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May 28 2013


Thoughts on design crowdsourcing

Last year, Design Bureau Magazine asked me a few questions about design crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing design

Q/ Do you believe that crowdsourcing, aka “spec work” can ever be good? For example, what if it was used to benefit a noble cause for the common good?

A/ It’s commendable when designers donate their time and ideas to a noble cause. But what’s the point when their efforts are valued at nothing? When a company expects hundreds of designers to compete against each other, the company places very little value on their time and ideas (and on design in general). Pro bono design is a more effective option. Then both the designer and client get immeasurably more value from the project.

Q/ Ric Grefe, executive director of AIGA is quoted as saying “crowdsourcing isn’t going away.” Do you agree with this statement?

A/ Yes.

Q/ He also suggested ways in which the model can be modified, becoming “good” as a result. Do you think that crowdsourcing should be transformed?

A/ It’s important to differentiate “crowdsourcing” from “spec work.” Some websites sell design contest listings, defining that as crowdsourcing, but essentially those businesses are based the need for others to work for free in the hope of payment. Crowdsourcing, as originally defined by Jeff Howe, can work well when used for simple tasks, in a similar way to how focus groups might be useful. For instance, a designer creates a number of options around a specific brief. He or she (or the company hiring the designer) then asks the “crowd” to choose a favourite. But an entire design project from start to finish isn’t so simple, and although there are always exceptions, crowdsourcing the outcome generates poor quality.

Q/ There were some recent high-profile examples, such as the Gap logo debacle, where during crisis management they almost decided to crowdsource a new logo, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), where crowdsourcing was averted with AIGA’s intervention. Do you think that companies are learning their lesson? Have they learned anything about design? Or have these strong reactions only reinforced the power of the crowd?

A/ We learn fastest when we make our own mistakes. It’s one thing hearing about the downsides from someone else, but we rightly don’t believe everything we hear. The fact that some companies see crowdsourcing as a cheap way to harvest ideas is understandable. It costs them very little to buy a contest listing. The bigger cost is time — sifting through hundreds of uploads in the hope of a gem. Additionally, too much choice can greatly hinder the decision-maker because it’s easier to choose one from two than one from hundreds.

Q/ I spoke to one of the finalists of the Obama for Jobs poster campaign. It was a student, and she was happy to do the work, it was a good conversation piece for interviews, and good for her portfolio. Given those reasons, do you think that she is naïve? Why or why not?

Design courses don’t have enough teaching about spec work. I remember when I was in formal education and my class had to work on a project for an outside client. The prize was to have your design used. This seems to be a common scenario, although it’s slightly different from the Obama gig, because all of my classmates’ designs were critiqued by the tutor and by our peers (alas, not the client, which would’ve also been useful). In any case, we learned something. Not as much as we could’ve if the project was handled differently, but it was something. I don’t see how hundreds, perhaps thousands of poster ideas submitted without feedback, compensation, or acknowledgement, is of any value.

Q/ Why do you suppose competition work is frowned upon in graphic design, and yet for other creative industries — architecture, for example — it is generally accepted and encouraged?

A/ For graphic design, the value of the time necessary to “compete” in contests outweighs the potential reward [sometimes the reward isn't given]. From what I understand, architects will add the cost of the pitches they don’t win into the invoices of those they do, so their clients compensate them for the time spent trying to win new clients. And when an architectural pitch is won, it could be hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars. There’s no comparison against the typical rewards offered in graphic design contests.

Identity Designed

Brand identity inspiration on Identity Designed.

Tags: Business spec

May 04 2011


If design was an iceberg

I can understand the investor attraction to spec work websites. After all, the sites profit through nothing more than the sale of contest-listings. So as long as the listing database is intact, and the turnstiles are kept moving, the concept appears hugely scalable.

