CrowdSPRING: The Agency Killer?

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

You might think that it’s pretty strange for a guy that’s launching his new online agency to promote an alternative to working with an agency altogether… but that’s what I’m going to do. I’m sure I’ll get some hate mail from my designer friends for posting this. I’m okay with that. I’ll explain why… just watch the video that explains crowdSPRING first:

The argument in the industry against CrowdSPRING is that systems that promote the use of speculative work takes talent that took years to develop and makes it a commodity. There’s an entire NO!SPEC movement, stating:

The NO!SPEC campaign 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.

What is Spec?

Spec has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis. In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.

What’s so wrong with that?

In a nutshell, spec requires the designer to invest time and resources with no guarantee of payment.

CrowdSPRING personally has felt the heat – under attack from a CrowdSINK campaign. Some work on CrowdSPRING has been found to be copies of work from other designers.

In full disclosure, I recently tried the service and paid $200 for a banner design for a site that I’m going to overhaul (Pay Calculator). You can review the submissions and see the the wide array of talent and styles that was submitted based on my project details.

Here’s why I appreciate what CrowdSPRING is doing:

  1. Great design and the ability for interpretation of a project description to a final prototype will always win. That provides great designers without agency-backing or a history of large clients with the opportunity to get great work and great clients. In other words, great designers that participate will be rewarded for their work.
  2. Great design can provide a website with the edge it needs to move a business forward, but without affordable access to a designer, companies are forced to cut corners and have a design presence that often doesn’t match the quality of their work. Sorry designers, it’s not all about you!
  3. Great design doesn’t make an agency. Design is one aspect of an overall strategy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen bump and run agencies that throw up a $30,000 project that doesn’t get any results – and then watch them bail on the client and head to the next victim. I’ve seen a trail of tears when it comes to “No Spec” work.
  4. Pay for performance makes for better performers. Paying for design time has no guarantee of performance. If I get hired to build a website and it doesn’t work, I shouldn’t get paid. If someone submits a bad design (there were quite a few on my CrowdSPRING project), they should not be rewarded.
  5. Pay for performance can be more profitable for great designers. I have no idea whether the project that I requested took 10 minutes or 30 hours for the designer to complete. I don’t care. That means that the designer could be paid exceptionally well for my project. As well, I’ll be looking forward to working with that artist in the future to get consistent work and quality on my next project.
  6. Why should a company be punished by paying for poor design? Why shouldn’t a designer have to submit some ideas to ensure they’re creating a design that matches the desires of the company? The finest designers I know always seem to interpret requirements with great talent and even put their own signature on the project. Great designers have nothing to fear with Spec work.

In short, I believe that systems like CrowdSPRING open opportunities for skilled designers to make a great living by rewarding great design and deterring poor designers. As well, I believe it provides opportunities for businesses to obtain affordable, quality designs that they would never have been able to have access to before.

Do I empathize with with NO!SPEC supporters? Of course I do! I’ve built project plans, software, proposals, meetings, conference calls, speeches, articles, brainstorming sessions… the list goes on and on for ‘Spec’ work that I’ve accomplished that I was never formally compensated for. If I were a NO!Spec Marketer, I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat right now… and I’d get laughed out of every meeting I attend.

Truth be told, I wish there were a system like CrowdSPRING available for my work! I’d put my strategies and ideas up against those of top agencies any day! CrowdSPRING isn’t an Agency killer, it’s a new marketplace for designers.image 2260935 10648149


  1. 1

    My wife just completed a crowdSRPING project for a logo for her small arts & crafts business. She got responses from all over the world. Some were completely off target, others were amazing. She received about 50 total submissions and had a hard time choosing from three "finalists". When asked to change details, like colors, fonts, etc., all designers were very responsive. She also paid $200 and was so impressed, is already planning stationary and website using crowdSPRING. To the NO!SPEC crowd, I have to say "Welcome to the new order/flat world", where your competitor could be from 130 different countries. Sorry but disintermediation is unstoppable, just ask "professional" travel agents.

  2. 3

    Thanks for the review of this service. Looks like it's something I should feature on TechStartups soon. I always appreciate your candor and straight business insight.

  3. 4

    "Great design and the ability for interpretation of a project description to a final prototype will always win. That provides great designers without agency-backing or a history of large clients with the opportunity to get great work and great clients. In other words, great designers that participate will be rewarded for their work"

    With all due respect, this statement is simply not true. On Crowdspring, the buyer is directing the design project almost completely, supposedly from their initial feeback, and then through feedback (which is more often than not, not forthcoming). There is even less of a barometer of what "great" design is than usual – a subjective opinion at the best of times. There's no judging criteria on what actually makes "good" design, and the buyer often selects work that isn't "great" design, but rather something they "like" (as is their right) but there's no guarantee at all that "great" design will be rewarded, or even noticed (except by other designers). In every crowdSPRING contest, only the winning designer gets paid, so even if there are several instances of "great" design in a contest, several "great" designers go without "reward" for their work.

