Would you work without getting paid? Probably not. It’s likely safe to say that if you had worked an eight-hour day, and only got paid for six, you wouldn’t let that go unnoticed. In fact, except for some very select circumstances, most of us would refuse to work at all without pay.

Some of you may know where I’m going with this. If you have been one of my graphic design students, you will likely have heard me rail on about it in class. At issue is the continuing trend to procure creative services as speculative work. ‘Spec’ work is the process of asking someone to produce the product first, then making a decision as to whether or not to buy it. Spec work can come in many forms. One of the most highly prominent is design contests. We’ve all seen them: design the logo for a new novel, design a sports franchise’s anniversary logo, design the logo for the Olympic Games. In these situations, the designer is given promises that on the surface may seem appealing. Money, exposure, the opportunity to add to their portfolio. But it’s a false promise in so many ways. First of all, a designer uses their portfolio to solicit new work. So while having a solid portfolio is important, it must be recognized that a portfolio has no monetary value, and once it becomes substantial, it perpetuates itself. In other words, doing paying work contributes to a designers portfolio which evolves over time naturally. Likewise, exposure, even on a national level is helpful, but it’s really continued, sustained, paying work that any designer needs. A single contest winning entry isn’t going to put anyone on easy street for the rest of their careers. Finally, there is the money. Yes, the winning entry typically gets a cash award of some sort. But in my opinion, I have yet to see one of these ‘award payments’ come close to what the true value of the work should be. And the worst part is, for the one designer that ‘wins’ there are all those that don’t. Those are all designers that did the same amount of work as the winner, committed time and talent to a project, on the off-chance that it would be selected. How ethical is it to have hundreds of people work for free, and only pay one of them?

The risks for the company running the contest seem small. They are guaranteed to only have to pay a fixed amount, and they get to see the finished work before making a decision. Plus, there is usually legal protection so that they don’t even have to use any of the designs, if they so choose. Hundreds of designers do a ton of work, business sits back and waits for the best result. But there’s a problem there, too. Because the work isn’t developed in consultation with the company, with no in-depth conversation about brand, placement, image, etc., the company usually ends up with merely a bunch of “pretty pictures” to choose from. Sure, the winning design might look good, but does it really serve to advance the image of the company? Is the work original?

And it’s not just limited to contests. When a buyer asks, “Why don’t you make me a few different logos, and I’ll just pick one?” They are asking for spec work. Websites promising ‘crowdsourced’ design keep popping up, promising cheap design for the buyer, while at the same time, promising lucrative work for the designer. Which is it?

All speculative work shares the same shortcomings. It does not reflect the very thing you are looking for—what a sustained ongoing relationship will be like.

Society of Graphic Designers of Canada

At its core, the problem would seem to be in the perceived value of graphic design. We are led to believe the design process is a lightbulb moment that occurs suddenly to the creative professional; they are sitting in the bar, sipping a martini, and bam! Sketch it down on a cocktail napkin, and it’s done. But that’s far from the truth. Good designs don’t come from an “aha” moment, but hours and hours of detailed work. Going from research to finished piece takes time and effort. A lot of time and effort. To say phrases like, ‘just whip-up a logo’ is simply insulting.

Graphic design is a collaborative process, one that includes more than just the individual item requested. It’s about a brand. It’s about trusting someone to build upon the company image. And that isn’t going to be captured in a competition. Spend your money wisely, and hire a designer the correct way. Don’t be proud of your $100 crowdsourced logo. Odds are, it looks like shit.

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