I can also understand the initial client attraction. The cost of a service plays an important role in the purchase decision, and with spec work, the client spends as little as she wants. Often nothing.

underwater iceberg

But work produced ‘on spec’ isn’t just a cheaper form of design, on the whole it’s also vastly inferior, because once the volunteers producing the artwork figure-out how to win, the design process has long since disappeared. What designer puts 100% into a project when there’s a minuscule chance of getting paid? And those who do give 100% are even likelier to leave with nothing but a sense of dejection.

Ultimately, contest holders are left to compensate for the emaciated design process by attempting to fill-in the gaps, “Change this. Add that. Combine these. Try it in blue.” They’re paying to be designer-for-a-day, when the reality is that they either don’t need a designer (imagine hiring a plumber then telling him what to do), or they haven’t realised the time-sapping downsides.

Multi-million dollar investments in contest-listing websites will inevitably prompt a more aggressive marketing push, but as long as self-respecting designers continue to differentiate themselves this won’t affect client acquisition.

There are plenty of ways to set yourself apart. Here’s a very quick example from my book:

Where Photoshop comes into play

Showing your designs in context — in other words, as they will be seen by others — is key to helping your clients visualise how great you can make their companies look. It’s comparable to buying a new car. The car might show a fresh paint job and have that “new car smell,” but unless you take it for a test drive, you won’t be entirely convinced. That’s why showing your designs in context can be what finally cements the deal with your clients.

p144, Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities, New Riders, 2010

As a designer, what are you doing to differentiate yourself?
As a client, what are you looking for when choosing a designer?

Iceberg photo composite by Ralph Clevenger

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February 24 2011


The disconcertion of spec


It’s bemusing to see $1.78 billion retailer JCPenney crowdsourcing its brand identity to a group comprised of “the company’s associates, several design agencies and two art schools.”

Graphic designer Sara Tack asks the right questions:

“Is the time spent reviewing over 200 submissions good business practice? How many hours did the corporation waste trying to come to a consensus, no less review all the submissions? Did they think by having such a huge range of ideas that clarity would reveal itself? Who led this effort? Whose idea was it to create this process? Did this person(s) think they needed this effort to cover all their bases and prove they did due diligence? Or did someone think it would be ‘cool’ to involve all these people?”

Not only has a lot of valuable business time and effort gone to waste, but I’m confident that a boat-load of designers have been left unpaid, too. This is just one in a recent line of unnecessary logo redesigns.

Talking about the US retail giant, and for those who haven’t read it already, there’s an excellent article on the New York Times website about JCPenney’s search engine optimisation. Worth a look.

In similar, but no less disconcerting news, Domtar Paper is holding a design contest. What troubles me is not the actions of the previously unheard of marketer Domtar, but that the results will be announced at the 2011 HOW Conference. It’s sad to see design organisation HOW — “the creative and business resource for graphic designers” — giving such exposure to spec work.

Here’s a snippet from the contest rules:

“Domtar reserves the right to not select a winner. All entries agree to transfer all rights of artwork to Domtar for promotional or any other use.”

Cleveland-based designer Jen Lombardi shared her less than flattering thoughts on the Domtar/HOW episode: SPEC YOU!

Speaking of spec advocates, you can now, unfortunately, count Jason Gube’s highly-trafficed web design blog Six Revisions in that bracket, after the publishing of this anchor-text-stuffed advertisement where (no doubt anticipating a negative response) “comments that do not follow the instructions on how to participate [in the contest] may be removed.” I like Jacob, but I think he made a mistake.

For those new to these parts, I recommend reading why AIGA believes that design competitions will not result in the kind of work a client deserves.

Porcupinefish image courtesy of Thinkstock.

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November 23 2010


November 17 2010


Responding to spec work requests

golden ticket

I rarely reply to the weekly email requests that ask for spec work. For whatever reason, today I did. Here’s the pitch, and how I responded.

Spec work request received this morning


I’m reaching out to you to let you know about this unique project to work with DJ Rusko.

Talenthouse has partnered with KarmaloopTV and top English DJ and producer, DJ Rusko, to offer graphic designers the opportunity to participate in a worldwide project for which they can receive global recognition for their creativity.

