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  About NO!SPEC  
The NO!SPEC mission is to educate the public about speculative, or 'spec' work. Our target includes those who use creative services, as well as creative professionals (designers, photographers, illustrators and those in marketing and branding).

It also serves as a vehicle to unite those who support the notion that spec work devalues the potential of design and ultimately does a disservice to the client.

We encourage those who are like-minded to support this effort by placing a NO!SPEC logo or text link back on your site, distributing the NO!SPEC posters, as well as contributing your thoughts, comments, articles and insights.
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On Contests, Contention and the Creative Process
An essay from the team at NO!SPEC
Although they’re nothing new, design contests are not only on the rise, they are becoming a common way for an enterprise to attempt to procure design items such as logos, posters, websites and other materials.

Typically, a contest sponsor puts out a call for a design project, along with its rules and requirements. It solicits original material to be used for their benefit, while offering the winner anything from cash or prizes to publicity or simply the promise of future work or referrals. This differs from design industry competitions that judge previous created, often published, work.

Stripping away the the smoke and mirrors, what’s at issue here is the fact that the sponsor receives the benefit of the entrants’ work, often for a paltry sum, if any. In addition, most contests’ fine print stipulates that all entries become the property of the sponsor. The artist or designer, by creating the work and submitting it, is transferring all their inherent intellectual property rights in the work to the sponsor.

It’s important to note that it’s doubtful the majority of contest or competition sponsors approach their contents with idea of exploiting the creative community. Many begin their overviews with something like, “We thought it would be fun ...,” or, “We wanted to give designers the chance to show their work ...,” etc. However, without communication and education put forth by the design community and its supporters, this trend toward disposable design will continue. As it grows it reinforces the notion that the solutions designers develop – ideas and concepts expressed in tangible forms such as logos and other design items – are simple to create commodities of little value.

Consider an employer seeking to fill a position. They place an ad. “At Acme Widgetwonders, Inc., we’re looking for a top-notch employee. One who can deliver the goods for us by producing great work. We thought it would be fun to dispense with formalities of boring interviews. So, come on in, pull up a cubicle and work for us for a couple of weeks for free. If we like what you do, we’ll hire you. And here’s the best part. In lieu of a salary, we’ll put your name on every widget we make. You’ll be famous!” How many quality potential employees do you think will show up for work the next day?

Recently, a group of visual communication designers (a.k.a. Graphic Designers) banned together to create the NO!SPEC initiative. The goals of the group and its supporters are to educate both the creative and business communities about spec requests and how to approach the situation in a more productive way for all. The content-rich No!SPEC site is located at

Carmen von Richthofen, Executive Director of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario noted, "Spec work hurts everybody - designers and clients - and it's not good for the business of design. RGD Ontario is fortunate to have NO!SPEC helping to create greater global awareness about this unethical and harmful practice. The NO!SPEC web site makes it easy for people to get the information they need in order to select design services in an appropriate and professional manner, and for designers to understand the true value of their talent, expertise and time."

To clarify the terms used within this article, “spec” is working on the speculation of receiving something of value in return. A “spec competition” calls for creatives to develop original, yet “throw away” creations and in the process give the impression that what designers create is a disposable commodity with little inherent value. “Pro Bono,” on the other hand, is one designer, or a team, working on a design for the public good, not possibly hundreds all trying to win the work by each creating a separate design.

One common spec attribute is the “the dangling carrot.” This is the promise of fame, future work, a prize or simply referrals. This calls to mind Whimpie offering to pay Popeye on Tuesday for a hamburger today. Another is the transfer of all rights. Often in the fine print the rules state that all entries become the property of the contest sponsor. This means that whether or not an entry wins, the creator forfeits all intellectual property rights to the sponsor. At the end of the day, the sponsor potentially has hordes of designs that they can use as they wish in the future without any compensation to the creator of the work.

Suggestion: Follow a simple rule of thumb when deciding on whether or not to run a contest - if the project calls for a professional designer, then hire one (pro bono, non-profit, discount, whatever suits the budget). Do not waste time on a contest, ethical or not. To see a prime example, read this article about the Sandy Springs logo contest snafu.

To outline the above

Typical Spec Contest:

The design industry or students coming into the industry.

Open call for many designers to develop original, yet “throw away” creations.

Promise of publicity, prize money, future work or referrals.

Loss of rights:
Fine print generally stipulates that all entries become the property of the sponsor.

