Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Response to pro-spec blog post

Posted in: Design

This is my response to a post asking why designers make a fuss about design contests:

The problem with design contests and spec work is that they expect work for free. Someone may win (often on crowdsourced sites the standard is poor so the client chooses no winner). But there are mostly ‘losers’ who have spent time for nothing. No matter how good you are, you won’t win all the time. In fact few people win regularly. It isn’t a sustainable business model and you’d be stupid to try and build a career based on it.

That’s why it is often students who try out for these things, or just designers who aren’t very good and don’t have much work on or people with ripped-off copies of software. Being able to use software doesn’t mean you have the design skills. The problem is mostly people aren’t trained or able to know what is good design and what isn’t. This used to be the domain of project managers and design buyers but now everyone is a design buyer. Opening up design is a good thing, kind of…

A lot of design is about client education and hand holding – helping people through the tricky area of design strategy, process and implementation. When design is reduced to a price driven (or worse free!) commodity then there isn’t a relationship between designer and client. The basis for choosing design is cost and what wows the inexperienced design buyer. What happens is ‘designers’ then just try to sell to the client and wow them, and forget about the design problem, the client’s audience, the client’s objectives and aims and business strategy. Sometimes clients need to be educated about what will and won’t work, and what will work for their brand or organisation in the long run. In a design contest, this doesn’t and can’t happen. Decisions are made in a vacuum. The client doesn’t meet the needs of their business or audience: the client loses in the long run.

When there is little money to be made, people cut corners: designs are reused, plagarised, blatantly ripped off or ideas copied. There are cases of companies on crowdsourcing websites with the same logo, just a different name. Other cases of royalty free photography used for identities without the client realising that it is copyright free so anyone else could use their ‘unique’ brand too, entirely legally. This is what happens when you go cheap and get no advice.

Design isn’t free. Just like food isn’t free. Designers need money, just like everyone else. The old favourite is would you go to three restaurants, have a main course in each but only pay for the one you like? Sounds silly and it is: but why is design any different? Do you give your work away for free a lot?

But of course you get ‘exposure’ if (and it is a big if), you win the contest. Just try paying your electricity bill with ‘exposure’ and see how long the lights stay on for.

You are right to say that nobody is forced into these competitions and I don’t really care about the people who do enter nor their morals. It is their choice. What I do care about is the effect these contests and spec requests have on the value and idea of design and the wider design industry. If someone like yourself who doesn’t know or hasn’t thought deeply about the ins and outs of these things, sees others doing it, they think it’s OK. Then it spreads and spreads and some people assume it is the norm. It devalues what good people are trying to do across a whole industry.

If you or anyone else wants further reading, these are good places to start:

This is a particularly interesting one about children ‘designers’ on crowdsourced sites:

Some of my other posts about spec work: