Spec work in the internet age

A few days ago, a young designer thought they’d take a stand against spec work, and uploaded the NO!SPEC logo to LogoSauce (a website selling design contest listings). In response, an article was published on the LogoSauce blog, no-spec vs spec.

no respectImage by Chad Behnke

The author had this to say about logo competitions:

“(A logo design competition) gives designers an opportunity to truly work with anyone anywhere on the globe. The traditional approach that AIGA defends is unlikely to do the same.”

I disagree. If you offer a valuable service, the traditional approach is very likely to present the opportunity of working with clients around the globe. I work from home, and have been hired by clients in Africa, the Americas, Australia, Asia, and throughout Europe. None of my clients have been found by pitching ideas for free in a design competition. All of them have paid.

The LogoSauce author goes on to say:

“At the end of the day – it’s up to each designer to make his choice – participate in competitions or not.”

True, and you’ll find that the vast majority of designers who participate are unable to differentiate themselves from their competitors. You might be thinking it’s a catch-22, where a designer needs experience, and that competitions can give that, but there are much more noteworthy methods for honing your skills.

An excellent discussion took place on a previous post of mine that offers alternatives for gaining experience: Spec work can damage your business.

My top recommendation is pro bono design (for the public good).

AIGA states the following, in its article Spec Can Be Beaten:

“If the client cannot tell one design firm from the next, or if none of the firms under consideration have been able to separate themselves from the others, then the client will have little alternative to asking for uncompensated thinking as proof of the best fit.

“When the client views one firm as uniquely qualified or at least far better suited, then often he will move forward with that firm based on assurances other than spec creative.”

Another example of spec work in the web age has emerged in the form of 99designs. This venture targets uneducated designers and unaware clients.

You need look no further than their ‘about us’ page to understand the plan associated with the site:

“99designs is a disruptive startup which connects passionate designers from around the globe with savvy clients who need design projects completed in a timely fashion without the usual risk or cost associated with professional design.”

Kevin Potts published a ‘no holds barred’ article on the negative aspects of spec work, using 99designs as a case study. You can read it here: 99designs: Bullshit 2.0 (uses strong language).

I’ve quoted Kevin below, referencing the stats about 99designs:

“At the time of this writing, $1,226,703 has been awarded (as prizes) across 346,171 (logo design) entries. Second-grade math teaches us this averages out to $3.54 per entry. So playing the odds, over a long period of time, every logo (or website, or business card, or whatever) you submit cannot even buy you a Venti White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks.”

How long do you think it takes to design a logo? When it’s weeks or months, you can see Kevin’s point.

Whatever your stance, it would seem that design competitions aren’t going away. There’ll always be a demand for the lowest common denominator, and these guys (99designs, Crowdspring, et al) are doing all they can to fill it.

The teaching hat is just one that designers wear, and it’s up to us to educate potential clients about why our services are worth paying for.

Update: 13 April 2008
Are logo design contest sites even legal? A welcome read from Steve at The Logo Factor, questioning the legality of logo design contest websites.

57 responses

  1. Not being a designer myself, I can’t speak to the graphic aspect of the argument. I can, however, speak to the development (coding) aspect.

    A lot of people know what works and what doesn’t. It’s easy to pick out an effective logo, or a easy-to-use script or program… However, as you know, it’s not easy to design that effective logo or create that no-brainer program. A lot of work goes into it. And I suppose spec work is the bootcamp approach to getting work done. All are invited, but very few make it out.

    When I was at WordCamp, I talked to a young guy doing a lot of spec work. And I told him, “Don’t undervalue what you are doing because then people will undervalue you. You are worth more than free.”

    My belief is, if people want it, and want it bad enough, they’ll pay for it. And if the quality and expertise is there, then the price is worth it.

  2. Amen.

    And yes, it’s been said before, and yes, it’ll need to be said again. And, I’m afraid, again. As you said, teaching is one aspect of our jobs as designers, and if experience is any predictor of future behavior, there will never be a shortage of students.

    Per Jason’s plumber remark, I must share the following cartoon:


    Uncredited, alas, as the original creator’s site is no longer up. I thank my friend, Calvin Lee–a long time combatant in the fight against spec–for having the foresight to save it to his own server.

  3. David,
    I totally understand what you’re frustration is here. But let me pose a question from a hypothetical perspective…

    Let’s say I’m a young entrepreneur looking to start a business, and thus I’ll need a logo and a website. I have $200.

    I could scour the internet looking for logo design professionals. I’ve never heard of any of them, so I’m subject to the portfolio they have up on their site. I find one I like, but he’s too expensive. Another guy is within my budget, but his portfolio looks weak. Finally I find a guy who is within the budget, and has a strong portfolio. Only problem is, after paying him and giving him good communication, he sends me crap. I lose my money and I have nothing to show for it.

