Spec Work Is Evil / Why I Hate CrowdSpring

*Update* I get now almost daily emails describing serious ethical issues from past clients and designers from CrowdSpring, ranging from stolen work to child labor.  Stay far, far, far away!  It is not just me, you can see CrowdSpring by the numbers or Why Crowdspring Should be Ashamed of Their Business.   *Update*

Speculative work (asking someone to complete a job as an application is a loose promise to pay them if you want to) is evil. No way around it.  Check out No!Spec if you are unfamiliar with the subject.  Here is my take:

My Thoughts on Spec

If you are a company that needs a phenomenal designer / writer / developer / marketer, there are plenty out there. Take a look at their portfolio, if you like what they produce hire them.  Speculative work especially asked of designers, and some early stage designers fall for it, resulting in low quality work and experience for everyone involved.

If you need a great designer for a project, I know 20 designers that kick ass, email me.

Enter CrowdSpring

CrowdSpring is a site that attracts people with small budgets for projects ($250 for a company logo) and designers to come up with the designs, including revisions, for clients, with the chance of getting paid.  It is speculative work, almost at its worst.

Why is this such a big deal?

Design, unlike other industries is unique in that the intellectual property is put into your deliverable, and when the client asks for you everything you have to put into the project to think about purchasing.  I am a designer and this is by far the easiest way to end a friendship with me (asking me or someone else).

It is a major ethical flaw of both parties.

Let me say that again, a major ethical flaw. Some designers I have talked to have escalated this lack of ethics to be on par with some very serious crimes, while other see it as dumping oil down a rain drain.  A lot of people don’t take this lightly at all.

The AIGA puts it this way:

AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.

Rafe Needleman calls this process weasel economics.

Don’t Support It

If you see spec work happening, put an end to it, it is not the ethical thing to do. It is that simple.  Don’t be a weasel.  If someone views your ethics being this bad, they will start to actively not promote your company.  “Did you hear that CrowdSpring sucks?” etc.  Saving $2000 on your logo could cost your company a whole lot more.

But, Hey, They Can’t Be That Bad, Right?

I am fully in support of smart teams bringing disruptive practices to new markets.

Here is a response I got on twitter from the team at CrowdSpring:


Not understanding the difference between custom speculative work and selling art backs up my first thought that there is a major ethical vacuum and lack of understanding around design at CrowdSpring.

Going head to head and undermining/ underbidding an entire profession is not something to be done unless you can carry the torch for the industry in the name of good (INGdirect comes to mind).

Is There a Grey Area?

Yes, but very few. Volunteering. I do a lot of volunteer jobs that can be viewed as spec work. As a general rule I only volunteer for non profits that don’t have the energy/ time to look for a designer for a project.  I also see some grey when it comes to community contests where a professional designer is hired to take the winner and develop it to the final.

Early on in the discussion on twitter, this question was posed.


Bandwagon fallacies don’t work for a lot of things, including this.   If you are talking about ThreadLess, they have done a very good job a) paying their designers fair market value b) involving a community in the beauty of design that traditionally would have been left out and c) making clear that the designs are done for the love of design, not for a 3rd party to profit off of.

What Is the End Game

This is a question I often ask, in 10 years, if this becomes the industry standard, what will you have.  The answer is not more happy designers, or clients.  Design as a whole will be lesser if this model is used, and that will be a real shame.


In the end this is a classic example of a problem out there with someone solving it in the wrong way.  If the problem is clients having a hard time connecting with designers (who may be just beginning and need to build portfolios), then make a site where designers can build their portfolios working on volunteer projects and showcasing their work to quality companies looking for great design.

From my short interaction with the team, I would put in a vote of no confidence that they will do the right thing.





179 responses to “Spec Work Is Evil / Why I Hate CrowdSpring”

  1. […] checked my stats today to see the crowdspring post has now had over 5000 views, quite a few from search.  I googled the term, I show up as #5, […]

  2. gavin Avatar

    nice post andrew. I have been browsing crowdspring and found simple amateur mistakes such as a logo not working across different mediums (eg gradients and other photoshop effects) not being picked up by a buyer. Also die-cutting for business cards – do buyers know that this can be very expensive? In hiring an experienced designer proper consultation can take place and the designer can be held for f*ckups when the project goes to print. And I noticed contributors doing more than one revision of a logo – buyer likes this and this and please try this- and in the end there is only one winner. a recipe for disaster but there is always the lure of the dollar – for a south african (like me) $500 is a lot of money and I never have to take pesky phone calls from the client:)

  3. Matt Avatar

    Hey Andrew. Really great post. I'm working a project in this area at the moment and would appreciate your thoughts. I'm curious…Do you think the value of design work lies in the execution or the idea itself ? Its often a blurry line between craft and concept, and I wonder if 'spec work' was based on the sourcing of ideas, rather than the crafting of these, if we could maintain the design standards needed. This would also help protect 'tradional' agency models which are based on offering the best talent and the best production offering ? Matt.

  4. andrewhyde Avatar

    ARRRRRR…. comments are missing here… I am doing my best to get them back up by manually entering them… the dates on these should be 3 months ago.

