Contests and Spec: A Guide for Creatives and Clients

June 21, 2015  |  Blog

A lot of you may have noticed my increasing social media posts on spec work and contests (#nospec) and why they are bad for the creative industry. I’m turning into a bit of an activist on the matter and I think it’s high time I wrote a little something about it — we need more professional advocates out there to help educate creatives and the general public on this “submit your idea for a chance at a paltry sum/exposure” practice.

Please use this guide to clarify whether or not what you’re being asked to do is hurting your career and the creative industry as a whole.


Did you read the terms and agreement?

I bet you assumed that submissions not chosen as the winner were still yours, right? More than likely, you’re wrong. It’s sad, but true that very onerous terms will be included in the agreement. When you submit to these “contests” be wary of the following verbiage you agree to as soon as you hit the submit button:

Ownership of Deliverables: Are you being asked to hand over all rights, title, interest, patent, copyright, trade secret and other intellectual property rights? They wouldn’t do that, would they? Betcha they would. Make sure to read the terms.

Are you being asked to agree that what you’re submitting is a “works made for hire?” Guess what? If you agree to that, the company owns your work 100%, can use it whenever they’d like to, in the future, for any project they deem fit. You’re not getting paid for your work AND losing all rights to it? EEEEP! Yep, this really happens and it’s all up to you to read the fine print.


Winnings: Is it one paltry prize and/or exposure?

Is a large group being asked to submit entries in hopes that one or a fraction of those entries receive a very low monetary prize, exposure, social media shoutouts and/or the glory of doing something the community will deem super rad (a great way to cover up, mind you. You’d be giving your intellectual property to a good cause, right? Right?)?

I’m sure you, like the majority of people, have bills, need to feed yourselves and your families, have likely taken classes or gone to college, invested time and money in skills, and probably paid the steep price for software that’s necessary to do your job, right? And I’m sure you see the issue with asking others or rather EXPECTING other professionals to work for you for free, right? You probably wouldn’t dream of approaching any business and expecting them to submit their wares in the hope that they might be paid should you deem their work “the best,” right? Yeah, sounds a bit off, doesn’t it? Why, then, would you ever dream of giving away your time, expertise, and valuable knowledge for free? It’s that perception that NEEDS to be changed. By saying no and explaining why you’ve said no, you are helping to change that perception.


Do you believe that you should be expected to work for free simply because you’re a creative?

Strange question, eh? Well, by submitting to a contest, you are feeding that twisted perception that creatives should work for free and that it’s somehow a valid and accepted practice. I’m sure you see the value in your work; the time it takes to create your final product; the money you spend on materials, cost of software subscriptions, hardware, etc. Why doesn’t the general public value your work in the same way? It’s because those who have treated creatives in this way have somehow set a twisted standard of “norm” that has, over time, become accepted by others. In turn, some creatives have accepted it as “just the way it is” as they’ve fallen into the downward spiral of crowdsourcing and competition based websites set up by those who have set the unfair standards. Creatives, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, we have the upper hand here. If more of us say no and stop participating in contests (and other speculative work requests) while educating others on ethical practices of the industry, more of us would be compensated for our skills properly.

It’s sad it’s gotten as bad as it has, but when a company needs a logo or something creative, sometimes the first thing that’s suggested is, “Let’s throw a contest! We’ll get a TON of submissions! One will have to stand out!” It’s a horrible practice. Creatives all pitching for what is usually a tiny bit of money in the grand scheme of things. Luckily, most professionals realize what these contests are and avoid them at all costs. Meaning the majority of submissions come from those just starting out. It’s simply taking advantage of those who don’t yet know any better.


Take a stand. Educate yourself and others.

The fault lies in lack of education on the matter. I can’t count how many times I’ve spoken to students or even those throwing contests who think this is a completely valid practice. I assure you, it is not.

BOTH the client and creative lose out on what could be an extraordinary final product when using competition as a way of finding a solution. Why? Well, from the design end of the spectrum, the client / designer relationship and communication during the project is key. If you don’t have that communication open from the start, you’ll receive random stabs in the dark at what the designer(s) hopes hits the mark. To properly solve a communication problem and relay your company’s message successfully (via logo creation, ad creation, etc), a creative brief, multiple conversations and consultations about the goal and purpose of the design are vital.

Which is why the search for and hiring of a professional designer is imperative. Clients should be looking at portfolios, styles, recommendations, and expertise when choosing a designer to work one-on-one with. The final outcome will ALWAYS be superior. Additionally, one’s creative career takes time, effort, investment, and practice to upkeep. Creatives, make sure you’re compensated fairly. Clients, your creatives deserve fair compensation. It’s not okay for anyone to expect someone to work for free. Ever.

And remember, you get what you pay for. There’s a reason professional fees vary. Experience has a lot to do with it. While hourly rates or project fees may be higher for some creatives, they may be more experienced and can probably execute a bit faster. Keep that in mind when you get a quote for your project. Yes, sometimes, it will be a big investment. But I think you’d agree, that investment is worth it when it comes to representing the face of your business. Regarding other non-logo related contests — let’s use the following as an example — a company is choosing multiple “winners” for a t-shirt competition to assist an ad campaign they’re running. They are banking on receiving hundreds or thousands of submissions and choosing a few as their “winners.” This is bad practice. That company should be seeking out and hiring the artists (negotiating fees accordingly) they think would compliment their campaign’s message rather than asking hundreds/thousands to give their ideas and copyright to those ideas away for free (remember the terms and agreement section above?…Make sure you read ’em folks.).

My point is simple. STOP participating in / throwing creative competitions. It’s bad practice… for all of us. Creatives, your time and expertise is worth money. Make sure you get paid fairly.

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