    Amazingly, the same people who argue that designers are not entitled to get paid for their work, seem to feel that buyers are entitled to cheap design. It's not all about designers, but it's a dual-sided business equation. Services like crowdSPRING invalidate one side of that business equation. And I'd be more impressed with crowdSPRING's supposed altruism if they didn't charge 15% per project. They seem to believe THEY'RE entitled to earn a living based on their 'business offerings'. I wonder why you, and they, aren't similarly moved to view designers in the same light.

    "Pay for performance makes for better performers."

    That's an rather odd comment on a blog post that is advocating a service that doesn't pay most of their designers anything at all. The vast majority of people on crowdSPRING don't make a penny on their designs and using your logic, that would mean they're terrible performers. The idea that paying designers nothing, with only a faint hope of earning any payment for their work, makes them better designers is ludicrous. In fact, that logic wouldn't work with ANY occupation, be it skilled or not.

    I also find crowdSPRING's video rather odd too. According to their self-proclaimed mission statement, they're all about helping the "little guy". "Beware the underdogs" is one of their catch phrases I believe. Strangely, the sole "little guy" is portrayed in the video as being crowdSPRING's competition, as much of a target of crowdSPRING as the big agency portrayed with blinking lights. According to their video, crowdSPRING is out to run the sole "little guy" out of business too. Not that I question them taking that stance – it is the nature of competition – but it certainly puts paid to crowdSPRING's self-progessed role of "levelling the playing field" for that very same "underdog". And just like their "free will" positioning (crowdSPRING enthusiastically defend the "rights" of designers to work, for free, for them, while the company earns 15 points off the top) it's all about crowdSPRING turning a profit. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but let's at least call it what it is.

    You may be right about crowdSPRING being an "Agency Killer" but they're going to trample over a lot of green, naive and un/under-employed designers (32k and growing) before they proudly hoist that title on their mantle.

    • 5

      Thanks for your perspective on this. As a 'buyer', I don't mind the 15% commission that CrowdSPRING is taking to enable this marketplace. They are fostering and enabling it and deserve compensation. It's a voluntary program – buyers don't have to be there and designers don't have to, either.

      As for 'great design'… ultimately, the decision should be at the hands of the person paying for the service, don't you think?

      • 6

        Actually, I have to agree with Bryan's version of "great" design here. Doug, I know you've seen plenty of examples where unexperienced wannabe internet marketers/SBOs hurt themselves or look stupid, rather than actually helping their companies. The same is true with design, but probably even more so.

        The decision should be in the hands of the buyer, yes, but many buyers also really need the benefit of a design professional to help guide their decision and thinking process – even if they don't know they need the help.

  4. 7

    Sounds like alot of people like collecting paychecks instead of pushing themselves. CrowdSpring sounds like a big job interview more or less. Submit your work and ideas and if they are better than everyone else you will be rewarded with the job and possible referrals or repeat business in the future. Tom Watson didnt just show up to get applause and a check at the British Open last week. He pushed himself to compete against players younger and better and he was rewarded. Imagine if the PGA Tour payed everyone the same for showing up and the only reward was a trophy. It would be alot more boring and eventful than it is now, which is saying something 🙂

  5. 8

    @chris "Sounds like alot of people like collecting paychecks instead of pushing themselves."

    Right On Brother. RIGHT ON!

    See, here's the thing. My daughter's getting married next summer and you work for a wedding photography company. Haven't settled on a photographer just yet, and with all this design crowdsourcing going on, my graphic design business is a little light. Not sure if I can afford your company's rates – what, $3995 for the "Ultimate Package" and about what, eight hundred bucks for the photographer?

    Tell you what. Toss me a photographer for the day, have them shoot the wedding, throw me an Ultimate Package on spec and if the Mrs and I like what you've done, we'll pay you what we've decided the budget is going to be – around $700. Oh yeah, there'll be another couple of dozen wedding photographers there, competiting for the gig, but don't you worry. As long as you push yourself, everything should work out all groovy.

    Think of it as a kind of job interview, not just that pay check. I certainly hope your work is the best, cause we'd really like to award your company the job. That's IF your work turns out to be better than everyone else, of course.

    Here's a bonus too – if the Mrs really likes what you do at the wedding, she'll think about hiring you, Ron and Elizabeth for another gig. How cool would that be?

    Hello. Chris? Don't you want to be like that golfer dude you talked about. You know, pushing yourself?


    • 9


      I've seen this done now with school photographers. My daughter gets a package whether we order it or not. If we like the photos, we pay for it. If not, we send it back. I am actually meeting with a photographer today – but hired him in the past and I know he'll do a great job – so I'm not asking for SPEC work from him. If it were my first time and I didn't know him, though… I might be approaching it differently!


