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      My last blog post , where I shared the arrival of an upcoming logo design contest site got in negative and positive response. The comment section of the post showcases number of comments blaming me for supporting a contest site being a graphic designer :( Well, I thought I should get the chance to clarify myself and share the reasons with my designer friends to support such contests.

1: Concept of Spec-Work

      Firstly, for the ones who are not well-aware with the theory behind speculative work, let me brief:

Spec work is “work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid”. It is a design job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee.

In short, it refers to all the design contest sites, where clients drop in their design requirements and graphic designers participate to drop in their creations. After a fixed period, the client picks up the design which fits in his requirements and that particular designer is paid.

AIGA, a design association, defines it as” Work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation—seriously compromise”.

2: Reasons why Spec-work is claimed as an “Evil”

It is firmly believed that spec-work is dragging graphic design industry into a deep hole and badly damaging its worth, for the following reasons:

  • This type of work is widely considered immoral by the Graphic Design industry as multiple designers put in their time and resources, but in the end only one gets paid.
  • Designers entering these contests do not spend quality time on the logo process; one which can take months to complete. On many design sites, there is no guarantee if a designer will be picked in the end. some examples of unpaid designs
  • Due to the limited time offer, designers come up with logos including clip-art, which can easily spoil the corporate identity of any company
  • Clients pick up their favorite logos without realizing the copyright issues as designers on such platforms don’t provide such design details to their client.

3: Reasons to support “Spec-Work” – It’s here to stay!!

  • Clients who ask for lots of options and seek quick redesigns, spec work can be helpful in short time. But you need to be careful here as this strategy works only if you have a definite design requirement and really know the direction you want to head.
  • Recession is giving hard times and business owners are cash strapped during this down-turn. Small business owners would love to build their personal brands using lower-priced goods and services.
  • Many talented graphic designers, with exclusive portfolios are still unemployed and need a decent job to earn their living; after all they also have families to feed.
  • Many designers, due to scarce chances of survival in the design industry, have accepted jobs in other fields, such as waitering. However, to keep their skills fresh or with the desire of making in some extra money, design contests give a helpful hand.
  • Big designers even get stuck with their projects and want to see some variety of designs to get started once again. Design Contest sites can work as a source of generating more creative ideas showcasing so many designs packed at one place.
  • Freelance graphic designers who are not based in developed countries need a platform to expose their talent to the world. They should be getting their fair share…don’t you think so?? Just look at it this way…winning a single contest a month provides enough resources to a freelance designer to support his family.
  • My concluding favoring point is a stingy bitter truth but it appears to me the biggest reason for established designers not to support design contest sites. Crowd sourcing is evil because it devalues their work by driving down prices, allowing amateurs into the game and forcing people to work "on spec" This is the reason, big designers like David Airey say: " Spec-work is bad for business" and Spec-Watch reveals the naked truth about Design Contests.

4: Top names of Graphic Design industry share their views

      Until now, there are two prominent design contest sites, 99designs and crowdspring, which offer brands and designers a place to do spec work business. Here is a new platform, which I consider to be another great addition. Announcing this new site, really offended some of my good designer friends and they clearly told that they won’t support me on this verdict.

      Calvin from Mayhem Studios, a famous Graphic Designer, left a reply for me on twitter, saying:

Sorry, I can’t support Spec, is bad for creatives. If a designer do free work and don’t value their work by doing free contest. Why would others. I didn’t and I’m doing OK. :)

      @ Calvin…Although we both disagree on the verdict but I respect your opinion. I hope my reasons to support Spec must have convinced you a bit…maybe ;)

      Joost, left the comment on my last post, saying:

It depends on where you are in your career & if you want to attract that type of client. There is a market for sweatshop design – like it or not – and those designers and consumers in those relationships are serving each other’s needs.

That said, I would never do it because I want to be paid fairly for my effort.