  5. JoeTaxpayer Avatar

    I understand the conflict between the standard business model and spec work. But I don't understand the accusation of 'unethical'. The designers who choose to participate are doing this knowing they have a 1/25 chance at best. The buyers know that they risk lower quality (perhaps) in exchange for a larger selection. If I choose to use CrowdSpring, it would not save me money, I would have to bid at least the $250 that LogoWorks or LogoCare would charge. I've emailed graphic artists who offered logos and an appealing portfolio only to get no reply. In one case I wrote “your logo for XYZ company looks like a style that would be great for my site, I'm sure we can work together, please let me know when you can schedule a project for me.” Didn't even reply with “too busy” or a price he'd charge. I was likely willing to pay whatever his rate was.

  6. marc Avatar

    Following the discussion, it amazes my how casually terms such “designer” and “design” are used. This is American Idol to the Graphic Industry: clueless amateurs playing professionals, just because they know the difference between a toaster and a PC. Face it: most results are rubbish, and quantity does not replace quality. Get an education people – or work at McD

  7. Boulder Photographer Avatar
    Boulder Photographer

    I just have one question. If professional designers can do that much better than the hobbyists or amateurs, couldn't a professional go onto Crowdspring and just clean up? Couldn't they win the bid on every project by being above and beyond everyone else? Just as the best photographers on iStock sell WAY more than the others.

    I think this model does open up a completely new market, like a previous poster said about a farmer's truck logo. This new market benefits from lower prices and ease of use. But IMO, there will always be a market for higher-end designers. Just like Annie Leibovitz hasn't been affected by iStock(I'm assuming on this).

  8. foggygurl Avatar

    Very interesting discussion. I generally find that a client who asks for spec work isn't willing to pay for quality. They also often try to get us to define their project specs for them and give them a project plan as part of the spec. I'll do this, but charge a flat fee for the requested spec work. If it doesn't suit them, they keep the work and my team gets paid.

    I think asking for spec from a qualified professional designer is a sign of in-experience or at least lack of confidence in their ability to communicate effectively. Just say no.

  9. san diego designer Avatar
    san diego designer

    Luckily, I am happily employed with a fantastic design company in san diego.

    But when I was looking for jobs I would get so annoyed with potential employers asking for speculative work in interviews. I've never done Spec work, I am a professional, I went to college and have my B.A. in graphic design. I am skilled and am not going to work for free. I think is is very unprofessional and rude when I'm asked to develop a design that could be used/stolen without any payment in order to get a job. My portfolio accurately portrays my style. If a potential employer asks me to do spec work I simply tell them that it is not in my best interest and I tell them I am no longer interested in working for a company that has no respect for graphic designers. If I were a programmer they would never ask me to create a specific software that they needed and then they might hire me.

    right now Earthtrade.com is asking for spec work on craigslist

    “PLEASE SUBMIT YOUR RESUME and Salary History. Include portfolio pieces and having an online portfolio is a plus.
    If seriously interested in this opportunity please prepare the following project. DETERMINATION AND PASSION ARE QUALITIES THAT WE CONSTANTLY STRIVE TO FIND, WE WILL NOT VIEW ANY RESUMES THAT DO NOT INCLUDE A SAMPLE :
    Make a full color 2 sided postcard that is set up for mailing purposes. The postcard will be for people who do not already know what a water ionizer is and we are trying to get them interested in one.
    On the front side design an attractive piece for a water ionizer machine. For more information on what an ionizer is please go to http://www.lifeionizers.com.
    On the back side make up content with a few bullet points on what an ionizer is and why someone should purchase this product. Leave room for postage, an address, etc. Please save project as a PDF and email to address provided in this ad. We look forward to hearing from you!”

    A PDF? What the F@asdf?
    In this format they can print these and use this free design without even paying anyone…
    What Jerks.

    Also AutoFusion asked me to design a website for them and then they might consider me for a position- I said that it was not in my best interest to work for free and if they wanted to know what i was capable of then they could check out my portfolio… I told them they could contract me for a design and then hire me if we were a good match but they were asses about it and said they were uninterested in working with me because I wouldn't do a “simple” website design for them for free.

    Shady Companies:
    Auto Fusion (san diego)
    Earth trade (san diego)

  10. Crowded Avatar

    INTERNET MAD LIB: This year, <Established Vertical> is being disrupted by <insert adverb> upstarts and the professionals whose livelyhoods are being threatened are <insert adjective>.

    Stockbrokers, real estate agents, photographers, journalists, classified ad guys, graphic designers…..disrupted. We all seem to love the economic and technological advantages that this Internet thingy provides…until it starts sniffing around our bank accounts and threatens to take bread off OUR table.

    One of my best friends is a designer and hates crowdspring. But I recall her loving how much money she saved using Istockphoto instead of Getty…..she didnt feel too bad for the high-end photogs who were losing business to this crowdsourced photo licensing site.

  11. Tom Powell Avatar
    Tom Powell

    It seems by the rationale presented in the post, then, ALL competitions in which competitors must submit a completed work/object/design/etc. in order to win a prize are unethical. X Prize? Architectural competitions? Industrial design competitions? Essay competitions? You name it. The analogy is not airtight, but by extending the thought process that's what you arrive at. This is, in essence, spec work that people do for a living, in many cases.

