The Spec Trap: Sitepoint

The Spec Trap
by Terri Stone

Last week, Eric Adams wrote about his experiences using Sitepoint to solicit logo designs for a fledgling non-profit focused on suicide prevention. As I expected, there were some negative reactions from readers who are against work done on spec; that is, with no guarantee of pay.

I understand where these readers are coming from. Spec work may seem seductive when you’re having a slow month, but it’s important to understand its downsides. Even for people just starting out in design, spec work can be detrimental. Not only might you learn bad habits, but the clients you “win” will continue to expect you to work for little compensation after you’ve built up your portfolio. This same pitfall of diminished paycheck expectations applies to established designers, as well.

The drawbacks for clients may not be so obvious, but they do exist. The best resolutions of design challenges come from in-depth client-designer communication and research. Competition sites like Sitepoint don’t foster that approach.

Had I been in a similar situation, I would have looked for a designer whose work I respected and whose style meshed with the project’s creative brief. I then would have asked that designer if he or she would be willing to do the project pro bono. If the answer was no, I would have kept looking.

To take part in this spec/no-spec dialog, go to the voxbox.

Terri Stone, editor in chief

18 responses to “The Spec Trap: Sitepoint”

  1. I have read the article, and I just soo angered. The whole writeup is just completely ignorant and demeaning of people who work within the creative arts. When the author states “Sitepoint attracts a wide range of designers — moonlighters looking for extra cash, late-night design-freak insomniacs, students hoping to break in, stay-at-home parents with talent, and overseas artists for whom $225 is a month’s wage.”

    Not even touching the subject of global economies, this statement really infuriated me the most. And this is why:

    #1 – Moonlighting for extra cash, doesn’t mean their time and expertise isn’t worth anything.

    #2 – “late-night design-freak insomniacs” who is this mythical creature the author describes. Does this wonderful creature live in Narnia and expels creative work, and design comps as a waste product?

    #3 – Students who are hoping to break in, can do just as well by entering into things like internships where they can learn proper practices, and possibly even earn money as well.

    #4 – Stay at home parents with talent – In what world do these people not need fair compensation as well? I am pretty sure that children are pretty expensive…

    In closing I will just state that the author is even aware of his wrongdoing and yet still participated in this behavior. He repeatedly apologizes for his behavior, but only in a “ha ha I guess thats the way the cook crumbles” sort of way.

  2. I fail to see the problem here. The client got a logo they liked for a price they liked. The designer – described as a student – got some cash, a real client and a portfolio booster.

    Two points:

    1. Any designer who considers a student to be a serious competitor does not have much faith in their own ability. Ultimately talent always wins out.
    2. People living in countries where $200 = a month’s wage have every right to exploit the global economy, use the Internet and earn an honest living from it. teh global economy has exploited them for long enough, or who do you think manufactures the parts in your computer etc, etc…
    3. Spec work and contests like this is a very good way to get experience, build up a portfolio and guage whether or not you actually have the talent. The ones who are good will make money and get real work and not have to do spec any more. The ones who are OK may make some extra cash now and then through moonlighting. The ones who are no good will quickly realise this and move on to something else. Ultimately none of this threatens working, talented designers.

  3. I’m with John on this one.

    If professional designers are intimidated or scared of contests, they had better find a new career.

    Contests are the bottom-rung of the ladder. If you’re confident with your work, are good at selling yourself, keeping clients, and getting referrals, you have nothing to worry about. And if you’re competing solely on price, you were in trouble a lot time before this….

    Stop wasting time complaining or worrying about the kid in Romania who wins $200 for a logo design, and instead, go call your Top 5 clients and ask what you can do for them…

  4. I’d have to agree more with Tony on this one.

    It’s not that professional designers are intimidated or scared of contests, it’s the fact that these contests devalue our work and if they aren’t stoped they can become widespread enough that there no longer is a “Top 5 clients” to call since they all decided that a $50 contest produces work that is “good enough”

    Also, if $200 is a month’s pay for them, wouldn’t it be better if they got paid more? If they’re taking on this kind of risky work (might spend hours/week working and not get paid at all) they are probably desperate enough for work that they’ll take anything, or they just don’t know there’s a better way to work. In the former, properly hiring them and paying them a full wage fixes everything, in the latter we need to educate people so that they know that contests like this shouldn’t be done.

    Lastly, the company did get a decent design in the end, but it probably could’ve gotten a much better design by finding a designer who would do pro bono work for them. A lot of the professionals I know would’ve jumped at the opportunity to design their logo pro bono since it’s something they support, and while the Romanian kid wouldn’t have gotten his $200, the company would’ve had that $200 to spend on helping more teens and they would’ve had a better design to use too.

  5. @ Ix

    Thank you, That is exactly what I was trying to say. In this case, the contest holder did manage to find a talented student with the contest, however as you state that is not the point.

    Also, I would like to state that my comments are not made out of fear, but concern. There is no reason that anyone should have to blindly tolerate their work become devalued. This is basically what contests like this help do, devalue the time and efforts of designers like myself. Opinions like John’s are what infuriates me, talent is only one small part of what we as designers do. It is not like we instantly dream up these concepts in a minute of creative expression. Intelligent design solutions take time, research, and lots of hard work. Just because we are creative does not mean that our work is easy and lacks proper value.

    This is like asking a plumber to come visit your house and fix all your pipes for $10 because it will be good experience for the future and help them know if they are “talented” enough. Most of these people just charge a fee of at least $50 to come consult you, why should designers have to be any different…

  6. I happen to stumble upon this somehow, and it caught my interest for a few minutes.

    Although not ready to spend hours creating a site instead of bettering my career, I would have to side with john.

    The world is full of competition, we live in a capitalist society. If one were to propose something like no spec, you’d have to hit many more battles, not just the battle of design.

    As an artist, you earn your worth, you start low. Not just as an artist, in every field. If you’re good, your price continues to soar.

    Or you can wither away your time on creating hate energy.

  7. @bj

    I’d be more impressed and actually care about what you say if you demonstrated an actual knowledge of English. Beyond that name calling and saying someone you know nothing about is oh-so-much younger and therefore more ignorant than you will never win you any true points in a discussion and only serves to make it seem like you’re the one lacking in age and experience. Come back when you can actually talk like a mature human and make a real point. As is I have to deal with enough people like you that I have no more tolerance for your type of crap.


    I don’t really see how going no spec would make many more battles, after all the vast majority of trained work has no such thing as spec work. You don’t call up a plumber and say “I might give you $10.00 to install all the pipes in my new house that has no running water, but only if I like your work, and don’t worry about the low initial pay since if you do a good job I’ll be sure to hire you again next time I need a plumber.” They’d laugh at you and hang up, and maybe mention their $50 fee to even talk to you in person before the hang up. Likewise doctors don’t do spec work operations, where you might pay them if they do a good job. On a scale based on difficulty and training level I’d put design work about in the middle of these two jobs so it seems absurd to suddenly think that spec work should be done for design when these other jobs have no notion of even considering spec work. You can go a step farther and fill up the scale with everything that takes more than a high school level education and the number of jobs that have spec work become an immeasurably small percentage.

    There is no huge number of battles to be fought to get rid of spec work, just need some people to take a stand and educate people outside our field.

    There is a huge difference too between starting with low pay when you’re brand new to a field such as computer programming and doing spec work as a new designer. I’ve been both though I was informed not to do spec work before I became a designer so I don’t have personal experience on doing spec work. I did however get to see the other students from my school disregard the teachers advice, take spec work, and now are stuck living paycheck to paycheck, some have even had to move back in with their parents, while I am looking at saving enough to buy a house without going into debt. Many of these other students truly were better designers than me, but they devalued their work to the point that they couldn’t make a living off it by taking on too much spec work. There is no valid comparison between starting low in one field and taking spec work in an artistic field.

    Lastly, I really don’t see how working to educate people and better the lives of all designers is creating “hate energy” as I see anything that works to change to world in a positive way as good energy.

  8. @BJ

    I asked you last time to demonstrate a working knowledge of English. You still do not do this, and as such your post is virtually meaningless and not even worth refuting until there is real meaning there. I am more than willing to show you that No-Spec is possible and a good thing, but until you can understand more English than a 5 year old there is little point in even talking with you.