However, I received supporting comments from famous names of Graphic Design world as well…thanks for understanding my perspective friends:

      Audee from Graphic Identity:

I’d still think that design contest is one of many ways to express your design, regardless of how it is considered as unethical action. However I know there are pro and cons regarding to this issue.

      Dainis Graveris from 1stWebDesigner:

I have totally positive attitude about such contests, though I guess you have only time for them while you are still learning unless prices are very good..:)

Now before you jump to any final judgment, either way, I would like you all to check this:


5:Famous examples of Spec-Work

  • Twitter has crowdsourced the ‘bird’ logo for $6 or less. Simon Oxley, the Japan-based Brit who licensed the bird graphic to Twitter for the price of a sandwich, is also not completely against spec.(
  • Mashable, the 8th most popular blog (says Technorati) has a spec work design contest for it’s upcoming website redesign and has over 1000 entries.
  • When you look closely, the much celebrated Threadless, a design contest for popular tshirts, is a form of speculative work.
  • Related are eLance and Odesk, who offer outsourcing for a variety of services to workers around the globe.

6: Conclusion

So guys c’mon…we all know

Design Contest Sites are here to stay and we can’t stop its growing success. Hence, let’s join in hands to contribute to the changing world of Graphic Design”

Author Charlie B. Johnson

has written Posts 388 .

  1. Martin Alcock On August 3rd, 2009 at 7:57 am

    No thanks, if you want to work for free, that’s your perogative, but I need to eat.

    Many of the reasons you’ve given are along the lines of “It can be a bit of extra money”. Well, yes it can, but if you don’t win, then you’ve effectivly wasted money.

    Why shouldn’t people pay for design? Do you expect to go to several super markets, try all their produce and then only pay the one you like most? By supporting spec work you are enabling legitimised theft.

    Your point about Designers being bitter because spec work devalues their work by driving down the prices completely misses the point. It devalues designers work, because the vast majority of Spec work is of poor quality, features unlicensed stock images (so that’s another person stung) and gives the corporate world the impression that we don’t value ourselves very highly.

    Finally, saying that we should just get along with it because its here to stay is the most pathetic statement you’ve managed to write in a post filled with them. Crowd spring sites are probably here to stay, but there is absolutely no reason for a designer that values their own ability, dignity and skills to go near them.

  1. D_Ladd On August 3rd, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I guess too many people are eager to be starving artists… Just because something is popular doesn’t make it a good idea. It just is another continued bad rap for designers. Designers are seen as not having much business sense already, this just amplifies that. For some reason I think my experience and tens of thousands I spent on an education deserve slightly more than submitting to a contest. I can think of even a better business model where the client pays less than agency rates, but gets a quality logo and a new designer gets paid when he works and gets promoted at the same time. When he outgrows that rate he moves on to bigger and better things. Maybe I’ll just start that damn business myself…

  1. Khayyam On August 3rd, 2009 at 10:05 am

    No matter how many arguments, rationalizations or excuses one uses for spec work… it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I personally, will never ever get hosed over with “spec” work every again. The only “spec” work I’d ever do is if I thought I would get laid for helping someone out. And that’s a worthy cause. But “spec” work in my world is the lowest of the low and anyone who asks of it… equally the same.

    My two cents… go spend it.

  1. ed On August 3rd, 2009 at 10:54 pm


    Please let me make my $300, bcos thats enough for me to feed my family for a month. You guys are making this much or more per day but this is what you get when you are sitting in a small city in south asia. The contest sites are a matter of survival for designers like me. My kids are able to go to school bcos of them. There is a world beyond europe and the US. Please consider it too.


  1. Dr. Zaius On August 4th, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I don’t agree. Since we are paying 10K for our winner, we need a guarantee of good work.

  1. Mark On August 4th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Yeah, well.. You know.. I wrote a whole blog-post about this subject. In short: NO spec work in my company..

    Link to my blog-post about it:

  1. Scott Madden On August 4th, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    As developers we should let our portfolios speak for it we shouldn’t be required to produce free work it only lowers the bottom line for the entire design industry.

