Why Crowdsourcing Design Doesn’t Work.

“Spec(ulative) work is a cancer within the design industry and all designers need to understand their role in fighting it.” – AntiSpec

Spec Work. These words can certainly make nostrils flare in the design industry, and they lead to one underlying meaning: unethical labour.

More commonly known as crowdsourcing, spec work has been spread widely through the design community in the last few years. Now you may be wondering:

What is Speculative (Spec) Work?

Spec work is any kind of creative work that has been submitted or completed by designers to prospective clients, when a fair or reasonable fee has not been agreed upon in writing. It requires designers to invest precious time and resources, in the hope of winning a project.

Basically, it means working for free. And not surprisingly, it’s almost never a good deal for designers.

Why does Spec Work Exist?

Crowdsourcing has been powered by companies increasingly looking to engage talent from beyond the boundaries of their own offices and outsourcing their projects online. From their perspective, the option to save costs, while engaging talent around the world, can improve output and overall bottom line. In addition, the growth of online crowd sourcing platforms has taken the concept of spec work mainstream, which has attracted many companies to its services.

For the creative, especially at the beginning stages of their career, gaining exposure and publicity upon joining these crowdsourcing platforms can be appealing to be some.

So what’s the problem?

Why Spec Work Doesn’t Work

After personally speaking with numerous creatives on Needle, and clients that have previously gone through design contests through crowd sourcing platforms, here are the main points:

1) Time Wasted

Imagine you’re a chef, and you just spent hours crafting a gourmet meal for a customer. However, you’re competing with 9 other chefs for one spot at the customer’s table, which means statistically, you have 1/10 chance of being compensated for your hard work.

It’s no different in the design world.
Except designers are often competing with 100’s, sometimes even 1000’s of other designers, spending time envisioning the concept from the ground-up, then implementing the design, knowing that only one winner gets payment for their work in the end.

Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance, provides a breakdown of what spec work looks like in numbers:

“I came across one recent logo-design contest that had ~16,000 entries; all for a single 1,500 Euro prize. We asked, and participants claimed to spend an average of 3 hours per submission. Do a little math, and you’ll realize that 48,000 hours of labor (that’s 2000 days or 5.47 years of non-stop 24/7 work) went into it.” – Scott Belsky

These countless hours that are being spent by the designers working on a project with no guarantee of payment, could be better used to build out their portfolio, honing their skills, or landing a contract with actual payment.

2) No Protective Contract

One of the biggest risks in getting involved with spec work is: plagiarism. Unfortunately, almost a 100% of the time, the designer is not provided with a contract agreement to protect themselves. Instead, the work is done on the honour system with a simple verbal agreement, where you have to simply trust that all the clients will pick their favourite design, compensate the winner, and discard the work of the other participants.

The reality is that a verbal agreement is ineffective in protecting the rights of a designer in the court of law. In fact, without legal protection, it can be extremely difficult to prove that the client needs to compensate anyone. Knowing this, clients then employ other designers using similar unprincipled tactics to change and/or resell the creative work as their own.

As a result, this inevitably leads to our final point.

3) Poor Quality Work

Competing amongst each other in design contests promotes the practice of fellow designers trying to “outbid” one another to win, which only allows the designer to focus on undercharging their product, not the quality of the work. This simply devalues their own skill-set and those in the design industry.

Relationship with the client is also a huge factor, that spec work does not provide. A good design is not a quick one-off attempt to create something “pretty” in a rushed competition. Crafting a clear, quality design is an involved process. A designer needs to gain a depth understanding of the client’s culture, goals, and values by communicating with them, while performing market research into the strengths and weaknesses of the competition’s design strategy.

In other words, designers are the ones with the experience and training, and a qualified designer should be able to guide clients and produce the most appropriate work to fit their needs – not the other way around. 

What’s the Solution?

Unfortunately, there is no real solution that we’ve came up with so far, but there is something you can do about it.

There are powerful petitions and communities available online that you can participate in, such as the one we recently launched here at Needle called “Designers Against Crowdsourcing” that is standing up against spec work, and providing our fellow designers with a voice to be heard.

We created Needle to empower creative professionals and creative communities alike, and we love promoting talented designers for opportunities everyday. Whether you’re someone in the creative community, or just someone who recently learned about spec work, we hope you join the movement and spread the word.

I’d love to hear from all of you about your thoughts on spec work, and ideas on how we can resolve the issue.

Let’s keep this discussion active.


sean-kimPost by Sean Kim

Sean is the Co-Founder, also known as the Chief Happiness Officer at Needle.
He talk to users to keep them happy, and does everything involving outreach for Needle.
Sean loves hot yoga, traveling, and occasionally blogs about life hacking.

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