I've been in Web Design business since 2006 and I can say, with confidence, that I've seen a lot of abuses that are made by self-proclaimed big companies who hire web designers and developers all the time, because they are so good and have so much work. One of the most frustrating things I've come across over the past seven years or so are job contests for designers.

Why am I mentioning this in the topic that talks about spec work? Well, if you have been a web designer or a graphical designer or any kind of designer for a few years and have experience, you probably know, but younger designers usually don’t know about spec work and the job contest trick, so this post is mostly for them.

Basically, how these contests work.

Imagine that Milantex [dot] Info is a company that promotes itself on its own website as a big Internet Marketing company that had developed hundreds of web sites and administers hundreds of social network profiles for important companies and well known individuals, but in truth it is a one person agency or a small team of tricksters who have started up a small business with next to no interest in investing in good and creative workers (designers), but want to get cheap and good ideas for products, i.e. website designs.

Good, yet cheap ideas with no investment in designers? That’s not possible! Or is it?

Alright, let’s go on. Imagine now that I've published a very strange type of job offer where I call for designers to enter a contest where the winning submission will earn its creator the exclusive contract with this Oh, great big gigantic company of mine. And so, experienced designers see it, get the picture, know that it is spec work related and go around it in a very wide arc. But younger designers read on and here is what happens.

Imagine that you are a designer who needs the job badly and sees this as an opportunity to finally get one 'coz you have great idea and the company says that the contest is about their new company logo. Great, so all you have to do is make a great logo and win this thing. You see yourself as very creative, and maybe you really are, and it should be a piece of cake to think of a really ground breaking logo design that everyone is gonna like. So you compete.

The rules are simple. Send your design in vector graphics file type, designed in any vector design tool, such as Inkscape, Corel or Illustrator and make sure you send it before a certain date. Of course, they ask for all the usual info about you, such as your full name, phone number, e-mail address etc., making you believe that they actually indent to contact you in the end.

So you sit down and think, you do some research, you draw concepts, you waste a lot of time and you come up with something that looks really good. The day before the end of contest you send them your design and wait for them to announce the winner of the contest.

If you are unlucky, your design is not picked and if you are lucky, they announce the winning design which is a design which has 95% of your designs features and 5% something else. Of course, you are not mentioned as the winner, but some other guy.

Immediately, you get the point. It was a trick. They had all those designers work for free, thinking of great designs and submitting them without signing any contract that would guarantee them some money in return if the company uses their design or elements from their designs.

In the end, the winner was probably some buy who was already a part of the team, who is a designer, but was too lazy and miserably non-creative to think of a good logo himself, so he just took ten or so submissions, talked with his/her buddies in the great, big, gigantic company of cheats and they agreed on which design was the best, which other designs are they gonna rip to pieces to use them in order to modify the chosen one a little and make it look “different” from the chosen. Of course, their designer then packs that up in a new logo, and they publish it under some name and if at any time they are asked to disclose the identity of the designer who won, they say that it is not allowed by the companies policy to disclose information about their present or past employees, so an angry looser whose design was “used” can do pretty much nothing to get compensated for being lead to believe that he or she would get a job for doing little spec work.

So, when someone asks you to send suggestions or samples of your work, so that they could evaluate your work and skills before they decide if they could have you work for them, you should be weary.

Doing spec work, which is short for speculative work is most often the same as giving someone a finished product in which you have invested a lot of time, research and creative effort, for free.

However, if the company which asks for samples agrees to sign a contract where they commit to pay you a certain fee if your design or elements of your design are used in the final product or any product what so ever, then it might be all right even when it looks like it could be a spec work trick. Also, they must note in that agreement or contract that if your submitted design is not used for the purpose of the topic of the contest (in our case, for their new company’s logo), you will therefore retain all exclusive rights on using that design of yours from thereon.

Why is spec work so bad?

Firstly, it makes designers waste time and work for free, therefore in conclusion clients get things they want for free and designers are still jobless.

Second, when hundreds of designers apply for the contests like this where they work for free in hope of actually getting something in return, the worth of design in general is depressed. It is just like market economy or the supply and demand principle. All in all, it gets down to the fact that as long as there are designers who are willing to work for free, clients will not hire designers who aren't  And there are always those who are ready to work for free.

How is that possible?

Every year, thousands of new graduates come out of universities and art schools and straight away they want nothing but to prove their selves and show off their skills and talent. The job winning contest for designers who do something as simple as designing a good looking logo for a company sounds very tempting. Doesn't it? Well, it is. You might be from a generation that is already aware of this, or you might be a newbie in this market, but now you know this. However, there will always be new fresh graduates who are talented, have inspiration, and are creative. With contests that are promising them jobs, they have another key component… motivation. When they are motivated, yet ignorant of the fact that they will be tricked into providing free services, they are just the thing clients and companies like the one I have mimicked in this blog entry want. And they are just the thing that will guarantee that good designers will have a harder time getting jobs.

Why would a company pay for design when they can trick someone in doing it for free?

Is it ethical, is it fraud? I personally have no reason to believe that it is anything but unethical and that it is not fraud. In fact, I believe that it should be sanctioned in some way. Unfortunately, laws in most countries do not recognize as fraudulent such contests in which designers are asked to send spec work and willingly, without being forced into it, submit their work without demanding compensation. Therefore, you cannot sue them for using your work. After all, you didn't protect it prior to sending it to them and you didn't sign any contract where they agree to give you a fee for using your design.

Does demanding spec work harm clients too?

I think that it does, and if it doesn't it should. Why? Because when you trick someone they certainly won’t say pretty things about your business and you as a company. You will have people going against you even before you really start working and real have consumers and customers like you or dislike you for your services.

Having people in professional circles where you should be looking for partners and support begin spreading word that you are a cheat, then you might bring about even more problems than you could imagine. But, hey! Why should designers care? If you tried to trick them, it’s just what you and your company deserve.

Here is a tip for those who are thinking of hiring designers, be it web, graphical, industrial or any other kind. If you want a professional grade and a quality product, be ready to pay for it.

This goes for any kind of business. If you want a quality service or product, be ready to pay for it, but to pay a fair price. Never overpay and never underestimate someone else’s work and hope to get something done for free. The World is best of when it is in balance.