What is spec work?

Spec work is any kind of creative work, either partial or completed, submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work in the guise of a contest or an entry exam on existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, designers normally lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.

Why is spec work unethical?

The designers work for free and with an often falsely advertised, overinflated promise for future employment; or are given other insufficient forms of compensation. Usually these glorified prizes or “carrots” appear tantalising for designers who are just starting out, accompanied by statements such as “good for your portfolio” or “gain recognition and exposure.”

In reality, winning or losing rarely results in extra work, profit or referrals. Moreover, designers must often agree to waive ownership of their work to the people who are promoting this system. A verbal agreement is ineffective in protecting the rights of designers in a court of law. As a result, the client will often employ other designers using similar unprincipled tactics to change and/or resell the creative work as their own. This promotes the practice of designers ridiculously undercharging themselves in the hope of “outbidding” potential rivals, in the process devaluing their skills and those of the design profession. Promoting this method encourages some clients to continue preying on uninformed designers for menially valued labour.

Is my contest spec work?

To answer the question, ask yourself:

  • Will I equitably pay a winning designer for the work rendered as if they were hired under contract to do the same thing?
  • Will I negotiate proper compensation for the usage rights commensurate to the designer’s level of skill?
  • Will I return the working files and usage rights to all submitted designs, especially if they don’t win?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions then your contest likely promotes speculative work. Moreover, any contest that expects a designer to work for free (especially in the case of the “losers”) encourages the undervaluing of a designer’s labour, which ultimately undermines the quality of any professional workplace.

What’s wrong with a contest?

Aside from giving clients the impression that design doesn’t have much worth, it also penalises the clients themselves. Through contests designers can’t undertake proper market research required by the project, and as such can’t produce the most effective outcome for the client, who then chooses on the basis of “the prettiest design.”

Designers are the ones with the training, the ones with the marketing experience. They should be able to know all there is about clients’ needs, to be able to guide clients and produce the most appropriate work. You wouldn’t tell your lawyer how to defend you in a trial, or tell a mechanic how to do his or her job. You research their history, hire them, then let them work. That’s what designers’ portfolios are for — giving clients the best opportunity to hire the right person.

Why shouldn’t I hold a contest to get my logo?

As mentioned above, behind every design there’s market research. A logo isn’t just a pretty symbol printed on top of a baseball cap; it’s what represents you and your company. It is the thing that will instantly identify you and it has to convey the right message to the right people. A contest doesn’t grant designers the necessary time or compensation to undertake necessary research.

Why should I pay a professional to do work I might like when I can get lots of submissions from a contest?

Apart from promoting free labour, you impede the designer from earning a proper salary. Would you work for free with the hope of possibly being compensated? Also consider that contests largely attract inexperienced designers who are under pressure due to unreasonable time restraints and competition. You run the huge risk of ultimately receiving poorly executed designs that inadequately represent your business amongst your competitors and for future customers. It could end up costing you in the long run in terms of lost revenue and other factors. A professional will work toward developing effective tailored design solutions reflective of their years of training and experience.

Can you explain usage rights?

The rights of any design work are explained in a contract or project agreement. Designers normally give you rights for the logo idea and for the use of final artwork. If you take a concept without paying, and give it to someone else who will “do it for free,” that’s copyright infringement. Unless otherwise agreed in the contract, you don’t have the right to take someone’s idea, or the files used to create it (unless provided by you) and modify them on your own without compensating the creator. If you want to modify something without the designer’s intervention, you need agreement from the designer. You should expect to be charged accordingly for using work that needed someone’s time and resources.

What is a design/logo mill?

Unfortunately there is a disturbing trend affecting the design community where companies using contests as their business model pit designers against each other, like roosters in a ring. Designers who fall into this unproductive cycle eventually crank out massive strings of poorly conceived, ineffectively executed, and in a growing number of cases, plagiarised work from other professionals in order to win as many “prizes” as possible. The more they crank out, the more chance they have of actually earning any money.

What they don’t understand is that those who run these deplorable mills pay designers a comparable pittance to what they themselves earn with their markup, making a very substantial profit in the process. Think of a sweatshop or pyramid scheme where the few benefit over the many. In the end, the losers are both the creator and the consumer, who sacrifice quality for the sake of a “bargain.”

If I can’t decide whether I like a design before I pay for it, how do I know I am going to get a good one?

This is why it pays to use a professional designer. Professional designers are just that — professionals, experts in their craft. It’s their job to do good work.

How do you tell one designer from another? Look at their portfolios. You can find a long list of portfolios through various professional organisations, such as the AIGA, GAG, CL, SGDC. Try searching for “design association” or similar in your country. Here’s a useful resource on davidairey.com — where to find the right designer.

Look at a number of portfolios and narrow it down to those whose style fits what you think will be effective for your business. Then contact the designer(s) to discuss your project. Once you get a feel for their work and personality, you will quickly be able to determine if you can form a good working relationship.

If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to get in touch.