  6. 10

    I think you miss the point of the NO SPEC movement. It is about the freelancers and solo designers who are being marginalized not an agency. Agencies take a gamble that spec work will allow a more elevated level of billable deliverables.

    To ask someone who has honed their skills over a period of years to take $200 for a design (say that banner ad) that they may have spent a day to perfect, and then only if they are chosen, is denigrating to the profession.

    Would you ask a writer to do the same? I doubt many writers would subject themselves to such a lottery.

    This to me is relegating the design profession to the level of selling trinkets along the side of the road in a third world country.

    Designers are very often the persons who are there for the long haul with a client and to disregard their worth is to cheat your brand of a valuable resource–talent with forethought.

    Check out how I feel about crowdSPRING at my blog at

    Wise up my man.

    • 11

      Hi Guy,

      Yes, I would ask a writer to do the same. And I have! I recently started a content program at Compendium Blogware and required any of the writers who wished to participate to provide free blog posts that would be published for the company who won a contest. The point of the promotion was to ensure that they could write the content and that the company found out whether or not it was a fit.

      I don't think the quality of the design I received was at a 'trinket' level, whatsoever. It was an incredible design. I also can't say how long it took – it could have taken 15 minutes… if you look at the designs submitted, you'll see that the designer listened to my feedback and adjusted his design – matching my request.

      I DO agree with you that finding a great designer that can match the styles of your organization and understand the business is an incredible experience and well worth the cost. That's why I believe you don't have anything to worry about. When my businesses grow enough that I can support a full-time designer or a partnership, I'll definitely move in that direction!


  7. 12

    CrowdSpring is a very arrangement for people who are looking to get work done. It provides a place for people who are specialists. I make my living offering website designs and I know I have a place to go to search for a job.

  8. 13
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        • 16

          David, the interview you posted is indeed a good read – but it's a bit like writing about the car industry and how terrible cars are – without recognizing that there are different types of cars and different types of car companies.

          The fact that a professional designer created a bad design doesn't make you a bad designer by association. Similarly – the fact that other marketplaces haven't build appropriate protections and have ignored the risks from speculative work doesn't mean that because some marketplaces are bad – all must be bad. Yet – that's the message conveyed in the interview.

          • 17

            @ Ross – if you'll forgive my snark –

            Tonight on 60 Minutes – "The Ford Pinto. An exploding death trap". Followed by "Ford Cars that probably won't explode" and a segment on "All the other car companies who make cars that probably won't explode either".

            Then, we'll feature a story on a "Bank Robbery that looks like it was scripted by Hollywood" and take a look at the "Eleven million bank withdrawals that occurred this week without incident".

            Andy Rooney is off this week.


          • 18
  9. 19

    I would simply never do spec work. Period. But if a client can’t tell or appreciate the difference between my work and the work of the CrowdSpring crowd, why in the world should they pay a premium for my services? CrowdSpring seems like the perfect marriage between such clients and the designers that view their own work as a commodity.

    • 20


      I think calling you or David Airey a 'designer' would be a disservice to the strategy that your teams supply companies. I would love to see your take on SPEC versus NO!SPEC in a post! I look forward to the day I can partner with a firm like yours to deliver a consistent, usable, and beautiful brand experience.

      I suppose I would liken it to buying a car. Only in recent years have I been able to purchase a car that was comfortable, beautiful and reliable… I drove quite a few clunkers before I got where I'm at. I DO appreciate my car, but didn't have the opportunity to purchase what I wanted for quite a few years!


      • 21

        I'd say that's a decent comparison, Doug — a client investing in spec work is like buying a "clunker" of a car.

        It does seem a little contradictory to your original blog post, though. Perhaps you're changing your mind?

        • 22

          Hi David,

          I don't believe I'm changing my mind – but perhaps I wasn't balanced enough in my post. I DO believe in hiring a design firm long-term and know that there's an incredible ROI on that model. CrowdSPRING offers an alternative when that's not a possibility, though. I'm very happy with the product I received at CrowdSPRING and impressed with the sophistication and ease that their application provided for me to communicate and obtain the design I needed.

          My main point is that folks like you or Jon need not ever worry about CrowdSPRING because you provide much more than a graphic. I state above over and over – a great designer should never fear SPEC work (whether or not you actually do it).

          Perhaps NO!SPEC supporters should educate the business community on what the alternatives are, rather than just showing the downside. As a young business-owner, I need a lot of design work done, but I don't have the budget yet. If you'd like to do a guest post as a rebuke, I'd welcome it!

          Thanks David!

          • 23

            No worries at all, Doug.