    But then, I hear about this place offering competitions. I submit an idea, and dozens of designers from all around the world submit entries. I take a look at some of the previous contests and find that the with so many competing designers, one of them is bound to come up with an idea I like. And what’s more, most of the contests run for about $200.

    And on top of all that, the more money you offer as the prize, the more talented the designers are that participate.

    Sure, some people end up having to do work for nothing, but it’s voluntary. They know the risks when they come into it. In fact, you could say the same thing from the client’s perspective for non-spec work. We risk our money to pay a designer to come up with a suitable logo. Spec or non-spec, somebody has to take a risk … either the designer or the client.

    And in the end, whoever comes up with the best deal for the customer (both quality and price) wins. The customer will gravitate to the place that has the best bang for the buck.

    From that perspective, it just seems like the guys complaining about spec work don’t care about the fact that the client takes a risk in non-spec work. And that makes us feel like you care more about your wallet than ours.

    Not trying to be offensive, but I thought that thinking about it from that perspective might help you guys understand why spec work seems attractive to the customer.

    So explain this to me … pretend I’m a potential client. What is it about non-spec work that would make it better for me to risk my money on a guy I’ve never met, who may very well send me a logo that I don’t like? What would you do in the client’s position?

  4. Awesome entry, David. Like Jason, above, I don’t get the spec mentality either. But what I’ve found is that the “clients” that want spec work usually just want *something* – practically anything – regardless of whether or not it speaks to their audience. There’s a market for everyone I guess.

  5. @Jason
    The difference?
    A plumber does a job for a small fee.
    Very little risk. No money up front.
    It’s objective driven. Clear results are expected.
    Plumbers are certified and local communities spread reputation fast.
    Plumbing isn’t creative, and therefore isn’t subjective.

    Logo and graphics design is much different.
    You can have a degree in graphics design and still make a sucky logo.
    I have to pay you up front, and I don’t get my money back if I’m not happy with the final product.
    There is no clear objective, which means that what looks good to you, the designer, may not look good to me, the client (or the world, for that matter).
    Testimonials don’t mean much coming from strangers.
    Portfolios don’t ever include your bad work. Only the best.

    There’s a huge difference.

  6. Hi David,

    I didnt know about that issue that happened over at LogoSauce. Nice to learn about that and to hear your opinion.

    A small update on the issue from my blog that had a little bit of discussion, http://www.BrianYerkes.com/logo-design-contests-good-or-bad/ ……after I won that competition, the client emailed me requesting stationary design, and that they could pay $30.

    I didn’t want to be rude or unprofessional in my response, but as professional designers making a living from our craft and dedicating many hours a day to further development and knowledge….$30 is an insult. Needless to say, I did not work any further with them.

    It did prove to be an interesting case study for me personally to take part in a logo design competition like that for the first time to experience it and see what it is all about.

  7. This article reminded me about few of my “potential” client (if I may consider them as client). They just want to have good solution to their problem but unwilling to pay such a high price. I just don’t understand. Maybe it is our time to show them why we ought to have such high price. They approaches you because they believe that you can deliver good solution without realizing that their pocket isn’t deep enough for it.

    Sad but true.

  8. “So explain this to me … pretend I’m a potential client. What is it about non-spec work that would make it better for me to risk my money on a guy I’ve never met, who may very well send me a logo that I don’t like?”

    A fair question and one that should be answered.

    If the client participates in the process, they have a higher chance of getting a mark that fits their target market.

    And truthfully, what are the chances of the ‘lets throw this against the wall to see if something sticks’ sort of mentality hitting that same target?

    Sure, you might like the pretty pictures from your logo contest. At first. Then you discover it’s been ripped from some other logo (it’s a complaint I’ve heard often from those watching logo contests).

    Oops. And in your line of business too. Ouch.

    So, back to the drawing board you go. And out comes more money.

    Dear potential client …

    So, you want a logo of your desire? That actually fits your target market? That’s not a jumble of pretty shapes and colours? Then don’t mumble vague descriptions in the direction of your chosen designer. Communicate.

    Yes, you are an important part of the process. Not the audience (as what happens in logo contests).

    Communication is clearly a top problem when it comes to delivering what the client wants. And it’s up to the designer to convey this to their clients.

    If the designer fails to educate the client on this very important fact – throwing styles at the client instead – then yes, I do believe the client should get their money refunded (if something doesn’t stick).

    But if (after being educated on the importance of communication) the client fails to communicate and ends up changing their minds repeatedly during the process or waffling around before stating dislike. Then yes, the client should pay regardless.

    So the problem is twofold:

    Designers who don’t educate.
    Clients who don’t communicate.

    The creation of a decent mark a two way street, so there’s no point in either trying to wiggle out of shared responsibility.

