A Designer’s Worst Enemy: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing

Every time I hear about or see a competition for spec work or crowdsourcing I get angry… Seriously makes my heart beat faster. It’s a topic in design that is incredibly important and effects each and every one of us, so I’m going to spread some information about it. First, what do these words mean? The No Spec campaign defines spec work as this:

“Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by a designer to a prospective client/employer before taking steps to secure both their work and an equitable fee. Under these conditions, a designer will often be requested to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, the designer normally unwittingly loses all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a signed binding contract or agreement. The client/employer often uses this freely gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.”

In essence, a designer completes work for free with the promise of a “good portfolio piece” or “work in the future”. Spec work these days go hand in hand with a newer concept called “crowdsourcing”.

“Term coined by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine in 2006 as, “The act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.”

There are even design companies (which I won’t mention or link to, because I refuse to give them any recognition) that complete ALL of their design work via crowdsourcing. It usually takes the form of a competition, where the company advertises a cash “prize” if your design is picked. The work you complete that is not picked, goes unpaid.

I will admit, several years ago when I first moved here I was roped into a spec work project. I was interviewed first and told that I was only one of several people “competing” for the job, so it seemed like a safer bet. It wasn’t. I spend hours of time working on a project for a company that I was never paid for and never contacted by again. I suppose everyone has to learn their own lessons and I certainly learned mine.

I think the biggest issue with spec work today is that it’s not just young designers who are being duped into the promise of portfolio pieces and future work. It’s seasoned designers who are becoming desperate for work and remaining relevant through this tough economy. The problem is that crowdsourcing and spec work are cheapening the field (literally) and will continue a vicious cycle that will make it impossible for design work to ever be valued as it should.

Why did I choose to write about this today? I stumbled across a little article by No Spec that links to the US Department of Interior crowdsourcing their logo. This SICKENS me. Crowdsourcing harms the Graphic Design profession and freelancers in general, but to be supported by a U.S. Government branch? This isn’t a political blog, so I’m not going to open that can of worms, but I think the issue of spec work is something people to be aware of as more jobs are becoming freelance versus full time.

I posted my pic in support of the Anti Spec campaign here. You should too!

Does anyone else have a career that is being threatened or harmed by practices like crowdsourcing or modern technology?

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2 Comments on “A Designer’s Worst Enemy: Spec Work and Crowdsourcing”

  1. Ebony Brown says:

    I’m just breaking into the Graphic Design world as a self taught designer and so there is plenty more for me to learn, including how to grow thicker skin to take all the cringing dished-out to me from trained designers. To some degree I understand their regard. As far as your post is concerned, I feel infinitely grateful to have stumbled upon your perspective which is clearly shared by many. So thank you for posting it. It has brought me to a point of reflection, where I’m recalling my own possible “crowdsourcing” efforts, being a former university arts professional and now being on the receiving end of “crowdsourcing”, where I my work is subject. Sadly and unbeknownst to me, this post makes me think about how I still may be perpetuating a form of “crowdsourcing” in another discipline – I’m not certain of this though. For example, right now I’m supporting a playwright and performer who is seeking a muralist to create a New York City scape for his play. He put out an open call for submissions and from the sample work submitted, an artist will be selected. Something that is of the norm to me. I’ve been tweeting and supporting his efforts to get submissions for this mural project as a friend, and not as a company. And so, now I’m asking for further clarity because, I am still wrapping my mind around the points you’ve made. Would you identify my actions as a perpetuation of “crowdsourcing”? …And if so, what might you suggest?

  2. Ebony Brown says:

    Updated Comment (I hit enter too soon previously):

    I’m just breaking into the Graphic Design world as a self taught designer and so there is plenty more for me to learn, including how to grow thicker skin to take all the cringing dished-out to me from trained designers. I understand their regard to some degree. As far as your post is concerned, I feel infinitely grateful to have stumbled upon your perspective, clearly shared by many. Thanks for posting it. You’ve brought me to a point of reflection, where I’m recalling my own possible “crowdsourcing” efforts, being a former university arts professional and now being on the receiving end of it where I my graphic design work and photography is subject. Sadly and unbeknownst to me, I still may be perpetuating a form of “crowdsourcing” in another discipline (painting, etc.), but I’m not so sure of this look to you for further insight. For example, right now I’m supporting a playwright and performer who is seeking a muralist to create a New York City scape for his play. He put out an open call for submissions and from the sample work submitted, an artist will be selected; something of the norm to me. I’ve been tweeting and supporting his efforts to get submissions for this mural project as a friend, and not as a company. Would you identify my actions as a perpetuation of “crowdsourcing” or some form of negligible regard towards the artist who will submit work? …If so, what might you suggest?


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