    Regardless, I'm a huge fan of great design and feel it should be well compensated. Whenever upfront work is called for there is a HUGE danger of unethical behavior from the client side. This is pretty common in many businesses. (Come to think of it, I used to work in IT consulting. We would always have a few calls before the project in order to talk through what the problem was and how we could help. Sometimes clients would have several calls, get some value out of input from analysts, and then call off the project, never having paid a dime. It sucks but it happens and is just expected in the sales process.)

    However, take a small company that can't afford much more than a couple hundred bucks for design work: a mediocre quality design from a site like crowdspring is better than nothing at all and high quality, more expensive designers haven't lost any business. The company would never even consider a high quality, more expensive designer.

    Not to mention the changing dynamics of globalization and access to talent worldwide…. Won't get into that whole thing.

    It's a fuzzy area.

  12. Ross Kimbarovsky Avatar
    Ross Kimbarovsky

    Hi Andrew – I read with interest your blog post and the discussion that follows. You took the time to write, and I wanted to take a few minutes to respond. I respect that you have an opinion about spec work and about crowdSPRING. As much as we would love crowdSPRING to be loved by all, we understand that very few companies are so lucky. Having said that – we spent nearly a year thoroughly researching, talking to hundreds of designers around the world, and interviewing buyers (from small start-ups to the Fortune 500). We saw an opportunity to think differently about creative services, to innovate and offer a new model that could radically change how some companies buy such services. We recognize that our model is disruptive – as your post points out. But it is also a platform for change – a way for millions of creatives around the world to participate, not just in graphics design, but also fashion design, product design, site design, video and audio, and many other creative fields. And our model is fair –we’ve built a level playing field where people can compete on the basis of their talent, not the size of their offices, where they went to school, or fancy brochures. There is nothing wrong with any of those things – and there will always be a need for high end professional designers. But those designers generally won’t do work for the 500,000 start-ups founded in the United States every month, or the million+ around the world, because those companies have very limited budgets for such work. And there is no dispute that the industry is suffering, the world economy is suffering, and the facts are pretty staggering: Starting salaries for designers are in the lower $30K (USD). Many are out of work. Nearly every single designer wants to freelance and 30% of designers are freelancers. Designers without an education can’t get internships and those who can’t afford an education can forget about design. Designers without a portfolio can’t find jobs or clients and thus have limited means to build a portfolio with strong testimonials. Those who try to find work on Elance, Guru, GetAFreelancer, or any similar sites are outbid by designers from countries where the economic situation is far worse than in the U.S. – where a designer will bid to design a logo for $25. And those prices certainly don’t help the profession and frankly, don’t help the client in most cases.

    I was a bit taken back by the concluding remark in your post about doing the right thing. Perhaps you’ll agree that 140-character Twitter conversation is not a real measure of a company or its people.

    There’s been remarkable opposition to change in many industries. I recently wrote a blog post about new marketing initiatives in the music industry, for example (http://blog.crowdspring.com/2008/06/30/industry… initiatives received very similar criticisms, not unlike those in your post – people argued that those initiatives will destroy the music industry and the profession.

  13. Ross Kimbarovsky Avatar
    Ross Kimbarovsky


    When we founded crowdSPRING (we launched May 2008), we spent a great deal of time thinking through the problems designers had working online. They take huge risks and on other sites, are often scammed when the buyer takes the deliverables and never pays. And we built rules and processes to address such problems. For example, we require buyers to escrow all funds with us before their project is posted. We make NO exceptions. When buyers “abandon” projects – this sometimes does happen – a panel of senior executives at crowdSPRING selects the top design and awards 100% of the money. And we only charge buyers (our commission is 15% – we don’t charge designers a penny). Every project on crowdSPRING is protected by a customized legal contract that defines the rights of the buyer and designer (and we take into account the countries of the buyer and designer to include the proper language for the protection of the intellectual property being bought and sold). Both our user agreement and that contract specifically state that the designer retains ALL rights to their work until the buyer pays them in full for such work. Incidentally, prior to co-founding crowdSPRING, I spent 13 years representing small, midsize and Fortune 100 companies around the world in intellectual property disputes.

    Designers chose when and how much to participate in any project and can leave at any time (withdrawing their entries). Most designers contact the buyers to get a better feel for the buyer’s needs and engage in a conversation via Private Message or email to further define the work. Many designers do quite a bit of research before submitting entries – research about the client, the competitive landscape and the audience for the project. Many of our designers have found follow-on work for the same clients and have found new clients when those companies reviewed the work on crowdSPRING (we’ve built a nice section for portfolios, for example, and plan numerous improvements to make that section an even more powerful tool for our community). And unlike other marketplaces who object to such follow-on work, we actually encourage it. Frankly – that’s one of the benefits of working on crowdSPRING and my mailbox is full of people thanking us for giving them an opportunity to find new clients around the world – including from professional designers in the United States. We’ve done many more things but this note is already lengthy, so I won’t mention them. Rest assured, we haven’t stopped innovating.

    Thanks for providing a chance to respond and to speak to your readers through this comment. I do hope we have an opportunity to meet so that you can get a better sense of “the team”. Every designer, just like nearly every other working person, has a choice of where to work, and we’re pleased that so many have chosen to work on crowdSPRING. It’s not for everyone, we know. But there’s a groundswell of untapped talent – millions of people – for whom crowdSPRING provides a creative outlet. And we’re not ashamed by this. To the contrary – we’re humbled that buyers from 30 countries have posted nearly 300 projects, designers from 125+ countries (over 3,500) have joined, and we’ve paid nearly $100,000 USD in awards. And that’s just during the 65 days we’ve been in business.

    Ross Kimbarovsky

  14. Andy Angelos Avatar
    Andy Angelos

    Speculation is essential to most subjective businesses, design included. This speculation is connected to the difficulty of quantifying an act of expression rather than discerning the price of a commodity. Musicians, authors, and even Web entrepreneurs face the same daunting reality of creating work with only a small POSSIBILITY of reward.

    Crowdspring is no different. If anything, Crowdspring ensures the demand half of the economic relationship by requiring payment upfront.

    Is the quality less? Maybe. Do decreased prices hurt professional designers? Probably. But for the “small minority” of world citizens not familiar with design standards or the power of the Internet, Crowdspring provides a method for easily creating respectable work.

    Musicians compose before distribution or sales. Authors write before inking publishing deals. Bloggers write without guarantee of readership or advertising. The Wright Brother's flew without the concept of commercial airline (a stretch, but loosely connected). And now designers design without definite rewards for their work. Such is progress…

  15. J. M. K.  Avatar
    J. M. K.

    I think I'm starting to see where the difference is. I think there are two questions/stances on the issue that might be getting mixed up. One of us is centering our discussion around one of them, and the other one is talking about the other.
    1) Is there a deliverable involved?
    2) Was there effort/labor expended?

    My views are from the perspective of #2. Yes, there is effort involved in creating your “entry” for the spec work. But the way that site works (unless I'm mistaken) is that there is no deliverable involved *unless* the two parties agree to a contract. The website holds the design “in escrow” and only allows a low-resolution preview of the work. I don't have any experience with CrowdSpring, but this is a similar system to LogoWorks, which I've followed for a while. (although they only use a maximum of 4 designers per client)

    I want to be very clear about my stance on this: If the client *steals* that work or creates derivative works based on it, or in any other way breaks the law with regard to the designer's implicit copyright, that is 100% absolutely no question unethical and wrong. Period.

    But if the client looks at the work, isn't interested, and moves on to a different designer who created work that more closely represents what he/she is looking for, then I see nothing wrong with that. The designer knew before any effort was expended that his/her design might not be chosen. They made the choice to expend the effort.

    I see a problem with the analogy between creatives and docs/lawyers/accountants. Those three have a deliverable for their efforts that *directly* benefits the client. In the case of the creative, there isn't a deliverable, only the effort expended (thus the analogy to a job interview).

    *If* there is a deliverable that benefits the client, then the creative deserves to be compensated, no question. Again, don't get me wrong…..Violating the copyright of the creative in any way is *not* acceptable. The client must choose the moral high road and must not benefit from the design in any way without compensation to the creative.

    Here's another example that I've personally been a part of, and is the accepted modus operandi of the industry: Landscape design.

    When you hire someone to come in and do your landscaping, you *always* get their drawing/rendering of what they would do for you. It's not enough to see what they've done for other people, you need to see their design for your specific plot of land. Clearly, you don't get to keep the drawing/rendering, but they still expended the effort to create it. If you get five designs and choose just one company, then those other four have expended the effort without seeing compensation for it. But they knew there was a chance of that when they agreed to show you their design. Good, bad, or indifferent, it is the way the process works.

    To me, there isn't a difference between this and what these other sites are doing, save for the fact that there are more creatives involved.

    So maybe that's the answer?…..limit the number of creatives so that there is a higher chance they will win the client.

    BTW…I'm not in any way associated with any of these sites, and don't wish to be associated with Jake T, below. I'm trying to keep this discussion free of emotion and discuss only the facts involved. I am not pointing fingers. I am not saying “You're Wrong”. I'm simply trying to understand.

    Thank you for engaging me on this and responding in kind. It is very appreciated!

  16. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    It is not sustainable. Someone is subsisting for the free work. Whether that is pirated copies of photoshop, fonts or working a sidejob, someone is paying. Design is a profession, and their is some ethics involved in dealing with respecting it as that.

    Look at advertising in the mid 90's. Spec model gone a muck. Find me a designer that has done spec for more than a year.

    Spec is wrong, for everyone involved, not just the client, designer not doing spec, or the firm looking to hire.

  17. Luca Avatar

    First of all, thank you for not calling me a sockpuppet… 😉

    You are correct that 99% of designers don't get a cent. However 100% get a shot at getting $500. Everybody knows that going in, and that chance of winning the $500 must be better than the alternatives or otherwise they would not participate. I don't think that anybody who submits designs through those websites would like to see them disappear, and therefore I doubt that they would welcome you as an advocate. So I truly don't see your “problem” with that mechanism.

    Let's talk about the client side. I don't mean to be demeaning to the vast majority of small business owners, but do you really believe that a good designer would be justified for, say, an electrical contractor's business? Do you think that a lot of plumbers would benefit from having their “core identity” brought to light by a “real” designer? I'd say that they just need a cost-effective, decent-looking logo.

    Now let's talk about costs. If you live in Boulder's startup world and you rub elbows with lots of world-class designers, getting a phenomenal logo for $500 is probably possible. But if you are a farm equipment dealer in a small town how do you find a good designer? You probably end up stumbling on a moonlighting high school art teacher who will produce something way cheesier than what you can get via CrowdSpring. Or you'll end up spending a whole lot more than $500 in your own time to find a better designer (who will probably look down upon your business and ask for well more than $500).

    You say that many industries have been burned by the spec model — what examples do you have in mind? Taylors have certainly been burned by the “spec model” of manufactured suits, and their industry has been decimated — is that a bad thing?

    “Spec work is wrong” — it sounds like it's wrong only for those whose business model is being disrupted. If you don't like the rules of the game, don't play. But please don't call “unethical weasels” those who decide to play. If insults are your currency, don't expect to buy understanding.

    * 22

  18. Joe R Avatar
    Joe R

    This is hilarious! I bet there are a ton of other things we could focus our energy on right now in the best interest of ethics other than spec work. Hmmm, let's start with like world hunger, poverty, etc etc.

    Look, here's the bottom line. I'm a designer. If I want to crank out a new homepage design for company x in the hopes that I'll get paid, I'll do it. If not, I won't. It's my choice. And, if I do decide to go for it, it'll be some really good sh#t. Why? Because I can't design any other way. I can't speak for dude over in country z though, but I'm not here to either.

    And that's ultimately my point. It's like religion. Shouldn't this be a personal relationship with me and my higher power? In this case, someone I want to pay me for my work? Don't impose your ideologies and beliefs on me everyone that hates spec-work. Don't try to change me, you won't. Like I said, if i want to design for free, I will. If I don't, I won't.

    That's what I love about freedom of choice, of decision making, and of opportunity. CrowdSpring has created a platform where people have an opportunity to create and get paid. So what if I don't! Big deal. Not the end of the world. I won't die if I don't win that $250 logo project. Nor will anyone else.

    Seriously, spec work is not global issue with profound implications lol!

    I actually have a good-paying full-time job. Maybe I'll Robinhood it on cS. If I win a project, all proceeds to to charity. If I don't, whose loss is it other than the 3 hours I spent on that logo? No ones.

    If I were to Robinhood it, would the ethical issue still exist? I wonder.

  19. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    If you look at the front page example they use, there were 108 designs for a $500 project. 99% of the people that touched your project are not getting a cent. That is the problem.

    “”On the other side, what if a company can't afford a truly talented designer?” Then they shouldn't be in business.” I didn't mention elitist here, nor did I say you needed to pay an arm and a leg. The design of your core identity is a cost, just like paying your phone bill. Spec work doesn't belong here.

    In my experience, $500 can get you a kicking logo, the same price as sending it out to spec. Spec is wrong. Not having a VC round for design is not what I mean at all. Find a quality designer out there that fits your budget, it will help you in the long run.

    Many industries have toyed around with the spec model, and many industries have been burned.

  20. Luca Avatar

    This does not make a whole lot of sense to me. A lawful contract among consenting adults “unethical”? You say that there is no compensation, but that's not true — the best competitor does get the money, and everybody gets a shot at that. If somebody steals a competitor's idea without paying that's a different deal, that's breach of contract.

    You say that businesses that can't afford a “real” designer don't deserve to be in business. That's utter elitist nonsense. The world is not just VC funded tech companies. In the real world there are a lot of small business owners who have the right to have a half way decent logo on their business card instead of their business name written in an ugly font, if they can have it for $250.

    What about the kid in India or Costa Rica that works through websites like CrowdSpring and 99designs? No matter how talented he is, that kid won't be hired by the next hot VC funded startup to design their website. Doing spec work is the best shot he has at making money doing something he likes to do, and if he's good he can make very decent money compared with the alternatives he has.

    If the “traditional” design community wants to fight the threat of a new business model that brings a lot of new competitors into the marketplace, that's fine. But please call it for what it is — a protectionist effort. Don't call a plumber who wants a decent logo on his truck an unethical weasel. Don't call the kid in Costa Rica who's trying to make a few bucks an unethical weasel.

    I came into this debate with no axe to grind, and with an open mind. All I've seen from you is arguments sorely lacking foundations, and unjustified heavy-handed accusations. I must say that my mind is closing fast…

  21. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    Good questions, really, thanks for bringing them up.

    Is this unethical? “It is a major ethical flaw of both parties.” is what I wrote, more so from the client IMHO. Not ethical to ask for professional work for free, not ethical to offer it undermining yourself without legal protections.

    With regard to waitstaff, there are cultural norms and labor laws to protect them. It is rare to get stiffed and you still get a paycheck with minimum wage. With spec work, if you have 20 designs submitted, you have a 95% chance of getting stiffed.

    With a job interview it is rare that you provide full and complete intellectual property during your half day. Your not asked to provide 'billable' work during the interview, and if that work was used, it would be unethical. These norms are pretty clearly outlined.

  22. Stepan Mazurov Avatar
    Stepan Mazurov

    http://www.99designs.com/ those guys are in the same space as croudspring but only initial payment you make is towards the listing, you have 0 commitment. With croudspring at least they take that money and hold it, so their purpose is not to provide a place for you to steal somebody's work, but to simply pick the closest and most talented person for the job. People are not forced to do this and its a great opportunity to not only land that first job, but most likely gain a client for a very long time. Which leads to referrals and leads to all of their contacts and so on and so forth. I would love to hear a different option assuming you cannot use referrals.