            It's not that I fear spec work, or worry about such websites, and I think Jon Arnold would back me up here. It's simply that I don't want to see younger, amateur designers wasting their time by working with no guarantee of payment.

            Everyone deserves to be paid. Spec websites get paid, but the vast majority of their "employees" don't.

            There are millions of design jobs out there, and it's unnecessary for designers to devalue their skills by merely "hoping" for an income.

            Anyway, back to the book-writing, but before I go, that's very kind of you to offer me a guest spot here. Thanks for that. Perhaps when I complete my book assignment.

            Enjoy the weekend, Doug.

  10. 24


    Thanks for writing about crowdSPRING. I certainly appreciate the provocative nature of the article's title – but as you write, agencies aren't solely about design. Agencies bring many valuable skills to the table beyond design – and plenty of clients can benefit from that counsel.

    When we started crowdSPRING, we never intended to compete with agencies. In fact, we didn't think that agencies would be interested in leveraging our creative community. But from day one, agencies contacted us and asked us to build a product that provided more privacy and user control (our crowdSPRING Pro projects). We launched this product in September 2008, and since, many agencies have leveraged our global community of designers. Some have done so openly (for example: Omnicom’s Element79, BBH, Shift Communications, and Starcom Worldwide’s IP Pixel). Others have elected not to disclose who they are when posting a project. Some have used us exclusively for a project, while others have used their normal design team and supplemented their work with a project on crowdSPRING.

    You are of course right that some designers have objected to our business model – and in their zeal to defend the status quo, some have posted a number of inaccurate statements about our community. We pride ourselves on being transparent – which is one reason we've been able to attract such a great community of designers in a short amount of time. I recently wrote a post that answered the twenty-five most frequently asked questions about crowdSPRING – many of these answered covered some of the issues that people have raised in the comments to your post. If you haven't read it yet, you can find it here:

    Ultimately, we believe in free will and free markets. Every person has the right to evaluate their own tolerance for risk and to decide how they want to work. crowdSPRING isn't for everyone. We provide an opportunity and a level playing where people can compete based solely on their talent and thousands of designers have found new clients on crowdSPRING. Does such competition threaten the design industry? Hardly. Free markets are about competition and plenty of successful companies before us showed the way: iStockphoto, Innocentive, Etsy.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful piece – and thanks too for being pragmatic and leveraging our community to help you. Good luck with the launch!


    Ross Kimbarovsky

    • 25

      Ross, thanks so much for taking the time and responding. I think you've done a great job in acknowledging the differentiation of your product to the work of agencies as well as providing insight that you folks are working with some agencies transparently!

    • 26

      @ Ross – Gotta admit, I love the Don Quixote vibe about fighting for the rights of designers to supply your buyers artwork concepts without pay. See, I've always understand why companies like Crowdspring exist (free design labor – who couldn't resist?) and why buyers think spec work is groovy (150 logo concepts for $200 bucks – how cool is that?). For the life of me, I can't understand why designers participate, but as an old dog (part of the "status quo" I suppose) I guess I'll have to remain perplexed at why professional designers seem to have missed the "getting paid" part of what constitutes a professional in ANY field. Though I'd imagine many realize it fairly quickly, and the burn rate of designers on contest sites is fierce. Does Crowdspring as an entity threaten the design industry? Of course not. But the concept – that designers shouldn't get paid like everyone else – certainly does. It flies in the face of what makes an "professional industry" well, a "professional industry". That's not exclusive to Crowdspring. Nor is it an original idea. The genesis of that attitude began long before you had the concept for Crowdspring, which BTW, was lifted from Sitepoint, who lifted it from God knows who, all the way back to 2001 or so, when Logoworks first held organized design contests via their backend website Arteis. They did so after witnessing logo contests that were taking place all over the net and figured they could get in on the action too. Though for accuracy, I should point out that Logoworks, once the "bad boy" of the design world, at least paid EVERY contributing designer something. I believe they still do.

      While I've never been a huge fan of Logoworks, comparatively speaking, their' once-criticized business model seems like it is/was a paragon of virtue. They used most of the talking points you're now using, almost verbatim, with one important distinction. They added something along the lines of "we don't pay much, but at least we pay everybody something". Alas, that one was the first proviso out the window as competing companies began devising ways to undercut Logoworks. When the LW bruhaha boiled over, around 2004, designers who criticized Logoworks and claimed that thier business model heralded the demise of the design industry were called exactly the same things pro-spec advocates now call their critics. Hell, I even think the phrase "status quo" was thrown about too. I know LW pushed back with cool little business words like "leveraged" and "scalable".

      Companies like Crowdspring are simply another phase is the de-evolution of the graphic design trade. It's nothing new. Nor, with the number of design contest sites already operating, in pre-launch or in beta, is it destined to be particularly unique. There is however, an attitude change, perpetuated by companies like yours, that design isn't like any other creative business. It's more of a hobby, or even a sporting event (amateur one at that). And 99designs, Crowdspring and all the wonderful companies that are launching soon, will ferment this attitude even further.

