How Spec Work Undermines the Design Business

What’s Spec Work? In a few words it’s producing work and submitting it to a prospective client without ensuring that you will be paid and your rights will be respected.

Let’s take this scenario: you want to work for, so you design a new logo for them. You submit it in the hope they will like it and they may hire you for work. This may result in them signing a long-term contract with you, which you can use to also factor in the costs of the logo design. This is a common practice for some design agencies.

This practice has changed over time however and companies are crowdsourcing more and more work through contests, in the hope of luring many designers to submit drafts to them for free, while only one design will be picked.

So what is wrong with this practice?

How Do Spec Contests Exploit People?

First of all not all contests are evil. There are some that are created for fun or to allow designers to actually showcase their work. There are web sites and design forums that will let designers create fictitious designs following a brief, while the designers keep all of the rights on the design. Nobody is going to use those designs aside from the designers themselves who can include them in their portfolio and show how they followed the brief.

Spec Work Undermines Design

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Others contests can be quite tricky and will make designers think that they are good for them, while in reality they may get exploited. Let’s have a look at two types of competitions that follow that pattern.

The ‘Company X Wants a New Logo’ Contest

It doesn’t have to be a logo, it can be anything, although logos are the ones that are most commonly crowdsourced.

Such a contest will have rules similar to these:

  • Anyone can enter (it’s a great promotional opportunity for the designer!)
  • We will pay the winner X amount of money
  • We won’t pay the other participants, or may pay the second and third for a smaller sum
  • All rights of all designs submitted to the company will belong to the company and the designers cannot have any claim on them

Designers are usually lured by point 1 and 2 don’t realise the dangers of the rest of the rules. Furthermore while it’s the designers’ choice to spend time on a design without guaranteed payment, they show companies that their time and work is expendable because they are willing to do it for free.

On top of that if designers lose all the rights to their work, the company can utilise it at a later date without having to pay a penny. Even if they ‘modify it’ they still used that free resource they got through the design contest.

The For Fun But-Not-Really Contest

This is a competition where the company isn’t trying to get a design for a specific campaign. For example, the contest might be about creating T-shirt designs, but the company doesn’t specify if the T-shirts will actually be produced, or they might even say that they won’t.

Nothing wrong there, especially if the company is a big one and you can have your name associated with it if you win, right?

Well, then you read the small print which says, ‘We own all of the designs you submit.’

Now, that’s smart. Joe decides to submit his design, but he doesn’t win. He doesn’t own it anymore even if he withdrew his design, and his idea might be used in the future by that business and he will not be able to have any claim on that. He’ll find his work on ‘random’ office supplies and will realize that he’s been exploited. With a contest, a company can rack up hundreds of ‘great ideas’ for free, which is usually the point of creating these ‘fun competitions’.

So How Do You Create Your Portfolio?

  1. Trying to find entry level jobs where you can work under the wing of a more experienced designer is a start. If you studied design at a school, collect all of your best projects for showcase.
  2. Another idea is to work pro-bono. You get the opportunity to work with a client and gain experience on how to interact with one, do a proper marketing research for them and go through the feedback process with the client who will hone your skills – you will learn how to find the best solutions to communicate what the client wants while being creative.Some clients are hard to work with, but then again, you start to get an idea of how the whole process works.
  3. Find those websites and competitions that will not try to claim rights to your work, but don’t use that as the means to find work.

As you build your portfolio, you can start the hunt for prospective clients.

Good luck!

Written by Elise Lévêque

Elise Lévêque is an ambitious freelance translator with a passion for photography and related creative subjects, who has learned the hardships of working on her own through experience and trial and error. Here she shares her tips for Office King.

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