    Btw: As design is subjective (even more reason for a client to do proper research into portfolios) some designers have a clause attached to their contracts stating something along the lines that if the client is not pleased with the results, they are entitled to a percentage of the refund.

    This is usually in the case of entry designers feeling their way through their first years in the business. And it’s one I support.

    Clients will feel more comfortable hiring start up designers. Those same designers will learn the valid reasons on WHY they should educate clients. A win win.

  9. Ronald, you’re right, people will always pay for quality, just like others will always look for the cheapest option.

    Jason, it can certainly be applied across more than one industry. I’ve read a number of different analogies.

    Nathan, don’t worry about possible offense. I’m glad of your question and hope I’ve answered effectively below:

    You say you have $200 for a logo and website. I notice you charge $125 per hour for your coding skills. How much work can you expect in less than two hours? Where does research, brainstorming, drafting etc. come in?

    Sure, the young entrepreneur who’s starting out in business mightn’t be able to afford you, so they search for the cheapest option possible. My article here isn’t a complaint about people not paying enough. It’s aimed to educate new designers about the negative impact spec work has, both on designers who take part, and on clients who don’t get their money’s worth.

    As a client hosting a competition, you might pay $200 for 30 logo designs, but if each logo has been created in 10 minutes, the chances of it effectively representing your organisation for 20 years to come are very slim. Changing your branding further down the line proves much more expensive than getting it right at the beginning.

    If you’re a client with no design education or experience, and you’re presented with 30 logos from your $200 competition, let’s imagine that five are designed according to the six universal attributes of a great mark. From experience, I’ve found that it you present a client with a number of logo ideas, and one of which you’re not entirely happy with, the client will choose the worst (more commonly known as Sod’s law). I’ve since learnt not to offer anything I wouldn’t use myself. The designer needs to educate the client as to why their idea works. In the vast majority of competitions, all the client ever sees is the final result. No communication. No drafts or revisions. No customer service to help with filetypes, printing etc.

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked with a plumber before, but to say that all they charge are small fees seems strange. Ask a plumber how much it costs to fit a bathroom suite and I think you’ll be surprised.

    Angie, valid point, about spec clients just wanting something, as opposed to the ‘best’.

    Brian, thanks for the follow-up. Interesting to note how the client wanted stationery for $30, and of course it’s no surprise you chose to cut your ties.

    Rafie, the old saying, ‘you get what you pay for’, isn’t always true, but more often than not, it is.

  10. Thanks David, it’s a very encouraging article. Being a designer myself and thinking of going freelance, the spec work was my greatest concern. It’s very paining not to get paid for work which require talent as well as a lot of experience.

    Reading this post, I have decided not to do any spec work when I do freelance full-time.

  11. Great article, David!

    I think the kind of clients that resort to logo design competitions for their identity are the same with the ones that want to build the next myspace, flickr, facebook with $1000 or have a website done for no payment because “it’s going to be a great exposure and a great portfolio piece”. You can see them everyday on the job boards. Should we be concerned ? I don’t think so. These people have no idea on what makes a successful business and they will get exactly what they are paying from.

  12. David, good work on educating more and more people about Spec Work, I hope to do this in a post soon enough… maybe if I receive some quality replies to my situation below.

    I have recently applied to be a part time web designer / developer. Below is part (about ¼) of the job advertisement that was sent via email to all of the university students in a few courses at our University.

    “Paradox Management (a model agency) is looking for young and talented web designers and developers for a part-time / casual staff position within our agency. This role will encompass working with other designers and photographers in our agency to create a brand new website and online presence for Paradox Management (www.paradoxm.com.au).”

    After a few emails back and forth they wanted me to come in for an interview the next day. I went in and they liked my work and most of all the creativity I showed in my work which is what they were after. However, the thing I was meaning to ask you all was that they wanted me to design a kind of mock up of the website to ‘show my creativity’ – they have asked everyone who has been interviewed to do this.

    I confronted them by saying it is working for free however they had a pretty good explanation of how it was not spec work or pitching which I can not translate into words, they even managed to say we know how unethical pitching is. Is it actually pitching?

    I know design studios try to win over big companies by pitching ideas or rough mock-ups in order to get a job… is my situation something like that or is it a mere slyer way of spec work?

    They also wanted me to start on a low (actually it is quite low – AUD$15 per hour – our min wage is $17 for a 20 year old) base rate to see how good I am and what type of skills I have and if I am up to mark with their expectations and then if I am what they are after, they would up the pay. Is this normal or something to stay clear of?

    Hopefully you can clear some of this up and maybe I can post the replies on my blog. Please let me know if you would rather not be published.

    Thank you guys in advance and hope to see what you have to say.

  13. Razvan, it’s fair to say that most of the potential clients looking for spec work are of the sort you mention. There’ll also be a section who simply don’t realise the general standard of design they’ll come across.

