Design & Spec Work is devoted to the ethics associated with spec work. This is an excellent site by devoted professionals. Here are a few points from NO!SPEC’s FAQ that bear repeating:

What is spec work?

Basically, spec work is any kind of creative work rendered and submitted, either partial or completed, by a designer to a prospective client/employer before taking steps to secure both their work and an equitable fee. Under these conditions, a designer will often be requested to submit work under the guise of either a contest or an entry exam on actual, existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, the designer normally unwittingly loses all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves by means of a signed binding contract or agreement. The client/employer often uses this freely gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.

Why is spec work unethical?

The designer in essence works free of charge and with an often falsely advertised, overinflated promise for future employment; or is given other insufficient forms of compensation. Usually these glorified prizes or “carrots” appear tantalizing for creative communicators just starting out, ending with encouraging examples like “good for your portfolio” or “gain recognition.” The reality is that they often yield little extra work, profit or referrals. Moreover they often must sign a contract unwittingly waiving their valuable creative rights and ownership of their work to the ones promoting this system. A verbal agreement is ineffective in protecting the rights of the designer in a court of law. As a result the client/employer will often employ other designers using similar unprincipled tactics to change and/or resell the creative work as their own. This also promotes the practice of designers ridiculously undercharging themselves in the hopes of “outbidding” any potential rivals, devaluing both their skills and those of the graphics industry in the process. Promoting this method encourages some clients/employers to continue preying on uninformed creatives for menially valued labor.

What’s wrong with a contest?

Aside from putting clients under the impression that design doesn’t have worth, it also penalizes the clients themselves. Through contests designers cannot do a proper marketing research required by the project, therefore they cannot create the right thing for the client, who then chooses on the basis of “the prettiest design”. Don’t forget that the designer is the one with the training, the one with the marketing experience. The designer should be able to know all there is to know about the client’s needs, be able to guide the client and get the best for them. After all, you wouldn’t say to your lawyer how he should defend you in a trial, or you don’t tell a mechanic how to do his job. You look at their past history and then you hire them and let them do the job. That’s what designers’ portfolios are there for. If a client looks for the best designer, he should look at their portfolio giving designers a chance of fair competition and giving themselves, the clients, the best service they can get.

Why should I pay a professional to do work I might like when I can get lots of submissions from a contest?

For one thing, you’re deceptively promoting free labor, a disreputable practice in and of itself. You impede the designer from earning a proper salary. Would you work for free with the hope of POSSIBLY being properly compensated? I doubt you’d nod an agreement. Also consider that contests largely attract inexperienced designers who are additionally under a good deal of pressure to communicate an effective professional piece, due to unreasonable time restraints and competition. After all is said and done, you run the huge risk of still winding up with poorly executed designs that inadequately represent your business amongst your competition and future business liaisons. It could end up costing you dearly in the long run in terms of possible lost revenue among other factors. A professional will work towards developing effective tailored design solutions reflective of their years of training and experience in the field. After all, it’s part and parcel of the job.

I don’t understand this “usage rights” thing – explain.

The rights of a design work and concept are spelled in a contract. Usually designers give you rights for the logo concept and for the use of their press ready files. If you take their concept without paying, and give it to someone else who will “do it for free”, you are effectively stealing. Unless otherwise agreed in the contract, you don’t have the right to take someone’s concept, or the files used to create it (unless provided by yourself) and modify them on your own without compensation. If wish you to be able to modify the design provided to you by a designer and without his/her intervention, you must have the agreement from that designer to do so. You will also be charged accordingly because you are utilizing work that required someone’s time and resources.

What is a design/logo mill?

Unfortunately there is a disturbing growing trend affecting the creative communications community where companies using contests as a major part of their business model pit designers against each other, like roosters in a ring, to win bids to have their work (notably, logos and other identity) awarded to clients. Creatives who fall into this unproductive cycle eventually crank out massive strings of poorly conceived, ineffectively executed and in a growing number of cases, plagiarized work from other professionals in order to win as many posted “contest bids” as possible. The more they crank out, the more they earn. What they DON’T realize, or fail to understand is that those who run these deplorable mills pay designers a comparable pittance to what they themselves earn in their markup, making a very substantial profit in the process. Think along the lines of a sweatshop or pyramid scheme where the few benefit over the many. In the end, the losers are both the creator and the consumer, who sacrificed quality design work for the sake of a “bargain.”

If I can’t decide whether I like a design before I pay for it, how do I know I am going to get a good one?

This is why it pays to use a professional designer. Professional designers are just that – professionals. They are experts in their craft. It is their job to do good work.

How do you tell one designer from another? Look at portfolios. Look over their work and narrow it down to those whose style fits what you like and think will be effective for your business. Then, contact the designer to discuss your project with them. Once you get a feel for their work and personality, you will quickly be able to determine if you can have a successful working relationship together.


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