    I would also like to know where exactly I am “whining” as that’s one of the parts of your post with enough English in it to partially understand. Really, show me where I am whining. As is your posts have no substance, add nothing to the discussion, and appear to be nothing more than posts from a Troll that doesn’t know a thing about design. Prove to me that you are not a Troll, and are actually an educated and mature person, worth talking to and have an opinion worth caring about.

  9. @BJ

    You have failed to convince me of anything, and since proper use of a language can often be an important part of a logo design I have no reason to believe you know anything about design. While not an admin or anyone important on this site, I am fairly sure that trolls (especially ones that demonstrate they know nothing about design) are not welcome here, so I advise you to get out and never return.

    Anyone can claim anything, but hiding behind an offensive name and posting inane crap while not responding to requests for real contribution to the discussion gives everyone reason to not believe a word you say. I for one, based on your posts, am of the opinion that you wouldn’t even know a tablet if one were to leap up on its own and pummel your face repeatedly, and the same goes for design.

  10. Hey just came across this post so sorry for the delayed comment. I am somewhat on the fence with this a designer should not be worried about part timers/students etc if they are good enough, surely that’s why they get employed to be a designer, however I do think the influx of individuals thinking they can design, program, or whatever does make it difficult for smaller companies to compete.
    Where I come from (UK) the web design community is somewhat flooded, and while I do not mind competition I do find it frustrating when people seem to expect award winning work for 50 quid. Recently I have had a couple of old clients come back to me saying the design is outdated they are losing money cos of it, quote me a figure and ill pay etc. We quote them and they say they have a mate that can do the same for 25% of the price. Every single time this has happened they never did a thing to the site, which I assume would have cost them more money than our quote by just waiting time.
    I personally work as an SEO but employ designers, and in the SEO position it can be so difficult to quote for SEO work when the potential client has probably had 10 other companies promising the world for a hardly anything per month.
    I guess it is all a case of give and take though; there may be a lot of tight fisted companies out there and some of them may get some great deals like a $200 logo, but a lot wont and I HOPE eventually the better companies that charge a fair rate will generate good business from people that learn being cheap is not always profitable.

  11. @BJ

    Still not inclined to believe you. Having studied several non-English languages your grammatical structure and other linguistic errors are in line with the errors that trolls make when working to incite anger and have no matching with a foreigner having trouble speaking English. I’ve spent a fair bit of time working internationally and can speak several non-English languages well enough to survive in a foreign city for a week without using any English.

    Once again you show no knowledge of design, as all but 2 of the designs I’d rate as my top ten favorite were only positioned text and maybe an image of a person. Carefully chosen words positioned in a thoughtful manner on a page can be a much more powerful design than some image of someone you don’t relate to.

    You can also note that I didn’t say English is a requirement for good design, I said proper use of language, so if I were to believe that you really aren’t a native English speaker the dismissal of using language in design is still a sign that you don’t know much yet.

    English comes in since this is an English speaking group and if you want to make a point you’re going to have to use enough English that a native speaker can understand you. While your last post is understandable English, it does nothing to make a point or contribute to the discussion at hand, and does nothing to change the appearance of you being nothing more than a troll. Initiating personal attacks on people you have never met, calling them “kids” or “whiners” that you have met thousands of, and the general showing of a lack of maturity and knowledge with your posts makes it appear like you are the young one who has now bit off more than he can chew.

  12. All is just my experience and/or opinion…due to my love for the design process I once owned and operated a small studio from home for over 6 years; the resulting portfolio allowed me to earn on an average $4k a month, but do to the similar real world BS, jargon, and politics on this board I left the industry behind at the wonderful age of 28…I now earn 5 times the money and 4 times faster and most of all without the fricken headache, thank you Mr. Indice and Mrs. Pip. Let me also add I continue to design, but now within the realm of tangible environmental way faring systems…I may come back to the industry, who knows!!

  13. NOTE: BJ’s posts have been deleted for profanity. Both in his name and his posts.

    Disagreements are encouraged. Incorrect English is fine.

