Spec work and design students

We regularly receive letters from design students and those new to the design industry. In their correspondence the students often explain how they were not educated about spec, and/or were sent to contest sites by their instructors.

Earlier this year we discussed the subject with a design student, Thomas. One thing led to another and he agreed to share his experiences with you.


I am a university student in my final year for Graphic Design/Illustration. I actually started out in a medical degree but I took a chance that my hobby of drawing would provide a career. I was always told growing-up it would amount to nothing. Sadly, so far in the world of freelancing I am proving my parents right as there are starving artists, and my university professors have very limited guidance to the contrary.

My university has taught me the more published work I have the better my chances of finding work; therefore, online freelancing seemed to be the best choice. So I searched for every opportunity online I could find, and I asked my professors for guidance.

My professors seemed to know nearly nothing of online freelancing other than it does exist. They told me that a few of the students finishing the degree did freelancing online. Talking to the students wasn’t much better. They said I was competition and I was on my own.

Next I asked my professors about spec work and the contest sites online anyway. The best answer I got was the work was likely unpaid; however, with more questions and classroom instruction in the following weeks lead me to believe it was a necessary evil for all starting designers to prove themselves. It seemed that spec work was a way for designers to get started.

With no work in sight I started to sign-up to the sites. After searching for more information about 99designs, I came across the NO!SPEC website. Thankfully I found out what spec work truly was and what it does to designers and businesses alike. I can say I have not done any spec work, and have informed my fellow students of spec work and online freelancing.

In all honestly I learned a lot from my university time about software and design, but any training on real world (especially freelance) jobs was nothing. I got the feeling spec work was just the way things were done, and getting paid for any freelancing was the best to hope for. I feel a bit mislead and betrayed after all it seems most projects from my university have been nothing but spec work.

Many of our class projects seem to have been contest style spec work. We received a grade for the project; however, the projects were often for real world business use. All the students would work on the projects in the given details and create designs. Then a business would judge the projects and choose a design to use.

I hope my college training regarding freelancing and spec work is not typical, but sadly I imagine it is.

Thomas Cosby Jr


Thank you, Thomas (and apologies for this coming out so late).

If you are a design student, perhaps consider doing the same as Thomas did by educating students at your school. And it wouldn’t hurt if more instructors were equally knowledgeable about spec work.

On our site you’ll find a general section for students. All of the sections are chock-full of information so please don’t stop there. For instance, if you are looking to pad your portfolio, learning your way around pro bono work is a must.

By the way, if you’re a design student and would like to share your spec experiences, drop us a line.

Logo Design Love: SpecWatch on Design Contests

Do you twitter?

If you don’t have a twitter account, then you are missing out on the latest spec happening in the design industry.

Logo Design Love: It’s interesting to see the recent appearance of Spec Watch, a venture that educates about the very real risks of design contest websites and their so-called ‘communities’.

Spec Watch has been cataloging unpaid and refunded projects, and those terminated due to copyright violation.

Right now Spec Watch is mainly targeting the design contests at Crowdspring and 99designs, but who knows how their campaign will evolve.

To see what all the fuss is about, follow Spec Watch (SpecWatch) on Twitter.

(Thanks David!)

NO!SPEC’s Quote of the Century…

Paul Rand paraphrased by Steve Jobs

I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve the problem for you the best way I know how. And you can use it or not – that’s up to you. You are the client. But you pay me.

Nice. Very.

Comments on Spec Work and Crowdsourcing

From the previous post, CreativePro: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing, I thought I’d grab a few of the opinions from the comments.

Shale Grant said: 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.

Several designers posted their opinions to dear Shale Grant, so please take the time to read them.

There is one comment in particular I’d like to share here.

Steve Douglas: 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 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, who had started using it to deliver their message. 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.

Shale, thank you for posting your opinion.

And Steve, once again, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and views.


CreativePro: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing

Spec Work and Crowdsourcing, when will they ever learn?

Pamela Pfiffner, writer and founding editor of CreativePro.com, 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.

Positive Space: 99Designs Stoops to a New Low

Tony of Positive Space has a decent conversation going in his post: 99Designs Stoops to a New Low and Attempts Propaganda.

If you have been following Positive Space for a while, then you undoubtedly know that I have a problem with both spec work and 99designs (previously sitepoint contests). However most recently the minds behind sitepoint have stooped to a new low. I say this because the article Design Contests Made Me A Better Designer that was recently published is nothing more than a piece of propaganda literature.