The project asks that graphic designers design the official “R” logo for DJ Rusko which he will use on all of his merchandise and marketing material worldwide during 2011. The selected designer will also receive $1,000 (USD) for their design.

To participate or get more information, go to:

If you have any questions feel free to send me an e-mail.

And my reply


Thanks for the kind offer.

In return, I’m reaching back to let you know about a unique project opportunity for DJ Rusko.

The project asks that DJ Rusko record and produce a new music track — one that mentions my name and my title as a graphic designer. I’ll play the track on my website to a worldwide audience, giving full credit. I’ll also pay $1,000.

If I don’t like the track, or if I prefer one created by another DJ (I’m contacting thousands of others with the same unique opportunity), I won’t play it on my site. Nor will I pay the monetary prize.

To participate, have DJ Rusko send the completed MP3 file to my email address.

Kind regards,


AIGA position on spec work

Golden ticket scratch card available from Crankbunny.

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October 29 2010


Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

Smashing-magazine-advertisement in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own ProjectsSpacer in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects
 in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects  in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects  in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

During my last job with a large corporation, people started to get laid off. Many fellow creatives came to me, as they had no idea what they would do if they were let go. I had come to that small city from New York and my experience was varied and impressive to those who started their careers with this company. Their parents had hoped for their own children to work there and eventually retire in the same homey place. They were anchored in this town that held no other industries. Like layoffs in a town that has a steel mill, there weren’t many options to those looking for work.

“You’re creative,” I would tell people before my turn came in the next to last round of layoffs (which is some comfort). “You can do so many things that are creative. If you get pushed out the door, make your own projects!” Then advise them where to go and spend the rest of the day creating a book, or painting a series for a gallery show, or create postcards, greeting cards, dolls and websites. This was usually followed by the persons to whom I was speaking to, to ask about something they obviously wanted to explore; leading to a discussion, usually joined by others as well, on how to achieve it. The dividing line is how badly does one want it?

[Offtopic: by the way, did you know that we are publishing a Smashing eBook Series? The brand new eBook #3 is Mastering Photoshop For Web Design, written by our Photoshop-expert Thomas Giannattasio.]

Take The Initiative!

Tailor in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

Tailor (A) gives creative (B) a snappy new “power suit”, SO irresistible that the client (C) hugs the suit (D) causing it to hit paddle (E), smashing expensive vase (G) and wasting a perfectly goof head of cabbage (I). Further destruction reigns havoc (K – P), dousing all competitors with a toxic chemical (Q). Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

I’m a big believer in self-propelled initiatives. It’s how I make a living. Writing for Smashing Magazine is an initiative. Everything is done before Smashing ever sees it. Authors have to come up with the idea, research it for presentation, get the approval and then write it and submit it. It’s initiative. As with what you may perceive as easy to pitch an article, most initiatives are simple!

All of my career I’ve had people come to me to relay that they have written a book and need a cover or images for the inside so they can send it to a publisher. I tell them they don’t need all that. Just send in the manuscript with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (many publishers have digital submissions on their sites) and the publisher will choose cover designers and illustrators themselves.

Some people smile at the realization that their dreams were an easy step closer. Some didn’t believe me and insisted I design something for them (and draw, because I’m an “artsy-type!”). I look over the pages and tell them it’s an idea that shouldn’t be “set aside lightly”. They smile and then I tell them it should be “thrown with great force” (with apologies to Dorothy Parker). Some people want it to be done for them. Maybe it’s the prompting of a contest or a “might-as-well-take-it” project.

Would you rather be working on a low-paying project that is screwing you up at every turn or invest in yourself with the time put towards your dream project? It’s not hard coming up with an idea and creating the images, code or what-have-you. The difficult part is making yourself do it and then selling it and that’s where most people fail.

