design firm or ad agency. There has always been a level of client out there that doesn’t appreciate or understand what a talented and experienced designer/ad person brings to their overall branding building efforts. And now that they can go to several cattle call websites, including Craig’s List for their design needs, it’s no different than the communities that scream that a Super Wal-Mart would kill the local and smaller grocers. That is until they actually shop at a Super Wal-Mart. Bigger selection. Better prices. Isn’t that what’s really going on here?

    I personally find many of the designs on these sites to simply be crap and I’d never have allowed them to leave the creative department. But that’s just me. I have never allowed my creativity to be reduced to an hourly rate. As soon as you do, a client who doesn’t understand the benefit of working with you will always know someone who can do it cheaper. And in this economy it seems Super Wal-Mart’s are thieving.

  25. Most design is custom for the specific client. Particularly something like a logo. It’s not as if you could sell that branding many times over to multiple entities. Do these companies that buy do the research and registration for their mark to prevent infringements? I find it appalling that crowd sourcing completely eliminates the client—designer relationship. No feedback loops for a designer to work with the client to achieve something to mutual satisfaction. Otherwise you just pick the pretty graphic and then try to attach the “meaning.” Will the outfit outsource your logo design to the next designer to use in the brochure on spec too? Is the writing for that brochure done on spec? I can’t imagine. Design is about building relationships for your clients’ needs. Working on spec for short term gain is potentially long term loss for both the designer and the client. A long term relationship actually can save the client $ because the designer understands the business and uniformity in collateral is steered to the target audience quicker.

    Small business? Well, ask the owner of any business if s/he hopes to grow it into a larger business and prepared to pay you 5-10 years down the road when they “hit” that in the black profit. I don’t see the designer as sacrificing their time in building someone else’s business as a random event for little or no pay. Small startups want to cut the designer’s fee costs, but they certainly can’t possibly skimp on inventory and other services they consider “necessary.” So why do they always think that the design or branding is of little importance? Do they also ask printers to print their brochures or advertising collateral for free and then pay them if they see a return in profit?

    “Homegrown” has its charm appeal, but once that business turns the corner, it requires a professional look and some guidance. After all, those business are charging someone for their product! I agree that the Net is changing the world at a rapid pace. I wish I had the answer. I still can’t allow myself to work on spec. Never could.

  26. The guest who commented, “Do these companies that buy do the research and registration for their mark to prevent infringements?” makes an interesting point I hadn’t considered before. Are the designers making sure their work is unique? Are the clients who buy the winning design?

    Designers who’re trying to differentiate themselves from spec/crowdsourcing should learn how to do that brand infringement research and promote it as one of their selling points.

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  27. Where did all of the Desktop Publishing companies go that 20 years ago set out their shingle as soon as they got a Mac, an ImageWriter and Aldus Pagemaker? These guys were going to drive the price of professional designers down so far that none could make a living wage.
    The woods are still full of “Designers” who have a PC and a hard drive full of free fonts who will make you a “Professional” design for $50 USD or less. The challenge, then as now, is to educate the client as to what a true Designer brings to the table, and that you are that designer that will best meet their needs and that the additional money that they will spend will bring them true value.

  28. “the perception that anyone can be a designer without proper training and experience has ruffled some feathers”

    As a typographer since 1978, I find it ironic how loudly designers are complaining about inexperienced and untrained “interlopers” trying to poach their business. The nerve of them! Simply substitute the word “typographer” for “designer” in the pull quote above, and you can understand my frustration almost 20 years ago when technology made typography available to the masses. And at the forefront of that movement were the designers, who modestly assumed that by buying a Mac and a copy of QuarkXPress, they were now both designer AND typographer!

    They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t see a glaring example of typographic ignorance. Whether it’s a prime sign filling in for an apostrophe, atrocious kerning (if any) of a large headline, or wildly inconsistent “color” in a paragraph of type, I lay the blame squarely at the feet of designers, who never bothered to educate themselves in even the most rudimentary typographic skills.

