Speak Up and New York’s High Priority

A personal opinion

Fueled by passion for the design industry, a group of designers started the NO!SPEC campaign.

Been there, done that, it was our aim to educate young designers about the dangers of working on spec.

We wanted to help designers avoid getting ripped off in spec situations. We wanted to educate about working with contracts. We wanted to help them avoid spec jobs where they submitted work without a contract, only to discover later on that someone else rebuilt their designs at a lower cost.

We wanted to point out that creating new work for a design contest, where they signed away all rights to their work, was not exactly a smart business move.

We also wanted to educate clients on the damages of spec. We wanted to explain the differences between working closely with a designer and a detailed design brief, compared to picking one of the many pretty pictures they’d get from a design contest.

Straightforward, yes? I wish.

It’s a given that designers come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, financial needs, work and life philosophies, with opinions attached to the same. Taking that into account, among all the ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘everywhere’, I’m seeing two strong camps emerging.

One I’ll call the ‘for the good of the industry’ types. They are designers who feel working on spec is harmful to the industry. For the good of the industry, they’ve decided to avoid contests where new work is a condition of the entry. Some call them ‘open contests’, I call them ‘grey’ because they are not always cut and dried (as in black and white, good vrs bad, etc). In theory, design orgs are mostly (but not always) in the ‘for the good of the industry’ category.

The other type I’ll dub ‘for the good of the individual’. They are also designers who are against working on spec. Unlike the ‘for the good of the industry’ types, they don’t see where open/grey competitions harm the design industry. You could say that throwing the baby out with the bathwater makes no sense to them.

Both camps above are seasoned designers, both have a deep love for the industry.

In and around there are those who feel their time is too valuable to waste on working on the speculation of getting a return, compared to those who see the time spent on open contests / grey competitions as a way to market their skills. Then there are those who use the competitions for design practice, and others who see it as all in good fun. Further in there are those who don’t know the difference between a spec contest or a design industry contest, a spec job offer or a real job offer, or even free pitching, open source, or working pro bono.

Then we have the buyers of design and contest organisers who often see contests as a solution to free design, as well as free publicity. They look at it as a win win.

All in all, it’s a no brainer that working on spec, or not, is a personal decision. The same goes with joining in on design competitions, open, grey, whatever.

Knowing this doesn’t mean I don’t jump up and down in frustration when a dark grey issue comes up, but that’s just me. I have strong opinions about the harm some so called ‘contests’ are doing to the industry. Just take a look around the internet and you’ll see design contests everywhere. Need a logo for your company? Have a contest. What about a free website design? Contest. Want free publicity for your company? Need to drive traffic to your site/blog? Have a contest, any contest. Sometimes a controversial contest is a ‘winner’.

I just have to ask, can’t people come up with anything more original than “Oh, let’s have a contest”? But truthfully, if I didn’t have strong opinions on the subject, I most likely wouldn’t feel driven to devote large chunks of unpaid time to the issues. Yeah, I’m working on the ‘speculation’ that it makes a difference.

To me, what’s equally important is the designer knowing what they are getting into. Many designers feel they’ve been burned by spec, usually caused by the lack of knowing what spec is and isn’t, and the lack of putting contracts in place. The client’s lack of education also comes into it. Like I said, that’s the reason we created the NO!SPEC campaign, to give designers a place where they could learn about spec, and where they can make their own decisions. The NO!SPEC site was also created to give seasoned designers a place where they could contribute ideas and opinions, argue about the finer points (grey/open), and in turn share the same with others.

Getting to the lovely debate on Speak Up and New York’s High Priority

– Winning illustration published in New York.

– Winner will be paid New York’s usual fee of $500.

– All other entries will be displayed on Speak Up, and New York will include a mention of the contest gallery in the magazine.

– All entrants retain property of their work. Winning entry will grant New York reproduction rights on the magazine as well as other promotional materials per New York’s usual agreements.

Yeah, it’s one of those situations where the ‘for the good of the industry’ types depart in opinion from the ‘for the good of the individual’ types.

Looking at it from the ‘for the good of the industry’ angle: One has to wonder what message this contest is sending to clients and designers. It’s difficult enough as it is to educate clients about spec without a leading design blog backing a contest calling for newly created work. New designers will be equally confused.

Looking at it from the ‘for the good of the individual’ angle: Forget the laughable US$500. It’s not about the money. It’s about the possibility of getting published in New York. Not only that, but as all entries will be displayed on Speak Up, they are not the dreaded ‘throw away designs’ usually generated for open/grey contests. Another plus, the designers keep the rights to their work.

Like I said, it’s a no brainer that each decision comes down to personal opinion, so I’ll give mine. Would I enter this competition? No. Even though I don’t see this as a totally awful competition (there’s that ‘C’ word again), I lean towards the ‘for the good of the industry’ stance. Also, bathwater or no, it comes down to the fact that my time is better spent on projects with a higher return (make of that what you will). But then, that’s just me. You have to make up your own mind.