    Jacob, interesting scenario, and one that would set alarm bells ringing if I was in the same situation.

    The employers already told you they particularly like the creativity shown in your work, so why do you need to show it to them again? It seems they view the interview process as a design competition, when you’ve already demonstrated your design skills through your portfolio.

    On top of this, should you be ‘lucky’ enough to win their contest, you’ll be awarded with a job paying less than the minimum wage.

    Who sent you the initial job application email? If it was your university, I’d inform them of the poor standard of employer they’re granting access to their students.

    My advice? Steer clear. You can do a lot better for yourself.

    Stefan, I actually read your article when preparing this one. I agree that there’s no need for drama, but I do feel there’s a need for education. You say you don’t think spec is a bad thing, but if you’re a client who doesn’t know how it affects the design process, it can be to the detriment of your artwork.

    Nathan, you’re very welcome. Thanks for asking the question. In your article, you say that 2 out of every 5 enquiries leads to a new client. Congratulations. You’re definitely doing something right.

  14. David,
    That’s why my rate is so high. I started out only charging $50 per hour. The rate increase was necessary to discourage so many inquiries.

    I still think this is a market issue, but I feel your frustration nonetheless, especially if spec work is hurting business.

  15. David,

    Excellent post! We at The Riddle Brothers encountered a potential client who wanted some spec work done along with a proposed estimate. I was able to respond to them courteously and professionally to educate them as why they should trust in the design skills of a professional. I have even added our stance regarding no spec work to our page of frequently asked questions.

    Keep up the good work. Your posts are excellent and informative.

  16. Good topic. I think the problem with spec work just barely scratches the surface of a bigger problem: many people think design is easy, and because they think it’s easy, they think design is cheap (and nothing is cheaper than free). Of course, these misconceptions may not even exist if some graphic designers didn’t reduce the craft to $20 logos, $50 websites, and just changing the colors on a rehashed template. People are pawning off 30-minute template work as fully-tailored solutions to clients’ problems. This not only cheapens the dollars that legit designers can charge—it also cheapens the design process in the minds of many people, and that is what hurts our profession the most.

    In the end, I think it’s a matter of educating people about design. If someone with no knowledge of the design process bangs out a logo, a poster, or a website in 30 minutes because they can, many people will incorrectly interpret design to be a 30-minute job. If we want to change these misconceptions about our industry, we need to educate people (not just clients) about what we do. It’s no guarantee that it will get rid of spec work, or the likes of 99designs, but every little bit helps.

  17. I am in no ways a ‘big shot’ designer but imo it is a catch 20/20 problem.

    You need to get your work out there but how do you do that? Competitions is one way, portfolio helps and doing some free work for organisations is another way. I will say that tafe, college or uni assignment examples does NOT work so you need to get your work out there.

    I myself have found that a good portfolio helped but the best thing that helped for me personally was word of mouth and a good example of my work has gotten me my present work.

    So I would scrap going for comps, waste of time. Hit up an organisation (church etc) and get designing.

  18. I think you get what you pay for.

    From my background (advertising account planning), it can take someone hours and hours mulling over various words, thoughts (and, perhaps) images to come up with a three-word strapline such as ‘every little helps’. ‘Every little helps’ – it’s only three words – but those words really count! If Tesco knew how successful that strapline would become, they would, probably, have paid a lot more for it than they originally did.

    Similar to logos. As I see it:

    – it does take a lot of time and effort to come up with a good logo (on the whole)
    – it’s not just design work (although fundamental, of course), it, also, involves an understanding of the company’s brand values and goals
    – a good logo can be worth a lot more than what you originally paid for it.

    Generally (and if you do your research, and get the logo-designer on your side), you will get what you pay for.

  19. It’s always a case of somebody wanting something for free. That mentality will never go away, it’s inherent within our genetic make-up. As you rightly say, it’s up to us to make the stand and let it be known that like any other profession we have a right to be paid for our tiime.
    Great blog you have here.

  20. Aaron, I like your FAQ page. It’s something I could do with on my own site.

    Jermayn, word of mouth is a great way to gain new business. Personal recommendations can do a lot more than a portfolio you’ve visited for the first time.


    “It’s not just design work (although fundamental, of course), it, also, involves an understanding of the company’s brand values and goals.”

    For sure. There are many elements to a good design process, and sitting in front of a computer to finalise a design is just a very small part.

  21. People who want to run contests get what they deserve. Hastily done, probably all flash and no substance. Regardless, if I see some contest that has lame entries and I think I have a chance to win with a quickly done design, I’ll enter. Plus, any entry that doesn’t win can still go in a portfolio.

  22. Apple, IBM, Logos, Brands, and the Nature of Creativity (‘Apple’s Logo Makes You More Creative Than IBM’s’)


    A bit off topic (hopefully, though, you and your readers will find this of some interest / usefulness).