      Having said all that, I also have no misconceptions about the future. You cats have won. The fight, other than the crying, is over. But here's the rub. As more companies like Crowdspring come online, YOU will be forced to compete. And as you do not create your product directly, you will have to offer more, charge less which will lead buyers to smack around unpaid designers even more than they do now. It took about a decade for the graphic design industry to race to the bottom. It will take crowdsourcing and design contest sites about a year. Two tops.

      We can fluff it up all we want, but most designers enter design contests for one objective – to win, get paid and hopefully, earn a living or supplement the one they already have.You and I both know they won't. But it's critical, in order to keep new recruits signing up, that at least some designers believe it is possible on websites like Crowdspring. Does any of this herald a rosy picture for designers in the next couple of years? Not really.

      I see you compare CS to other websites like istock. That's a tired, and inaccurate comparison. Whether one likes them or not, Istock offers non-custom stock artwork and photos that can be bought many times over, by many different people. CS offers one-off custom work for one buyer. The same goes with your Etsy comparision. I think the phrase I'm looking for is "apples and oranges".

      • 27

        "But here's the rub. As more companies like Crowdspring come online, YOU will be forced to compete."

        – great perspective, Steve! And perhaps that will force folks like crowdSPRING to improve the quality of designers in the network as well as compensate them based on their participation, not simply their wins.

        • 28

          Doug – it was a great perspective from Steve and while we're motivated on our own to improve the quality of designers and to improve how we compensate – we're also big fans of competition. It's the ultimate motivator!

      • 29

        @Steve There's a great quote in Don Quixote – "That which cost little is less valued". And perhaps that explains the unease with crowdSPRING's business model by some in the design industry (of course, there are other reasons). Because clients pay less, and designers accept less, than it must be less important and therefore, devalues the industry.

        But you've articulated some nice points, and I'm always up for a good (and intelligent) discussion, so let me briefly respond. You and I agree about a few things: (1) crowdSPRING doesn't threaten the design industry, (2) competition is competition and everyone will have to compete (including crowdSPRING), and (3) most designers are interested in getting paid. And we probably agree about much more – except that we differ in the conclusions we derive from the facts. We also agree that crowdSPRING wasn't the first to see this trend. We were very much inspired by others, including Threadless and iStockphoto.

        You mention Logoworks. I understand that they typically pay $25 for a design and a bonus of $50-$75 if that design is submitted. I'll let you decide whether that sum is reasonable or how it compares to crowdSPRING. The average project on crowdSPRING is well north of $400 (and in the thousands of dollars in certain categories). We've paid $2 million to designers in our very short life (as you know, we pay 100% of the awards to designers). I have no idea how much Logoworks has paid designers in the nearly 10 years they've been in business. But I am reasonably sure that last year, we paid out much more than they did (I may be wrong).

        I don't follow your logic about "de-evolution of the graphic design trade." By definition, change is evolution (whether you agree with it or not). And I am puzzled by your statement that we (crowdSPRING) believe that design isn't like any other creative business. We've never said it was a hobby or even a sporting event. We certainly don't treat people in our community as hobbyists – we respect them unconditionally. Design is an industry and just like all other industries, it is subject to competition. I think you're confusing professionalism with professional. You are of course right that a "professional" is a person who gets paid for what they do. But calling someone a professional designer means only that they get paid for it, not that they're good at it. I'm familiar with your work – and I know your team at The Logo Factory – – does a fine job. But there are plenty of others who call themselves a "professional" designer who know absolutely nothing about professionalism. There's a difference –… and that difference is meaningful.

        As for what motivates designers to work on spec – there are many reasons. I do agree with you that even if initially, money isn't a key motivator – it has to be at some point unless it's truly a hobby for someone. I believe that if designers had meaningful opportunities to compete on a level playing field – they wouldn't need to do speculative work. Yet most don't have such opportunities. It could be because they aren't good sales people, they live in a small town or country without a real design industry – probably thousands of different reasons. That's really why we built crowdSPRING – to create a level playing field that removes the barriers to competition.

        As for iStock, Etsy and the like – I've grown convinced that the debate over comparisons – whether it's apples to apples or apples to oranges, is a straw man. I don't compare crowdSPRING to those companies – I wrote merely that they demonstrated to us that it was possible to introduce a different type of model to an industry. And since you're a good student of history, you'll recall that the uproar from the professional photographer community to iStock was not unlike what we're hearing from some about crowdSPRING. Stock photographs made it less necessary for companies to hire photographers for custom jobs. That changed the industry. Forever. And the professional photographers evolved and adapted.