    “Good enough” became the new standard in typography, and now that the same standard is being applied to their livelihood, they loudly proclaim the imminent end of civilization as we know it!

    You’re too late. Even though you’re 100% right, there is nothing you can do to stem the tide. The people have spoken, and your argument is no longer relevant.

  29. Spec work also depresses salaries which are already low enough in the graphic design field. If all designers resisted the temptation to participate in these schemes, perhaps there would be more work and work at reasonable wages.

    I also wonder how many places which solicit spec work use some of the ideas or work that is submitted without telling the client. With many jobs posted anonymously on sites like Craigslist, most times you don’t even know who you are submitting your work to.

    JS

  30. Since the internet is global, in my opinion this is another way to “outsource” work. If you live in a country with a low cost of living and not much in the way of job opportunities, this would be a viable way to make a living. A “gig” paying $300 or so goes a long way in a 3rd world country.

    I personally don’t agree with spec work and agree with many comments that have been given. It is so true that a client who devalues your work is a client that will be a lot of trouble.

    Just a note of interest, when the low cost or free sites for photos started popping up the prices were very low. Slowly those startups have been bought out by the big boys (Getty to be specific) and prices have started tor rise again.

    The same might hold true for this phenomenon as well.

  31. Great debate!

    Is it spec work every time a realtor takes you through a house you may or may not purchase?

    Is it spec work every time a waiter shows you desserts you don’t buy?

    Closer to home, is it spec work every time an artist creates an original painting and puts it for sale in a gallery, hoping someone sees enough value to pay for it, knowing that it may go unsold?

    Is it spec work every time a salesperson calls on a prospect, knowing that her effort that day probably won’t result in revenues?

    As seen on these comments, there are those whose career and reputation mean they never have to do work without guaranteed payment, and there are those who must “make three to sell one” in order to establish themselves. They say that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, while Picasso did quite well — and was the exception to the rule.

  32. I must respond to the first comment comparing Picasso to designers doing spec work. Artists create work that pleases them. If someone wants to buy it, great. Designers are not fine artists. We produce work for specific clients with specific communication needs. Our work is not “self-expression” like Picasso or any other artist. And this is also why threadless is not spec work. Yes, some may win $2000. But those that don’t can still sell their T-shirts that they designed according to their own lights/desires, not from a creative brief from a client.

    To conflate people who make their living as salespeople as also doing spec work is just silly. Salesmen get usually a base salary and then commissions on sales. The harder they work, the more money they make. That is what sales is. It is not entering contests with hundreds of others and maybe “winning” at the end. Chefs make food they like and believe in. They don’t open their doors and ask each customer exactly what they’d like to eat, make it to their specs and then hope they like it enough to get paid for it.

    I will say designers must shoulder some of the blame for putting their field into the general category of “artist”, because it leads to this kind of wrongheaded public perception that designers are just aesthetes who are simply happy to “create art” for nothing.

    Chris Raymond

  33. Recall the overused fish proverb: Give a man a fish… teach a man how to fish…. Back in the ancient days (1950’s) when I received my degree in advertising design, it was the ad agencies that ruled. A cllient who needed copy, design, type, mechanicals and printing was pretty much compelled to use agency services. There was no such thing as do-it-yourself design software. Hell, we would ask, what’s a computer? We actually had to know how to draw and letter using things called pencils, real India ink pens and brushes. I wonder if anyone reading these posts could use a Speedball nibbed pen? Other than an art school graduate, is there anyone left who can draw freehand?

    Back to the fish. With the advent of desktop computing, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Freehand, Illustrator and Corel Draw, etc., those folks who once had to rely on someone giving them a ‘design and type fish’ were quickly ‘liberated’ so they could go off on their own and create their own ‘fish’. Of course, as professional designer consensus would have it, the do-it-yourself, unschooled, untrained designers usually come up with a design ‘fish’ that resembles a bottom-dwelling carp. But, unfortunately, the present-day buying public seems not to care one wit whether they eat carp or rainbow trout. Fact is, thanks to computers and software, the generic designing masses have been given the tools necessary to catch fish.

