Say No to Spec Work


Picture this:

A customer walks into a beauty salon and approaches a group of 5 hairstylists at their stations. She hits them with an “amazing” offer: She will give each of them the opportunity to style her hair. However, she will only pay for the hairstyle that she likes most. In addition, she will take pictures of all the styles created by all the stylists — even if they were not chosen — and retain exclusive rights to those styles, so they’ll never be able to use them on another customer.

Sounds ridiculous, right?

Believe it or not, graphic designers get pitches like this every day. We are asked to participate in design “contests” wherein we spend hours of our time crafting designs, then submit them along with hundreds — if not thousands — of other designers in hopes that our design will be chosen. Why? Because only the winning designer is paid for his or her work. In addition, many design contest sites stipulate that designers give up any rights to the designs they submit, meaning that either the hosting site or the client keeps rights to Every. Single. Concept. So they can later use or resell “losing” concepts without paying the designers a dime.

Again, I say, sounds ridiculous, right?

I will fess up: When I was a young designer who didn’t know better, I participated in my fair share of these contests. My inexperience led me to believe that entering them was a great way to develop my portfolio. I was wrong. I won a couple of contests here and there, but for the most part I spent hours and hours doing work for no compensation. My time would have been better spent offering pro-bono design services to a nonprofit organization, and I likely would have wound up with much more impressive portfolio pieces to show for it.

The problem with crowdsourced design is that it undervalues the work of professional designers. But if you’re a client, I realize this might sound like a great deal.  When the lure of $200 for a single winner can draw in hundreds of entries, clients can easily be tempted by the idea that they can get tons of designs for very little investment.

However, I’m a firm believer in the old adage that “you get what you pay for.” How many working, professional designers do you think are participating in these contests? The short answer? Very few, if any. These contests are most likely to be attractive to young, inexperienced designers — like I once was — who don’t yet know the real value of their talent. That means that the quality of the designs is often far less than what a client would have gotten had they paid a single designer the same amount of money to come up with thoughtful, well-reasoned concepts. So while you might think you’re saving money on the front end, what you’re really doing is setting yourself up for a potentially costly redesign in a short order.

How do I know? Because I’ve seen it happen. In fact, I’ve done redesigns for clients who ran a design contest, only to later regret the wasted time and money.

Given this experience, I am a fervent supporter of the Anti Spec movement. If you are a designer, you should be, too. Simply put, good designers know what our time, creativity and expertise are worth. We take our jobs very seriously and do our best to deliver excellence every time. We are professionals who want to be treated as such. We spend a lot of energy carefully crafting our portfolios, fully expecting that evidence of our past work will be good enough to convince clients of our worth.

Learn what you can do to put a permanent end to spec work.

About the Author

I'm Jennae Petersen, the founder and lead designer of Hibiscus Creative, and I write about what I know about: Design. I also love ice cream, reggae music, singing, dancing, and a number of other things that will never make me famous. I blog about eco-friendly decorating at Green Your Decor and all things eco-friendly and beautiful at Green & Gorgeous.

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