One of my recent favorite self-initiative stories was about an injured creative with time on his hands and a need for income. Dave is a designer at the Iconfactory and responsible for the ultimate Twitter icon Ollie the Twitterrific bird; he had broke his foot while playing soccer over the Fourth of July. That meant that the poor guy was relegated to staying off his feet at home. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he decided to use the opportunity to keep himself from going completely Rear Window and offer up his design skills to the large Web community — and successfully so!

Self-initiative is not easy for most people. Working for someone else provides a regular paycheck, security, after a fashion, and someone telling you what to do. No self-motivational projects needed. As one person commented on a past article on crowdsourcing,

“I recently participated in the LG “Design the Future” contest (yeah, I didn’t win)… but rarely do I get the chance to design a cell phone like product… it was a great exercise in creativity and it really let me flex my muscle… and they had some substantial cash prices (first prize was $20,000)… I feel like competitions like that are great for the industry. The rules were pretty relaxed and it really let people go hog wild and show off what they can do. Too often you’re forced to roll with the clients vision. It’s great to have a contest that let’s you be you.”

As I was arguing the pros and cons of crowdsourcing in that article, I just had to reply for his edification:

“I understand your point, but let me play devil’s advocate and explore another option. So you submitted something you really enjoyed designing and it stretched your creativity. You loved your final submission. You didn’t win and the client, I assume, owns it anyway. What if you had designed it but not submitted it and then sought out companies that might purchase the rights to the design? You would have taken a cue to create your own initiative and owned the product rights.”

Was the prize worth giving away all rights to the winner? What would the client have paid a design firm or freelancer to do the work? I’m guessing that the prize cost was considerably less than the one that would have run the company. So, who was the real winner? Which avenue held a better chance for him? The odds of him winning the contest and giving up the idea anyway without winning, or the odds of him being able to sell the design on the open market, or  maybe not, but owning it to try again? I can’t say.

Persistence in selling the idea and protecting it can be daunting. Even though, sometimes even an e-mail comes back right away that says, “I love it!”… and a check eventually arrives. (Note: you shouldn’t participate in such speculative design work as a professional in the first place and here is why — Smashing Editorial)

What Will Get You Started?

Tidalwave in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

A tidal wave of ideas or bills (A) will motivate another creative nearby to foolishly open an umbrella (E) in a lame attempt to hold back the flood, causing what looks like a giant earring (H) to fall and pull the hammer (J) so it strikes a piece of metal (K), waking up the baby (L) who must be rocked to sleep (N) by a trained and poorly-paid dog (M), causing the attached backscratcher (O) to tear at your flesh until you decide it’s better to get off your rear and do something. Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

Your idea. Your dream. No one will do it for you. Even if you have to work at something non-creative — use the money to live, but make your dream the priority. Crappy job gets in the way of your dream? Find another crappy job! They’re everywhere and except for the slaughterhouse idea, they won’t drain your creativity. Have the idea? Now set your plan. Just like your previous boss who had always made projects go around and around, it’s finally time to make your own plan, knowing it will work better, and make it happen!

First, research who your customer is. Using Web sources or going to stores are the best way to find out some helpful examples of consumer habits (yes, marketing people never leave the office, they rely too much on figures supplied to them). See what people are buying and talk to them. I used to go to stores that carried products made by the company for which I worked for, and watched what people bought or didn’t and asked them why.

I would smile as I approached them, excuse myself and explain what I was working on and gathered their opinions. This is probably why my products sometimes sold very well. Know your consumer base!

Also, figure out costs and how you will cover them. You may need a loan or investors. What website and functionality will you need? Packaging, having stock, shipping, advertising, taxes? Is your dream project for you to start a business or do you want someone else to produce it? If you are producing it yourself, you can get a business loan, but you are about to take many, many risks. Get legal and financial advice next. It’s well worth the money and will give you the final tally of whether or not this will be your dream or nightmare.

If you are creating something to pitch to a company for their purchase or licensing a property (certain photos for calendars and cards, for instance), there are a similar but different set of rules.