    Enough with the analogy. A mention was made about doctors, lawyers and other professionals not offering ‘spec’ work. Why should they? Doctors, lawyers, and even car mechanics all have two things in common: They have to be formally educated and certified and, they all are regulated in some way by Community, State and Federal laws and licensing. We in the design/type business are not compelled to receive a higher, specialty education, and, we certrainly are not regulated by any sort of certification and licensing.

    Finally, any designer with the name ‘Zino Davidoff’ has to be good when he takes on the name of the world’s finest luxury cigar.

  34. The problem with your critique, and virtually every other, is that its only concerned with the designers perspective. As a buyer, Crowdspring has been wonderful. We get what we want… which is all we care about. We get choice. We get a quick turn around, if we want it. Believe it or not, we get quality. AND we get it at a competitive price.

    Crowdsourcing is here because design quality has deteriorated for far too long. Contrary to the complaints above, spec work has no larger volume of unqualified part-timers than the non-spec community. IF you have a computer and a old version of some design software you’re in.

    A couple years ago we paid for $9,500 for a simple WordPress theme. We were allowed one version. He required most of the money upfront. When our design came in it wasn’t even close to what we asked, but revisions cost a bunch of money and we were out of time. We also found someone else’s code in the theme and ultimately had to scrap it. This person came with seemingly great references and strong resume. Yet, we got hosed and he swiped some code from others.

    The reality is that crowdsourcing is good for buyers and whining about is bad for designers. Those of you complaining about this are dinosaurs and you’re afraid to compete. What you don’t understand is that your portfolio’s are spec work. When someone surfs to your site and looks at your portfolio they’re looking at your spec work. They make decisions based on your past work, which might as well be your future work because that’s how the buyer views it. IF they don’t like it they move on and you never get a chance to talk with them.

    If you jump in on Crowdspring you have a chance to connect with the buyer. You can send them all the messages you want and get whatever kind of feedback you need. You also get to pull from a much larger source of buyers than your little site floating around in cyberspace.

    If “real” designers would wipe their noses and quit whining about it, you’d see a world of opportunity. Instead of being part of the problem, sign up and raise the quality… if that’s what you’re really concerned with. But that’s not what you’re concerned with. You don’t like competition and you want to stifle it.

    Its time to dispense with all the puffery about quality and realize that the same tools that allow you to run a one man shop from your spare room (instead of a downtown studio) are the same tools that are broadening the market again. Remember, most of you used to be the poachers. Now you’re the ‘real’ designers and you’re looking down your noses at the next generation.

    Buyers are looking for options and telling them they’re getting screwed at Crowdspring just won’t work. We know we’re not.

  35. In my experience, as Creatives we love to create… and now technology has broadened access to the field and so many without education/training are now in the game.

    I see these Crowdsourcing sites catering to those who do not understand how Design and Business relate. So to all you “Designers” who do not care about your Client’ss Business and just “want to make something cool” — this Is where your lack of understanding of the importance/value of design has affected the industry. We are all suffering due to the lack of understanding.

    To the remarks about the Realtors showing houses being Spec work, the analogy isn’t valid, as the Realtors are not the creators of the houses. So a better analogy is a builder or an artist… which brings us to the business model of Made-to-Ordered, Built-to-Spec or Commissioned Work versus Off-the-Rack, Built-For-The-Masses, or Commodity-Work.

    For anyone who has ever held a Made-Just-For-You-Gift in their hands, the importance of the personalization cannot be overstated. Made-to-order will trump Mass Produced Product every time. It our job to learn how to develop, promote and sell Design’s value!

    Andrea Stork

  36. The buyer has the advantage in today’s design marketplace: global selection and an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Can’t argue with the reality of the situation.

