Interview with SpecWatch:
The Naked Truth About Design Contests

By WebdesignerDepot Staff Posted Jul. 28, 2009 Reading time: 10 minutes

“Spec work” stands for speculative work. It’s a term used to refer to any job for which the client expects to see examples with no guarantee of payment.

The Internet has accelerated its growth in the form of “design contest” websites, and these businesses have advertising machines that draw in thousands of unsuspecting designers who think it’s normal to give away their intellectual property for nothing.

With the increasing prominence of “spec work” businesses, we’re witnessing more and more about the downsides of the practice, and there’s one initiative in particular that’s documenting what goes on — SpecWatch.

David Airey, a well respected graphic designer, has approached WDD with this important issue and we felt it was necessary to bring light to this important subject.

Here’s the exclusive interview David conducted with SpecWatch for WDD readers. Designers take note…

Many designers won’t be familiar with SpecWatch. Can you briefly summarize what it is?

One of the hot topics for the design industry is spec work, repackaged onto website forums and software-driven “marketplaces” that use crowd sourcing to host design contests.

Most boast about “transparency”. We decided to take them up on that claim.

How SpecWatch works is this — we monitor design contest sites, blogs and forums for design contests and spec work offerings.

We document some of the more “interesting” finds we make and catalog them in giant spreadsheet files.

At random times, depending on the time zone of who’s lead, we then issue brief summaries of these contests via Twitter, with links back to our website. We don’t editorialize. We generally don’t comment.

People can read our findings and decide for themselves. We’re not about subjective debate on good or bad design. We don’t care if contests are an effective way for buyers to obtain cheap design services.

We’re only about the objective goings on of actual contests. And whether these contests are a good idea for designers to participate in.

Why the anonymity? I’m sure a lot of folks are curious about who’s driving.

We are a group of designers and writers, concerned with the effect of spec work and design contests on the graphic design industry and other creative professions, but we didn’t want this debate to be about us. Nor did we want to become heroes (or villains depending on your perspective).

By making SpecWatch our personally branded project, we would have been criticized for foisting ourselves, or our practices, at the expense of others, a criticism that wouldn’t be without some validity.

Also, by making SpecWatch our own personal soapbox, we might have been seen as promoting ourselves as a better alternative to buyers and we might have had “fair use” complications when it came to using designs and examples from these sites.

When working out the underpinnings of SpecWatch, we also thought about “monetizing” the website through Google Adwords, but decided that wasn’t a particularly ethical approach either.

If we wanted our message to be “pure” we couldn’t benefit from it personally, either financially or for whatever “notoriety” we’d achieve in the design community.

Any expenses incurred comes out of our pockets. Any time spent comes off our clock. After debating the issue for quite a while (some weren’t convinced initially and wanted credit), SpecWatch as an entity is much more important than any of our individual identities and/or business concerns.

Being anonymous also ensures that we can move about design contest sites unmolested and unchallenged, critical to the accuracy of our reporting.

There are also some pragmatic personal security concerns. At present, SpecWatch consists of several designers and writers.

Some of us have day-jobs where our participation in SpecWatch activities might not be appreciated by our employers, especially when we’re challenging some pretty well-financed, high-profile organizations who aren’t opposed to playing rough.

Most design contest sites also have technically proficient people on staff — a concern for a small band of people going up against ALL the design contest sites without their resources.

If people want to attack SpecWatch, they are welcome to challenge anything we post on the Internet. That’s fair game. We’ve established a set of ground rules for ourselves and one of them is not to make this personal with anyone. We remove contest holder names. We remove designers names. We don’t even mention the site that we’re documenting unless it’s absolutely necessary.

We use to remove any potential “Google bomb” effect against the sites themselves. This isn’t personal. This is about an issue that affects the foundations of the entire design industry. We couldn’t count on our adversaries to follow the same rules, so we removed that option as much as we’ve been able.

The people that are volunteering for SpecWatch are doing so on their own volition, and we’re not going to expose anyone to personal attack. This policy may change in the future, but for the moment, there is no SpecWatch.

Did something in particular happen that led you to start the initiative?

If there was one thing in particular that helped formulate SpecWatch, it would be a Forbes article on design crowd sourcing and Crowdspring in which people in the design industry were called “snooty” for no other crime than expressing an opinion that professional designers should be compensated for their time and efforts.

