By Josh Catone

SXSWi: The Great Spec Work Debate

By Josh Catone

debateAnyone who has been around SitePoint the past 5 or 6 years is likely well acquainted with the debate over the merits of spec work in the graphic design field — work done by graphic designers without the guarantee of pay. SitePoint is squarely in the middle of the spec work debate due to spin-off site 99designs, which is the web’s largest graphic design contest marketplaces, and a frequent target of the vocal ‘no-spec’ community. This morning at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, the debate came to a head at a panel session titled “Is Spec Work Evil? The Online Creative Community Speaks.”

Unfortunately, I missed the panel — instead I was attending a film festival panel (film being an industry in which one of the most popular paths of entry is via spec work). I followed the spec session via Twitter, where the debate was very intense, and via a great write up on Rebecca Caroe’s blog. Even though I didn’t attend the panel, I have some opinions on spec work that I wanted to share here.

A few disclaimers before I begin. First, I am no longer employed by SitePoint, and am not being compensated for this post. Second, I used to co-own a graphic design contest site that competed with 99designs (actually, it was before 99designs was spun out of SitePoint’s Marketplace), but I sold that site two years ago. Third, I have been around SitePoint since 2003, first as a member and moderator of the forums, and then an employee, and as such I was around for the impetus of the graphic design contest concept and have watched it grow first hand.

The argument against spec work generally goes something like this: spec work is unprofessional, leads to low quality results, poor (or non-existent) client/designer relationships, and devalues the entire process. There’s a good overview of the general argument over at In theory, these arguments make a lot of sense, but in practice, I don’t really see it playing out.

Spec work may be dominated by amateur designers (though I’m not quite so sure), but the talent level is high. A quick perusal of the contests currently running at 99designs reveals entries that range from bad to good to great. Certainly there is at times a high noise to signal ratio due to the fact that design contests are open and anyone can enter, but there is definitely high quality, very professional work being done.

Further, I know many talented designers and not one of them who is actively promoting their availability is hurting for work. In fact, many designers I know have a bigger workload than they can handle and have had to turn away projects — even in this economy. Nor has anyone I know needed to lower their rates to compete with sites like 99designs — some of my friends have actually raised their rates over the past year as their workloads increased. So if designers participating in spec-based design contests or doing other types of spec work isn’t hurting those that don’t, where’s the beef? The market is clearly big enough to support both approaches.

That said, I know a good number of designers participating on contests sites that report to me the following:

  • Spec contests offer a way for new or amateur designers to gain experience working for real clients. Designing to a client’s specifications is not something you can learn in school, and building a resume from scratch is hard. Contest sites give designers a place to work on real projects, and receive constructive client feedback that enables them to get better. In that respect, does spec work differ that much from an uncompensated internship? Do no-spec advocates also recommend against taking unpaid internships? I’d be curious to hear the answer.
  • Many designers I know have established long term relationships with paying clients that found them via design contests. Some clients treat contests as an audition — when they find a design whose work they like and whom they can work with well, they’ll pass that designer paying work outside of the contest realm. I even know designers who have had clients approach them after seeing a losing entry as part of a contest that they liked.
  • Though virtually no designers I know are hard up for work, there are sometimes dry spells. Some of the people I know use contests to fill in the gaps during rare down times as a way to stay sharp, meet potential clients, and possibly make some cash.
  • Other designers I have talked to use design contests as a way to get inspired by doing something new and different. I.e., for designers working in a corporate environment who might spend too much time on corporate design projects, spec work is a way to do something different and get inspired; a way to interrupt the drudgery of their day job.

Like almost any argument, this one isn’t black and white. Spec work isn’t right for all designers and all situations — and I don’t think anyone would argue that. However, the market exists and clearly serves a purpose for both the consumers and the creators.

Many of the consumers using design contest sites or other spec work marketplaces are either new to the design process, and thus don’t have the skills necessary to judge a designer on their portfolio alone, or, they don’t have the budget for a traditional design shop or high priced, established designer. If the former is true, that customer might develop those skills after going through the fairly rigorous and time consuming process of evaluating and leaving feedback of tens or hundreds of entries. Then the next time around, that client might opt to hire a designer directly (which, given the cost of a person’s time time, might for some people actually be a cheaper option). If the latter is the case, then it’s really not a lost client. Budget constraints are absolute, so that customer isn’t choosing a site like 99designs over other options, he or she is choosing 99designs because it’s the only viable option.