Quoting from Darrel’s comment:

We’re graphic designers.
We’re corporate whores.
We all hate spec work.
Except when the whore is really really good looking.

So true, so true …

Catherine (cat) Wentworth
Project Manager:
Creative Latitude

Update:If you are interested in seeing the entries for the High Priority Contest, head on over to Speak Up as they’ve just been posted.

8 responses to “Speak Up and New York’s High Priority”

  1. I really can’t thank you enough for starting this site.
    I went through all the blog entries, and all I could say to every single one, was,

    As a small company still in the midst of getting properly organized, I’ve had to
    resort to seeking clientele from unusual sources, such as the CraigsList sites.
    I can’t tell you how many spec ads I’ve seen there. It’s truly amazing how many people think designers, illustrators, and artists in general are all bedraggled,
    starving beggars who’ll do anything for the amazing opportunity of being able to
    claim contribution to a 3rd-rate website or local magazine churned out from someone’s home PC.

    It’s not even just the silly contests, but the loads of ads “seeking artists/designers/etc.” in which the issue of compensation is usually addressed to be “Free publicity” or “a share in this investment”, or “the chance to be published”.

    Generally, they will try to cover this blatant unprofessionalism with such lines as, “Looking to break into the business?” or my personal favorite, “Seeking STUDENT designers”.
    Which, of course, makes them even MORE sleazy. Not only are they trying to get something for nothing, but in thier bid to do so, are more than willing to exploit the eagerness and naivite of fledgeling artists and designers who are still wet behind the ears, and don’t realize that just because they’re fresh out of school (or still in school) does not mean that they should consider their time and effort worthless.

    But I’m rambling, here… so let me just thank you, again, for trying to shed a little light on these cockroaches.

    Dave D’Esposito
    ArtMonkey Studios

  2. Dave,

    You just ramble right away. Sometimes I get discouraged at all the spec contests, so it’s very helpful and uplifting to hear from others.

    Getting work – I’m not sure what you are looking for, but here’s a few that might interest you. Some are inhouse, others by project. I haven’t had a chance to check them out yet so if you find any that are ‘not quite right’ let me know.







  3. At first I couldn’t believe there was a site for this since I thought everyone knew better. I’m continually telling students not do spec work. The school I teach at occasionally does contests, but we always insist it have some learning value for students and isn’t just a cheap logo design for someone. And every time we have to sit down with whoever and tell them they have to come up with enough money that students will even consider doing it. Our students wouldn’t touch a contest without some good money behind it. They know better than to fall for that.

    I’ve had marketing people say essentially the same thing, don’t come up with a marketing plan on spec. Interestingly, remodeling contractors have the same problem. People ask them for ideas about doing the basement or remodeling a room, ask for details, then do it themselves. So most contractors won’t get specific about remodeling plans. Of course the people who ask designers to work on spec wouldn’t think of asking their attorneys to do that.

    Clients, can’t love ’em, can’t. . . well you know.

  4. George,

    I know what you mean. We had to get pretty frustrated to finally put the time into getting this site going. It seems so logical, why does it have to be said at all? We earn a living by design. If we don’t get paid, we don’t eat.

    The Australian Design org, DIA says it rather well. They cover design competitions as well as pitching — http://www.dia.org.au/content.cfm?id=245

    Quoting: The proliferation of unskilled, unqualified, unprofessional ‘designers’ in an unregulated sector means that these individuals will almost certainly continue with pitching as one of the few competitive ‘advantages’ they have.

    However for professional, qualified designers to fall into the trap of descending to their level and pitching when times are tough, is simply disastrous. If a designer simply gives away their expertise, or publicly seeks to undermine their colleagues, what possible reason can there be for their work to be valued in the future?


  5. Naina,

    I’ve been sitting here at the end of the NO!SPEC campaign emails all this time and the constant spec issues only tend to piss me off. Yes, I’m hot headed anyway, adding fuel just makes it worse.

    For my blood pressure, etc, I’ve backed away, leaving those interested to send out protest letters and try and educate those working or offering spec.

  6. I must be an exception to the rule!

    I’ve been working as a freelance graphic designer for 30 years and at least half of my work has been spec work! I can count on one hand the bad debts I’ve had over the entire 30 years and the largest (AU$2000.00 about 15 years ago) was NOT from a spec job but a long term client that went bust.

    All of my current clients were originally spec clients. My client base has been varied and has included Australian and Japanese companies (large and small) and of course lots of local small business.

    i charge between AU$90 – AU$150 per hour but quote the job as an overall price which includes an amount for changes, admin etc, I never quote an hourly rate.

    I think hourly rates are meaningless to most clients, designer “A” might spent 2 hours preparing say, a stationery set, and Designer “B” might spend 2 weeks on the same stationery set. Put yourself in the clients shoes and I bet you wouldn’t accept an hourly rate either.

    My first spec work was as a student all those years ago and that spec work paid the rent and beer.

  7. If only I had thought of this instead of wasting those summers interning for nothing when I could’ve been getting paid. (or at least not getting paid, but with dignity)