    Earlier I posted the following post on twitter and for what its worth I totally agree with SpeckWatch.

    @LiveDevFeeds Interview with SpecWatch: The Naked Truth About Design Contests

  1. Briana On August 4th, 2009 at 1:35 pm


    Wouldn’t you rather have a guaranteed income every month rather than take your chances?

    If spec work was a restaurant, it would work like this: Customer orders food from several vendors. They look at the meals and eat one. They only pay that vendor, all the others who prepared and served the food get nothing. Is that fair? No, of course not! It’s illegal, all the other vendors would call the police and demand payment.

    Graphic design is no different. It takes time and resources to prepare a proper design, and if someone requests it they need to pay.

  1. Dan Contogiannis On August 4th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I live in Canada so I know there is a world outside the US and Europe but I hate the idea of Spec work. I know how hard it is to find freelance design work but the truth is spec work is doing more damage than good to this industry. I feel for those that try to make a living busting their behinds for contests and stingy companies. But if you do spec work, you have the internet, if you have the internet you can do freelance design for companies and don’t need to involve yourselves in these cheap spec loving companies.
    One day real designers aren’t gonna be worth a dime cuz companies will realize they can get half ass designs done by half ass artists at half the price.
    So build your portfolio like a real designer, work hard at finding real jobs and leave the spec jobs for those designing with corel/paint.

  1. Elisa On August 4th, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    If I have a good design in mind, which is usuaully what takes the most time, rather than the execution, I wouldn’t mind entering it in the contest, but I don’t think people should rely on spec-work at all.

  1. ed On August 4th, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    @Dan Contogiannis

    you said “One day real designers aren’t gonna be worth a dime cuz companies will realize they can get half ass designs done by half ass artists at half the price”

    If this is what the companies may want, then be it. remember its their brand and their money. They can buy Lexus or Kia whatever they want.

  1. Sal B On August 5th, 2009 at 8:33 am

    A design contest for a major blog is one thing. If Mashable or some site of the nature was asking designers to submit a redesign, I would probably jump at that for the opportunity to say, “My design was chosen as Mashable’s new layout”. That in itself is pretty good payment and may lead to bigger/better.

    Spec-work for a potential client is another thing. They’re sizing you up and getting free WORK out of you. While on the other hand, you’ve voluntarily submitted designs for a contest. A contest is a good source for displaying your work even if you don’t win. If you wont “win” the bid from spec-work, you’ve wasted time you could have used to find a PAYING client.

  1. AV On August 7th, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    The contest is different from spec work as usually a contest brings a very high prize. In any case in our firm, we do not participate in the contests or any work that seems to be “spec”. 50% Deposit first and then we start on the project. Who has time for nonpaying clients in this already tough economy?

  1. Colleen On August 7th, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I’m a graphic design student. Not that me mentioning that has anything to do with the conversation.

    I have read both sides of the arguement, and see it from both sides.

    Being a student, and just starting to look into what’s going on in the Graphic Design world I don’t know the facts or know the full jist about what’s going on or affecting the industry.

    After reading this blog and the comments left I’m still on the fence about “spec work”.

    Though being a student it could be used as a tool, just like any school design contest. Except it’s a lot bigger. I don’t think it’s something to live off of or something to do all the time.

    I agree that this probably will not go away, that it can leave bad impressions and may help a few people. This is a touchy subject and can leave someone like me on the fence.

  1. Amatatomba On August 7th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    All it takes is looking through Spec Watch’s tweets to figure out why spec work is bad.

  1. designstd On August 9th, 2009 at 4:15 am

    Design industry is loosing its juice :)
    we used to charge a minimum of $1000 for a logo concept , now a client receives 1000 logos to choose from for $200 , Web design is also loosing, most web companies are buying their clients templates beginning at $25 and up lol

    All those contest websites must be stopped ….