Start with the idea and marketing, create a style guide and/or presentation. A friend of mine wanted to publish a graphic novel for a pitch for a property she was trying to sell but couldn’t afford upfront fees for an artist and writer and printer, so I told her to use a WordPress blog to post her promotional material that she already had and that would give her a great presentation — the easy way.

Research which company you think would want to take on the project. Again, go online or to a store and look around. Want to really impress potential clients? Ask the store’s permission to set everything up; take videos of shoppers and their answers. What better way to produce proof of a need and then give clients the means to fulfill it!? Let your imagination run wild! As with the man who was so excited by the contest he entered, stretch yourself creatively.

Found the perfect prospect? Do your research and find the people you need to reach. There are many business networking sites. Search the company and find people and their titles. Get addresses and phone numbers. Call the receptionist and ask her/him who is the head of marketing or if they have an R & D contact person. If they don’t know, ask to speak to the secretary of the VP of marketing. Maybe she/he can get you closer. Also, use your network. Do any of your contacts know someone you are trying to reach?

Sounds difficult? It isn’t really; just keep in mind that it takes a lot of persistence, patience, as well as a good sense of humor. Once you lost one of those, you won’t make it.

A Non-Disclosure Agreement Is Standard

Feeding in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

While feeding yourself (A), the spoon pulls the string (B), flipping a piece of drilled iron into the head of a parrot (E), who is knocked unconscious and knocks it’s beak into a bowl (G) which spills parrot food into a bucket (H) that sets of fireworks (K) inside your house with a razor sharp sickle (L) attached to it, cutting the string (M) and forcing you to remember the paperwork to enforce your rights by smacking you in the face with a contract repeatedly! Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

It’s standard to either have your own Non-Disclosure Agreement or pick up a copy of Tad Crawford’s book on contracts and forms. Bigger companies will insist on using their own. Bigger corporations, to their own detriment, usually have no access point for outside ideas. They are afraid your idea may be something they are working on and they will be sued down the line. Middle-sized companies will just tell you they happen to be working on the same idea. Document your contacts and submissions well.

I was recently told over a dozen product designs would not be used. I later heard the products were available in every catalog world-wide. Did they think my price would go up if I found out how well the work did? You bet it will! Keep your expectations high (expect the middle to low high) when negotiating. A recent question came in from an artist in Mexico who ran across a sleazy representative in the United States who was basically ripping her off for one of her licensed characters. She had jumped at the chance because it was her first time working in a licensing arrangement. I hope she followed my advice.

As with any business transaction… think! Anyone who rushes your decision is up to something. Do your research and see what you find.

Bless The Web And All Who Surf It!

Extended in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

Extended and dangerous hook (A) catches old fashion sign (B), causing electrical shorts that start a fire and the boot to swing back, kicking the football (C) over the goal post (D) and into a colander (E) which tips the watering can (G) to soak the creative’s back, pants and shoes, which will lead to misunderstandings and new nicknames. The string (I) pulls open the cage (J) allowing the bird (K) to go to eat the worm (M), as the bird had been starved in retaliation for all the Twitter fails, causing the shade to be pulled down (N), which reminds the creative to mail that proposal in his pocket. Using theiWeb only takes half the steps. Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

The Web holds a billion of possibilities. As I mentioned about my friend who built a blog, rather then going through the costs of print, you can hardly lose with a great idea and the ability to bring it to life on the Web. With e-commerce made so easy, how can you not have a site that sells something? At least most of the people I know have a Cafepress or Zazzle “shop”.

When I first started with web design, back in the days when processors ran on mud and sticks… and fire, which was new, I put up sites for my infamous chili recipe, one for each of my kids, a site for toy collectors, and it went on. Why? The Web was young and there were probably only 73 sites live and forty of them were mine!

Use your down time. Partner with friends and split the rewards. Ever hear of a group of social outcasts who got together and created something called “The Onion?” No? I haven’t either, but I do hear good things and that they crawled their way up to be, I believe, the number one humor site in the world. It must have started with an idea and someone’s dream.

