CreativePro: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing

Spec Work and Crowdsourcing, when will they ever learn?

Pamela Pfiffner, writer and founding editor of, recently put together a timely article for designers: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing: Gambles that Don’t Pay Off.

The economy’s in the toilet and you’re hungry for jobs, so you’re working on spec or posting designs to sites like CrowdSpring. It’s understandable. The problem is, spec and crowdsourcing can lower your value and hourly rates so far that minimum wage looks like a fat paycheck. Here’s what to do instead.

Quoted in the article are two eloquent fighters against all things spec: Steve Douglas and Jeff Fisher.

Steve Douglas of The Logo Factory: “According to [CrowdSpring’s] home page, designers have submitted over 219,000 entries” as of this April 2009. “If we average each entry out to an hour’s worth of a designer’s time, and that’s a hugely underrated figure, that equates to 25 years of unpaid designer labor.”

Jeff Fisher of Jeff Fisher LogoMotives: “The only thing worse than a potential client who does not value the efforts of a professional graphic designer is a designer who doesn’t appreciate the value of their own time and work.”

I know you can read the article for yourself (and I hope you do). But the reason I’m placing their quotes here is because of their tireless fight against spec work.

That’s right. Crusades may come and go, but the real heroes are those who fight the long fight.

So THANK YOU Steve, Jeff, Pamela, Terri and everyone else out there who continues to say NO to spec.

7 responses to “CreativePro: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing”

  1. Thanks for your constant and steadfast guard over working on spec. I’ve done both (have my own design firm and have submitted to Crowdspring and frankly no one’s forcing the designers to submit. Some can handle it – some (apparently) cannot. If you don’t like it, don’t do the work on spec! Simple! If I were a prospective client, I’d think you’re coming across as a whiner. Under the aegis of “not giving the client the best they can get”, I feel like you haven’t really understood what Crowdspring actually does for the client (they have a chance to answer any questions a designer wishes to ask, not to mention have to fill out a rationale anyway)- only weighing in on how it affects YOU, which makes me think you’re really not in it for the client’s best interest – or for that matter superlative design. I think you just want to whine in order to justify your client inevitably overpaying for design by you. Face it: it’s the way things are. Either swim or get out of the way.

  2. And a thanks from me too, Cat.

    Shale, you mention that those opposed to spec work aren’t interested in the clients best interests, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Clients lose out, and are almost always forced to choose from inadequate options. Sure, there can be exceptions to the rule, but if so, they’re few and far between.

    Ultimately, the only thing these spec sites sell are themselves, hoping to make a buck off designers working for free.

  3. Shale, there is no such thing as overpaying. There is paying, plain and simple. You choose to pay a price or you don’t.

    If a client views me as a whiner because I choose to be paid for the work I do, this is a client I do not want to work with. And I always choose not to.

  4. Shale,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you in that it’s a designer’s choice to take on a spec gig or not.

    That said, the problem with spec, as I see it, is multitiered. As David mentioned, clients can often lose out due to the non due diligence associated with the spec model.

    Beyond this, spec work is often a one shot deal. That means that those designers who work primarily on spec must market their wares much more rigorously that those designers who choose to build longer term relationships with their clients.

    When a designer works to build a relationship, design tends to become more strategic in nature. They have the opportunity to learn their clients’ businesses and industries in greater detail. They have a better understanding their clients’ competitors and audience. With that information, a designer can develop solutions that are targeted and have better focus. They can also anticipate potential challenges their clients may have and make suggestions for design materials that help overcome those challenges.

    Crowdspring and likes will be around, as will designers who choose to work that model. But, I would think that in many cases, those designers have to work a lot harder in the long run to generate [winning] projects and, ultimately, revenue. Sure, there are those who have a day job and tap into Crowdspring, Elance and others for occasional freelance gigs. My feeling on that is, “Knock yourself out.” I don’t compete with them. For the ones who are trying to make a livable income, it’s got to be awful tough. How much time will a designer need to spend designing this and that to make just $30,000/year? If you figure they win a logo gig for an average of $200 each, that’s 150 winning logos plus all the ones that didn’t win. To me, that kind of becomes assembly line design.

    As for the companies who buy these design items, sure, they might get some nifty designs for a song. Given the paltry state of the economy, I imagine there are more and more companies looking for a deal. On the flip side, there will always be those companies who prefer to go the route of RFPs, reviews and selection.

    If all a company wants is some ink on paper or pixels on a screen, the Crowdspring thing might be just right for them. But, for those companies who have worked hard to build their business, brand and labored creating a tight marketing plan, I don’t think the Crowdspring model makes much sense. They’re going to want to build a relationship with a designer or firm who understands what the company is all about and trying to achieve. They’re likely going to want a custom-tailored solution rather than something off the shelf.

    At the end of the day, you’re right, it’s the individual designer’s choice. But, I believe it’s important for that designer to have an understanding of what the effect is on the industry, how strategic their design can be and how much time and effort they’re willing to put in on a project that, odds are, will be rejected. From what I see on Crowdspring, the average project gets 77 submissions, so there’s a whole lot of rejection going on.