  1. Kelly On August 12th, 2009 at 12:12 am

    While in my final semester at school I decided to enter some of these contests hoping to build up a nice portfolio. I hit it hard for a couple of weeks until I saw one particular contest generate over 2000 designs. That is incredibly ridiculous. All of these people wasting their talent and time for only one to win. Then it dawned on me, that is exactly what I was doing. Wasting my time and talent for nothing. Even though I did get some good pieces for my portfolio, I wish I would have designed them just for the portfolio and not submitted them to the contests.
    I wouldn’t want to go to work somewhere else and then let them decide later if they want to pay me or not. So, no more spec work for me. Thankfully it only took a couple weeks for me to figure this out.

  1. MRK On August 12th, 2009 at 2:19 am

    As a freelance designer I am constantly being told by those outside of the graphic design industry that I should get involved in these “competitions”…
    I sigh and say very little to such individuals as they don’t understand what design is about or what effective communication through creativity, consideration and exploration provides to a business or organisation and thus why a client pays for the resulting piece(s).
    I have found that rather than participating in this sort of spec work I am better, for my skill development, my portfolio expansion and my sanity, to undertake personal projects and get work at bars, cafes whereever. At least then I am getting paid for my “work” and being creative in my spare time on projects that I actually enjoy.

  1. Kathleen On August 12th, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Being a Graphic Designer I am completely against spec work. The Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD) is working to prevent and eliminate the existence of spec work.
    Check out what they have to say about it at,
    This pages also links to other similar anti-spec sites.

  1. Mau On September 3rd, 2009 at 2:58 am

    I wrote a post about spec work too, and got to the conclusion that is not that harmful for the design business itself, since the people who ask for design contests usually consider design just the aesthetics. Is not a design job where your solution has to be effective and justified, and those spec work clients are not going to pay for something more time consuming.

    The result of a spec work contest is not going to add real value to a business in most cases.

  1. James Campbell On September 3rd, 2009 at 10:00 am

    As Elisa said in an earlier comment, spec work can serve a purpose and is great some of the time but to rely on it seems a high risk plan. Graphic design is not just about spec work for me, it should be in the mix though.

  1. Kristian Dupont On September 9th, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I am the co-founder of, a site similar to those discussed here.

    I have to admit that it bothers me to be one of the bad guys. I would like to know if anybody here can think of mechanisms that would make a site like mine “ethical” in their view? We are planning a “stock material” part as well, similar to iStockPhoto, but I know that photographers complain about that too. What would be the best way for a web site to connect buyers and designers?

    Kristian Dupont

  1. Lauren On December 1st, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I only go onto those sites if I’m SOO bored and I want to build up my portfolio a little more. When I’ve actually won, I got $1000 for a website background. Don’t tell me that it’s all crappy pay b/c that was a nice chunk of change! But I can completely understand the pros and cons. I’m currently on the fence because it’s nice to do little projects on the site every once in a while! And Mau, very good point.

  1. 24

    [...] thematic doppleganger of the “Spec-Work: A curse or a blessing for Graphic Designers?” article that ran over on a few months ago. Funny enough, author Charlie B. Smith also [...]

  1. abby On July 22nd, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I’ve had my graphic artwork stolen a few times as a result of spec work, and have actually seen them on t-shirts. Every employer who has hired me and paid me well has never once asked for spec work. Now that I’m currently interviewing, I have had several companies ask for spec work, and one company asked for a speed test, this is after they had seen my resume, online portfolio, as well as my book, and product samples. If I work for free now, they will expect me to work for “free” in the future, whether it is excessive overtime or making unrealistic demands on my time.
    No thank you, I’d rather make my own graphic tees and sell them myself.

  1. Sean Coleman On August 31st, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    99 Designs should be called 99% Crap. The prices are low and attractive, but if you’re on a budget (e.g. $300 for a logo) there are much better alternatives than doing spec work with inexperienced “designers”.

    I posted a project on once to get my logo designed. It’s all college student designers, so the cost is low like 99Designs/CrowdSpring but I was able to work with one girl over a week with several iterations (she was quite patient with me).