        The comparison isn't about the companies – it's about change. Industries evolve and change, as they must. You know this – you've lived through many such changes (including desktop publishing). Even if crowdSPRING didn't exist, others would take our place (and many are trying).

        Change isn't always rosy or convenient. Nor should it be.

        • 30

          Here I thought I was being all clever and stuff by mentioning Don Quixote, and then you top that by quoting him. Nicely played.

          Price points on services like Crowdspring have never been my issue – in fact, we've taken heat in the past for pricing our services below what was then the going rate (while at the same time, receiving flak from clients as being too expensive). It's the fact that the majority of designers that submit to Crowdspring (and other "marketplaces") create custom design concepts, work through multiple phases of requested buyer revisions only to ultimately "lose" out and not be paid a dime, has always been my primary issue. I believe that "ideas" and "concepts" are an important aspect of the "value" of design, while in design contests, it is only the final design that has any tangible (payment) value. So yes, Crowdspring does devalue design, but in ways that go beyond the price point of any particular project.

          In terms of viewing Crowdspring in the context of Logoworks, you're conflating several different issues into one talking point. As I mentioned before, I am not a fan of Logoworks but the point that I was making is that even Logoworks, who pay their designers a pittance, still pay ALL their designers something. When we compare that lowly $25 per concept amount to what designers who don't win on Crowdspring, Logoworks seems positively altrustic.You mention that the average project on Crowdspring is "well north of $400" but that's the amount that the WINNING designer gets, while the other participants aren't paid jack. I believe Logoworks' winning designers get a $75 bonus or thereabouts, so Crowdspring compares favorably in that aspect, but winning designers get paid and accordingly, that figure is of no concern to me. In terms of overall payouts, I'm not particularly fussed one way or another, as that figure is in the aggregate and doesn't really give us any idea of how beneficial Crowdspring is to the individual designer.

          De-evolution probably isn't even a word (though it is now) but let me extrapolate a little to clarify. The internet gave designers a way to expand their own practises. To reach clients that they'd generally not have been able to reach. Websites and blogs are relatively inexpensive to produce, and a form of advertising that even the most cash-strapped designer could develop. The only real investment that was required of designers was their time. The internet should have heralded in a new era of designer independence. Instead, the oxygen is being sucked out of the market by services that use free labor to produce their project work. Most designers shouldn't need services like Crowdspring to reach clients of their own. The internet already "levelled" the playing field years ago. By removing designer pay as a pre-requisite for competition (most small agencies and freelancers can't afford to work on spec) there's nowhere to go.


        • 31

          I'm always confused about who's competing against who. Someone a few comments back suggested your video illustrates that Crowdspring are actually competing against the little guy, the very same people that you profess to level the playing field for. They certainly have a point. It appears to me that designers on CS are ONLY competing against each other (and with the number of complaints about concept copying on your forums, I think this theory bears out) rather than against established firms and designers as claimed. I also imagine that there's a battle plan somewhere in the bowels of Crowdspring HQ that outlines how CS plans to gobble up a sizable chunk of the entire graphic design business. Thousands of open contests as opposed to hundreds, all the while earning 15% off the top. I take no issue with that (who hasn't imagined taking over their particular industry at one point or another). It's the fact that these plans are ONLY made possible by availing yourself of free labor is what wrankles me. And as Crowdspring (and services like yours) become more prominent, opportunities for designers just starting out will begin to shrink. And they will be forced to work on spec, on sites like Crowdspring. A never ending death-spiral of suck.

          You claim that you're allowing the under trodden to compete against big agencies, but isn't it Crowdspring itself that is competing against the agencies (which, by the way, is the subject of the article up thread)? Using the advantage of unpaid labor? I realize that if people are willing to perform work without pay, there will always be someone who'd avail, and if CS didn't, someone else would. That's not an very admirable argument. I've always been a believer of doing what one "should", rather than what one "can". I also see the design industry as an eco-system and that inhabitants of same should act responsibly. The fact that we're having this discussion at all is indicative of how practical or realistic that rose-tinted outlook actually is.

          I did live through the desktop publishing revolution in the mid-80s. As people around me freaked out about losing their jobs, I was thrilled that I was given these wonderful tools to play with. I'm not opposed to change in principle. If it's beneficial. Not all change is. I was also an early adopter of online communication and was on the old Compuserve system (pay per minute) way back when. When E-mail came along I embraced that too. Alas, at some point, some asshole decided Spam was a good 'evolution' of e-mail. I railed against that (on the old Usegroup anti-spam forums) and was told by Direct Marketers that I was part of the "status quo" and standing in the way of small companies availing themselves of "affordable advertising" that previous to spam was the bailiwick of the "big boys".

          Lost that argument too. Is the world a better place because of that "change"? Don't think so.