Suggested Changes:

The design industry or students coming into the industry.

Spec free:
For a contest - call for portfolios, following a detailed design brief (as well as communication with the client) sketches from one or several are requested, only one piece chosen to finalize for the needed design. For contests targeting students value is placed on education and tied in with their grade. In the case where it should be paying work (client situations) - call for portfolios and the most suitable designer chosen for the project in question.

All engaging in the design process given real value, not vague promises.

Except for the winning entry (where rights will need to be negotiated), all engaging in the design process keep the rights to their work. The winning design is free to be used in the designers portfolio and publicity materials.

Spec Review
The following are several real world examples that the NO!SPEC team has come across in past months. The review is broken down into what NO!SPEC believes is the wrong way to approach the project, as well as brief suggestions to improve the situation.
Fur Free Alliance

Background from the site: This is the fourth year of this student poster design competition. The 2006 topic is “Protect Seals.” The poster will be “potentially used in national and international campaigns to end the cruel fur trade.”

Overview: In our opinion, this is a spec contest targeting students, giving them the false pretense that this is an acceptable practice when they eventually become professionals (the call went out to students of fashion, design, fine arts, advertising, marketing, graphic design multimedia, and other disciplines in colleges around the world). In addition, it presents a serious loss of rights issue.

Quoting from the FFA rules:

Carrot: Your work will be evaluated by design and marketing experts, and potentially used in national and international campaigns to end the cruel fur trade.

Loss of rights: #10) The FFA retains ownership of and authority over the submissions.

Loss of rights: #11) By entering the competition the student agrees to transfer or cede all commercial and non-commercial rights and property interests in the artwork to the Fur Free Alliance and/or its affiliated organizations for free use in perpetuity.

Loss of rights: #16) All submissions remain the property of the Fur Free Alliance and/or its affiliated organizations for their use in any manner.

Suggested changes:

• Put out a call for portfolios in each country.

• or ... contact the top design schools in each country, asking teachers to nominate portfolios / prior work for consideration.

• Except for the winner, all entrants retain the rights to their work.

• Portfolios reviewed with the best four or so chosen for the next stage.

• The chosen are given a detailed design brief, in addition, each involved are allowed to ask questions to gain a better knowledge of the project.

• Sketches are submitted by each chosen student. Sketches that do not fit the brief are disallowed.

• The most appropriate design is selected for production (under the guidance of the judges).

• All second stage contestants are announced in contest publicity and receive equal value.

• Organizers do not own the copyright to all submissions.

• Organizers cannot modify any of the designs submitted.

• Winner gets printed pieces for her/his portfolio.

• Suggest that all designers involved (from sketches on) receive a letter from the judges outlining what they admired about each piece, etc.

Other options: The contest used as a class assignment where all gain credit towards their grade. This method would open up the contest to more than the top chosen students and each would receive real value in exchange for their time. As above, each student would have access to a representative with the responsibility of clarifying the brief where needed.

Preference: As this project is attempting to educate students about the ills of the Seal trade, it is not in need a professional designer. All suggestions above would be beneficial to getting the message across.

Summary: A number of contests similar to this are used as such a way to gain publicity for the company or non profit. And while this particular cause may be a just one, there are many ways of educating the public about the Seal trade without demeaning another profession in the process. By making the few suggested changes to the competition, the Fur Free Allliance would be recognizing that design does indeed have a real value.
The Caravan Project

Overview: A delightful project involving students who wanted to give back to the industry.

Carrot: Since The Caravan Project is a massive project of non-profit form no one will get any form of cash. Although a short time after the festival there will be a big exhibition in Stockholm where all the parts of the project will be shown, which means a lot of exposure for everyone involved.

Spec competition: We will use Darwin’s theory of natural selection when choosing briefs. Only the best will survive. They will be presented on the website for illustrators to download and follow. The chosen ones will be announced and displayed on the website and be contacted in person.

Suggested changes:

• Put out a call for portfolios.

• Choose the ones they feel are the best to design the Caravan Project brief.

• Answer any questions on the design brief.

• All complete designs presented on the website.

• The final designs shown at the Stockholm exhibition.