  5. Shale, I see spec and design contests as an industry issue – relevant to designers, buyers of design and yes, design firms.

    The argument “well, some people do it, and they’re not being forced to” has no bearing on whether anything is good, effective or productive. It’s actually a classic case of the the bandwagon or “Argumentum ad populum” logical fallacy – “the mere fact that a belief is widely held is not necessarily a guarantee that the belief is correct”. Lots of people smoke, nobody’s forcing them to, but no-one would use that argument as being illustrative that smoking isn’t harmful to the individual or society itself. The numbers of people participating on spec is, to be blunt, irrelevant.

    I’m not sure why expressing a view that YOU should get paid for YOUR work is whining, but no mind. When talking to other designers who participate in spec, let me say this – to a person, they’d ALL prefer to be paid for their work. They’d rather get paid for EVERY contest or spec offering they enter. None of them, and I do mean NONE, actually WANT to give their time or talents away for free. They participate for a myriad of reasons, ranging from desperation to not being aware of alternatives, to the honest belief that they will somehow manage to make a decent living with design contest winnings (most find out rather quickly that they won’t). Unless you are the lone ‘professional’ designer who prefers not getting paid for your services, we probably agree on that one basic premise. Accordingly, I’m not sure how my stance could be determined as “whining”.

    In terms of Crowdspring, I don’t want to dwell too long on them specifically, but as you brought them to the table – their website is 100% set up for the abuse of designers, many times as the hands of small business people who aren’t even aware they’re taking liberties. I don’t give a tinker’s toss about how much Crowdspring charges – that’s never been an issue of mine – my issue had always been that designers are exploited on sites like Crowdspring (and being exploited voluntarily has no bearing on whether something is exploitative or not), often by clients hoping to get ‘more for less’ while actually running a very high risk of obtaining inferior design work. Or worse. The vast majority of work on Crowdspring is, to be charitable, amateur (shouldn’t be surprising – design by amateurs is one of Crowdspring’s selling points to attract, well, amateur designers). By the way, this isn’t my opinion, but the published opinion of people who’ve reviewed CS services POSITIVELY on their blogs after running contests. The amount of copied art and stock artwork (submitted as logos) is astonishing. Again, don’t take MY word for this. Read Crowdspring’s own forums for complaints by designers who are otherwise quite happy tinkering around on the so-called “community”.

    In terms of what Crowdspring does and the client-designer interaction, I must disagree. Pretty strongly too. The ‘buyers’ NEVER listen to the designer’s suggestions, even when told that what they’ve requested isn’t going to work (especially from a technical POV). All communication is FROM the buyer to the designer, never the other way around. Whatever communication from the designers to the client is usually the “yes sir, no sir – I await your next command, sir” variety. When utilizing people who are supposedly knowledgeable in their craft, the buyers never utilize that portion of the designers’ skillset. Their knowledge and/or experience. It’s akin to me taking my car to a mechanic and ignoring them completely when they tell me my wheels are going to fall off. And that, by the way, is if the ‘buyers’ communicate at all. Read the Crowdspring forum and read how designers carp that the lack of communication is a real hindrance to many contests. The management of Crowdspring have even taken to encouraging communication, suggesting that active participation means more entries. There’s lots more issues we could discuss, but rather than turn this into a Crowdspring-bashing thread, let’s leave it for another day.

    In terms of my personal motivations, I’ve always been pretty pragmatic when it comes to business, so If I honestly believed that a service like Crowdspring was good for designers, good for clients, good for the industry (and profitable to boot) I’d be busy setting up my own logo design platform rather than blathering on some blog. I run a small design shop (and have so since 1996), staffed by people who have extensive backgrounds in design and online marketing, so converting my custom shop to a so-called design “crowdsourcing” platform would be a relatively easy transition. Accordingly, “if I were only weighing in on how it affects (ME)” and thought spec sites were a step forward, I’d have launched a logo design contest site years ago, and rather than debating with you on a blog, I’d be inviting you to come work on my site, supplying my ‘buyers’ with your artwork, for free. Which, apparently, you’d be quite happy to do.

    Alas, I DO believe that spec sites like Crowdspring are exploitative, harmful for designers and a second-rate solution for clients. I also have to live with myself and would never expect you (or any other designer for that matter) to work for me without payment. Old school? Maybe. A Dinosaur? Perhaps. Whiner? Hardly. Continuing on my personal angle, I’d also like to point out that not once have I EVER suggested that people hire my firm rather than employ Crowdspring or another spec solution. Rather, I’ve suggested that spec contests are not terribly effective (my blog contains a myriad of evidence) and that design buyers have a ton of OTHER alternatives, ranging from small design shops to independent freelancers. As there’s nothing in your comment to indicate that I’m incorrect, I’ll stick by that stance.

