Recently at my day job, I received one of those mass communications that large, educational institutions send concerning a logo design contest for a pretty notable event that happens every year in Laramie.  The contest is geared towards students or prospective students, as far as I can tell and has  a $500 prize.

Oh, and this very important detail:

The winning design and source file will become property of the University of Wyoming and the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice.


I don’t want to pick on this specific contest, because there is certainly a million examples of design contests, crowdsourcing and the like that rewards very little money and “exposure” for complete ownership rights.  This is one instance, and I’m sure all intentions from the organization were good.

But really, this contest, as all contests before them, come down to this: someone is asking for you to create something for free.  FREE.  And not only free, but for you, the designer, to forfeit all your rights in exchange for something that is never going to equate to the value of the work you did.

Ugh. Spec work

Contest and crowdsourced design = spec work.  Spec work comes from the ad world and basically means asking for some quality work to be completed on speculation that they may or may not hire you.

Some companies do this in terms of a pitch: you send your ideas and they decide if you’re the designer they want to hire.  Some do this and never ask for your designs to become their property, but some do.  And the thing they all have in common is they’re asking for something for free.

This expectation is pervasive.  It happens when friends and family ask for your work for free to contests promising exposure to big companies asking for crowdsourced material.

The truth is: this attitude would never fly anywhere else.

Awesome video from Zulu Alpha Kilo via No!Spec.  Art Director’s Club has a great interview with these dudes and spec work.

Not only is the idea completely insane when you think about it outside the realm of design, but almost every professional organization for creatives has a no spec policy.

The amazing design professional organization– AIGA –has a great position paper on spec work and working for free.  They are one of the primer national orgs for design, and one (full disclosure) I am gladly a member of and serve the board for my local chapter.

NO!SPEC is a great resource on what is spec, how to spot it, and its effects on the design industry.

However, there is some grey areas when it comes to work.

There is some debate on when it’s appropriate and when it’s not, and I’m not going do far to say that it’s never a good idea.  I’ve done plenty of projects in the past for organizations and people whom I love that I wouldn’t have charged for anyways.

I think there is a time and place for this, but you must come from the position that your work has value and insure that someone is not trying to take advantage of you.

Jessica Hische has an excellent flowchart to help you make this decision:

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The key for me is to think of design work in the same why I would think of racking leaves or fixing someone’s car.

Would I do this task in kindness, regardless of the task? Or do I feel compelled because it’s a design project?

When we start thinking of our own projects as worthy of someone’s money and communicating this to the world, everyone wins.  Designers can continue to afford their monthly Creative Suite penitence and clients get the expertise of a caring designer to solve their problems they couldn’t solve themselves.