    There has been some talk on the internet, recently, about
    Duke University and Canada’s University of Waterloo claiming that a mere 30-millisecond exposure to famous brand logos can influence viewing behavior – in, particular, that Apple’s logo can make people think more creatively than IBM.

    Got me thinking about:

    – what exactly is the nature of creativity?
    – the role of brand values / goals in logos

    IBM are about making machines that can: simulate large explosions, predict complicated patterns of weather, can beat chess genius such as Gary Kasparov (Deep Blue), as well as, create general IT / business solutions (IBM Global Solutions).

    Surely, the sort of creativity we associate with IBM is creative-thinking (lateral-thinking in the Edward de Bono sense) as opposed to the sort of raw creativity that we associate with artists, musicians, writers and so on.

    In contrast to IBM, Apple is very much focused on design (amongst other things). I am generalizing / being black and white (because time / space is limited but hope you get my point).

    So although the Duke University research project is interesting, I think that they have failed to point out the difference between raw creativity and lateral-minded creativity. I am sure this is something that you think about when designing logs.

    The IBM logo was designed, incidently, back in the 70’s by the graphic design legend, Paul Rand (who, also, did ABC, UPS and others).

    It’s funny but I think that all this talk about the Apple making you more creative than the IBM logo fails in establishing what you mean by ‘creativity’ / what kind of ‘creativity’ – and a lack of understanding, perhaps, of the relationship between logos and brand values and brand goals.

    Would be interested to hear your reaction to this (sorry about the long essay ..).

  23. Great post and the follow up discussions. Spec work always causes quite a stir, but nevertheless there are still many designers who are willing to work for nothing and people who want to pay the least amount of money for the design/coding work.
    I remember last year’s logo contest on Smashing Magazine – hundreds of logo ideas were submitted and one of them was indeed chosen to become SM’s official logo. I also remember the feeling that I had when looking at most of the submitted logos – that they were most probably designed in 10 min.

    On the other side design/development companies often have to prepare lengthy Requests For Proposals from potential clients, and often don’t even get the job. Of course, nothing has been built or designed, but the company still spent many hours and even days working on the proposal.

    What I’m trying to say here is that I doubt this will ever change as long as there is such a tight competition, and as long as there are countries where $1 a day will feed the entire family, so imagine how far would $200 go.

  24. We need ‘kill fees’!

    I am on the dev side, but I truly understand the design-side pain. My previous professional lives includes freelance writing. I often worked with publications that offered me a ‘kill fee’ that covered my expenses if an article or paper did not pass muster.

    We need to start promoting this concept more in the design field. If a company thinks enough to ask you to submit, they should offer a submission payment that at least covers some expenses and shows a willingness to recognize the work performed.

  25. I recently posted the following on Craigslist in response to someone
    advertising a logo contest:

    **make me a sandwich contest**

    Logo design contests are just a scam to take advantage of designers who don’t know any better.

    Have you ever heard of a paint my house contest or a make me a sandwich contest.

    I want everybody to make me a sandwich and if I choose your sandwich as the best tasting you win! I’ll give you a prize that has no value plus I’ll tell everybody I know what a good sandwich maker you are and because everybody trusts me they will pay you to make sandwiches for them.

    If you give it away for free it has no value.

    PS: Nice blog David, I’ve read it on occasion in the past but have never felt compelled to comment until now. I loathe spec.

  26. As the instigator of the Logosauce NO!SPEC logo upload, I would like to reiterate the fact that it’s the Designers that need to be educated on this very important topic.

    I am a prime example of ” NO!SPEC IGNORANCE”, just participating in these competitions because of my love of design and the potential “win status”.

    I think that many or most designers (both new & experienced) that participate in these competitions are
    unaware of how they are being used and abused, not thinking past the “this is fun” and the “oh well, it
    didn’t win, but it’s a great portfolio piece” mentality.

    I was unaware of the NO!SPEC coalition. I saw another persons logosauce profile who supported this,
    and only after reading about it did I fully understand that as a professional, I shouldn’t be wasting my
    time on these sites that were greatly undervaluing my profession.

    There will always be the hobbyists and the designer wanabees participating on these sites, but if the
    educated professionals would just STOP, and recognize their own worth, there might be less of
    these sites popping up from the depths of SPEC!HELL.

  27. Eamon,

    I also read that recently (a report on how seeing Apple’s logo makes you more creative than IBM’s). It provoked a few thoughts, and would make for an interesting blog post. A little off-topic here, but thanks all the same.


    As Cat mentions, are logo design contest sites even legal? Do you still think they’re a good idea?


    It’d be great if Steve’s article brought about some action, although I’m not holding my breath.