    I notice you close with the old “evolve or die” (or in your case, “swim or get our of the way”) chestnut. Not the first time anyone who’s been online for a while has heard that. Remember spam e-mail? When it first hit the scene back in the mid-nineties, the exact same rationale and arguments were used by the Direct Marketing associations. People complaining about spam were called dinosaurs. The JHD (Just Hit Delete) folks told those of us who hated our e-mail accounts being saturated with porn and pharma junk that we were “whining”, and trying to stand in the way of people getting “great money saving offers”. Spam e-mail was actually defended as being a positive thing for people getting it, as well as the small companies who couldn’t afford traditional advertising. Fast forward 15 years and spam e-mail accounts for over 80% of ALL Internet traffic, costs the world-wide economy billions and is a major headache for anyone trying to do anything online, from sending pics of the grand kids to parents, to running an online shopping business. This idea that all business models made possible by technology are positive is rubbish. Use of technology is what you “can do”. That needs to be tempered by what you “should do”. In terms of your comment “it’s the way things are”, and continuing with our analogy, the same can be said of spam. Are we better off because of it? Hardly.

  6. With regard to coming across to the client as a whiner: Part of the professional services a good designer provides is to educate the client with regards to what is the best approach for a viable solution of their needs. This education is not only the practical details of good design but best practices for achieving that design.

    If you view that process as objectionable understand that many would class it as salesmanship. To be clear it should not be the primary job of a salesperson much less as professional designer to separate the client from their money but instead to educate, aka sell, the client on the best solution to their problems in a manner that is a benefit to all parties. This is what builds long term trust and mutually profitable relationships.

    Some would call this service, others would call it good business.

    Following is relevant text from communications from the client side who used crownsourcing. I have paraphrased the response and redacted information that is confidential or identifying.


    Thank you for the information. When we placed the ad we received diverse responses. We are accustomed to working with established design companies and this was a trial of a process that was recommended to us as a good way to address our future needs.

    As to the 1% figure you provided regarding no-spec submissions, (addendum the return on investment (ROI) for spec work has a documented, long term history of 1%) I’d like to provide some insight into our experience. Your data has proven almost exactly matching what we experienced in a trial this summer. We received submissions from approximately 1,200 artists from all over the world (mostly from the U.S.) We did find some fantastic artists this way and we entered into agreements with less than 1% of these. The process is extremely time-consuming of staff time.

    I forwarded your information on to our selection committee. Thank you again for the time you took to provide me with this information.


    Please note the numbers: 1200 artist with less than 1% hired. So of ever 1000 artist who do work less than 10 are paid for their efforts. The slots in Vegas give better odds. As a long time entrepreneur I would point out the direct mail has a better ROI.

    Note also the point of ‘extremely time-consuming of (the client’s) staff’. Clearly any client that takes the task seriously inevitably spends an inordinate amount of resources dealing with the submissions.

    Note also the client’s direct acknowledgement of the accuracy of the data and appreciation for the enlightenment. That was but one response. I might add that the only negative responses we’ve received to the education process turned out, upon careful review, to be from those with a vested interest in pushing crownsourcing business model.

    Shoe fits, etc.

  7. In our quest to educate people about spec work, sometimes we might forget to state how not doing spec work benefits the client, or we might explain it in the wrong way, yes, sometimes possibly from a designer’s perspective. People write their own no-spec articles in their own sites and say what they think, and their are often “out of context”, i.e., not with the back up information that is contained in this site, because they are on another site. So some of that back up information is in the writer’s head, but not in the reader’s.

    As an example of this, I was reading an article not long ago, I forgot the name of the author, of someone who was trying to explain why you wouldn’t go to a logo factory. But the article, alas I had to agree with some of the comments there, sounded very much like a “hire me!” article, rather than why people should go to a proper designer. He was also claiming that to design a logo it can take months…

    I work in a firm that doesn’t allow me to spend months for a logo. We work out different and original solutions for each client, but if you said it would take months to make one, you would be fired. It might be true of big companies that want a “deep” marketing research and a complete branding. But for a coffee shop? Some people don’t *buy* the research, they don’t want it, it’s a bit like you want to go get a pair of shirts, and someone wants to sell you the entire Dolce & Gabbana collection, you’d just go to another shop and get your shirts.

    Not all logos require that much work, time, research and money, because they don’t. The only way for designers to fight logo factories and such is by understanding the client’s needs, some of them are, like already said, coffee shops that want something quick, others will require that proper marketing research. Of course in both cases the logo should be done at the best of one’s resources, but the point is that some clients don’t want to buy that creative much time from designers, so we don’t force it on them, although of course we try to make them understand the value of proper research. Otherwise, like for the person who only wanted two shirts, they will change shop.

    If the client who doesn’t want to invest into proper research isn’t the type of client we don’t like to deal with, then simply don’t deal with them. But meeting the needs of also those who need something of “lesser quality” isn’t necessarily bad. Get your contract, agree a price and work accordingly to the time and resources your client is prepared to compensate you for. That’s hardly spec work. Of course you will make sure that the client knows that for better results, he needs to invest more into those results.

    Do your best with what you have, without devaluing your job is what will eventually make people understand that there’s no need to work on spec.

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