Are All Spec Work Sites Evil?

Disclosure: This is a paid review, if you wish to purchase a paid review for your website (I have a 90% turn down ratio so if I turn you down don’t take it personally) contact us. All links in this post have been “nofollowed”.

Last month I was contacted by a gentleman from logomyway. He was interested in getting his site reviewed. At first I thought the idea sounded rather humorous because I knew how well a review of a site like 99designs would go over with the crowd. So I wrote back and let this guy know that I would be happy to do a review but that I could not promise it would turn out positive.

For those new to the designing game the issue of whether or not spec work is evil has been a hot topic in the last couple of years. Because of sites like the ones mentioned above designers have felt slighted. For example, if you as a designer entered a design contest on a site like the ones mentioned above you would have the opportunity to compete for a few hundred dollars. The unfortunate thing is that only one designer wins. So the business owner or person launching the contest is offering a prize and gets to see hundreds of concepts but ultimately has to choose only one winner and therefore, pay for only one concept.

So for the record, our position at is the same as it has always been. Spec work sites are not increasing the number of quality work. They are contributing to a problem that is blurring the lines between good and bad design work. If you want to see examples of the type of work we are discussing visit logomyway’s logo contest page.

Ultimately the decision to do this review was because of the a marketplace that was brought to my attention. Logomyway has introduced a new concept that allows designers to make money on their designs. It works much like a traditional e-commerce site. You can shop logos, select one, and then checkout. Then, the designer will integrate your company name into the concept. I’ve added a couple of sample designs from the marketplace below.



In a field that is as saturated as design I see the need for designers to have the ability to get their name out there. The marketplace gives designers an opportunity to put their design work on the table without everyone knowing what concepts are winning and losing. I do not, however, see this as a long term place for designers. I think that many businesses would be happy with the quality they would receive from something like this. Businesses that have a lot of brand equity will not be getting their new logo design done through a contest or marketplace. Your logo, web design, business card, etc says more about you than you think. As businesses grow they realize this. At the end of the day your brand is what you have.

I attached a video from a presentation a couple of years ago at South by Southwest Interactive. I encourage you to consider where you stand on this issue as a designer. I would like to know what the community thinks about spec work. Have any of you ever made money from one of these contest sites? Can you make a living from spec work? Share your thoughts.

  1. Matthew
    June 9, 2010

    Well, This is a very interesting conversation and I would say to the designers if quality of qork is what you are concerned about and you say that design contest reduce quality of work you have missed the point. The point is dollars and cents. There are so many bad companies that do bad design out their, here on these sites they get a better result for what they spend, and the get choice. I would also say to carson and the lady who things these sites are bad, “Have you ever bought a Photoshop brush pack ? arent you reducing the quality of your work, what about a font, have you purchased one of those? do you realise this is important and you are using these for professional companies? Oh, you couldnt afford to make all your own, and design your own fonts and take all your own photos so you bought some from someone else at a fair and competative price whilst browsing the marketplace”. You are no different to these people buying logos, or other design peices.

  2. June 9, 2010

    From my point of view, spec work does allow more inexperienced designers get their work out there and it provides that opportunity they wouldn’t get otherwise, which is not a bad thing.

    What I DO have a problem with is the essence of spec work as it devalues and lowers the respect potential clients have toward the design industry and creative professionals.

    I remember spending all of Saturday afternoon reading through the “Clients From Hell” website as well as blog posts countering what the website is doing and why it’s bad. The general consensus was that clients do not understand our industry and therefore react the way they do, somehow making it OK. I don’t agree with that because from “horror stories” as well as from personal experiences, clients do not RESPECT designers and this profession. You don’t see people telling their auto mechanics to only spend 2 hours fixing the car and only willing to pay half. I feel spec work will only increase this lack of respect towards designers as they will start to associate $99 as the norm for a branding job. From word of mouth, small business to small business, eventually no client would think it’s okay for a designer to charge over $99.

    Thanks for the video. Great to see opinions from well established professionals in the industry.

  3. June 9, 2010

    I agree with Jordan on this. It makes people like me who is a passionate student, cringe at the sheer thought of this type of “platform.” I hate that such the creative profession seems like it is getting watered down with mediocre work and the people with talent are having to justify to new clients why they have to pay what the designer is feels his/her work is worth. I will admit that, yes I am just a student right now and that I have no “real world experience,” on the subject. It is unfortunate that people don’t think about their long term existence and jump all over the short term dollar.

  4. June 9, 2010

    I think Jordan nailed it ^ with the coment that clients “do not RESPECT designers and this profession,” to some extent.

    Sure, customers don’t make unreasonable demands from their auto mechanics, because they want the job done right, and understand the consequences of it being done hastily. On the other hand, it’s easy for a client to underestimate the amount of work it takes to do design work, and easy for them to overlook the consequences of a poor design job.

    In my opinion, it’s our responsibility as designers to educate clients about the intricacies and value of our work, in order to get the “respect” (with regard to pricing) that it deserves. Whether this is done with a great portfolio, list of case studies, testimonials, or face-to-face conversation, we need to communicate the value of our work so clients will think of designers more like mechanics and less like street vendors.