          • 32

            @Steve You believe that it is bad that a majority of designers who work in a speculative model do not get compensated in a project. Bad for whom? If designers come in eyes wide open and understand the nature of speculative work, accept the risk, and use crowdSPRING as a spring-board to finding new clients, it surely isn't bad for them? Are you saying it's bad for YOU that others are willing to engage in speculative work and you're not? If the latter – why is that any different from competition in any industry, including design. You say yourself for pricing your services below the market – so clearly that was bad for someone who was competing with you (but perhaps not bad for you).

            The discussion about Logoworks adds very little and is actually a bit of a red herring. If the measure is whether all participating designers are paid, then their model would tend to be a bit better (as you've argued). But if the measure is how much total money is paid to designers, then there's little question crowdSPRING does better. Which is the better measure? I don't know and you've said that you're not sure. I would tend to think that our model is a bit better overall – we take a small fee paid by the client – and the designers get 100%. Logoworks takes the lion's share and pays the designer's a portion. They're probably smarter – in the short term – for taking the lion's share. But we're not in it for the short term. In any event – each model has its place, and there are obviously designers happy to work within both.

            But here's the rub – there's an important difference you've ignored completely, and that's the future relationship with a client. Logoworks is the intermediary – as a designer, you're not allowed to do future work for that client. The client belongs to Logoworks. That's a raw deal for designers – I think you and I can agree about this. On crowdSPRING – there are no such restrictions. And we've publicly disclosed (based on anecdotal reports we've received from our community) that about half of our projects lead to additional work for the same client, and even designers who aren't selected are often hired directly outside of crowdSPRING (as a result of their work on crowdSPRING). We have designers who've built successful design practices with 40-80 new clients during the past year.

            Here's where your argument starts crumbling. You're implying that a market economy should strive to be fair to everyone concerned. But it's not, and certainly a free market economy is far from fair to all. When people invest the time to respond to RFPs or meet with prospective clients, not everyone gets hired and not everyone is paid. Lots of unpaid preparation work is done – whether you work on spec or not. Aren't you trying to hold the speculative model up to a much higher standard of fairness than the one that exists in the traditional model? And if you don't think you are, can you help me to understand how you reconcile this?

            I do agree with you that most designers shouldn't need crowdSPRING to reach clients of their own. In fact – while it would seem odd that we do this – we spend a lot of our unpaid time helping designers to improve in the way they communicate with clients, how they tender proofs, etc. You know that I recently wrote an e-book for designers: Contracts For Designers Who Hate Contracts. That e-book wasn't solely for our community. To the contrary, the advice in that e-book focuses on general contracts – to help both designers on crowdSPRING and those around the world to protect themselves when they freelance outside of crowdSPRING. Ultimately, we want people to build thriving design practices, and we're not particularly troubled whether they do so on crowdSPRING or elsewhere. Again – we're in it for the long term.

            (Part 2 below)

          • 33

            There are some who need a level playing field and the opportunities crowdSPRING provides. And they are taking advantage of those opportunities. You aren't happy because as inhabitants of an "eco-system", you think they should act responsibly. Who defines what action is responsible? Now we're trending into a morals discussion. Agencies do spec work all the time. More importantly, they often require designers who work for them or freelance for them to do spec work – they've required this for decades. It seems to me that long before we came to be, the eco-system was pretty much changed. And that's the "never ending death-spiral of suck" you've so elegantly introduced. I won't claim that we're trying to stop the death-sprial – but I do believe that we're offering an alternative that's meaningful and competitive – for some.

            Last point – free labor. You think people should do what they "should", not what they "can". Again – doesn't that start getting into questions of morals? Who decides what others should do? And who decides what's moral? There is no regulatory body, no certification, and in most countries, not even a trade guild. Should we ban designers from the third world simply because they CAN work for less? Should we ban efficient designers from bidding on work simply because they CAN do the work more quickly? When you under-priced the market – did you respect the wishes of others who asked you to respect THEIR eco-system? And if you didn't, why not?

            Ayn Rand put it nicely: "A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."

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    Great post and an interesting, if controversial topic. I think there is a place for these services. I also think it's a bit of a fad. My opinion is that designers will eventually get burned out doing all this work and start shying away from these sites. Right now I think the novelty is attractive but if it doesn't results in higher paying, ongoing relationships then it simply isn't sustainable.

    Also, I feel there are some murky legal waters here since ideas from a rejected design could be incorporated into the final accepted design and litigation ensues.

    I think what CrowdSpring is doing is cool and novel but I question whether they can sustain the low cost/high participation going forward. Right now no designer could make a living off a site like this. I guess unless they live in a 3rd world country which is a whole nother story.

    I also feel that there is a need for a designer to meet with a company, get to know their culture and vision. I realize not all design requires this but for quality web and branding related design I feel this is really important. CrowdSpring is a great resource for small one-off projects and start ups needing cheap/fast design but I can't see it having much relevance beyond that. Much of the work I see there is sub-par.