The dialogue between The Caravan Project and NO!SPEC was best summed up by noted identity designer, Jeff Fisher of Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, on his blog, “bLog-oMotives:

“The Caravan Project is made up of three designers - Petter Johansson, Magnus Berg and Fredrik Öst - all with a great passion for design, art and music. I want to compliment Frederick Ost for engaging in a positive dialogue with Cat Morley, Project Manager of NO!SPEC, in regards to how their original call for participation constituted "spec" work. The Caravan Project members worked with NO!SPEC to revise their request into a much more ethical design project procedure. I applaud their willingness to take another look out how their project was being conducted and make alterations. I urge other designers to support The Caravan Project and their promotion of NO!SPEC.”

Preference: Put out a call for portfolios and chose the best fit for the project.

Summary: In this case, it was just a matter of changing a few points in their call for entries. Taking out the carrot and changing it from spec to an ethical call for work was the only difference to their original idea. Fredrik was a delight to work with, he quickly understood that it was just a matter of a more fair and ethical way to go.

Below is the kind thank-you we received after guiding them to the final outcome.

The Caravan Project
United Way of Greater Toronto Logo Contest

Overview: An open call for submissions, inviting thousands of design professionals to compete for the honor of redesigning the organization’s “50th Anniversary” logo (except for the carrot, this is without any compensation for their time and creativity).

Targeting the design industry: Contest limited to graphic and visual arts professionals, employees, students, and residents of Toronto (M postal code).

Spec: Designs shall be submitted in their final form as finished works (no sketches).

The Carrot: The winning logo artist will be duly recognized for their work on United Way of Greater Toronto’s website, in various marketing collateral including United Way of Greater Toronto’s annual report, and through any additional public relations efforts conducted on behalf of the organization.

Suggested changes:

• Put out a call for portfolios

• The best chosen

• A detailed design brief is given

• Questions are encouraged

• Sketches submitted

• The best sketch is chosen to finalize for press

• All those from the sketch stage on announced in the contest publicity

A dialogue was opened between The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, NO!SPEC and The United Way of Greater Toronto. The UWGT offered to meet with the RGD to discuss the matter. Although the meeting took place after the fact, as a result the UWGT promised to provide the information they received from RGD and others to other United Way branches so that in future they could all govern themselves accordingly.

Although their contest url has been withdrawn, at the time of this writing the contest rules pdf is still available online.

Preference: As this is a job for a professional designer, put out a call for portfolios and chose the best fit for the project. If they must go the contest route, then the above suggestions are preferred.

Summary: The United Way keeps their operating budget low by utilizing pro bono services. But as mentioned above, pro bono is not spec work. By changing their policy to put out a call for portfolios, they bring the design industry inline with how they treat the other professions donating time to the United Way cause.
Logo contest for The Random Cartoons TV series (Nickelodeon)

Overview from the blog: A contest to develop a logo for the Random Cartoons TV series on Nickelodeon. The series consists of 39 cartoons. The concept for the contest was open collaboration.

In a new twist, this contest is deemed “Open source,” except that the winning logo copyright will be owned exclusively by Nickelodeon, and Viacom Int’l.

There is no design brief, which is yet another disturbing element of the competition.

Loss of artistic control: Anyone can copy off a submitted logo and change it, at least through the end of the competition at which point Nickelodeon, and Viacom Int’l take full ownership.

Carrot: $1000 to the winner, $300 to the blogger whose post inspires the winning logo. Winner to receive credit on every episode.

Suggested changes:

Option A

• Put out a call for portfolios on the blog.

• Select a handful of designers to contribute (perhaps four).

• Have them brainstorm on ideas blog style, each putting forward one sketch.

• Input from contest judges on each design.

• One round of tweaks made by each designer in question (but only to their own design).

• One design chosen.

• With minor tweaks the sketch is finalized into the end result, the logo (or poster, etc.).

• All designers paid equally for their time.

Option B

• Put out a call for portfolios.

• Select a handful of designers to contribute (perhaps four).

• Have them brainstorm on ideas blog style, each putting forward one sketch.

• One design chosen.

• With minor tweaks the sketch is finalized into the end result.

• All designers paid equally for their time.

The benefits of this would be:

• Only a handful of designers are contributing time and all are equally reimbursed.

• Clients and the public could see the value in how we work. That the competition has not created a blanket logo throw away.

• Students could see the design process.

This is essentially how a designer or design firm team works. They brainstorm with the client. Go off together and brainstorm on a design. Go back to the client who gives input. Tweak again. As we are now working across the internet from different countries, using this method could be easily included in how we deal with ethical competitions. But as it stands now, in our opinion this competition is spec (creating work in the speculation of getting something in return) with an open source twist.