Design contest sites are not the future of graphic design. There will never be a day in which all design work is conducted via contest — in fact, I’d wager that the vast majority of design work will always be done via traditional means. There are plenty of situations in which a design contest is not the right way to go. Maybe you have the perfect designer already in mind, maybe you don’t have the time to run a contest, maybe you need to exercise more discretion during the design process, etc. However, design contests and other forms of spec work are certainly a part of the future of design, and in my opinion, that’s really not a bad thing.

What are your thoughts on spec work and design contest sites? Please share in the comments below. We know this is a contentious issue, but please try to keep things civil and on topic.

  • I’m all for no-spec! I’ve used 99designs before and it brought nothing but grief. Clients whom have no idea what graphic design is, and are so used to cookie cutter designs to save a dollar. These are the same clients that outsource their programming overseas because its cheaper. Only to realize down the road they are getting what they paid for. Language barriers, Timezone differences and sometimes sub par code. I’m all for options but realize when your coming to a designer, your putting trust in them to take all they’ve gathered over time and execute something that they know will have the desired effect a client is looking for.

  • We’re no-spec advocates as well.

    Time is money. If you might not get paid, don’t waste your time.

  • curtismchale

    I am generally a no spec advocate but today I was presented with a very good client that asked for a rough 30min idea as an audition. I’m kinda considering it just cause it would be good exposure to have the client and I have the time currently. They said they didn’t expect polished. So today I am waivering. It’s not always black and white.

  • Yelena

    It’s one thing when someone asks for 30 minutes of your time when you have it, it’s something else entirely when you are asked to develop a finished logo or what have you without guaranteed compensation. Unless, of course, you can afford to spend hours of time for free – if that’s the case, speck work is a great way to spend time doing something creative, feeling good about it, and maybe even gett praised.

    I wonder why there are no contests on SitePoint or anywhere else that ask budding (or not so budding) programmers to submit working applications to a client for a chance to maybe, possibly be paid for their effort? If contests are so good for creatives and clients, why not spread the goodness further? Make programmers compete too and tell them it’s for their own benefit. Only something tells me that won’t fly too well with programmers.

    I also wonder why noted proponents of spec work are not graphic designers themselves? They refer to “many designers,” “some designers,” but not to real, published names that can be tracked to a company or a freelancer website? If graphic designers feel so great about spec work, surely they would have no problem saying so publicly and signing their opinion too?

  • Al

    Spec work is a ripoff for designers. I would NEVER do that, even through I’ve only been designing two years and hit dry spells.

    It’s hours of work with no guarantee of pay.