    There always seems to be an interesting follow-up discussion on spec work articles. I agree how there’ll always be too radically different ends of the spectrum – those prepared to pay hundreds of thousands, and those wanting something for nothing.


    The ‘kill fee’ you mention should already be factored into most contracts, although I’d steer clear of using that term. I’d opt for a deposit, or initial payment. ;)


    Thanks for posting your first comment, and for returning here for more than one visit. All this talk of sandwiches is making me hungry.


    You re-invigorated the spec work debate here with your logo upload. Good of you to stop by and leave your thoughts.

  28. David, first of all, very good read. I’ve read my fair share of articles about NO!SPEC, etc etc., including the majority of comments left afterwards. For those who went to school in graphic design and do such design work for their livelihood as a “professional designer”, then yes, I completely agree with the sentiments of those who commented above. I can see their viewpoint that logo contest sites are doing much more harm than good. But what about for those who participate in ‘contests’ for hobby? For those who do designing out of sheer enjoyment or who simply enjoy maybe seeing their work used in the real world (for fame, I guess you would call it), and are not just about winning a few dollars? These logo contests provide real world challenges to these “hobbyists”, so they don’t have to just sit around and come up with fictitious companies to create logos for. What would be an alternative for them, then, if they were to nix participation in such contests, but still give them enjoyment and the possibility of seeing their designs used in the real world?

    thanks, and again, very informative article and many good comments already made.

  29. The article was excellent and there are so many well thought out responses here! I really appreciate hearing from experienced designers as well as about situations like Jacob’s. I’ve never interviewed for a job where they ask me to mock up a project, but it seems unnecessary. But what if it would be a good career move and they will automatically pass over you if you don’t create something? Of course, maybe it’s really a trick and they want to see who has the guts to stand up for what’s right… hmm!

    I really liked the article you linked to about the legality of logo design contests on The Logo Factor. An interesting concept I’d never thought of before.

    I usually use a lawyer in place of a plumber when comparing the services a designer offers to another professional that you wouldn’t ask to do spec work. I don’t know of any lawyers who take on a case to prove they can win! But how does the client know they are getting a good lawyer? I’ve never hired one myself, but really, how would you know? How can you be sure they would know the loopholes and precidense necessary to win your case? Hiring a lawyer is surely more expensive than hiring a designer, but do people question how well the lawyer knows what he’s doing? If he loses your case, you’d better believe you’re not getting a refund!

    Re: entrepreneurs wanting free work. My husband has recently been involved with a startup business and the way the owner got around not having money up front is that he offered us 10% ownership of the company (which he’s now up to 15%). Now we have a stake in its success, which motivates us to work hard and statisfies us that we are not really working for free, but for future success. I liked that idea. And it’s been a great learning experience.

    And communicatrix’s gif (thanks for sharing, btw!!) reminded me of 10 Lies Told by Clients.

    And Vivien, great point about how the world economy comes into play in all of this (esp. with the design competitions). I remember we have discussed this before on David’s blog but can’t find where that is…

  30. Paul,

    Glad you enjoyed the read.

    As for your question about the graphic design ‘hobbyists’, the alternative, which I already mentioned, is pro-bono work (for the public good). There are hundreds of non-profit organisations who would love for a designer to approach them with under-the-market-rate proposals. That way, they receive real-world projects, yet are working one-to-one with the client, and are guaranteed feedback (vital when developing design skills).


    The majority of responses to these posts are always insightful, I agree. Interesting take on Jacob’s situation, that it could’ve been a trick to see who stands up for themselves. I doubt that’s the real case, but it’d be great if it was.

    Excellent point about hiring a lawyer, and not getting a refund if the case is lost. I like that one a lot. ;) Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  31. Yeah, I think a lawyer is more accurate comparison because designers and lawyers are paid for their knowledge and creative solutions, too, not just skills (like a plumber or electrician).

    Feel free to use the analogy whenever needed :)

  32. Just a follow up, I didn’t take the web designer job however I did get another one retouching model photographs plus I also got a free model photography shoot plus prints (worth $1000+) plus a model audition for Australian Fashion Week. Quite a big change going for me… go in for a web designer interview and come out a model haha. Well a model on paper.

  33. Thanks Lauren,

    I’m sure the analogy will come up at some point.


    Glad to read you didn’t take the web designer job. You can do better than what they offered.

  34. i am a new designer and have used 99designs to get some experience.. but after reading these articles, i can’t help but stop and tell other people to stop..

    thanks for showing me the light david.

  35. The statement “the cost associated with professional design” bothers me.

    My view is professional services need to be paid for. No matter what industry you are in.

  36. It comes down to business advantage. When someone asks for a spec. job, they either have an incredible opportunity that allows them to manipulate the situation in their favor, or their testing the contractor’s will. Whoever has the most confidence in these situations tends to prevail and the job is either spec. or negotiated and a price is set. In a way, it’s an exercise in human nature.

