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I'm mad as hell… SPEC YOU!

Posted on February 23, 2011

UPDATE: Please read the comments section for a response from Domtar and Bryn Mooth, the editor of HOW.


I write about a lot of funny and lighthearted topics here in my blog. But today I want to express my opinion on a very serious issue for visual communications professionals: spec work, otherwise known as "crowdsourcing."

In its most common form, spec work happens when a company or individual hosts a "contest" in which artists (or writers or just about any other creative professionals) are invited to submit their best work for a given project. Out of the dozens/hundreds/thousands of ideas that are entered in the contest, they will choose one entrant to (sometimes) win a prize and have their work published.

To the average person, this many seem like a pretty good arrangement. The client gets lots of options to choose from and one lucky artist will get their work showcased. But in reality, this type of arrangement does nothing by devalue designers and produce subpar work for clients.

Let me elaborate:

DESIGNERS: Would you work for free — or the hope of possibly being compensated? Well, if you enter a contest, you just did. The client usually retains 100% ownership of any and all work submitted, regardless of if it was chosen as the winner. Technically, it is theirs to then use (or resell) whenever they want. So don't even think about re-purposing that logo design for (heaven forbid) another design contest. Also, how much is that "carrot" of a prize you're chasing? $100? $500? How much would you have charged to do that design normally? And what are your odds of actually winning that contest? Think about it. S-C-A-M.

CLIENTS: Let me break this down for you. Real designers have years of experience and always do a great deal of market research before they even think about creating a piece of creative; they charge a fair rate based on their skill set and will produce high-quality work with a strong rationale behind it. Wannabe designers (or worse, poor college students) have very little experience and are desperate for money and portfolio exposure; they will work for peanuts and produce work that they think is "pretty" without any logic to back it up. Which of these two types of designers do you think are going to be entering your design contest? Let me assure you, it's the latter. I've had more than one client come back to me after using a spec-work website like 99 Designs complaining of shoddy workmanship and poor communication. Wonder why...

With this understanding, I stand in full support of the NO!SPEC movement, whose mission is to educate the public about the dangers of speculative work. And while I agree that it is our job as creative professionals to preach the dangers of crowdsourcing to the general public, I was always under the assumption that people within our own field would know better than to try to solicit spec work. I was wrong.

See, that's the reason that I'm fuming mad as I write this article today. I recently learned that Domtar – maker of Cougar® paper — is hosting their own design contest to come up with the next ad(s) for their "iconic insert campaign." The prize? Nothing. Except that you'll be published in trade magazines. (From which they will financially benefit, not you.) Oh, and of course they retain the rights to all work submitted through the contest regardless of if it's chosen as the winner.

I'm sorry, but WTF?!?!? How could a such a big player in the printing industry —a company whose products designers use every single day — be promoting such blatant crowdsourcing that devalues the very product and professionals on whom they depend?!?!?!

And, if that wasn't outrageous enough, guess when/where the winner will be announced? The 2011 HOW Design Conference. (My jaw almost hit the damn floor when I read that one.) Yes, that's right folks. The winner Domtar's spec work contest will be announced at a conference designed to empower and inspire graphic artists, which is put on by a publication catering to creative professionals. Excuse my French, but that is un-fucking real. (Can you tell how pissed off I am?)

Oh, and guess who had signed up for that very conference the day before? Yup. That'd be me.

I wrote a letter of protest to the organizers of the HOW Design Conference, but I have yet to hear back from them. I made them aware that I would be publicizing this issue through my blog and other social media outlets, so I will update this post with their response. If I ever receive one.

Please forward this message on to everyone you know to make a strong stand AGAINST spec work and crowd sourcing.

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Topics: Working With An Agency

Jen Lombardi

Written by Jen Lombardi

Jen Lombardi is the Head Honcho and Creative Genius at Kiwi Creative, a creative marketing studio for B2B technology companies. She has an award-winning background in print design, but is also a marketing maven, wizard of the web, grammar geek and all-around fun person.

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