    Prior to the computer/Internet age, the graphic designer was forced to endure an experience that escapes oday’s global designer. That experience: we had to physically be in front of the client and, in most cases, sell our design concept. In real time, a dialog would take place where the client and the designer would go back and forth with challenges and rebuttals. There was no Internet buffer, instead, the designer was present to receive the client’s candid, first sight reaction to the design. Often times, those frank reactions were not pleasant, and the designer either had to stand there and take the criticism or look for the nearest door. The memories flood: “Hell! That’s not what I wanted! Damn! You’ve cost me time and money and now, thanks to your lousy design, you’ve thrown our marketing and advertising program off schedule.”

    I bring this up because out of all the tongue-lashings from the client, one thing was accomplished for the designer: it made him or her into a better designer. Over time, we designers had our heads pulled out of the clouds and began to see things through the buyer’s eyes. We had to come to the realization that it’s real world business we’re talking about and not designers’ fantasies. And, we personally had to stand and answer for our mistakes, bad designs, or our missing deadlines. Many times, we were fired. If they survived the ordeal, then it was obvious the designer suffered, learned, adapted to the situation and improved their skills, comprehension, speed and, most important, professional reputation.

    Today, the pardigm has changed. Today’s buyer has the luxury of cherry picking, and most designers have to yield to the marketplace pressures of unlimited supply and falling prices. Even if the graphic designer comes up with a truly unique design, thanks to the Internet, no original design is beyond theft. Not that buyers should be painted with the broad brush of thievery, but somehow, some way, a unique design manages to fall into unscrupulous hands.

    Buyer beware. You may luck out and come away from the generic designer marketplace with a logo that suffices. Good for you. You got a deal. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – will your logo work for all of your needs? A seasoned professional graphic designer over his or her career has been forced to come face-to-face with the realities of printing and print production. Is the generic designer prepared to factor into their logo design the possibility that it may have to appear not only on a web site, but also in four/six-color lithography, package printing, silk screening, sublimation printing on textiles, along with a myriad of other applications? A professional graphic designer knows how to work with the printing process and is prepared to make the necessary production adjustments on a per-vendor basis. How many generic designers would be willing to adjust their original design in order to accommodate three, four, six different print and packaging suppliers – and let you have all that work on the cheap? From complaints I’ve read over the years coming from Guru and Elance buyers, one major issue presents itself: the non-adaptability of the original graphic design. Many times, newly-hatched graphic design providers would create their works using Photoshop, or PaintShopPro, or some other raster-based program and then leave it at that. When buyers wanted to adjust the original graphic design to size it differently, or change its shape, and still be able to clearly print no matter what the size or the medium, they were left up the creek. Whereas in comparison, the true professional graphic designer will also factor in the use of a vector program such as Illustrator or Corel Draw. And, if the need arises for high-class print page and packaging design composition, the professional will also have a good command of InDesign or QuarkXPress. It is not an uncommon sight to see a professional graphic designer positioned at the gathering end of a six-color printing press witnessing the finished result of their design work. If you see one of these professionals in such a situation, look closely at them and notice how much easier they breath after they see their design working in print. You can also see the same scenario at the packaging converter’s when the graphic design, hopefully, works after the package is fully converted – folded and glued. End-of-press apprehension goes a long way in making a disciplined, professional designer. It only comes about with time in trade experience.

    This Mr. and Ms. Buyer is what you get from an experienced graphic designer – you get reliable professionalism. Believe me, such professionalism is worth the quoted price.

  37. “The problem with your critique, and virtually every other, is that its only concerned with the designers perspective. As a buyer, Crowdspring has been wonderful. We get what we want… which is all we care about. We get choice. We get a quick turn around, if we want it. Believe it or not, we get quality. AND we get it at a competitive price”.

    And as a “business owne”‘ and a Crowdspring “buyer” you’re not concerned that you’re exploiting people (sometimes as young as 13 and 14 year old) in order to get what you want? And make no mistake about it – Crowdspring, is exploitative by its very nature, whether you like it or not, and by every definition of the word. As a “professional” business person, you’re okay with disadvantaged persons from developing countries being exploited so that you can have a ‘quick turnaround’ on a logo for your “professional: company? Some aren’t as enchanted with exploitative labor practices as you seem to be.