    I’m all for supporting students starting their careers, and since they are looking to build their portfolios, they’ll bend over backwards for your design, and aren’t looking for a quick buck.

  1. Kathleen Martin On October 6th, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Hi-Tech Hive: Worker Bee vs. King Bee

    My story ends but also began again here:

    I entered the world of crowd sourcing at crowdSPRING (cS) on July 13, 2010, with high hopes of a creative challenge participating in writing projects on a global playing field. I left it feeling used, cynical and disheartened after my account there was deactivated on September 2, 2010—the second time in just 52 days–for the heinous crime of questioning staff on project award anomalies and curious website glitches.

    About halfway through this first sourcing stint of mine, I was selected for a project award on August 4th. Interestingly enough this boon occurred only a day after my first deactivation (I’d complained about several ignored e-mail queries, still never adequately answered). The timing was auspicious, but it served its purpose in nudging me to participate again once they chose to reactivate me. This time, however, I worked only on nonprofit or higher award projects.

    It wasn’t long, though, before project completions and award methods continued to send up red flags and suspicions of fraudulent behavior on the part of the cS staff, the buyers or both. Writing projects—mainly naming companies/products, creating taglines—are sealed in such privacy at cS that fake projects, fake awardees (ringer accounts set up only as project awardees) and outright intellectual property theft can be easily executed. More than once I suggested to cS staff that greater transparency would be a better business model for them as it would help retain savvy and talented “creatives” [their term for worker bees] over longer periods if they can see what’s truly going on.

    Before my final deactivation, I’d wisely gathered data on the projects I participated in. Out of my 13 projects that closed within those 52 days of activity, more than half were not awarded by project buyers but by staff itself creating a serious in-house bias issue. More than half of the 12 people actually awarded on these had joined cS less than two weeks before their respective projects ended, including myself. One winner had joined on July 25th while his/her project ended July 26th and then hasn’t participated again since.

    I also gathered data on another five projects I worked on but that had not yet closed when my account was yanked—aggravating because I was confident I had a really good chance at an award on at least two of them but was not allowed to log in for any updates on status. I’d had the good sense to keep a record of each submission and relevant data to help me track and investigate any use of my entries and changes in domain ownerships. This proved fortuitous as, indeed, the buyer on a high-ticket company-/ domain-naming project selected my work for an award. So a month after King Bee autocrat and co-founder, Mike Samson, branded me an “inactive droid,” this worker bee collected one of the larger awards given on any comparable project.

    What makes my “How Curiosity Killed the Kat at crowdSPRING” cautionary tale more compelling is the e-mail trail of exchanges between myself and staff revealing the cS personalities involved and showing how questions are either ignored or non-responsively answered and, ultimately, not tolerated. Two among those sent by Samson himself outright threatened to deny my recent award selection, and only pressure by the Chicago buyer on my behalf allowed an honest project completion. I was vigilant enough to protect myself with information and careful research, but clearly many, if not most, involved in crowd sourcing are taken advantage of and never see a penny for their efforts.

    I correspond with another participant who was ripped off by cS, and I imagine there are dozens of similar stories from creative sourcing sites. I can’t speak to design projects at cS or to these other sites, but the heavy cloak of secrecy combined with a dictatorial business model that simply removes anyone who dares to question it, create an ideal recipe for fraud at crowdSPRING.

  1. Outsourcing On November 18th, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Good Article!!!

    I read about Spec-Work and I think it provides freelancers for the web designing. There are some drawbacks with today’s freelancing system. Primarily, hiring a freelancer can consume much more of your time than you would imagine. Rather than recruits for you the employee you want to hire, you are the decision maker. Freelancing is very “hit and miss” process.

  1. wypadek drogowy On December 29th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Das war wie ein hilfreicher Artikel! Ich bin gerade erst mit meinem Blog und ich hoffe, es wird so gut wie Ihre. Grüße!

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