It seemed like a rather adversarial position to take, while the business model was being presented as the new future of design.

We simply took a look at what that “promised future” held for designers, both those practicing now, and those laboring away in various art schools. The company featured claimed that they welcomed the debate. Fair enough. But rather than make SpecWatch about one company, we decided to monitor all design contest sites.

What we found out astonished us. Abandoned contests. No winners in a high percentage. Copied entries, both from other participants, stock sites and unrelated designers.

The amount of abuse heaped on designers by contest holders is breathtaking. The lack of respect towards designer time by the host companies is phenomenal.

So that people understand our bias, let’s get our positions out there — is spec work unethical? Participating as a designer? No.

But we would argue that the companies who are profiting, usually by a percentage of the take, from organized spec work sites are de facto unethical, regardless of what their PR agents tell us via articles and blog posts.

The same goes for buyers that use spec work to take advantage of young, inexperienced or hungry designers in order to obtain cut-rate design services and what one service describes as “Ridiculous Choices”.

We found that the discussion about “ethics” and “morals” often became mired in minutia and carefully scripted challenges. Some of these services have extraordinarily well-nuanced talking points which they’ll use in blog comments and articles.

They’re very, very good at controlling their message. The one argument that was being overlooked — for what we think are obvious reasons — was actually quite simple; “Do design contests work for designers?” Nobody was looking at the actual logistics of logo design contests. We decided to do that.

What’s the reason for publishing updates solely on Twitter? I’ve not seen any other websites do likewise. Have you?

None that we know of. Our methodology evolved quite organically. We originally planned SpecWatch as a Twitter-only initiative. A lot of these crowd sourcing and design contest companies are heavily active on Twitter, so that seemed like a good spot to start.

We originally registered the SpecWatch domain to protect the name — we figured the initiative would become fairly popular and sniping domain names is attractive for spammers or people who’d use the domain to masquerade as us.

Then we realized that 140-odd characters is not enough space to accurately describe what was going on, so the idea of Twitter bulletins linked to website expansions just evolved from there.

The format we’re using now works well in issuing communiqués while still adhering to the strict guidelines we’ve given ourselves.

We thought long and hard about adding a blog, or a forum, and decided that neither would work for us. Unfortunately, many spec work discussions are derailed by pro-spec trolls and bots.

They wish to cloud the discussion with minutia and heart-warming stories of how participating in design contests has been beneficial to them. While these stories may be true, we do not want to debate the benefit for one or two designers winning a design contest as in our opinion, isolated instances are not germane to how this issue effects the entire graphic design industry. Others can have that discussion.

We also don’t want to debate site owners, management or employees, often posing as someone else. Most site owners’ comments are merely cut-and-paste astro-turf talking points that long since ceased adding anything to the debate.

We’re not interested in how good, or bad, the design work obtained through spec work is. Those discussions are occurring right now, on blogs and forums all over the internet. Having the same tired, yet often heated, argument is also a distraction from our primary mission – the objective reporting of what’s actually going on out here.

Cynics will say it’s just “sour grapes” on your behalf. How do you respond to that?

We knew that this would be a criticism right form the start. Design contests, if run as advertised, should be able to stand up to scrutiny and we’d have nothing to write about.

If they don’t stand up to scrutiny, then there is an issue with crowd sourcing and design contests as they pertain to designers.

Simply cataloging a timeline of events in a publicly accessible contest is not picking on anyone or a case of “sour grapes”.

This potential criticism is also one of the main reasons we couldn’t be seen as benefiting personally or financially from SpecWatch. It’s why we took the “no editorializing” approach to our reporting methods. This isn’t about our opinion or “whining”.

But even if SpecWatch IS the largest case of “sour grapes” in history, we defy anyone to take a look at our postings and claim that these design contest sites and the proliferation of spec work is good for designers.

We see designers getting routinely taken advantage of, often promised things that never materialize. One of our “contest watchers” isn’t even a designer but from a related field that’s been placed in the target sights of a high-profile spec work “marketplace”. They’re fearful for their future and can see the parallel with what’s happening with graphic design.

We’d also point out that we’ve even helped designers participating on spec design contests to obtain what they were promised in the first place.