    “Crowdsourcing is here because design quality has deteriorated for far too long. Contrary to the complaints above, spec work has no larger volume of unqualified part-timers than the non-spec community. IF you have a computer and a old version of some design software you’re in”.

    Design contests are not crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing (according to the people who coined the phrase) is about community collaboration. Crowdspring is NOT community collaboration – they host unmoderated design contests where ‘competitors’ often steal each others ideas and concepts (much to the chagrin of the originator) in order that one person can win a prize. Everyone else in the contest gets nothing. I’m not even sure this is completely legal under US labor laws. I know it’s highly suspect under IRS regulations as far as taxable benefits go – while we’re talking about being professional and all. Your comments about software – designer indicate that you have a fairly weak understanding about design, and could probably use the services of someone who’s a little more versed in the field. Someone you’re unlikely to run into on Crowdspring.

    “Those of you complaining about this are dinosaurs and you’re afraid to compete. What you don’t understand is that your portfolio’s are spec work. When someone surfs to your site and looks at your portfolio they’re looking at your spec work. They make decisions based on your past work, which might as well be your future work because that’s how the buyer views it. IF they don’t like it they move on and you never get a chance to talk with them”.

    Expecting to get paid for professional services makes one a “dinosaur”? What a quaint idea. I suppose your company exists for the benefit of mankind, and your “business plan” doesn’t involve getting paid for your services? I must admit i like your chutzpah when you tell graphic designers that THEY don’t understand the function that THEIR portfolio serves. But for the record, you’re wrong. Generally speaking, a portfolio is a collection of work examples. Nothing more. Nothing less. House contractors carry around photo albums of previous works – patios, sidewalks, restorations. Those aren’t spec work either. And by the way, nobody’s afraid of competition. Rather than trying to be just another design contest site (as they are), Crowdspring positioned themselves as the poster-child for a pro-spec work position, knowing that the controversy would get them lots of attention such as the article you and I are commenting on. They understand that. I understand that. Apparently, you don’t understand that.

    “If you jump in on Crowdspring you have a chance to connect with the buyer. You can send them all the messages you want and get whatever kind of feedback you need. You also get to pull from a much larger source of buyers than your little site floating around in cyberspace”.

    Connect with the buyer you say? Sounds wonderful. Though, if you take a trip through Crowdspring’s own forum, you’ll see exactly how “creatives” – already active on Crowdspring – think about the “conncection” between buyer and designer. A large majority of the posts and threads are complaints about how little “connection” there actually is. A lot of the comments talk about what tools the buyers are. And what thieves their fellow “creatives” are. Nice little jab about “little site in cyberspace”. Your apparent distaste for designers would indicate to me that you’re a lot more emotionally invested in this topic that someone who’s merely a buyer on Crowdspring.

    If “real” designers would wipe their noses and quit whining about it, you’d see a world of opportunity. Instead of being part of the problem, sign up and raise the quality… if that’s what you’re really concerned with. But that’s not what you’re concerned with. You don’t like competition and you want to stifle it.

    People supplying Crowdspring with unpaid labor is not competition. And nobody can, or should, compete with free in order to give supposedly professional businesses like yourself a few more design options. In terms of stifling competition, you’ve got that wrong too. Designers on Crowdspring aren’t competing against agencies and other freelancers. Crowdspring as a corporate entity is. Designers on Crowdspring are competing against each other, without pay, in order to win a prize. The idea that this is a professional design solution is ludicrous. And why should professional designers sign up on Crowdspring to raise the quality of their offerings?

    Buyers are looking for options and telling them they’re getting screwed at Crowdspring just won’t work. We know we’re not.

    Actually, I’m more likely to point out that it is you, by supporting outfits like Crowdspring, are supporting the wholesale screwing of a lot of people – some of them high school students for heaven’s sake – in order that you can save a few dollars on design charge, or get a few more options for your sales brochure. Obviously you’re okay with that, as is your right. But don’t cry foul – I think the phrase you used was something like “wiping noses and whining about it” – when others point it out.