It’s an interesting read so check it out when you have the time.

Pixish = Spec-ish?

Whoooh, busy time here at no-spec.com, what with the emails and hits rolling in on the subject of Derek Powazek’s new site, Pixish.

Like other posters, I hold Derek in high regard so his waffly stance – professing to be against spec yet promoting spec – was a confusing surprise.

Note: For those interested in the whole back and forth, the growing conversation can be found at pixish – Google Blog Search. And a rolling conversation in the comments can be found at MetaFilter – Pixish Tantamount to Spec Work?

But let’s start out with CatCubed – Pixish, web2.0 spec work.

What is Pixish you might ask? Well according to the site Pixish works as follows.

1. Create an Assignment. Ask for what you want.
2. Get Submissions. People create and submit their work.
3. Peer Review. Community voting helps find the best.
4. Pick Winners. Select your favorites and download.
5. Rewards! Winners get published and paid.

I.E., Pixish’s business model is to use Web2.0 to encourage spec work. You and a bunch of other artists do a bunch of work and maybe the client likes it and you get paid. Actually it’s worse than spec work as on Pixish, all you get is a fragging prize.

Then we’ll have BeckleyWorks with I Beg to Differ. Pixish is Work On Spec.

Derek has put up a response to what he calls one concern heard loud and clear, that Pixish promotes spec. His response simply doesn’t wash.

His definition of spec work is “where large companies take advantage of designers, getting work without paying.” Actually, spec work is defined as anyone asking designers to do work without paying for it. This includes startup web sites like Pixish. By trying to pawn it off on large companies, Derek seems to be trying to create a ‘them not us’ illusion, and it’s painfully transparent. It almost seems like Derek doesn’t really know what spec work is.

Then there’s Adam Howell dot org with The Pixish logo belongs next to’spec work’ on dictionary.com

…Derek and the folks at Pixish know this. They even added a response to it on their About page. Saying, basically, “if you don’t like the idea don’t participate and, pros like you are lucky, we’re giving talented amateurs a chance to make a name for themselves”. Oh, for crying in a bucket, here we go.

Oh! And this lovely one from Alex Jones – Spec Work, Pixish, Design Contests and Unicorns.

Some believe that this is a great opportunity for budding designers to build a portfolio, but as Adam notes, “We’ve got, you know, the web. Blogs. Youtube. digg/reddit/lots of other lowercase social sites. There are no longer just three ways to showcase your talent – there are three bajillion. And if you aren’t getting noticed, sorry, you either aren’t trying hard enough or you suck.”

Timmmmyboy comes into it with Pixish | Bringing down the value of creative design.

Pixish is a new site that recently launched by Derek Powazek that promotes the ability to bring artists and publishers together. The idea is that there are tons of budding creative artists on the web and why not bring them together and have them compete over your ideas for the ‘prize’ of having their work chosen in a bid.

This is straight up spec work and it’s something I (and many designers) have a big problem with, and it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away.

No Commercial Potential chimes in with My Totally Reactionary, Ill-Thought-Out First Take on Pixish.

My original question when I first read about it was: “was letsallworkonspec.com already taken?”

Prizes? Designers and photographers who are worth the trouble do not want prizes. They want to get paid. I would maybe be very interested in submitting something for JoCo’s t-shirt, but you know what? I already have three iPods. And I already bought all his music. Even if I had a design the internet hordes loved, I would mostly win redundancy.

Adam Howell dot org follows up with A follow-up on Pixish.

Stock photo sites are one thing. Pixish is something completely different. And sorry but until I, and I’m sure several others, see otherwise, I won’t be convinced of anything else.

Update: Shortly after this post was published Derek announced he was taking down all the logo, header design and template assignments, many of which I had mentioned in this post, and would only be accepting pictures and illustrations on Pixish from now on.

So, what does that make Pixish now? A spec site for Photographers and Illustrators?

What do YOU think?

Miles on Free Pitching

Miles’ Blog: That monster called Free Pitch

No matter what you call it, Spec Work, Free Pitch, etc the concept is the same. I’ll get a handful of designers or studios to come up with a handful of concepts for my website, and the winner gets my business.

Great concept? No! There are no winners here.

