How I Quit Working for 99Designs, Crowdspring and Mycroburst
Building up the creative soul
THE SPEC ADDICTION
Spec work could become an addiction of some sort. It’s a trap a beginning designer could easily fall into and one where sadly, some experienced ones choose to stay in. It may start with “Wow, that’s easy! I can do a much better design than that.” So you sign up and if you are any good, you might get 4 or 5 stars and feedback that goes something like: “I really, really love your design! Could you please make the following changes…?” Anticipating a win, you happily make the changes, create as many variations as possible and go so far as to show your design in context. Unfortunately, you lose. You wonder what you did wrong, was definitely sure you were going to win, and overall feel pretty rotten. But you move on to the next contest. Well, W.E. Hickson did say: ‘Tis a lesson you should heed: Try, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.”*
So you hope you win this one, or perhaps the next, or the one after that. Eventually you do win, and the euphoria of winning fires you up to join even more contests. It’s a pathetic cycle of excitement-discouragement-delight-dejection… and taken as a whole, is all just a waste of time. The misery of working for spec outweighs the pleasure of winning a couple hundred bucks.
THE SPEC CONTAGION
With all the talk against spec work, it’s a shame many designers still choose this route. As of Sunday, March 13, I count 74 new “creatives” at Crowdspring. I went backwards to check weekday stats and tried Wednesday, March 9. I counted 115 new signups. To date, they boast of 87,000+ designers. 99Designs is in the lead with 96,000+. Mycroburst doesn’t say and I didn’t bother to check the other contest sites. But anyway, can you imagine all those thousands of designers spread across these crowdsourcing sites exposing themselves to exploitation?
Having worked on these sites for some time, I can think of some reasons why designers sign up (and stay).
Most (like me) probably didn’t have formal education in design, and/or did not learn the professional ethics which should include dealing with spec work. I don’t know if this is actually covered in design schools but I do hope it is. Anyway, we simply didn’t/don’t know any better.
$200 for a few hours of work is a lot of money in most developing countries. Some families live on this amount for a month.
■ Poor Communication Skills
Some would rather show their work right off than try to create a decent proposal or job application.
■ No respect
Probably the worst offender is having no respect for the design profession itself and preferring to cut corners—never mind the detailed brief, the exhaustive research, the extensive design process and all the other aspects of being a design professional.
Admit it or not, the designers in these contests are the biggest losers, followed by the client who believes he/she got a good deal but actually missed out on a more rewarding designer-client relationship. And the contest site wins, hands down. In effect, the design industry begins to resemble a factory of unpaid skilled laborers, working zealously for the promise of possible reward.
SPEAKING AGAINST SPEC
I stumbled into design through this (crowdsourcing) design backdoor while looking for online work. Although I am grateful that these contest sites introduced me to a passion I wasn’t previously aware of, I am certainly not proud of it. After reading countless anti-spec articles (you can start by reading David Airey and No!Spec), I was convinced spec work was unethical. You can sum up all the arguments in a simple analogy like, would you order various dishes at a restaurant and pay only for the one you like best? It is embarrassing that I used to value myself so poorly as to be counted among seemingly dispensable designers who get no compensation for hours of work.
KICKING THE SPEC HABIT
If you are convinced that you are doing yourself and the industry an injustice by working for free for contest sites, stop already. Like kicking a bad habit, here are some tips that could help you stop doing spec.
■ Address your reasons for joining spec contests (note: there are legitimate design contests)
1. You don’t know any better
Well, now you do. But don’t stop there. Go ahead and work towards becoming a professional designer in the real sense of the word. Go back to the basics and relearn design if you have to. If you don’t have a degree, get one if you feel you need it.
2. You need the money
If you live in a developing country like I do, chances are, converted to your local currency, you would happily work for a $100 logo design. Broaden your perspective and look at yourself from a global point of view then determine your value.
3. You prefer to show off your work than talk/write
To be able to work well with clients, you definitely need good communication skills. Not knowing how to express yourself well in English can be a serious handicap for some very promising designers. If you happen to fall in this category, nothing is stopping you from working on your communication skills. I say it’s a much better investment of your time than doing unpaid work.
4. You have no respect for the profession
Maybe you are in the wrong one.
■ “Repair” your name/brand
First, withdraw your entries and delete your accounts on contest sites. Crowdspring has a delete button, 99Designs won’t let you and Mycroburst has no information on the site (I wrote asking them to deactivate my account and they did). Stop visiting and delete your bookmarks to these sites. Now create your own site or create accounts on portfolio sites (Behance, Coroflot, Flickr, etc).
■ Define your goals as a designer and commit to them
Create goals, mini-goals and timelines to keep you on track. Do you want to be looked upon as a respected professional? Have a look at AIGA’s Standards of Professional Practice.
■ Rebuild your portfolio
You can start with work from your spec experience (it’s still your work after all), but as you gain new clients, I think it’s a good idea to replace them with—for lack of a better word—”legitimate” work. I also suggest designing for non-profits, local businesses and doing personal projects.
■ Reap and enjoy the rewards of being “spec-free”
Sooner or later, you will start getting clients. You are in control of the quality of your work and how you deal with your clients. Do well and you will definitely get repeat, referred and new business. This is a much more secure and relaxed situation than the contest environment where your status (financial and emotional) was at the mercy of a contest holder’s whim.
There’s a Filipino saying that goes: “Walang manloloko kung walang magpapaloko.” This may sound a bit harsh but it’s something to think about. The best translation I can come up with is: “There would be no charlatans if there were no fools.”
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.