  38. If you work for free, that’s exactly what your work is worth. And it’s exactly how much your “client” will think it’s worth.

  39. I have been an illustrator/designer since 1983. I understand change happens, but trying to get something for free is nothing new. Spec work is a way for a company to get several designers to work for free. Not only that, but I have also found that spec work is a way for companies to get free ideas for their own internal graphics department. The only thing that the internet and technology has done is made it easier for those trying to cheat and get something that they used to pay for in the past. What I find interesting is that these same companies would NEVER do they same thing for their own services. How many industries would spend time and money to provide a completed product or service on the chance that they might get picked? Whether they admit it or not, CrowdSpring is a way to take advantage of the design industry and devalue their work. Where else can you get over 1000 people to work for a total of $300?

  40. There will always be someone willing to work for less, and the quality of their work will not be an issue to clients whose prime interest is cost. Looking over projects on Crowdspring shows that designers who can throw together a logo or simple design using stock or clip art can probably make a little money. Most clients that use the site obviously either don’t know or don’t care that their project includes stock or clip art. And what professional designer hasn’t looked at the projects on Crowdspring and immediately wondered how often clients will be getting sued for copyright and trademark infringement?

    That being said, some clients do offer reasonable fees, or at least reasonable to designers living someplace with low cost-of-living. And the ability to clearly communicate with the clients will help a designer. You will still be competing with other designers, but if you can’t take the heat, maybe you should stay out of the kitchen. Seems to me I remember ad agencies competing for the same clients all the time, long before the internet even existed. The form of the competition may have changed, but it’s nothing new.

    On the other hand, I laugh to think about all the clients who have been and will get stuck with art that is supposed to be for high-res 4-color printing, but is supplied in a low-res RGB format, or with spot colors, or so on and so forth…

    Caveat emptor. If a client doesn’t know to define exactly what formats they need, that’s their problem. I charge my regular hourly fee to explain the difference between RGB and CMYK, and any other technical aspects of design work that can result in less than desired finished results.

    In fact, maybe with the less educated clients you can use this to your advantage. Supply them with a logo for their website, in a 72dpi GIF format. Then when they get back to you later, saying that their printer wants a high-resolution version of their logo, let them know you can upgrade their $50 web logo to print quality for $1,000. ;-D

    And never, ever give font files to clients. The educated clients on Crowdspring will ask for all source files used in their projects. Never give them anything that belongs or is licensed to you. When a client asks me for source files they get only what belongs to them. I nicely explain it would be illegal for me to send my licensed fonts to them. They can find another designer who licenses the same fonts if they want to have your work altered.

    In other words, be a professional. If you can’t out-compete a high school kid, maybe it’s time to consider a new career.

  41. Instead of taking (wasting) your time on Spec work, I’d rather beat the pavement contacting prospective companies about their need for my services. So 9 out of 10 turn me down. That one taht calls me back for a project, most likely will have more projects to offer me later on. Building a relationship with the client beats out than one poorly paid logo design on Crowdsourcing.
    JKullman

  42. Two tangents that I ran across early on in my career:

    After presenting concept after concept, each produced and presented in a very polished, professional manner, literally weeks of work; the client decided to go with a design that his secretary’s high-school student niece created.

    (My personal favorite) I submitted a design for a corporate identity program that was so well received that the company invested in a scanner, a copy of Adobe Illustrator, and an intern to copy and trace my design. When I complained that they were stealing my work, their legal department sent me a threatening letter accusing me of defamation.

  43. It could be worse!
    This actually happened to me…
    Graduated (almost broke) in early 80s; drove 1,000 miles round trip for an interview; job was for a graphics/print/journalism specialist with the school district ESD office; they had no real vision for the job; the interview was mainly them pumping me for ideas; didn’t get the job; they canceled the job search and then rewrote the description and opened up the recruitment again.
    Needless to say, I did NOT reapply!