  37. Hello.

    I use 99designs, as i think it is a good way to build up a portfolio and earn money at the same time. The win to loss ratio is a big difference, but it is still there – some of the entries that win aren’t that great but there ARE some good ones that do win.

    I think the only reason that everyone who posts about these websites and says they are rubbish is because they have clients coming to them for one on one work, where as the people on spec sites probably don’t have that yet. I’m not saying it is the best work out there, but it is good to start off with and build a portfolio with. If you have no portfolio nobody is going to hire you as they don’t know your skills – so you have to build one up somewhere, sure you could make logos etc for imaginary companies but theres not a chance of a win then.

    I would much prefer to work one on one with people instead, but i am still building up my portfolio and still have alot to learn about it all.

    Here is just some of the work i have done on 99designs http://www.thegraphicshack.com/?p=200


  38. Hello Adam,

    There’s nothing to stop you from going out and getting one-on-one clients, even with a limited portfolio (you mentioned “no portfolio”, in which case you should be studying, not working).

    You may need to complete a couple of pro bono jobs e.g. helping a local non-profit with their brand identity, but the experience gained will be so much greater than working on a spec website — you’re improving your face-to-face customer skills, giving back to the local community, networking with business owners, and standing a much greater chance of actually seeing your work used (excellent for your portfolio). You’ll learn about the business much faster too.

  39. Wow – design schools really need to teach students about the law as it applies to our profession, today more than ever. Without a proper judging panel, proper contest rules, nor proper “alternate means of entry”, which every real contest must have in order to even be legal in this country, these “contests” are not really contests at all, merely underhanded attempts to rip off naive artists.

    99Designs and CrowdSPRING are just two of many holding illegal lotteries across state lines with no fair (or set) rules, giving preferential treatment to their favored designers, violating labor laws, copyright laws, and taking away artists’/creators’ rights. This growing trend has severely and negatively impacted our nations’ economy, and these places need to be shut down before they put our country into another Great Depression.

    Although 99Designs is an Australian-based company, they are hosted right here in the US, and they are also conducting business right here in the US, therefore they must comply with US laws. Allow me to elaborate on this, and also to educate you in some basics of copyright law in the USA…

    What 99Designs is doing is not only illegal in the USA, it is highly unethical as well. First of all, they state that, “After the prize is paid in full, the ownership lies with the contest holder which is royalty-free and irrevocable.”, which is absolutely LUDICROUS! There are only nine categories (as enumerated clearly in copyright law) by which works can even be considered eligible to be work-for-hire. These “contests” (and again, I say this loosely, since they do not have a proper judging panel, proper contest rules, nor proper “alternate means of entry”, which every real contest must have in order to even be legal in this country) clearly fall into NONE of these nine categories, so what this company is really doing here is ripping off young designers fresh out of school who are too green to know their rights. They are simply skirting both labor and copyright laws, and attempting to steal intellectual property from others.

    Slavery was outlawed in this country long ago. Let me elaborate… even if these people were on-site employees of 99Designs, 99Designs would not get any rights to their works if they were not at least paying them the federally established minimum hourly wage, right? RIGHT. So why on earth, when these artists are NOT employees of 99Designs, and they are NOT being fairly paid, would 99Designs possibly think for a moment that they could own (or transfer the right to own) these artists’ works?

    If someone is not your employee, and they perform work off-site, on their own equipment, on their own software, paying for their own electricity, receiving no benefits of any kind whatsoever from your company, and said work results in the creation of intellectual properties, then for those properties to even be ELIGIBLE to be considered work-for-hire they MUST fall into one of the following NINE (and ONLY nine) categories, as enumerated clearly in copyright law.

    1) A contribution to a collective work (such as a magazine, newspaper, encyclopedia, or anthology).

    2) A contribution used as part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

    3) A supplementary work, which includes pictorial illustrations, maps, and charts, done to supplement a work done by another author.

    4) A compilation (new arrangement of pre-existing works).

    5) A translation.

    6) An atlas.

    7) A test.

    8) Answer material for a test.

    9) An instructional text (defined as a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities).

    Works that fall outside of these nine categories (like logo designs!) are clearly ineligible to be work for hire, even with a signed contract. Just because 99Designs has tricked some artists into signing away their rights doesn’t mean that it’s legal to do so, or that their contracts are binding. 99Designs needs to realize that you can not bend and interpret the law to suit your needs. Law is law, and any wrongdoing WILL catch up with you eventually. (think Napster, The Pirate Bay, Jack Kevorkian, etc…)

    A contract by very definition must be inure to the benefit of both parties. Otherwise, by law, it must be construed as a waiver.

