On spec work, contests and whether they have any place in the industry

1 October 2014

In recent months the question of so-called spec work has been raised with us over social media in light of various design competitions we have helped promote. Off the back of that we have spent a lot of time discussing this thorny issue with various people so as to formulate a consistent approach, although the nature of these things is that each is best analysed on a case by case basis.

This Opinion piece is the next step in that process. Here we outline both sides of the debate as has been explained to us and at the bottom we will open the discussion for comments.

The AIGA provide a good definition of spec work here. We are in particular talking about design competitions in this instance rather than wider issues of spec work in its various manifestations across the industry.


Proponents of these kinds of briefs – and they very much see them as opportunities rather than competitions – say they are a good way for young designers to get seen and develop their portfolio at a time when tuition fees may put people off traditional routes into the industry. They argue that the number of submissions received – which is high – suggests there is an appetite for this kind of set-up. They also argue that with proper financial reward for the winners (often plural), the fundamental value of design work is not undermined. It’s not a case of a brand either commissioning an established designer or studio OR running a contest; rather it’s a different way of engaging with a creative audience.


Those against these kinds of competitions feel they are exploitative, with many designers creating work and a brand then picking only the ones that fit for them, leaving the rest having worked for nothing. They feel that the prizes are often not in line with professional design rates and there are concerns about designers signing away the copyright of the work (both the winner or winners and everyone else who entered unsuccessfully). They say it undermines design work and undercuts established designers, while giving false hope to young creatives sweetened with incentives like exposure that are very hard to quantify. They also say it is a bad habit for clients to get into expecting multiple ideas for free.

Where does It’s Nice That fit in?

In the past we have promoted competitions which some feel promote spec work. These are well-paid placements and we have to explore all the opportunities to make sure our business model is sustainable. But we do not believe in entering into commercial agreements that damage the relationship with our readers, who are drawn mainly from the creative industries.

David Airey of the informative NoSpec.com website admits there’s “a grey area” in these kinds of projects. “Designers can determine what’s right for them and whether they’re comfortable working for free,” he told us. “That’s where the onus lies — with the designer, because clients will only ask for free work when they think it’s normal to do so. Each end of the spectrum is much easier to determine.”

As a guide he differentiates between “legitimate design competitions” that are based on designers’ existing portfolios, and those that ask designers to create new work.

Over To You

So we want to know what you think. We believe in open conversation about issues that affect designers and though we understand that this particular issue generates very heated opinions, we hope the discussion can be carried out in a calm and respectful manner on all sides. To quote the NoSpec! website’s protocol, we believe everyone should behave in “a polite, professional manner” and we won’t accept comments which “harass or torment people.”

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