    • Posts raged across the blogosphere, railing against not only CrowdSpring’s business model but also objecting to Forbes’ characterization of designers as “snooty.”
    • It’s a collaborative community-based decision rather than the edict of a client who may not be well informed about the nuances of successful design.
    • While design is a more expansive discipline than the mechanical process of typesetting, the precedent remains.

    Irony is my favourite thing in all the world. Unintentional irony is even sweeter. Thank you for dissolving my teeth in purest, delicious sucrose.

  44. I’ve just posted my view on Spec Work:

    The “Pros” and Cons of Spec Work

  45. Great Article. I found the part about Threadless particularly interesting. It raises a concern I have about lumping Crowdsourcing with spec work.

    Threadless is crowdsourcing plain and simple. And the “designers” who’s art does not get voted to the top of the pile loses just as any designer who enters and loses in a design contest or has spec work rejected/ not paid for. My point is that crowdsourcing is not inherently bad but is subject to abuse like most other things in life. Design is collaborative but also unavoidably competitive in nature. And crowdsourcing has potential as a means of engaging large populations of consumers, users, prosumers (whatever you want to call them) as collaborators in design development. Granted this perhaps has more relevance to industrial/product/ or architectural design than graphic design. A wholesale micharacterization of the term crowdsourcing misses its relevance to the collaborative nature of design discussed in this article. And CrowdSpring and Threadless are two examples of how different and similar two models of crowdsourcing can be.

    As for missing the boat on defending against disruptive technologies like desktop publishing, good luck. That ship has sailed yet again. Computing and Networking are going to be reeking havoc in industry after industry for decades to come.

  46. Thanks for putting out such a full description of the issues. I was not aware of this practice. Your article will help me go forward – and also help my daughter who is an aspiring designer. Integrity wins!

  47. I’ve had very poor experiences both working on “spec” jobs and posting on CrowdSpring. The one spec job I did (website design), I actually got paid for – after about nine months of work, re-work, and more re-work. Needless to say, I didn’t get paid anywhere close to the hours I actually spent working on the project.

    CrowdSpring was a completely different experience. I tried several design jobs (logo design / identity package mostly) – and every single time, some other designer came in at almost the last minute before the project was set to be finished – copied my design (or another design that the contest holder stated they liked), but made some slight change and they ended up being crowned as the “winner” and awarded the money.

    Anyway, like I said… Poor experiences with both of these job types.

    Web Design Louisville

  48. All designers understand like developers that the industry we are in is dynamic. Trends change in matters of seconds.

    However the effort which goes into designing logos and graphics is tremendous because apart from hours of labor to perfect every curve, bend, shade etc to give shape to the envisioned design, is the time the designer takes to envision a breathtaking design. The designer has to select from many such designs of his/her to select the most appropriate one, casting his/her own work away is not that easy ( can a mother cast away her own child).

    Imagine what goes through the designer when the selected design is rejected on some trivial grounds. Rightly said we should move toward refusing to work on spec unless it is for no financial gain and instead is pursuing a passion. But such designers should know how to safeguard the interest of ones who work for financial gain as it is their livelihood, that should not be affected in the pursuit of their passion.

  49. I agree completely with this article and being a college instructor I always caution my students getting used by these kind of situations. I like it so much I am posting it on my blog http:www.synergycreative.com – thanks for this story.

  50. Bullseye ! Hope that those crowdsourcing based design contests, will become obsolete in the near future, due to the fact that they are satisfying only clients in a disproportionate amount. Or, it will evolve into something more ethical, then an enterprise from mid 19-th century. Some might see the future in that, well, think Adobe, should lower their prices at dimes.

  51. I’ve written blog posts on this topic before, and would like to share the polite response I have to clients asking me for spec work:

    “I’m afraid I can’t work for free for any design project unless it’s for a registered charity – it’s simply not fair to my paying clients to do otherwise. If you have a registered charity number, I’ll be happy to reconsider your project. If you have a tight budget for your business, I’d be happy to work out a payment schedule that works for you. Many of my clients have received a monthly invoice to pay for their design work by installments. This might be a solution for you.”

