It’s bemusing to see $1.78 billion retailer JCPenney crowdsourcing its brand identity to a group comprised of “the company’s associates, several design agencies and two art schools.”

Graphic designer Sara Tack asks the right questions:

“Is the time spent reviewing more than 200 submissions good business practice? How many hours did the corporation waste trying to come to a consensus, no-less review all the submissions? Did they think by having such a huge range of ideas that clarity would reveal itself? Who led this effort? Whose idea was it to create this process? Did this person(s) think they needed this effort to cover all their bases and prove they did due diligence? Or did someone think it would be ‘cool’ to involve all these people?”

Not only has a lot of valuable business time and effort gone to waste, but I’m confident that a boat-load of designers have been left unpaid, too. This is just one in a recent line of unnecessary logo redesigns.

Talking about the US retail giant, and for those who haven’t read it already, there’s an excellent article on the New York Times website about JCPenney’s search engine optimisation. Worth a look.

In similar, but no less disconcerting news, Domtar Paper is holding a design contest. What troubles me more than the actions of $6 billion paper giant Domtar is how the results will be announced at the 2011 HOW Conference. It’s sad to see design organisation HOW — “the creative and business resource for graphic designers” — giving such exposure to spec work.

Here’s a snippet from the contest rules:

“Domtar reserves the right to not select a winner. All entries agree to transfer all rights of artwork to Domtar for promotional or any other use.”

Update #1:
HOW Design editor Bryn Mooth responded in the comment thread to say, “We are reaching out to Domtar today to express our stand against spec work and explain why we’re passionate about it. We apologize for any impression that HOW endorses or is involved in this contest.” Full comment.

Update #2:
April Messer of Domtar left a comment apologising to the design community, and said that the contest will be retracted. Full comment.

Speaking of spec advocates, you can now, unfortunately, count Jacob Gube’s highly-trafficked web design blog Six Revisions in that bracket, after the publishing of this anchor-text-stuffed advertisement where (no doubt anticipating a negative response) “comments that do not follow the instructions on how to participate [in the contest] may be removed.” I think Jacob made a mistake.

For those new to these parts, I recommend reading why AIGA believes that design competitions will not result in the kind of work a client deserves.

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February 24, 2011


I have been a proponent of the NOSPEC movement for a long time. However, I had a disturbing thought while reading your and Jen Lomnbardi’s blog posts. A digression/backstory – I come from an engineering background, and currently work on a full time contract basis with a systems integrator doing writing and graphic design/production work – mostly on proposals.

These proposals require weeks and months of preparation by a team of individuals – they propose a very detailed, completed system. The company is in competition with other companies – this is how governments decide who will win multi-million (pr bilion)-dollar contracts for projects taking years to complete. The bidders invest tens of thousands of dollars (or more) doing a lot of the design work up front.

I suppose the difference between proposal bidding and design contests / crowdsourcing is the scale (amount of money we’re talking about and the number of people who are/will be working on it), and the fact that the work done for the bid remains the property of the bidder, and can potentially be re-used on other proposals.

Perhaps this business model is where the idea for design crowdsourcing came from. Perhaps not. Governments (and the so-called military-industrial complex) have run on this model for a very long time. But I do know that if the company doesn’t win the bid, all that effort is basically for naught.

Every time I see one of your posts denouncing spec work it makes me feel just a little bit more hopeful about the “state of things”. Honestly, as a recent graduate just starting to find my way freelancing, news of so many retail giants rebranding this way (or trying to!) really gets my blood boiling.. and scares the hell out of me. Thanks to you and Jen Lombardi for speaking up.

I just unsubscribed from Six Revision feedburner and twitter.

It’s very sad how the Blog scene is evolving, where is the real content?

All big blogs are just writing lists and paid reviews… it hurts when you see a blog like Six Revisions promoting work on spec… but the worst is the amount of designers that promote it just to win a gadget.

Thanks for sharing.