    When we were looking for a copywriter on GURU, we simply picked the one that put some thought into the project by writing a sample article (we did not ask for a custom sample she decided to provide one to us), something that started at about 200 a month now grown many times over that.

    Spec work is not always bad, its a great starting point for new professionals looking to make connections and grow their business. Imagine if you are a full time designer with 0 clients, you have nothing better to do than to create something in hopes of getting paid, why not do it?

  23. Jmartens Avatar

    Interesting post, I appreciate your insights.

    I didn't have an opinion on this issue before your write up and now I'd say I am generally with you.

    The only thing I question is the fact that we have ignored the forces at work here. Isn't this an example of the impact the web (and globalization, etc) has on an industry? I'm not saying its a good influence but it does impact things.

    The impact is similar to file sharing…technology has transformed consumer expectations. For example, I rarely buy music anymore and when I do its a download. Good for me? Yes. Good for the artists? Probably not. Good for the music industry? Tough to say.

    Again, I am directionally with you here….I just think its a natural progression and in this case we will probably sacrifice quality and creativity.

  24. J. M. K. Avatar
    J. M. K.

    A couple of questions…
    1) Are these designers being forced to do the work, or are they free to choose whether or not to accept an offer? (or even work with this company at all?)
    2) Is this a bad way for a designer to build a portfolio of work?
    3) If designers as a group don't like this kind of work, how do sites like this exist?
    4) As I understand it, the problem is that designers spend their time & efforts to create work that may not pay them. Is that understanding correct? If so, is that any different from being an intern? Interns are always paid less to do the same or similar work as their full-time colleagues, but in general are in it for the work experience. The resume building. The networking.

    A similar situation would be a photographer who is building her portfolio. She will generally do work for a lesser price in the beginning of her career so that she has examples to show clients down the road. She doesn't always keep her prices that low, she's simply “paying” for the experience. She chooses when to make the jump (based on what her clientele will support).

    Please note…I don't have feelings one way or another on this issue. I'm simply trying to gather more information so I can form an intelligent opinion. I think everyone should get fair compensation for their work. But who defines “fair”? If designers don't want to participate, then they don't. Clearly some of them do, or sites like Crowdspring or LogoWorks wouldn't exist. Maybe it's a stepping stone for the designer. Maybe it's a stay-at-home mom who thinks she's pretty good at drawing and wants to find out if she's “got what it takes”. Is there another way she would go about hawking her talents? Even the No-Spec site says that:
    “The only requirement for participation is putting the appropriate value on your profession.”
    Who defines that value if not the designers themselves? Choosing to participate or not is your call as a designer. Isn't that the beauty of the free market system?

    On the other side, what if a company can't afford a truly talented designer? What if they are bootstrapping and are looking for the best they can get for $x ?

    I will absolutely be the first to admit that I'm not 100% clear on what this issue is. Perhaps my understanding is wrong, or I'm missing a vital component to the story. I'm truly not trying to be contrarian. My perspective is simply that you have to “pay your dues” upfront to gather the experience it takes to charge full market value for a product or service. However, I'm open to having that perspective changed, given the proper evidence. 🙂

    'Looking forward to being enlightened. Thanks!

  25. John F Crosotn III Avatar
    John F Crosotn III

    Even Jeffery Zeldman talked about NOT doing spec work back last August. http://www.zeldman.com/2007/08/14/dont-design-on-

    Being a developer if I did spec work it would be like coding a whole website or web application for free before they said ok.

  26. Scott Avatar

    I totally agree with all you've said and I'm not surprised with Crowdspring's lack of knowledge in that area, or at least bad examples.

    An ad agency I once worked for put a sizable amount of money, time, and staff on spec workfor one potential, large client to try to win their business, only to get burned, and see that potential client use their ideas anyway.

    As a designer with designer friends who do these kind of things too I've realized that it's not only the people like Crowdspring, but also the designers who don't care, aren't trained designers, or are just not educated in what effect this has on our profession.

  27. Laura Avatar

    If they don't understand the difference between iStockphoto and what they're doing, then I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them. That shows a willful ignorance about what they're doing; I suspect that they know exactly what they're promoting.

  28. Ryan Imel Avatar
    Ryan Imel

    Right there with you. Following you on Twitter now, btw.

  29. joshua Avatar


  30. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    1) Forced- no. Also, in most cases, not paid either.
    2) YES.
    3) A lot of them don't exists for a reason
    4) Interesting connection with interns. We are talking about design as a profession here.

    Great point with the photographers, but building a portfolio with discounted rates is different than being one of five photographers at a wedding, with only one getting paid.

    “On the other side, what if a company can't afford a truly talented designer?” Then they shouldn't be in business. Hiring a designer will make you more in the longrun, if you short simple costs like this it will show in the long run. There are many tricks with bootstrapping, trading, offering other things of value, that are fine, but asking to do work on spec is wrong.

  31. Jake T Avatar

    @J.M.K. I applaud you for seeking the facts. You've asked some excellent questions and this shows that your approach to this issue is thoughtful and intelligent. And not surprisingly – you aren't getting many facts in response. You're hearing the same arguments professional phographers made when iStockphoto came to the scene. Yes – the same ones selling their work on iStockphoto today.

