Are you artistic? Then Uncle Sam wants YOU (to work for free)!

Official seal of the US Dept. of the InteriorOn June 1, the US Department of the Interior decided to get its feet wet on this whole social media thing and conduct a logo design contest on CrowdSpring, a Web site that allows clients to post graphic design projects, say how much they will pay for them, and  choose from among the designs that are submitted. In an article about the contest in the online edition of the Washington Post, reporter Ed O’Keefe focuses on whether or not a logo is necessary, since it will be used in conjunction with the seal, not be its replacement. But I think the real news is that the US government has become the latest entity to publicly support crowdsourcing.

“Crowdsourcing” means getting a whole lot of people to work on a project or solve a problem, usually over the Internet. Sometimes this is a volunteer effort where people are working for the betterment of mankind, which is the case with SETI@Home and Project Gutenberg. But in the graphic design world, crowdsourcing is synonymous with spec work.

“Spec” is short for “speculative,” meaning that the designer is asked to come up with a few ideas for the client’s review before being hired. In other words, it means working for free. For some reason, many clients don’t see spec work as a problem because they want to see the product before they pay for it. Trouble is, it’s unheard of to show early-stage sketches to clients these days; usually the designs presented at early meetings are pretty complete. So each design can be the result of many hours of work.

There are plenty of ways for clients to gauge a designer’s worth without asking her to produce free samples: reviewing her Web site, asking for references, viewing the portfolio, and having an initial consultation. And a design contract helps not only the designer but also makes provisions for the client if the work isn’t proceeding as planned.

USDI spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff is quoted in the article: “We see this as a fun, collaborative and cost-effective way to create a new logo for Interior. Engaging Americans in this design contest is a 21st century way to get folks interested, aware and connected to Interior’s mission – and it will cut costs over time.” As a kid, I delighted in entering contests where I could prove myself artistically. Draw Tippy? You bet! Make a poster for my sixth grade science class about ecology? Can’t wait. But I’m an adult now, and I run a graphic design business. I can’t afford to work for free, not with two kids and a mortgage. Ms. Barkoff’s “fun, collaborative and cost-effective way to create a new logo for Interior” is in fact spec work.

Reading this, you might be thinking, “Oh, there goes another ivory-tower designer complaining about how the Internet makes things cost less. That’s how we do business these days. Get over it.” But try applying the spec work model to other types of businesses. If you walked into a pastry shop and asked the chef to create three customized wedding cakes so that you could get an idea of the type of work she does, she’d laugh you right out of the store. Or what if you told your dentist to give you both a gold crown and a porcelain crown so that you could compare them and decide which one you liked better? Then you offer to just pay for the one you like? Good luck with that.

The trouble is, all of the graphic design crowdsourcing sites – CrowdSpring, 99designs, etc. – follow the business model of creating a competition out of every design project. Not everybody can win the contract, but loads of people can spend hours trying. Hours of uncompensated labor.

Would you want to work for free?


2 Responses to Are you artistic? Then Uncle Sam wants YOU (to work for free)!

  1. aliceflynn says:

    This video is excellent in teaching how designers are treated! Who produced it?

    Alice Flynn (member, Graphic Artists Guild)

  2. lmfdesign says:

    This video was produced by Scofield Editorial, an Indianapolis-based video company. Here’s the original link:

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