On the matter of legal ramifications, note the following observations from designer Robert Wurth of Freshly Squeezed Design.

"In the rules, it states that non-winning entries remain the property of the artist. However, by submitting, artists are required (based upon how the rules are worded) to relinquish control over their artwork, allowing *other* artists to creative derivative works based upon their design. This clearly violates their rights of ownership, as they have no control or say in how their art will be used for some derivative design. Furthermore, it states that copyright of the "winning submission" will be owned exclusively by Nickelodeon/Viacom. Ok. What if that winning submission was based upon another, non-winning design? "

"Your rules are so ambiguous here that we could be talking about an "improvement" that is little more than a color change. In which case, where does that leave ownership of the non-winning design if the only difference between it and the winner is that one is red and the other is blue, for example? What if the final winning design is only one of many subtle alterations to some non-winning design, leaving Nickelodeon/Viacom ownership rights to the winning entry, with potentially dozens of other artists retaining ownership to designs that are superficially different from one another? With all of these (by your rules) legitimate copyright claims to uncannily similar designs, won't that make pursuing trademark protection of the winning logo a veritable nightmare?”

Preference: We are of the opinion that this is a job for a professional designer but do see the value in a fun contest. In the case of hiring a professional, put out a call for portfolios and choose the best fit for the project. In the case of going to contest route, the above suggestions stand.

Summary: This was, by far, one of the most bizarre contests we’ve run across. It is our opinion that they have twisted the concept of open source, trodden on each designer's rights to their own work, and over all, have not thought through the legal issues. In our opinion there are decent ways to run a spec-free competition blog style, but only after adjusting their rules as suggested above.
Brighton Celebrity Pr

Overview: Spec project/contest request for a logo and website design for a start-up commercial enterprise. The position (as is posted) is unpaid.

The carrot: “Brighton Celebrity Pr will recommend you and your services to the high profile media industry. We will also arrange for free tickets and passes to media events.”

Spec: “Send design of a sample logo that we will LOVE ... for BRIGHTON CELEBRITY PR (Design logo for this)”

Spec: Send samples of the web site design.

Spec contest: The best logo wins the job.


Although Brighton Celebrity PR is quite frank with their spec request, the last point above is especially disturbing. The enterprise made it clear that they are not interested in the who the designer is, or their level of experience. They simply want the finished mark. In our opinion, this reduces the client/designer relationship to something similar to grabbing something off a store’s shelf with decoration taking prominence over true design.

Suggested changes:

• Put out a call for portfolios.

• Select one designer suitable for the project.

• Contract signed for web site and logo design, giving market value.

• Only then does the designer start working on a logo and web site design.

Preference: This is a job for a professional designer. Forgo the spec angle, put out a call for portfolios and chose the best fit for the project.

Summary: Brighton Celebrity Pr is a money-making venture, meaning they are no different from those of us working in the design industry. It is our opinion that they should no more ask designers for free work than designers should ask them for free public relations services.

In closing
We believe it’s important for every designer, or other creative, to carefully consider the facts and consequences before using valuable time to prepare work for speculative contests. Time is a type of currency that would likely be better spent on projects with a guarantee of payment or spent marketing their business. Entering a speculative contest is virtually the same as paying the sponsor for working for them.

Businesses and other organizations should also consider the facts. If their logo, print or other project is truly important, why risk it? The vast majority of professionals simply won’t enter contests of this kind as they realise what a waste it is, so the value is simply not there.

If your enterprise is cash-challenged, consider asking your project be done pro bono. Many professional designers and other creatives set aside time each year to take one or two pro bono projects for causes they believe in - and they’re happy to do it. It’s their way of supporting and giving back to the community.

Students should also think carefully before entering spec contests that do not give a decent return on their time. If it is about filling in a portfolio, then perhaps looking into the various ways of gaining real world experiences would be better suited. Again, working pro bono has an added plus as they would be increasing their communication skills. Learning that their work has value, that it's not just about the pretty pictures, should be a lesson learned early, not after falling prey to spec competitions and spec work.

Our hope is the words we’ve put forth help everyone understand the exploitive nature of these types on contest. And, with a few simple changes, everyone can benefit.

If you have any questions, please
contact NO!SPEC.

Useful resources include the Graphic Artists Guild’s
“Suggested Guidelines for Art Competitions and Contests” and RGD Ontario’s “Policy on General Project Competition Rules”.

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