Unexpectedly, my comment on the Six Revisions post has been published! Needless to say, I was not impressed with their competition at all. Am I being a cynical old designer when I suggest that most of the ‘designers’ posting replies are actually just kids/hobbyists with copies of Photoshop?

Thanks for speaking out on this subject, David. Spec work is an increasingly detrimental threat to our industry. I think more designers need to raise their voices on the subject, emphasizing client education on the topic and that “design competitions will not result in the kind of work a client deserves.”

It’s a wonder that people can’t see that they’re being taken for a complete and utter ride. What’s worse is that the large corporates are getting away with it. Until designers stand up and say NO to this kind of thing, people will continue to think they can get away with work for free.

Like having your house burgled, only in this case, you’re throwing open the doors and inviting thieves in with a megaphone. “Look at my stuff – here take it!” Sheesh.

It came to our attention today that a paper company’s new design contest, which involves speculative creative work, offers a HOW Design Conference registration as a prize. HOW does not endorse spec work. Further, we were not informed about the nature of the contest or about the conference registration being offered as a prize. As a conference sponsor, Domtar receives a complimentary registration to use as they choose. We are reaching out to Domtar today to express our stand against spec work and explain why we’re passionate about it. We apologize for any impression that HOW endorses or is involved in this contest.

Wendy, I think any design studio or agency taking part in RFPs will charge their clients huge amounts, because they need to factor the cost of unsuccessful pitches into the project quote (every multi-million pound pitch that’s won will overshadow the time lost on unsuccessful pitches). I’ve received a few RFPs in my time, and responded with a short explanation of why I don’t take part.

Julie, I was pleased to read your comment, because I sometimes wonder if I give the topic too much emphasis. So thank you.

Sergio, there’s a lot of great content published. In case you missed it, these design blogs on my subscription list might be of interest.

Steve, Dan, I caught your tweets earlier. Great to see you giving some awareness to the issue.

Vanessa, nice analogy.

Bryn, I’ve updated the post to mention your comment. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Apparently JCPenney has been doing less than admirable stuff for a while. They were recently discovered to have been working with blackhat seo link farms. They found out that a ‘google slap’ is in fact a very real thing.

Funnily enough, I was just going to link you on Twitter to a recent example of spec work, asking for your opinion on it.

Stoves is currently running a competition to develop a logo, hoping to stick it on all British manufactured products. Have a read:

What’s really annoying is that they are marketing this competition towards students who, being inexperienced in the business side of design, are far easier to prey on.

They’re asking students to submit a logo with the hopes of winning £200 and a TV.

Now call me crazy, but this is pretty damn insulting all round. Not only are they asking for hundreds of designs for free, even if you do happen to win the competition, all you get is £200 and a TV. I personally find this disgraceful.

I went to the trouble of emailing the person who posted the brief, expressing my concern. Unfortunately, such concerns have fallen on deaf ears, with the response being “We’ve clearly labelled it as a competition. It’s not spec work.” – Such a competition is still spec work!

Furthermore, what’s interesting is that they claim that one of the judges is someone part of a top design magazine and that this brief has been sent out to lots of universities. Sadly, I don’t think enough is done in universities to warn students of spec work and competitions like this and so yet again, a big company is going to exploit some hard working students and not even give one of them a fair pay at the end of it. All legally.


Spec work wouldn’t be an issue if “designers” didn’t help facilitate it’s uprising. I wonder if a line should be drawn between the designer who despises spec work and the designer that takes part in it.
They say educating designers is the best way to combat spec-work. I would like to agree but so far it doesn’t seem to be working. I think a more distasteful and disrespectful approach is in order. I say attack the pseudo-designer, label him, smear him, educate him, punish him and send him on his way. Make the pseudo-designer fear having a tarnished professional reputation.. make him fear being labelled and outcast from the design community. Use our power of propaganda to spread word and bring crowd-sourcing in the design industry to rubble.
As designers, we’re capable of creating anything, why haven’t we created a way out of this?

Thx for the article.