    @Andrew – Really? If a company can't afford to pay high design rates they shouldn't be in business? This is a truly condescending attitude and if it's shared by this so called “professional” design community a big shame. Designers are free to chose where they work, what they do and how they do it. Just like every other person and every profession. You don't like it? Don't do it. And the fact that you paint this as a “major ethical flaw” tells me more about what's really behind the objections. It's tougher to compete when you have so much talent around the world competing against you. So you just claim that they are committing something like “a very serious crime”? What utter nonsense. Can you list the companies that have attained great riches by paying their designers in gold bullion? Hiring a designer will make you more in the long run? Where is the evidence to support this? Remarkably, there is not one fact in your article. I'd call that weasel debating. And here is the evidence on the other side: millions of talented people. Artists, musicians, graphic designers, illustrators, writers, fashion designers, landscape designers, product designers, photographers. If you think statements like “companies shouldn't be in business if they can't afford” high priced designers will keep those people at bay – you are wrong. And that there are millions of people willing to create – and succeeding – is huge vote of no confidence for all the drivel spun by the so called no-spec “professionals.”

  32. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    “Speculation is essential to most subjective businesses”

    Really? I've yet to see one.

    Would have to say you got off on the wrong foot here, logic thereafter is very flawed.

  33. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    It is not like spec work is new, it has been a long fight. Largely, it has been a dying trend due to its self destructing manner. Every once and a while it will resurface, then go dormant.

    Could your friend get sued for using Istockphoto? No? Using spec, you are opening up to a range of suits. Win or lose, you still lose.

    Like I have said many times before, I fully support disruptive models, but can't when there are large ethical and legal ramifications, which spec work, and companies like CrowdSpring fits into.

  34. James Kurtz III Avatar
    James Kurtz III

    Spec work is not only unethical, but ultimately the client that chooses this route will not end up with the best design solution possible. So they think they are saving money, but in actuality they are getting a product that will not properly suit their needs and may lead to loss of business. It’s an all around bad idea for every party involved. To young designers and to design-buyers thinking of getting involved in a spec work situation. STOP! Don’t do it.

  35. Rachael Hampton Avatar
    Rachael Hampton

    I agree with your blog post Andrew and your comments. It just sad that other designer don’t get it.

  36. Luca Avatar

    Your words sound very familiar, because that’s what the traditional software industry says about open source.

    The parallels between open source and spec work are extremely limited even in my mind. Some key contributions are sponsored by corporations. World-class programmers contribute to open source projects. However traditional software people do think that it is not sustainable. “How are these programmers paying for their computers and compilers? They work another job, so someone is paying.” There are lots of people who think that open source is against the interests of the software profession as a whole, and because of that think that it is unethical.

    Or take painters, as another example. Some aren’t very good, or are just starting, and feel lucky if they can sell their work for the cost of the canvas. Some produce pieces of art sold for millions of dollars. The ones who aren’t very good have all the rights to keep doing what they do, because they like what they do, because the only sure way to never become successful is not trying, or maybe because they do make a little bit of money after all.

    Not every kid who wants to become a designer can go to a good design school, or intern with a good mentor. How are these kids supposed to get started? They now have a way to build a portfolio, to learn what works and what doesn’t, and then move on to the next step up in the profession.

  37. Rick Turoczy Avatar
    Rick Turoczy

    This reminds me of a short story I have yet to write, where writers, photographers, developers, and designers are paid top dollar to do their work. But doctors, lawyers, and accountants are asked to do work for free or with the promise of future reward.

    Professionals are professionals. And they should be paid for their effort.

  38. brianburns Avatar

    don’t leave writers out of this. I get as many, if not more, similar requests from similar people. They all want free work (and they all suck).

  39. 1115media Avatar

    Echos my thoughts. I've found very good designers by using these services and have built relationships with them. It has been a much better experience for all parties than hiring a single agency and go through change after change after change. In a recession where services and products (like design and ad serving) have become commodities, putting your best work out there in a social environment is not unethical, it's smart.

  40. Joe Avatar

    If you don't agree with CrowdSpring, give them a NON-vote here:

  41. Victoria Merriman Avatar

    This is a fascinating discussion. I own a small boutique design firm, and my 8 years in business, I have never done spec work, would never do spec work, and have a hard time believing that anyone would even consider doing it.

    But I can't say that I think the whole thing is unethical. Clearly there are people willing to post their work to CrowdSpring for a mere chance at earning a few hundred dollars. Maybe they are unemployed designers with a lot of time on their hands, or students looking to build their portfolio. Maybe they have poor sales skills and can't get clients of their own. Maybe they live somewhere with a much lower cost of living than Boston. At any rate, if both the designers and the clients get what they want and need out of the deal, and crowdSPRING can make some money in the process, then it sounds like a win-win-win situation.

    I am not worried about crowdSPRING competing with professional design firms like mine. Clients work with us because they want a consultative, collaborative working relationship in addition to excellent, custom-tailored results. Then there are others who simply cannot afford or do not value what we do, and that is totally fine too – everyone has different priorities.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  42. Rich Avatar

    Andrew, can you ban Ross from posting links to his website? The guy is a blow hard who cannot get it through his head that his business model is ethically WRONG. Don't let him promote himself, he certainly doesn't let anyone criticize him on his website. As every post I've made in his forums has been deleted. (note: in no way were they objectionable except to Ross himself. Nothing more that mild suggestions that you don't work for free, and allow crowdSPRING to take advantage of you.)

  43. Greene'sGraphics Avatar

    I just want to say f*** crowdSPRING. They have no clue what there doing when it comes to reports of cheating. I had a similar idea as someone else and the kid reported me so what did crowdSPRING do? They deleted my account and it took a week for them to tell me it was because they had several reports “2” that I was stealing other peoples ideas and claiming them as my own. Of course they were my own, I made them. But they looked similar to other peoples so they removed my account and all my entries. 4 of which I was going to win. the site should be shut down because there are a bunch of retards running it.

  44. Ross Kimbarovsky Avatar

    @Rich – Your posts were deleted on crowdSPRING's forums because you were permanently removed as a user from our community for repeatedly violating our rules. You were attempting to post deragatory comments as we were in the process of removing your account.

    @Greene'sGraphics – I am sorry that you feel that way. You were permanently removed from our community for repeatedly violating our rules. As I explained to you, both crowdSPRING and the entire crowdSPRING community values intellectual property rights. We don't allow cheating – we have serious rules related to the protection of intellectual property and we enforce them. We received numerous (far more than the 2 you suggest) reports from many users and I personally reviewed each report and each of the entries you submitted.

    I understand you are disappointed. I am too. We don't like to remove users from the crowdSPRING community, but as I explained to you – will not hesitate to do so to protect the community.

    Incidentally, we have a panel on this subject at SXSW – whether spec work is evil. We hope those of you who will be at SXSW will consider attending. I believe that the panel will be on March 15.


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  45. andrewhyde Avatar

    As an update, I am getting about an email a day with complaints on the staff at crowdspring. (if you google crowdspring or crowdspring sucks, I am in the top 5.)

    Sad to see what could have been a great concept (design and client matchmaker with hosted portfolio) has come to.

    Just shows what happens when you try to mask spec work as community.

  46. Doug Avatar

    So I 'hired' these designers do do work for me and nothing looked good. I showed it to my secretary and she wasn't impressed either.

    She did a logo in Word and it was PERFECT. I wanted to give the prize to her because the other deisngers used all these weird colors and everything. Really stupid. My company name is my logo. Idiots. Putting a square thing next to the words. PEOPLE CAN'T READ SQUARE THINGS.

    Won't use them again. They wouldn't pay my secretary, so I had to buy her dinner. Everyone should just hire her instead.


  47. Jason Avatar

    Seems like the protectionism racket that the AIGA has been running is coming to an end. Just like istockphoto, online real estate brokerages, craigslist, and napster uprooted industries, it seems that CrowdSPRING and similar sites will do the same.

    No amount of complaining and whining about “ethics” will change that fact — I agree with the poster above who asked “How can a contract between two adults be unethical?”

    I don't think designers are being deceived when participating in design contests.

    They know what they are getting into, and its obviously working for them or they wouldn't be doing it. No amount of posts or campaigning by the professionals who charge $5000 for a logo will change that. Likewise, it's very obvious that these sites meet the needs of a particular niche. “Luca” put it well when he said:

    “I don't mean to be demeaning to the vast majority of small business owners, but do you really believe that a good designer would be justified for, say, an electrical contractor's business? Do you think that a lot of plumbers would benefit from having their “core identity” brought to light by a “real” designer? I'd say that they just need a cost-effective, decent-looking logo.”

  48. daniel Avatar

    Crowdspring is a place for amateurs and small business who don't want to spend a ton on design. It's as simple as that. It's like McDonald's–cheap & quantity over quality.

    Aspiring designers who use the site might think it's a great idea. To start out, possibly, but give it a few months, or a year tops… I'm pretty sure s/he will find out that the model is NOT sustainable for designers. Cranking out design after design in hope of winning some money is not how you sustain a career (though it's a pretty fast way to get burned out) There's a reason why noone makes a living out of contests.

    @ Jason:
    – You can sell a photo multiple times on stock photo sites; you can't use the same design for different “clients” on crowdspring.
    – Your photos in stock photo sites are never meant for ONE specific client only; you only design for one client per contest in crowdspring (the more appropriate analogy is: asking a number of photographers to photograph your event, and then picking only one out of those).
    – You cannot duplicate a photo; you can easily copy a design (logo, etc).

    Now I will agree with “Luca” that some businesses don't really need any fancy designs–they just need something simple that works and that's it. In that aspect, a site such as crowdspring might be an alternative. But anything beyond a one-time simple job like that, you're probably better off developing a mutual client/designer relationship in which both parties are compensated fairly and are satisfied with the results.

  49. Lilibee Avatar

    Crowdspring is a SWEAT SHOP of desperate designers. It is OUTSOURCING design to countries where $500 is a TON of money. It is not a level playing field at all and is taking jobs away from Americans. Way to support the US economy, Crowdspring!!

    I think that next time I want a kick ass dress, I will fly to India and ask 300 seamstresses to make me a dress. I'll give the maker of the best dress $250.

    Does THAT seem ethical?

  50. 1115media Avatar

    I haven’t found that at all. How is outsourcing to a country where $500 is a lot of money unethical? That’s also assuming all work is outsourced. I’ve only worked with one non USA designer. I think it does level the playing field since it comes down to design skills and availability. And I have a ton of faith in American ingenuity and entrepreneurs to find the next opportunity which is evident all around us.

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