    Also, if you will read through the blog postings for 99Designs, which can be accessed right from their website, many artists who have fallen for their scam never even receive the measly well-under-market-value pittance amounts that they were promised after the close of one of these “contests”. I have read postings from several artists who have already been waiting well over six months to be paid for their works. This is completely unacceptable, not to mention illegal.


    Absolutely Infuriated with the Total Lack of Ethics in this Industry,
    Peter McClean | Multi-Media Artist

    Also, all artists and designers should follow:

    (stay informed!) =]

  40. I’m trying to find a great No Spec gag that I saw a while back. I wonder if anyone here has seen it? Let me know if you have. Here’s how it went:
    A designer made a Craigslist post in which he announced he was accepting spec proposals FROM prospective clients. If you would like to be his client you could submit a project brief and a check for the full budget. The designer would keep ALL the checks and choose ONE lucky entrant to be his new client.

  41. David,

    Stumbled upon your article today and have to thank you for writing it. As a designer just starting out in the “world” I so appreciate the wisdom of those, like yourself, are willing to share. I have struggled with the decision of Spec vs. No Spec. I was tempted to fall into the Spec Trap until I read this article. I would rather expend the blood, sweat and tears to build an honorable design business than stand on the “street corner” of Spec Work waiting to be picked up by a “John” for the lowest dollar.

    I’d welcome your advice as I start out on this adventure. As a “new” designer at the age of 34, with a wife and 5 children, I sometimes wonder if pursuing this dream is crazy. I have finally decided it IS crazy…but, I believe it is going to be worth it!

    Again, thank you for the post.

    Always CREATIVE!

    J.M. Waters

  42. I would just like to Thank You personally David for all the hard work you put into this field for new designers like myself to read and gain inspiration from. If it weren’t for the hard work designers like yourself put in day after day on subjects like these, young aspiring artist everywhere would be falling into this trap in hopes that it may somehow help them in this truly competitive market. But the simple fact is they are hurting everyone (the client and themselves) by doing this. You hear everyone saying that its good to build my portfolio and gain experience when the simple fact is, this is not the experience they should be trying to gain. What experience can you possibly gain about the countless hours of researching the client and their market to give them an identity that is going to boost their sales and equity not to mention the time that it takes to test this newly designed logo to make sure that it will work in every possible application that this client will need to use it in? How can this be done in a few days? The simple answer here is… IT CAN’T. So while they may be gaining “experience” if that’s what you would like to call learning the time tested “process” the wrong way, The “experience” they are gaining is not the experience that they should be striving for. I was always taught that if you want to be the best you learn from the best so while they are all learning how to put out logos (and I use that term loosely) in two days with every filter imaginable on them, I’m going to stick to gaining my experience from sites like these and designers like Geismar, Haviv, Chermayeff, Rand, and Airey of course; to name a few. Because the simple fact is, the clients that use these services in the first place, don’t have the slightest clue as to what good design is anyway and those are the clients I don’t need on my list. Furthermore I know that a well designed logo shouldn’t need a million filters to make the logo stand out. If it’s designed properly, it should do this on it’s own. That’s ok too though, cause in ten years when all these 99design clients have to come back and put out more money because their design has fallen “out of the latest trend,” my clients won’t have to do that either that was one of the first things I learned in design school. Logos must be simple and timeless! Anyway, sorry, I didn’t mean to write an entire book here (although I do believe I could on this particular subject) but I rarely post on any of these sites but this is something I just feel strongly about. The only solution is to keep educating both designers and clients about the true “design process” because the simple fact is that there will always be people trying to turn everything into a commodity and there will always be people trying to get something for nothing but you always get what you pay for. Not just with this field either….with everything. But for every person like this, there will always be someone that understands the value in a well designed, timeless, trademark that has been tested properly and is relevant to the market it was designed to be used in. And that’s just it. It is what it is….

  43. I definitely understand the issue and both arguments. My only frustration is the way people would use examples of other industries to show how spec work will never work. In many other industries, you submit a complete proposal in hopes that you will be chosen. In the same way, we apply for jobs – we create a unique resume and cover letter, compete with hundreds other people. At the end, the employer will only award one person with the job.

  44. Thanks for sharing this article, David.

    As a designer myself, I’ve inevitably crossed paths with these kinds of websites.

    I absolutely agree with what you’ve said regarding the amount of time spent designing something and the revenue generated from that time.

    Personally, I feel these websites undervalue designers work and is the reason businesses try and do things themselves.

    This (and unsolicited emails offering you $3 logo designs and a magic roundabout) are the reasons I feel the design industry is being underpriced.

    Designers – even beginners – ought to value their work based on the time they commit to the project, and also the time they’ve spent growing their skills and knowledge.

    It’s the exact same for anybody else in any other job role – more experience should equate to more money.

    Thanks again for sharing this, David. It’s something I feel strongly about.

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