Neil, the fact that entries are requested as a JPG shows how little Stoves understands about the profession. I read your comment on the forum, and don’t think it matters how big the “prize” is. It still amounts to a lot of wasted time and effort, as well as a “Sod’s law” poor choice at the end of it.

Michael, you’re welcome, but I don’t think a smear campaign of any kind is a good idea. Neil’s spot on that more needs to be done in colleges and universities. All design courses should include a module on business ethics where the downsides of spec work are taught. I mention them briefly in my book, which is beginning to get added to various course reading lists. It’s not much, but it’s something.

April, thanks for your time and comment. I’ve updated the post to reference your retraction. For what it’s worth, good move.


Thanks for the post. I am certainly glad that we’re all standing by the ‘no spec’ policy and making our presence known. Without it, situations like the Domtar contest would have gone through and most definitely continued to muddy our collective future in the business world.

I appreciate you and designers like Sara Tack making lots of noise. Keep fighting the good fight.

JCPenny is being busted all over lately. First the blackhat seo news, now this. I think the design community should have played into their game. The company (or people at power) obviously show no respect for how the internet fuctions or for us web designers/developers. It would have been bemusing for the design industry to submit hundreds or thousands of horrible brand ideas just for them to sort through.

Theres a reason crowd sourcing and project bidding are frowned upon in many industries, not just this one. It devalues the industry as a whole, and leaves many many people in that industry unpaid. More importantly, in the end the client gets something thats a common-ground of everything – in other words – its neutral, unmotivating, and down right boring.

Great work on the NOSPEC movement’s part. I applaude them :).

I’m strongly opposed to spec work. Just the other day Rick Liebling posted a neutral article on crowdsourcing, to which I had the opportunity to contribute. Check it out if you want more a wide set of opinions.

However in writing this, and reading the above example you’ve provided, and in reading other’s comments, I’m slowly realizing that the design community is somewhat responsible. Before social media we had to struggle for the unpaid internship just to gain business and connections. I’m imagining that a lot of skilled, talented but otherwise unemployed designers are the participants in the contests. Because of the fact they can’t support a livelihood, I doubt true professionals are taking part. From this perspective, the unpaid internship and a contest for the GAP logo seem on more equal terms.

I’m reminded of a quote I read somewhere, that said, people are paid what they think they’re worth. I think there’s a lot to this. If you value your talents, you’ll work to find opportunities that share this value.

Although not strictly related to spec, every time I hear of these “competitions” I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’ reflection on working with Paul Rand:

{I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you. You’re the client. But you pay me.”}



This just goes to show that engaging in open dialogue about important issues like this can actually affect change.

Thank you!

It’s good to see that the opinions of the design community have made a difference in this case, and have led to a retraction of the competition. Sadly however, this will only happen when recognized organizations are involved (if ever). Designers are still losing the opportunity of paid work when smaller companies decide to crowd-source their projects.

The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the caliber of some of the companies you see taking the spec route. Have they no respect or are they just ignorant?


Great post and the comment thread is outstanding. Thanks to Nate who threw a shout-out to my recent crowdsourcing post above.

I’ve written quite a few posts and put together an e-book on crowdsourcing and while I’ve tried to present both sides, I’m having a hard time justifying the practice of spec work/crowdsourcing/competitions whatever you want to call them.

I support all those in the design (really the entire creative) community that demand to be paid for work done.

The thought of Spec Work literally gives me sleepless nights! It is an outrage that any company/business/individual would consider asking hard working, talented designers to use their own valuable and probably unpaid time to create ideas for them to merely add to the other 200 submissions and probably just cast aside. This type of work needs clamping down on sharpish as it is diluting our trade and profession that we all so dearly care about. If everyone got on board with the NOSPEC campaign then we could stop this now. There will always be someone, somewhere who will be willing to take part in this type of thing unfortunately.

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is currently running a design contest for their merchandise. They are crowd sourcing all of the designs for their over priced merchandise and they are not compensating the “winners” of the contest.

It also states in the “Official Rules” that by “winning” the contest, the designer gives away all of their property rights to Bonnaroo.

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