Computer ArtsOpinion

Should you work for free?

From logo competitions to creative pitches, is spec work really devaluing the work of professional designers?

Last September, notepad maker Moleskine decided to hold a design competition. The idea was to get hundreds, or even thousands of its customers – many of whom are designers or creatives – to come up with a design for its Moleskinerie blog in return for the chance to scoop a €5,000 prize (approximately £4,280). In doing so, the company might as well as have thrown a grenade on a bonfire.

The problem? Moleskine – unwittingly or not – fanned the flames of a strong feeling that many designers have about spec work: that it’s used to source a huge array of creative work and ideas on the cheap, while also seriously undermining and devaluing the talent, dedication and professionalism of the designers and agencies that take part.

By running a competition to source a design, many took Moleskine to effectively be saying that it doesn’t value the work of creative pros. The competition, as originally envisaged, assumed copyright over all the submitted entries, whether they went on to win the top prize or not. Moleskine was, in effect, asking its best customers to work for free.

Moleskine
Moleskine’s decision to crowdsource the logo design for its blog could be one of the worst PR decisions ever made by the company. Its initial reaction to criticism from customers only made matters worse

The reaction from designers was swift, sharp and fierce – and Moleskine’s Facebook page took something of a battering. But it was only by the time of its third apology that Moleskine finally appeared to have understood what it had done to attract such anger from across the creative industry.

This is just one example of seemingly innocuous design competitions where the winner produces a piece of commercial design work. Moleskine probably should have known better, but the truth is that the company isn’t alone. The designboom site, which hosted Moleskine’s contest, has a whole section dedicated to crowdsourced competitions including those from household brand names like Electrolux, Renault, Fiat, Fujitsu and Porsche.

Peace One Day
Spec work isn’t always bad, especially when it supports good causes like ‘Peace One Day’. D&AD is giving contributors the chance to win a prestigious White Pencil, its first new award for 50 years

Crowdsourced design has also proved to be very big business for a growing number of Web 2.0 companies, including the likes of 99designs, CrowdSPRING and MycroBurst, with each positioning itself as a source of cheap, high-quality designs ranging from logos and mastheads to T-shirts, website templates and more. In practice, such sites work by enabling clients to run competitions for a fee, with the promise that they’ll receive thousands of submissions from hundreds of designers, who’ll all sign their rights away for the small cash prize that they might be lucky enough to win. 99designs – which was “started by designers for designers” – has even caught the attention of the British government, which has listed the website alongside the Design Business Association and the Chartered Society of Designers on its Startup Britain site for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, this form of crowdsourcing or spec work is riddled with problems, as Matt Williams, creative director at design outfit Uberkraaft explains: “I think it’s indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of what design really should be. It seems to prey on those people who believe that design is about simply creating something pleasing or pretty to promote a business or an idea. It exploits clients who do not understand the full benefits of design – people who are unable to discern between good and bad work – and it exploits the designers, paying a pittance to only the successful designer who happened to create something that the nave client just happened to like.”

Mark Collins, creative director at creative agency Inspired Design and founder of the AntiSpec campaign, argues that there are other dangers of crowdsourcing designs: because participating designers know there is little or no prospect of being paid, some enter as many competitions as they can while also cutting as many corners as they can – often by using existing clip art and stock images, or by simply reusing other designs that may have appeared elsewhere.

That might be fine if you own a one-man local business with few plans for expansion, but you could just as easily end up inadvertently infringing another company’s trademarks or find yourself in court answering charges of copyright theft. Microstock photography provider iStockPhoto, for example, explicitly forbids the use of its images for company logos, but that hasn’t stopped some competition entrants incorporating them into the designs that they submit.

So if it’s poor pay or no pay for designers, and potentially dodgy designs for the clients, who are the real winners when it comes to crowdsourced design competitions? You just have to follow the money. In April last year, Accel Partners along with ‘angel investors’ such as Michael Dearing (eBay), Stewart Butterfield (Flickr) and Anthony Casalena (Squarespace) poured $35 million (£21.9 million) into 99designs as part of a first round of investment that will see the company expand worldwide. Another indicator of the popularity of crowdsourcing design websites can be found in tertiary sites like Logo Contest Reviews, which compares prices and services among the various design services that have sprung up online.

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