No Spec: Why Design Contests Are a Bad Idea

Lori Patton - Pyragraph

Image by Lori Patton.

Spec work. There is article after article about this subject. And for good reason! Spec work, design contests, and crowdsourcing are a huge problem in the design industry, and when it happens in our communities, it hits us a little harder.

What exactly is spec work? Spec work is work done for free in hopes to get paid for it. Spec work comes in different forms with a couple variations being design contests or a crowdsourcing effort. You’ll see them posted on Craigslist, 99Designs, or other design/logo mills, with a business or organization calling out to designers and artists to compete with each other to design a winning piece for this company. They choose a winner and pay that winner with exposure and $100 (or some typically small given dollar amount, or a product prize).

When you participate in a design contest, you are devaluing your career.

I see contests pop up a little too often. As a professional and a representative of a design organization, AIGA, I feel it’s my duty to reach out to the organizers and try to educate them about the harm they inflict on the industry. I have a process for this, and I encourage a one-on-one discussion, starting with a letter based on this template. If that proves ineffective, then I will take it to the design community on social media for support and make sure the business and organization can see and hear the community. This proves to be a widely supported and effective approach. Where one designer doesn’t always get that message across, more typically do.

I try to make this process as educational as possible for both designers and businesses. Here are the letters I send to both parties.

Dear Business Owner,

Your business is worth a lot. You’ve put your heart and hard work into building up to where you are. Your visual presence should reflect that, but not at the risk of spec work or a design contest.

You lose a lot of valuable expertise when you crowdsource or hold a contest. You don’t get an opportunity to create a relationship with your designers who would otherwise be able to provide you with attention to your brand, research your company, communicate with you, and really understand your goals and provide the expertise that you need to take your presence to the next level.

You also run an incredibly high risk of infringement. Here’s a visual example to take into consideration. Jeff Fisher, of LogoMotives, is a well-known logo designer in the industry. This is one of his logos that finds itself recreated among so many businesses. This is expected and typical of design work done on spec.

Before attempting a contest, consider your risk of infringement, which ultimately will have you back at square one—in need of a new logo. Hire a professional creative or firm who will provide you a custom design that meets your needs.

Dear Designers,

You can’t live/work/eat off exposure. You know this. Additionally, you are worth it! Get paid! Design is a job! I feel like I’m screaming here. Let’s look at it this way: This is a career path that you have invested money and time going to school for, and furthering your education through online courses, conferences and other resources to further build your career. When you participate in a design contest, you are devaluing your career, and its impact is heavy on the entire industry. You are basically throwing away all that hard work. And it doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts all of us, because you make it okay for businesses to feel like they can get free design by the hundreds, and pick that one designer who designed something they like.

What’s a safe alternative for getting some work under your belt? Pick a pro bono project: something for the community where you get to give back in some way. Work on some personal projects to beef up your portfolio. Always use your portfolio as your tool! That’s what it’s there for.

I’ll leave both parties with this, from NO!SPEC’s FAQ about spec work:

Don’t forget, the designers are the ones with the training, the ones with the marketing experience. They should be able to know all there is about clients’ needs, to be able to guide clients and produce the most appropriate work. You wouldn’t tell your lawyer how to defend you in a trial, or tell a mechanic how to do his or her job. You look into their history, you hire them, and let them work. That’s what designers’ portfolios are for—giving clients the best opportunity to hire the right person.

…behind every design there’s market research. A logo isn’t just a pretty symbol printed on top of a baseball cap; it’s what represents you and your company. It is the thing that will instantly identify you and it has to convey the right message to the right people. A contest doesn’t grant designers the necessary time or compensation to undertake that research.

For more on the perils of spec work, check out these resources:

AIGA Position on Spec Work

NO!SPEC: To educate the public about speculative (spec) work

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About Lori Patton

Lori is owner and graphic designer of Design5sixty4. She specializes in print design, branding, and web design. Lori is passionate about her career, and enjoys connecting with the community. Outside of design and currently serving as President for AIGA New Mexico, you may find Lori galavanting around with her camera taking photos of her surroundings, traveling, and enjoying outdoor activities.


  1. […] Spec work. There is article after article about this subject. And for good reason! Spec work, design contests, and crowdsourcing are a huge problem in the design industry, and when it happens in our communities, it hits us a little harder. Read full article at Pyragraph […]

  2. Meredith on May 24, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    Just to push back a little on the AIGA, it is a large organization with political power that individual practitioners don’t have. This situation would be greatly improved if the AIGA were to get knee deep involved in copyright legislation. Who has the influence to make fonts and graphics copyrightable just as photographs and paintings are? The AIGA. If our work had serious legal protections, then our work would be valued and spec work would decrease (due to the consequences of infringement).

    Yes, each designer needs to take responsibility for not engaging in spec work, just as others need to not demand or expect it, but there is also the role that professional organizations play in all of this too.

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