For years, designers have decried spec work and contests as being bad for business. Why, they say, should they work for free? Why should they design a logo for a client who may flat-out dismiss the work and never pay a penny? Why should they waste their time entering logo design contests, competing against 100 other designers, when only one will make anything at all?
These practices, they say, devalue their work. Designers are highly skilled professionals who must be allowed to work with an engaged (read: paying) client who won’t just flake out on a whim and hire someone else. Their talent and skill must be trusted and appreciated because — let’s face it — a client knows nothing about design.
Here’s the truth: Contests and spec work don’t devalue the work of a designer. Bad design and poor value do.
Let’s step back.
When I started website design nearly a decade ago, it was for one simple reason: I was appalled by the BS I was being fed by “designers” who felt they could charge whatever they wanted — purely because I didn’t know how to put a gif of a rotating phone on a web page. There were keys to that kingdom which they held close to the breast, and I was to pay for that knowledge with my firstborn.
The truth is I’d already been a designer. I’d studied newspaper design under one of the nation’s premier designers, and I’d successfully designed or redesigned more than a dozen publications. I have a solid understanding of color, weight and spatial relationships. Also, I’m left handed. I’d done logos, newsletters, stationary. Pretty much everything. But I didn’t know how to get those things to the then-nascent Internet. Fortunately, I have a geek for a best friend, and he was more than happy to learn.
Our first act was spec work for the newspaper company where I worked. The company had dabbled in the Internet before, paying a firm to develop a news site — and ended up a quarter million dollars in debt. For free, my friend (and now business partner) built a site from scratch, which we delivered to the company. That piece of spec work landed us both new jobs, and as we learned more about web development, we began to offer our services to others.
Since then we’ve done plenty of spec work, designing mockups of websites for clients who, more often than not, are gunshy because they’ve been burned by poor design or unreliable designers who charge too much and deliver too little. Often we’re hired to take the job. Sometimes we aren’t. Dem’s da breaks.
The trouble with the argument over spec jobs is this: There’s a difference between designers and Designers, and that difference is not apparent to the client until they’ve seen what you’re capable of. Sure, a resume and a portfolio are nice, but let’s be honest: Designers only use their best stuff in their portfolio. No matter how good a portfolio is and no matter how much a reference might rave, the client and the designer just may not be on the same page. Ever.
For these clients, a logo contest works quite well. First, they probably don’t have much money to work with. Second, they’re looking for as many options as possible — often in the hopes of finding a designer they can actually work with long term. One client I work with used Crowd Spring when trying to develop a new logo. Not only did he get something he was happy with for a very reasonable price, but he made contact with the designer and has used the same person again. Maybe 50 other designers didn’t get that job. But maybe they shouldn’t have. And maybe their work really wasn’t worth paying for.
As has been noted in articles across the web, contests like these often bring out the dregs of the design world — folks who, by virtue of the fact that they’ve pirated Photoshop, believe they’re designers. But Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer; finding someone to pay for your work does. Perhaps — just perhaps — these “contests” can help weed out some of those dregs. Maybe after losing every contest they’ve entered, some of them will study a little, some may study a lot, some may drop out altogether. But the idea that spec work and contests are unfair because not everyone gets paid for their work is, well, silly.
It’s also silly to ignore that the cream rises to the top, and that the best designers will more than likely win, add padding to their portfolios, and likely find clients they can work with again and again.
Do I enter contests? No. I’ve built a reputation for being fair, honest, hardworking and talented. You know what else I do? I don’t expect a dime from a client until the work is finished. And I don’t call it finished until the client is 100 percent satisfied. If they don’t like my work, I take it with me. I’d rather they spend their money somewhere else.
Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t want to work on spec or enter contests, don’t do it. But every argument against this work sounds the same to me: You want to get paid for everything you do and you don’t like having to compete for fear someone else will get the job. In that case, fine. That means more work for those of us who are willing to put our customers first and our wallets second.