  5. Brad Durham
    June 9, 2010

    I agree with Jordan on this.

    Also, “getting your name out there” really isn’t an excuse for spec work. That is like, in my opinion, encouraging an up-and-coming actress to do some porn to fill out her resume and “get her name out there”. Spec, competitive, and especially logo marketplaces are essentially showing the same level of talent. They are devoid of meaning and relevance…and ultimately everyone gets screwed.

    Take the included examples. These logos are nothing more than clip-art/icons without the research and development involved in a real logo design. And we have kids who may want to really be designers being duped into these scams and never reaching their full potential while contributing to client ignorance.

  6. June 9, 2010

    Absolutely agree with you Drew, that we, as designers, have to educate clients about the value of the work we do.

    Spec work, amongst other things (international outsourcing, freelancers on Craigslist, perceived level of profession of an industry where formal education is not a requirement, my co-worker’s son, etc.) can only lead to designers having to educate clients more and more and have to push harder to get their point across.

  7. June 10, 2010

    For better or worse, the low barriers to entry in this industry (owning a computer + Photoshop, and being able to convince someone that your work is worth something, essentially) means that price competition within the lower echelon of the industry is going to be an issue for the forseeable future.

    However, I think we as designers can use the example of spec sites to our advantage – by demonstrating to clients the difference between our work and standard spec site fare. How is our work better? How can we differentiate our work from the wave of designs that flow in for each spec job request? Are these designs (even the “winners”) memorable? user-friendly? brand-aligned? etc? I would bet that in the majority of examples, the answers would be closer to No.

    I also think that many new freelancers are undereducated about the rates they *are* able to charge, and also scared to turn down client work. This leads to them severely underpricing themselves, and in turn, forcing peer rates down as well. So, I’ll amend my previous comment about selling the benefits of your work with this prerequisite: before the designer can convince a client his work is worth something, he must actually believe it!

  8. June 14, 2010

    >>Have any of you ever made money from one of these contest sites?


    >>Can you make a living from spec work?

    Yes. But only if doing larger volumes of work is important to me, however its not.

    My position is that spec work is a solution. Nothing more, nothing less.

    From a business perspective, spec work is meant to occupy a price niche. This is their competitive advantage. Who are these people or business? These are people who:

    1) Are Strapped for cassh
    2) Want trendy and fast
    3) Have not done business with professional designers before
    4) Design illiterate
    5) Achieved better return-on-investment versus going with a custom logo (yes, I talked with industry insiders who swear by spec work)
    6) Sales guys who are looking for results in the next 2 minutes

    As a designer, sure the work looks generic and meaningless.
    As a business guy, it makes sense as a solution.

    Looking forward, spec work as a solution is a game changer in the design market. You can choose to redefine your business, innovate another solution, stick to your guns, or get out of the design game altogether.

    Business does not care for your feelings but cares for results. No sugar coating here.

  9. June 14, 2010


    Great comments. Personally, I appreciate designers who can see this argument from both sides. For me personally, and after owning multiple companies, I have found that I prefer to work with professionals. Good professionals can bring much more to the table than a spec work artist. They can help your business objectives come alive. I’m working on a project right now with a top notch designer that is helping an already popular product absolutely come to life. I could not accomplish what we are going to accomplish through spec work. However, if I were starting a house painting company and needed a fresh trendy logo I’m certain I could get a very effective one designed using a service like the one discussed above.

    Thanks to everyone for their contribution.

  10. Tara
    July 13, 2010

    First of all, Carson says that the contest holders are not qualified judges for these contests, which leads me to believe that he doesn’t fully understand the process at all. The “judges” are clients — simple as that. They are not “selected” to be judges, they do not put up small amounts of money in order to judge the contests, they are business owners, looking for graphic design for their companies. The same as any client that would walk into his design firm. They are judging the entries on what best suits their company, period. These “contests” are not meant to award the best design on the merits of the design community; they are a means for the clients to get graphic design work for their business.

    Second, it is said that because of the inclusion of less seasoned designers, that it is “diluting” the design pool. But think of it this way: even though you don’t see the less-than-perfect design options that are in competition with yours, don’t think they’re not out there. A client may come to your firm to discuss a project, but more than likely, at one point or another, the client’s assistant, or nephew, or wife, has already offered them an alternative that just might “win” out over your design. The only difference here is that it’s out on the internet for all to see, but trust me, amateur “designers” are still out there, and they are taking jobs from you, especially in this economy.

    It is true that traditional consultation is absent on this platform. But if the client or designer absolutely feels a need for it, then the opportunity is there, through the discussion area or private messaging. Both Crowdspring and 99Designs have both made all communication between designer and contest holder completely blind to other participants, so there is no reason why you cannot be communicating to the fullest extent. It may not be face-to-face, but it is communication.

    I am a professional designer of over 16 years, and I participate on both of these sites, and I have built a solid, lucrative clientele because of them. My work is good, and I have talent, and this is just another means to build my business. I now have clients from all over the globe who I have met through these sites, and who have referred me to others, so for me, this is a positive experience.

