I can understand the investor attraction to spec work websites. After all, the sites profit through nothing more than the sale of contest-listings. So as long as the listing database is intact, and the turnstiles are kept moving, the concept appears hugely scalable.

I can also understand the initial client attraction. The cost of a service plays an important role in the purchase decision, and with spec work, the client spends as little as she wants. Often nothing.

underwater icebergIceberg photo composite by Ralph Clevenger.

But work produced ‘on spec’ isn’t just a cheaper form of design, on the whole it’s also vastly inferior, because once the volunteers producing the artwork figure-out how to win, the design process has long since disappeared. What designer puts 100% into a project when there’s a minuscule chance of getting paid? And those who do give 100% are even likelier to end-up with nothing but a sense of dejection.

Ultimately, contest holders are left to compensate for the emaciated design process by attempting to fill-in the gaps, “Change this. Add that. Combine these. Try it in blue.” They’re paying to be designer-for-a-day, when the reality is they either don’t need a designer (imagine hiring a plumber then telling him what to do), or they haven’t realised the time-sapping downsides.

One more reason to set yourself apart, to tell your story.

Logo warehouses, crowdsourcing, and a lack of understanding, on idApostle
Responding to spec work requests, on davidairey.com

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May 4, 2011


That first paragraph is so true. I thought entering the design contest would be good practice with a real case study. But the people that win are voted up by their friends and in most cases aren’t the best design and are usually very detailed.

I stopped doing them relatively quickly and after reading your blog, felt better about my results. I’m planning to approach local sole traders to practice on now, those that try and do their own.

Such a great analogy, I find that even small businesses seeking websites, don’t realise that it is SO much more than just an online face for their business. How it’s built, and what’s underneath are also vitally important.

As always David, you nailed it, and that iceberg illustrates it perfectly. I’ve read that some clients end up having their spec’d work redone by professional designers anyway.

Yes, differentiation is key. I’m working on that. :)

Approaching local sole traders is an excellent way to practice, Rachel. Pro bono design is a similar option to help build a portfolio.

Vanessa, nice addition — the “under-the-surface” analogy is perhaps even more relevant where web design/development is concerned. Especially when shady practices can bring search engine penalties.

I’ve had a few of those approaches, Grace, from design clients left unsatisfied with the results of “crowdsourcing.” In the words of Simon Manchipp, “Crowdsourcing is only used on things that people think are trivial,” so your most valued clients are unlikely to have tested spec sites prior to getting in touch.

Well said David! I had never heard the iceberg analogy before, but it fits perfectly here. I love reading your perspective on spec work, it equips me with words on why it’s inferior and why we should be resistant towards it.

Nice post David. Unfortunately this type of thing is one we as designers are going to have to get used to, and it is getting even worse (Tweak.com i.e anyone can do it, it’s not even a skill). I think that as designers we can differentiate ourselves from these sites by providing design as a service as well as/instead of merely a finished product.

Regardless of any automated or contest sites making things ‘easier’ for clients there is untold value to be gained from just spending time with an experienced professional and listening to the advice they might have. To continue the plumber theme I’m sure I could find out on Youtube how to change a U-bend but I also know (from experience) that a wise word or two from an experienced plumber who has been around the block can point you in the right direction with a few nuggets of advice.

There is also great value that client can get in the back-up and support of the actual provider and the chance of forming a meaningful working relationship.

Totally agree with the post, and am well aware of the downsides of Crowdsourcing (from a designer’s perspective), with having entered ‘contests’ on some of these kind of sites in the past. It didn’t take me long to realise not to bother. Mainly because contest holders seem determined to get their absolute money’s worth, despite paying under the going rate for getting the logo done by a solitary designer. And the final design often ends up a bastardised version – with a kind of Frankenstein mish mash of elements lifted from other entrants’ designs. They also seem ignorantly immune to creative Copyright issues.

Although I did have some success in some logo design projects, this was a small reward, as the hours you put in don’t really justify the final ‘prize’. On the other side of the coin, I have also, like you quite rightly mentioned, been burned by several ‘guaranteed’ contest holders, apparently vanishing off the face of the Earth, with all the entrants left in limbo, feeling like mugs. Also agree about how some designers find a magic formula to win loads of these. The most common system I witnessed was a few entrants churning out tonnes of different logo options, using abstracted vector letterform shapes in their logos. That they’d obviously sourced off a clip-art disk / site somewhere. And if they didn’t win a particular contest, sure enough, the very same logo would have been revised to fit the next project. Which as you’ll know yourself, totally defeats the whole point of branding anything in the first place. Great post, thanks.

Thanks, Andrew. Glad it was of interest.

Steven, I think you’re right on all points.

Jolt, always interesting to learn from those who participate(d) in contests.

Bernadette, very apt. Seth has a way with words. Thanks a lot for your props on the Facebook milestone, by the way.

Hi David,

I’m happy to share that in my experience I’ve turned a handful of clients away from spec work because I was able to consult them on the importance of brand development, differentiation and awareness when designing a brand identity. In the end they were glad to pay the price I quoted because they understood the work and innovation involved – and also because their viewpoint changed from ‘cost’ to ‘investment.’

You are right bro. I have been featured in many design contests. Most of them are frustrating and tiring, most of them are political in nature. After reading your articles on spec I stopped participating in it.

Totally agree as well. The artistic waste product that crowdsourcing produces is unsustainable. What I can see happen though, is that more and more clients will be aware of the option to crowdsource design or ideas and will get used to the amount of choices they have by investing relatively little.

The traditional agencies will come under pressure (see tons of crowdsourcing service providers at agencykillers.com) to deliver larger quantities, with more variety, and will start to use crowdsourcing as well, to round out what gets shown to the client.

So this means that it is plausible that agencies will help fuel the crowdsourcing industry. In those cases, when agencies post the challenges, it could be that designers will use the opportunity, not just to win a design competition, but to also get noticed by the agency in hopes to land that full-time job.

… or maybe not. we’ll see. the next few years will be interesting.

This is good stuff guys, i am just getting into web design at 33 and im loving it. I am a plasterer by trade and although web design is a little bit daunting and im struggling to understand some aspects, i am thouroghly enjoying it.
Great blog

I really love your post David.
For me, I would rather have no design jobs than to work on those design contest sites.

That’ s right Neel! We, as a designers, must educate our clients about how spec works can hurt the industry as a whole. Great job there what you have done.

We support no spec! Check this out

Great read as always, David.

The level of commitment of business’s owners can be seen from how much they invest in their brands. If going for a crowdsourcing is their choices, we only can hope if they will ever reach their business’s goal.

This is a really good analogy David – I had the analogy in mind of a car… The capital cost is up front, but then you have the petrol, servicing, tyres etc.

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