While we were initially cataloguing spec sites, we found lots of abandoned and forgotten contests — even when a prize was supposedly guaranteed according to site TOS — that were very quickly paid out once pointed out by our Twitter communiqués.

At the very least, we made sure that a few participating designers were selected and paid, something which most of the design contests sites neglect to do on a far-too-frequent basis. We’re not trying to sabotage design contest sites, their contests, designers or buyers.

If SpecWatch has had any effect, it’s been to encourage spec site owners, at the very least, to enforce their own rules and promises that have been used to lure designers to their “communities”.

Several have thanked us openly on Twitter for helping them “improve” their business models, and have even commented that they “appreciate” what we’re doing. Designers who are active on design contest sites agree with our basic premise — designers should get paid for their work when that work is being requested by professional entities.

We understand that spec work and design contest sites are here to stay. As competition heats up, more design contest sites will come online, and these services are going to become less beneficial to designers as the services have to charge less, promise more and be less restrictive on what contest holders can get away with, something which they’re quite liberal with as it is.

We’re of the belief that spec design sites, if they’re going to avail themselves of free work from designers, need to be exceptionally good stewards of those efforts. So far they haven’t been. If SpecWatch can help them “see the light”, that’s good. And hardly a case of “sour grapes”.

It seems you know a lot about how designers are treated on “spec websites”. Is there a specific statistic you’ve uncovered that surprises you more than most?

We issued several SpecWatch communiques for which we took actual figures from several spec websites, and performed some basic primary-school arithmetic.

We found the raw numbers astonishing. The amount of unpaid designer labor being submitted to these sites has a real world value that’s in the tens of millions of dollars. And those are conservative estimates.

The number of designers who aren’t making a penny, while entering dozens of contests, is in the tens of thousands, and you just need to look at the astonishing raw numbers for Crowdspring and 99designs to see for yourself. Wasted time, in terms of unpaid designs submitted, is, quite literally, in the hundreds of years. Yes, that’s hundreds.

In terms of overall conclusions, we don’t want to get into specifics, but let’s say there’s several main “spec websites” that we’ve been monitoring for several months. One gives the appearance of trying to do the right thing, at least on the surface.

Trouble is, the scope of their community and the nature of spec work combined with anonymous designers and lack of project management make it impossible for them to do so. Their service is teetering into the usual free-for-all territory.

Another is already a full-blown designer free-for-all, no project management, an incredible amount of design plagiarism and copying.

Things have become so bad that they started “locking” contests. We suspect this isn’t, as claimed, to protect their participants IP property, but instead to cover up the out-of-control nature of their contests, especially what goes on in the comment sections.

They don’t “lock” design contests that end “successfully” and the designers that participated see their work and IP exposed.

Another is breathtakingly dishonest, carrying on in a way that is tantamount to fraud. Another, in start-up, even seems to be hosting bogus contests, with non-existent designers and made-up clients, in order to attract buyers and participants to their new website.

On all the sites we’ve monitored, whatever “protections” that are in place are usually to protect the host company and website themselves, while designers are thrown to the wolves.

The lack of buyer feedback — the only other reason, other than pay, that all design contest sites claim is an advantage to participating — is stunning.

Overall, what truly amazes us is the amount of abuse designers are willing to endure, and the amount of time they’re willing to donate to another company’s bottom line while being cheated, copied and treated like chattel. It’s a sad development in the design industry and community.

While it’s highly unlikely SpecWatch will even make a dent in the rise of spec design sites — a couple are in start-up, there are several in BETA — at the very least we can help shed some light on the dark side to these services, the risks involved and the actual pitfalls of participating. If we can help one designer avoid burning out before having a chance at a decent career in design, our efforts will have been worth it.

David Airey: Those familiar with my own blog posts will know I have a strong stance against spec websites, and the most common explanation I hear from designers who participate is that they want to build their portfolio. How about trying this instead?

Approach local non-profits and offer them your skills, free of charge.

The experience gained will be so much greater than working on a spec website — you’re improving your face-to-face customer skills, giving back to the local community, networking with business owners, and standing a much greater chance of actually seeing your work used (excellent for your portfolio).

You’ll learn about your chosen profession much faster too.

The interview was conducted by David Airey, a graphic designer who runs his own blog and also authors Logo Design Love

What are your thoughts about the proliferation of spec websites? Please share your comments with us…