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      @Jeb – All original work submitted by a designer is owned by them at all times – it cannot be used in a final design unless the designer is paid, and we often require clients to add a second award if they want to combine two designs. For details about how crowdSPRING protects intellectual property (in this regard, we differ from everyone else), please see here:

      You question whether a designer can make a living only from their work on crowdSPRING. There are those who do – they're quite successful – some live in the U.S. or other developed countries – and work solely on crowdSPRING. But of course, that's not representative for all designers. Many look at crowdSPRING as an opportunity to supplement their income or grow their design practices.

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    It is curious that no one has brought up blogging. Am I not an unpaid creative employee each time that I post about how to leverage marketing technology? Not every post makes me money, out of 2,000 posts I've probably only benefited from one-hundred or so…

    Should you guys be paying me for my content? After all, it is work here, isn't it? Isn't a blog post a SPEC? Doesn't it provide my prospects with free advise on how to leverage online marketing and social media? Should I stop writing?

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  14. 40

    Doug you are getting value from the content and subsequent conversation you create. I don't think you can look at only a percentage of posts creating ROI, it is really the aggregate of all your work. That's how you've become respected in the tech community by having a sustained, intelligent conversation about topics such as this. You have been able to parlay that into a career that I hope pays you a nice living wage. My concern is that the majority of designers on CrowdSource and other sites aren't getting much value, beyond experience, for their spec work.

    I think you know this and just baiting folks like me into making comments, right? 🙂 Touché!

  15. 42

    Interesting discussion Doug, and yes you are giving away my ancient Chinese secret! I haven't used Crowdspring, but have held online contests for three years and bought countless logos, banners, animations, website PSDs, etc. If I was awesome at creating logos, I probably wouldn't waste my time entering logo competitions. I've seen guys spend weeks making logos for contests and never get paid. Although, there are a few designers I met through contests who I contact directly and pay a flat fee, because I trust and like their work. I think it's great for small agencies to reduce costs and maximize profits, bad for designers in the USA and unbelievable for guys in Indonesia and the Philippines. That's the only thing that bugs me as I like to "Buy American."

  16. 43

    For a small business these ARE great options. Sometimes the 'little' guy can't charge what a reputable agency can.

    I think it's a good idea if you're a designer trying get some work. There are thousands of designers jobless right now. Hopefully, this will change soon. I completely believe that if you have 'down time', market yourself as much as possible and by keeping busy refining your craft.

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    Actually, the argument about musicians and bands recording their music and then choosing different ways to distribute that music has little, if anything, to do with the spec work discussion (it's often used by spec design companies as an incorrect example of "other" industries that happily work on spec).

    Whenever someone records their own song, they are not creating custom music as directed by another commercial entity, who plan to use that music to promote that business. The band (or musician) is recording their music, at their whim and fancy, and then taking it to market where it will succeed or fail according to audience demand for that music, as envisioned by the creator.

    I'm an amateur music composer (not very good I'm afraid) and I spend hours tinkering around on the keyboard. I even make the music available for download off my site. People are welcome to listen to it all they want (though my listener base is in the tens of people, not millions like Radiohead).That's not spec work. That's me sharing MY humble compositions.

    In the highly unlikely event that a company would want to use my music in a commercial, I'd expect to be compensated. If, again in the unlikely event, that someone wanted me to compose music for their commercial, I'd expect to be paid for that time too. I'm no longer composing for myself. Getting closer to our spec design work analogy, if someone wanted me to compose music, as directed by them, with edits ("add a drum loop here, tone back that choir there") as part of a spec music contest I would be as insulted about that as I am about spec design work. Throw in the fact that our hypothetical spec website is taking a cut, sometimes charging contest holders a fee, and claiming part of the rights to my music to boot, we've have come full circle on the spec debate.

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  20. 48

    Dear Doulgas, I have to disagree on many points. However the most significant problem is that the buyers are not smart enough to choose the great design. The sad truth is that the majority of the buyers do choose the most mediocre, most average design. This is valid for logo, website design..etc. I feel sorry for both designers as well as the buyer. The designers must be disappointed to find out that not the best is the winner. On the other hand the buyers miss big opportunity to pick up the best design. There is more to it, but I think this explains the situation quite well. Therefore your statement “Great design and the ability for interpretation of a project description to a final prototype will always win”. does not reflect reality. You can call it more lottery, then serious evaluation of good, great, best design..

  21. 49

    I totally respect your opinion and I agree that some folks (many folks) have terrible notions of what good design might be… but I’m not sure that it’s true at all that the majority of people will select a bad design. I’ve seen some incredible designs come out of crowdsourced sites and contests.

What do you think?

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