    But profanity will be deleted.

  14. My attitude towards Sitepoint has changed drastically after about two months of participating frequently in contests (both logo and web design).

    Got tired of dealing with:

    – Contest holders who abandon their contest, never declaring a winner or awarding a prize.

    – Contest holders who declare that none of the 300+ submissions to their $100 (minimum prize) logo contest are good enough. (LOL.)

    – Contest holders who don’t provide feedback, provide misleading feedback, or are otherwise inept communicators.

    – Contest holders who accept lower bids under the table from designers who are trying to avoid working on spec by underbidding.

    – Contest holders who display abysmal taste and choose terrible designs by unskilled hobbyists.

    – Contest holders who have no idea what they want and mislead entrants into refining a design that they don’t really like.

    – “Designers” who brazenly plagiarize copyrighted works, illustrations, templates, and other entrants’ submissions.

    – “Designers” who trash talk others when said plagiarism is exposed and cast a bad light on those with integrity and the courage to speak up.

    – “Designers” who are willing to underbid everyone, to the point of marginal pay, simply to “win” a contract–who have no concept of the value of the work but treat the process as some kind of game.

    – “Designers” who devalue the work of others by not respecting their own worth and demanding adequate pay for good work.

    – Overall atmosphere of cut-rate amateurism, hostility, philistinism, theft, etc.

    Two months of it is plenty for me. I’m done. I would rather temp-to-perm and be treated with the modicum of respect that comes along with working in the 9 to 5 world than waste any further time with that scum.

    Sitepoint could go a long way towards flushing out the corruption by simply implementing a mandatory escrow service. The most serious issue for me was deadbeat contest holders. Even the upfront fee the site charges to run a contest doesn’t seem to deter them anymore–it’s still cheaper than paying out the promised minimum prize. Forcing the contest holders to put the prize into escrow and finding some fair way to award it should the CH abandon the contest would remove a huge proportion of the fraud taking place there now–removing the contest abandonment and underbidding issues in one fell swoop.

    It still wouldn’t convince me to waste a minute more of my time at Sitepoint, though. I see a trend of good designers leaving that site as they realize it’s not worth their time. Maybe in the past, before the contests were so popular, it was a reasonable risk to compete against other talented designers and win a bit of extra cash now and then, but the good days (if there ever were any) are long gone.

    It makes me depressed about the future of design work in general.

  15. When a client hires a designer for a job there is an implied commitment to work with the designer in coming up with a creative solution. At the very least a creative brief is involved usually provided by the designer to the client before work begins.

    With spec work there is no such commitment.

  16. I found this a bit late, but it’s never too late to comment right? :)

    “- Contest holders who declare that none of the 300+ submissions to their $100 (minimum prize) logo contest are good enough. (LOL.)”


    “Even the upfront fee the site charges to run a contest doesn’t seem to deter them anymore–it’s still cheaper than paying out the promised minimum prize. Forcing the contest holders to put the prize into escrow and finding some fair way to award it should the CH abandon the contest would remove a huge proportion of the fraud taking place there now–removing the contest abandonment and underbidding issues in one fell swoop.”

    ***Before I continue, I must say I agree with you completely leahzero, wonderful post.***

    And for my comment on what I copied from leahzero’s post:

    I also think it is ridiculous that out of hundreds of designs, you could not like one of them enough to pay $100. The contest holder is saying that $100 was not worth how many hours of work? ***So why should they not be forced to place the $100 on hold with sitepoint/99designs.*** The contest holder knows they will be presented with hundreds of designs, and will pay the $100 eventually (or after 7 days max?) Do they really think they will get ripped off? There are hundreds (thousands?) of projects that made clients happy. They only charge $39, or less for other sites, because charging the full project price up front would scare future contest holders away, which is nonsense since spec works sites just about guarantee you will find a design you like, so why wait 7 days to pay for it?

    I don’t want to stray anymore on to the topic of how a spec work site should be ran as I do not support them after my bit of experience with them, just felt like sharing my frustration with sites like sitepoint/99designs as I was in a similar position as leahzero.

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