(ik) (vf)

© Speider Schneider for Smashing Magazine, 2010. | Permalink | Post a comment | Add to | Digg this | Stumble on StumbleUpon! | Tweet it! | Submit to Reddit | Forum Smashing Magazine
Post tags: creative, initiative, projects, spec

October 20 2010


The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

Win Without Pitching Manifesto

“We do not begin to solve our clients’ problems before we are engaged.”

I’ve been dipping in and out of Blair Enns’ Win Without Pitching Manifesto for the past week. Lots of solid advice to use when dealing with clients.

Here’s an example.

“Only We Present Our Work

“Whenever our diagnostic findings, strategic recommendations, or creative solutions are presented to anyone in our client companies, it will be personnel from our firm that does so.”

I’ve worked on projects where my ideas were delivered to boards of directors through middle-people — brand managers, for instance. So I wasn’t on hand to guide the decision-makers or to answer questions. This created a huge increase in back-and-forth where the board would relay thoughts to me through my key contact, kind of like Chinese whispers. No good for either of us.

Win Without Pitching Manifesto

One general premise of Blair’s Manifesto is that if a design studio is asked to pitch for a client’s business, the studio should be paid to write the proposal.

“Doctors charge for MRIs. Accountants charge for audits. Lawyers charge for discovery. And we charge for our diagnostic work as well, whether it is a brand audit or discovery session that we conduct ourselves, or outside research that we commission.”

Win Without Pitching Manifesto

You can read the Win Without Pitching Manifesto for free online, purchase in digital format, or buy a hard copy from

You can also follow the author (and fellow Liverpool fan) Blair Enns on Twitter.

More design book recommendations in my Amazon bookstore.

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July 13 2010


AIGA panel on spec work

The above video is from an AIGA Metro North event titled reSPECt, “A civilized dialog between advocates and opponents of speculative branding and design work.”

The video can also be viewed here on Vimeo.

Moderated by New York State Supreme Court Justice Colleen D. Duffy, the panel included:

  • Ric Grefé, Executive Director, AIGA
  • Brendán Murphy, Senior Partner, Lippincott
  • Jerry Kathman, President & CEO, LPK
  • John Gleason, Founder & President, A Better View

Some of the questions raised include:

Haven’t other professions been similarly squeezed? For instance, accountants and lawyers package and sell their time. Are they going through these spec issues? If not, why? Is it because of certification? Should there be a design certification? Is it because designers allow it to happen by undervaluing their skills. Is it through necessity, with too many designers competing for less work?

One thing’s for sure, how you brand yourself as a designer plays a huge role in your success. Are you just another “crank a logo out for £50″ production worker, or are you a brand identity specialist providing immeasurably more value to your clients?

As John Gleason asks in the panel discussion, “Are you a BMW or a Hyundai?”

It’s a shame AIGA President Debbie Millman wasn’t a speaker. Here’s her take on spec work.

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February 04 2010


AIGA’s response to NEA’s call for logos

AIGA Annual cover Paul Rand

On February 1st, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) asked designers submit logo design proposals for its Art Works initiative.

The request was a speculative one, prompting Richard Grefé, executive director of AIGA — the largest and oldest professional communication design association in the United States — to respond by addressing a letter to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman.

I’ve picked out a few excerpts from Grefé’s letter (shown below), and the full response is linked to at the foot of the post.

AIGA’s response to the NEA’s call for logos

“This type of competition runs against the global professional standards and practices for graphic design [...] it is both unfortunate and inappropriate that the NEA would be pursuing this practice.

“The approach you are pursuing is one that seriously compromises the quality of work you are entitled to and also violates a tacit ethical standard that has long standing in the communication design professions worldwide.

“Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the problem and can only result in a design that is judged on a superficial basis. [Such competitions] will not result in the kind of work a client deserves.

“Only too often, [spec work] results in a client eventually having to bring a more experienced designer onto a project in order to execute it.”

Read AIGA’s full response to the NEA here.

What AIGA President Debbie Millman says about spec work.

Header image: 1968 AIGA Annual cover, by Paul Rand.

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