  • Free pitching devalues your work.
  • Free pitching hurts all of your clients.
  • Free pitching produces crap work.
  • Free pitching makes the client look stupid.
  • Free pitching hurts the entire industry.
  • Free pitching is a big sign saying “We’re going broke”.
  • Free pitches encourages less planning.

Read the whole post over at Miles’ Blog.

Good one Miles!

Spec work, anyone?

Spec work can damage your business, by David Airey

If you’re a designer, and you receive a request for speculative work, write or call the issuer. There’s a chance they may not even realise this practice is unethical.

… Earlier this year, Shayne Tilley published an article on springwise.com, about ‘crowdsourcing’ in graphic design. The text revolves mainly around SitePoint, a website where people post requests for logo designs / t-shirt designs etc., but don’t pay any money until they receive a design they like, often from the lowest bidder.

It was interesting to read the discussion that followed in the article comments. A lot of designers seemed annoyed at the concept behind SitePoint. I’d be interested to know your opinion.

Thanks David. I’m also interested in reading the comments received.

Open Letter to CL (Craigslist) Administration

This letter was forwarded to NO!SPEC.
(Please note: Discussions are open, but inflammatory comments will be deleted)

Open Letter to CL Administration
Reply to: gigs-412731766@craigslist.org
Date: 2007-09-03, 8:34AM

To all creative professionals; please read this, and if you agree, please forward it in an email to Craigslist administration by sending them a note at this address; http://www.craigslist.org/cgi-bin/emailForm.cgi

Dear Craigslist,

I would like to take this time to bring a problem to your attention that you may not be aware of. It is a problem that is seriously affecting myself, my peers, and our clients… and it needs immediate attention!!!

The problem, in a nutshell, is freeloading.

You see, here on the creative gig boards (and, I’m sure, on many other gig boards, as well.) you will find a plethora of talented, hard-working, highly skilled professionals from many different fields. Designers, Illustrators, Photographers and more. These are not people who are hard-up, or starving. Some of us just seek the occasional extra bit of income to supplement our salaries. Some of us use CL as a primary source of that income. Either way, using CL does not, by any measure, define us as some sort of discount day-labor or bargain-basement boobs who will do anything for a dollar.

We are PROFESSIONALS, first and foremost, and expect to be treated as such.

This is generally not a problem, when dealing with serious, professional clients; True businesspeople who understand the value of hiring someone with specialized skills. They understand that their time is valuable, and so, then, should ours be.

Unfortunately, these clients are being driven out of Craigslist by an avalanche of “freeloaders”.

Every day, the CL gig boards across the nation are being inundated with posts seeking skilled, professional services for “free” or “cheap”. Some offer the “opportunity” to “build your portfolio”. Others offer payment “Once my project is sold” to a publisher, etc. Some are even bold enough to equate compensation with the chance for your work “to be seen” on their website/business card/letterhead/etc.

In short, they are looking for free work.

Now, I am not begrudging anyone’s right to ask for free work. But I am making you aware that, because of the hordes of these posts appearing on CL daily, it is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating for myself and my peers to find serious gigs.

It is also forcing us to scrutinize what serious gigs we do find, to the point where, I am sure, many serious professionals are no longer willing to post on the CL gig board, for fear of being lumped in with these freeloaders. In short, it is hurting everyone but the freeloaders.

Now, I am not here just to bitch and moan. This is a problem we CAN solve, and I think I have an idea of how to do so… an idea, I pray, you will see merit in.

I ask you to create a separate, “FREE” gig board for these people. This way, they can post to their heart’s content, and be sure to reach their target audience, as only those looking to work for nothing will read this board.

Additionally, to further discourage them posting on the real gig boards, change the “pay” entry field to accept only numeric entries. (And restrict the entries from starting with a zero.) You could possibly also enter a “negotiable” choice, as well for those who do not want to offer a solid dollar amount.) Then, change the gig rules to plainly state that this board is for PAYING gigs ONLY.

This way, when we flag the non-paying ones, there will be no question whether or not we are in the right in doing so.

This is a fairly straightforward and simple solution to a plaguing problem. I urge you to take this action immediately. Myself, and my peers, would be eternally grateful!

* Location: All creative professionals, PLEASE READ!
* it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
* Compensation: FREE the FREE GIGS!!!

Original URL: http://lasvegas.craigslist.org/crg/412731766.html