    This approach isn’t as rude as sending a poster basically telling them to **** OFF, which no-spec.com would have us do… I suspect many clients haven’t thought about the value of design and hopefully this approach would help. Hope this helps anyone who gets approached for spec work!

  52. Love it! Puts into words what I already felt, but had no sturdy ground to stand on to enforce. Thank you for articles that give the graphic design industry firm footing.

    William Shea
    Everprint
    (214) 233-5924
    http://www.everprint.biz

  53. Personally, I am quite on the fence regarding the use of a crowdsourcing site for a logo design. It is still a touchy issue for most designers who said that crowdsourcing is a no-no for obtaining a logo design. I have tried crowdsourcing before and I know the risks involved but it comes within the territory. But there are other no-frills logo design websites online such as http://www.logobee.com, http://www.logodesignstation.com, logoyes.com, etc. which are actually great in getting a professional logo design at a fraction of the price and minus the risks of crowdsourcing (plagiarism is one of them). Seeing that there are no consultation services, the price is significantly lower than that of conventional design firms. For instance, I have tried http://www.logodesignstation.com and the experience was indeed a positive one. I managed to get my business logo design at an affordable price and the turnaround time was great as well. Highly recommended. Although crowdsourcing for logo designs could be a bane for some, many find it to be a viable alternative to get a fast logo on the cheap. It all depends on the individual actually.

  54. Both of these concepts sound like a great way to gain “experience”. A friend of mine once told me; “The definition of experience is: what you get when you didn’t get what you really wanted”. http://www.onlinemoneythruaffiliates.com/

  55. You could spend a lifetime debating the issue of spec work, but your article covers the issue well and makes a solid case as to why spec work and/or CrowdSourcing (or like sites) are bad business. I feel you can tell when someone becomes a professional in the creative field. S/he discovers they’re in business to earn a living and/or make a profit.

    A clearly written creative brief is essential to the end result of any assignment. If the prospect can’t supply one, then you’re at risk of wasting your time. How you use your time affects your income. Waste your time and you waste your ability to make a living whether you work for yourself or someone else.

    Why many prospects think creatives should give away their time amazes me to no end; I’m even more astounded to see how many sellers (creatives) comply willingly. Free product trials make sense for tangible products because they can be done at a nominal cost, but not so in the service billing field because the cost to do so is too high. Each hour you spend on spec work is one hour less you have to spend on billable work. A calendar year has a finite number of billable hours.

    If my comment sounds too “business-ey” for a creative person, I’m sorry but I have to eat, a family to support and a mortgage to pay.

    Ricky

  56. Great article, but forgot to mention another type… or at least include it in a manner of the Spec Work model… that is the Intern Request. Companies, both big and small, offer opportunities to hopeful designers to submit works on the basis of offering them an Internship position with the company. This is similar to the Spec Work… but it is actually defining itself as a REAL position within the company- although it is merely an unpaid internship type of position.
    Often used terms and phrases to describe them are “portfolio” or “can add this to your portfolio”, in reference to building your personal design examples base. Other phrases are “perfect for students”, which cries out to the budding designers trying to break in to the field straight out of school- which sets up a dangerous work ethic and principles against the true value of what they aspired to by getting an education to begin with.
    Schools with Design classes, and other institutions of this nature, need to start including more of the Business side of the Design trade to coincide with actual /Art/Design education… so as to empower them with more knowledge of what to expect- and what to consider or not.

  57. Pamela,As a designer of 8 years, I’ve been hearing allegations against crowdsourcing ever since I joined the industry (the same time as 99designs was launched). I politely beg to differ. As someone with zero design education, experience, resources or a portfolio, I learned the basics of design by interacting with the community on 99designs. I built my portfolio by competing in contests and launched a successful freelance career using the tips I learned from the designers on these platforms and went on to co-found my own creative studio. Take it from someone who’s been on every side – crowdsourcing is not the Devil. https://medium.com/@imvivk/the-good-side-of-crowdsourcing-88eb3e871b9e

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