  • stepup

    Rather than rehash everything that’s been said against spec work, I’ll address your 4 arguments specifically, as I don’t think they’re valid. You’ll find my comments on those further down.
    In the interest of empowering young designers to see themselves as valuable business consultants, not as underpaid freelancers, I will list why spec work is almost never acceptable, no matter what stage you’re at — if you aspire to a high degree of excellence and professionalism in your field.
    I run an established design studio consisting of two employees plus occasional freelancers and have been in the design business for 20 years. We don’t work on spec, we don’t go to sites like 99designs to find clients, and we don’t want those kinds of clients. I realize that these contests are here to stay, but I want to make the point that to conduct a truly professional, high level design consultancy, spec design is not the way to go.
    I understand that many of the spec design clients are small companies. These are usually run by people who are inexperienced when it comes to working with designers. And the process of choosing a designer and committing to a design firm can be daunting. Who do you pick? The beauty contest seems a logical choice for an inexperienced design client, I’ll allow that. But it actually takes more effort to work with inexperienced clients because as a designer, you have to guide them through the briefing and the creative process, and you have to skillfully extract the information you need. You also have to teach them how to make edits, and how to move the creative process forward.
    Professional designers often work with communications and marketing professionals in corporate communications departments. These professionals, who are ultimately in the creative field themselves, recognize the advantages of a long-term relationship with a design agency, and they also understand the time it takes to research and develop concepts, designs and layouts. These companies also have established corporate branding guidelines, and a thorough understanding of these is required to produce work that is “on-brand”. This kind of high-level work is something young designers should prepare for.
    Let me now address the four points you made above:
    1. “Spec contests offer a way for new or amateur designers to gain experience working for real clients.”
    For someone just starting out in the field of design, or less skilled designers, to supplement their portfolio, there is nothing wrong with “throwing a design at the wall to see if it sticks” at sites like 99designs. I would however still recommend for any serious design student or designer who is just starting out: Go mainly after clients who want a long-term relationship, who suit you, and to whom your style is suited, who treat you like an equal in terms of business relationship, and who are able to, or are teachable to give you good feedback. In a logo contest, the client may tell you to “make it bigger”, “use a curlier font”, “make it purple”. Not good feedback. You have to educate your clients that those are formal decisions, and as such should be left to the designer. That is hard to do in a free for all, where the designer competes with someone else who is willing to do anything the client requests without proper thought and reasoning. The wording is important when it comes to design briefings. Good feedback is as follows (very simplified): the client might say “more emphasis” — the designer can then decide HOW to create this emphasis (bolder, bigger, darker, placement in layout, negative space surrounding etc). The client might say “this logo does not reflect my modern business because it looks too traditional” — the designer can then use this feedback to revise, which may entail changing the font from Trajan to Frutiger.
    2. “Many designers I know have established long term relationships with paying clients that found them via design contests. Some clients treat contests as an audition…”
    I have been asked to participate in “design auditions”. I have always refused when they were unpaid. A design audition can be professionally acceptable when a small fee is set, say $500 to create a visual proposal — then it’s up to each proponent to decide how much time to put into that proposal. My clients come to us either on the strength of our previous work, or from referrals by our existing clients. We don’t want a client who is willing to make a decision on an important business relationship based on a what is essentially a beauty contest.
    3. “Though virtually no designers I know are hard up for work, there are sometimes dry spells. Some of the people I know use contests to fill in the gaps during rare down times as a way to stay sharp, meet potential clients, and possibly make some cash.”
    Yes, there are occasionally dry spells. When those occur, we create a small marketing campaign for our business, update our website, ramp up our networking, catch up on bookkeeping, do some pro bono work for deserving charities, update our web coding skills by taking online courses, change our hair style, take some painting lessons, cook a little more often, learn how to mix a new martini, ride our bikes, read a book or two, save the world. What we don’t do is spend countless hours for free on work that should be paid, or work for little, for profitable businesses that could pay a professional rate but don’t want to. Which business would expect to get legal work done for free? How about your car mechanic shop — they charge you $60 an hour at a minimum to pay for their overhead. The fact remains that a real design business needs to cover wages, overhead, new equipment, rent, retirement savings, and God forbid, even a small profit. So a minimum hourly billable rate is going to start at $75 and up. An identity, even for a small company, takes 20–30 hours. It involves research into the competition, into existing logos to avoid inadvertent copyright infringement, client meetings and feedback, considerations of how the logo will be used, print and appear in different media, file prep for different media, never mind stationery and other applications. A logo also carries with it an intrinsic value that is not expressed in just an hourly rate. It is going to do hard work for your business for year to come, it’s the face of your business in the absence of anything else. There are also copyright fees attached to logo design. You as the designer are handing over a logo to the client to use as they wish in perpetuity. You are waiving your copyright to your design and transferring it to the client. This is typically another 50% of the logo design fee. Can you now understand that a professional logo should start at $2,500, $3,500 and up? The more clients are educated about professional design, the better it is for all designers. If you value your work highly and conduct your business accordingly, your clients will value you too.
    4. “Other designers I have talked to use design contests as a way to get inspired by doing something new and different.”
    Just read my list under 3. I can think of so many, many things to do that are inspiring and will give you that breath of fresh air. But none of them involve giving your creative talent and work away for free to profitable companies.
    Remember — you can choose your clients as much as they choose you. The power is on both sides.

  • Rebecca Caroe

    Firstly, Josh, thanks for the link to my post.
    I work with a range of agencies from design to PR and one of the things that hasn’t been mentioned so far is pitching.

    Frequently big brands hold pitches for their advertising account. This involves a lot of free work building up an idea and going through several rounds of contest. And nobody complains about it. It is the way big brands hand out work. Yes the $ value is high but the input is also high from the agency.

    Rebecca Caroe

  • themole

    I hate to say this but sites like 99designs only back up the rationale for no spec work.. look at the paltry budgets that are on offer.. $200 for a logo? Are you kidding me? These sites totally undervalue what design is and does for companies. And mr. advertising who says that its the way it works in other industries.. yes your right.. and your competing for budgets that are about so much larger than what 99designs has.. so the reward is substantially larger for your time. Try spending 2 days for $200 see how you feel.

  • Interesting… The old spec debate.

    I’m against spec for a few reasons mostly because I like contracts and contract law stipulates that both parties who enter into an agreement benefit from the agreement. With spec, there is no mutual benefit. The person asking for free work (and the are asking for free work) holds all the cards while the spec workers jump through hoops to hopefully get the job.

    Sometimes larger companies with larger projects ask for preliminary work to help them determine who they will choose for a project and we have participated but that work is compensated… Usually a couple of thousand for a report outlining the project with a strategic plan to achieve their goals.

    Besides, if you’ve got clients who want to pay you for work, why would you consider doing work for free… I would rather donate it to a non-profit charity :)

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