Would You Work on Spec? Why Should Your Logo Designer?

Back in my last year of law school, one of my friends who was still looking for permanent employment responded to an ad seeking a new associate for a three person law firm.  The firm’s managing partner contacted my friend and they had a nice chat.  The partner said that my friend was definitely in contention for the position but to make a final decision, my friend would need to submit a five page memo on a question that the partner described (something under New York CPLR as I remember). Desperate for employment and believing that this would clinch the deal, my friend drafted the memo and sent it in.  And then he waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Eventually, my friend called the partner who informed him that the firm decided not to hire anyone at that time.  Thereafter, my friend and I joked that the memo assignment must have been some kind of a scam to get free work, and we wondered if the firm had a racket going — routinely posting similar ads to generate a steady supply of slave labor.

Fast forward two decades, and the type of spec work scam that my friend and I derided back in law school now abounds, rebranded as crowdsourcing.  And it’s all the rage for logo design at sites like Crowdspring or 99 Designs, which are sometimes recommended as an inexpensive way for new solos to acquire a logo.

Generally, contest sites work like this.  Users can create a contest for a new logo by listing a design project and a prize amount (recommended amounts are $100 to $600).  Once the contest is posted, designers submit concepts, after which users have an opportunity to offer feedback or request additional modifications.  At the end of the designated contest period, the user must select a winner and award the prize money.   The theory is that even those designers who don’t win (and therefore don’t get paid) accrue benefits from their uncompensated labor, such as increased exposure and feedback on their designs.

But are logo contests really crowd sourcing – or simply a slick way to get free work?  Serious design professionals like Jacob Cass say that logo contests aren’t crowd sourcing, but rather, spec work.  Spec work is any job “for which the client expects a finished product before agreeing to pay,” while crowdsourcing is way to generate feedback or opinions of an already completed piece of work:

Crowdsourcing: “Vote for our new logo, we will use the one you all like the most!” This means the logos have already been designed (and hopefully not via spec).

Spec or Free Pitching: “We need a logo, someone design one for us and we will pick the one we like.”

Not surprisingly, the design community reviles logo contests, even creating a No Spec! website to warn the public about how spec work contests are a disservice to both designers and clients alike.  As No Spec! explains, logo contests devalue design work and create an expectation that great logos shouldn’t cost much money.   Apparently, that’s what someone like Tim Ferriss of Four Hour Work Week fame, believes.  Though Ferris who could well afford to compensate a designer, he held a contest to pick a design for his book cover, defending his choice by reasoning that “for a couple of hours of work,” a designer could potentially reap the reward of seeing his work on a Times Square billboard.  (As a lawyer, the phrase “couple of hours” should ring familiar – as in “Why did you charge me $2000 to get the lawsuit dismissed.  It only took a couple of hours to call the other side and get them to drop it).

Other logo contest opponents point out that contests are exploitative, preying on the desperation of new graduates who will do just about anything to build a portfolio.  Sure, no one puts a gun to a contest entrant’s head to force them to participate under penalty of death.  But lets face it – if these designers had well paid jobs, would they be participating in these contests at all?  Just like my law school buddy who wanted a job badly enough to write a memo that he’d never had done if he could have found a job more easily, most designers who enter these contests need the cash and have few other choices.  And unfortunately, even if a designer gets lucky and wins a few hundred bucks, most of the contests are one-offs, and don’t lead to long term relationships.

But logo design contests aren’t in the contest sponsor’s best interests either.  As Jacob Cass points out, much spec work is of inferior quality, with little or no research by designers because there’s no relationship (contest sponsors often don’t give many details about their business).  Besides, why would a designer want to invest this kind of time in a design when there’s no guarantee of any payment?

Receiving shoddy work product is perhaps the most benign downside to logo contests.  Other consequences are far worse.  As the Logo Factory cautions, many contest participants submit designs inspired (read: copied!) from other logo sites.  Which means that for $150, you’re buying not just a sub-par logo, but a potential lawsuit as well.  In addition, questions have been raised about the legality of contest design sites.  Though most likely, the site itself, rather than a contest sponsor would face liability for violations, it just doesn’t look very good for an attorney or a law firm to be caught up in an activity that may not be lawful.

Which raises another point:  the impact of participating in a logo contest on your firm’s reputation.  Really, just how prominent is the prominent law firm looking for a $260 design?

Yet for all the compelling negatives associated with logo design, for me, the primary reason that lawyers shouldn’t participate in these spec sites (and why I won’t use them) boils down to this.  As lawyers, we’d never draft up a contract or outline the best causes of action for a potential lawsuit for a prospective client with scant hope of ever seeing payment.  So why should we expect our logo designers to work on spec when wouldn’t do it ourselves?

Update (2/28/2010): There’s plenty of interesting discussion in the comments, including comparisons of spec work to, for example, lawyers working on contingency.  However, for lawyers, I think that the closest analogy between speculative legal services and logo contests is this:

A potential client conducts a contest, offering $750 to a lawyer to draft a lease agreement addressing (x, y, z) and that complies with California law.  Lawyers submit a lease agreement, with fee awarded to the lawyer who produces the best agreement.

Would you enter this contest?  And how is this kind of contest different, if at all, from contests for logo design?