  11. Peter Jones
    August 9, 2010

    It’s interesting that the people on the panel that were pro spec work were not designers. The one that wanted to remain “gray”, also, not a designer.

    While I’m discouraged that sites like CrowdSpring, etc. are out there, I realize that there has ALWAYS been competition from amateur designers and there have always been cheapskate clients who don’t know the difference between a brilliant design and a piece of clip-art and just want something right away. The best way to educate people: make sure there is a difference in the quality of your work and the other and take the time to articulate why.

    If you must participate on these sites, participate on the highest level.

  12. August 15, 2010

    good job

  13. Bobba
    September 29, 2010

    These “spec work” contest websites are inevitable. I say good on them for running a smart business model.

    Look at it from the client’s perspective. Would you rather pay thousands of dollars for a “professional” to come up with a few concepts? Or would you prefer to pay hundreds of dollars to have dozens of designers come up with a boatload of concepts? If you’re a small business on a tight budget, your logo isn’t typically high on your list of priorities. That’s the sad but true reality.

    If the quality of these contest logos were so horribly bad, then this wouldn’t even be an issue because it would be obvious even to clients. But I’ve checked out the winning logos on these sites and some of them are actually pretty good. Maybe not good enough for a large corporation where brand equity is so vital, but good enough for SMEs. In contrast, I don’t think any of us can say that we haven’t seen a formally trained professional designer churn out some pretty crappy logos. With that said, it’s HARD to find a good logo designer! There are plenty of hacks calling themselves professional freelance designers and portfolios can sometimes be deceiving (I know production designers that would put any project that they touched into their portfolio). If you end up getting tricked by one of these hacks, you’re on the hook to pay them for a poor job. The process of finding and contracting a good designer is a task in itself. Those contest websites makes things VERY EASY for clients. They get plenty of relatively diverse options and they don’t have to worry as much about missed deadlines.

    The core reason professional designers hate spec work is it lowers the perceived value of their work. Of course, nobody likes it when the competition undercuts them. But what are you going to do about it? The internet has really changed the game and you can either cry about it or accept it and evolve accordingly. The market seeks itself and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. It’s not like designers are the only ones dealing with this. Ever use a travel agency website? Real estate websites? Used car website? Ecommerce websites? I’ve seen people complain endlessly in all industries because they refuse to embrace what the internet has to offer. You either evolve or you die.

  14. December 15, 2010

    Crowdsourced Design is Awesome and My Clients Love It!

    After reading lots of rant posts by designers about design crowdsourcing and how crowdsourcing is just a spec work ripoff, I started wondering what is driving the rage? I’ve seen it before…when Walmart moves into a new area, everyone starts raging about Walmart. When Boeing starts building plane parts in some other part of the world then Unions start ranting about exporting jobs. Want to see rant, then watch Cspan any day…someone is ranting about something. RANT, Rant, rant…seems as though it’s a common response. These are not crazy rants either, they are on point, fact filled (albeit one-sided) and generally lucid. In fact, I think the rants are really just an expression of designers righteous indignation. Yes, that’s right, let’s get righteous. How dare those rich so and so’s ask us poor designers to show them our work for free?!

    So, when a design contest holder runs a design and gets hundreds of entries and then flakes out on the prize, the assumption is that they are stealing someones work to make their own logo. I agree, it probably does happen, but not in my contests! I’ve run almost 20 successful contests with hundreds of entries each and every one has paid the prize. I value the designers work and collaborate with each one to ensure that they are maximizing their chances of winning the prize money. I grade each entry and respond with direction and also treat them with respect. For a look at some of the results of our contests, check out the results here. Also, these designers are world citizens, embracing technology that brings clients from around the world into their design studio. Wow! Isn’t Al Gore amazing.

    Let’s face it, the internet and design crowdsourcing is a game changer. The current big design studios who are getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to generate new logos like the new Gap logo or the new Tropicana package are one step closer to the grave. As their old paradigm of “pay alot to get alot” is challenged by the new crowdsourcing model. CMOs’, VP’s and Directors of Marketing, Brand Manaagers and Marketing managers are beginning to awaken to the new reality…hey, we can get alot and we don’t have to deal with a “suit” and pay tens of thousands of dollars to some snotty guy with round glasses (you know who you are). It all kind of reminds me of the Dr. Seuss book, The Sneetches. You remember; “Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small. You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all… but to the Sneetches it was all about “stars.” To the big design companies, it’s all about maintaining their giant BS factory that creates logos for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    What’s the connection? Well, what if you couldn’t tell the difference between a great logo from,, or any of the other contest sites…and big design? It’s coming…big design, watch out. Great design doesn’t have to cost alot and there are tens of thousands of designers all over the globe waiting to show you that new paradigm.


  15. March 16, 2011

    Awesome thoughts on the subject. It’s terribly difficult to “get out of the sandbox” for freelancers, and you’ve given good points as to how crowd sourcing can help them.

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