Some questions regarding a design contest - Worth1000 Photoshop Contest

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Before anyone says anything, I know ... design contests for a prize and the use of the design are usually spec work, and even though I'm no sort of design professional, I know the ethical problems of spec work. But I'm in an argument about one such contest and I need some better-informed opinions than mine.

First, here's the link to the contest, on Worth1000.

The author is a social scientist who has written a textbook on research methods. Her info is not on the page, so you can't write her to chew her out if you think this is a bad idea. Please don't try to figure it out and email her anyway; this may be a teachable moment, and it certainly is not an invitation to a mobbing. She got the idea for a cover contest from a friend of hers who published what looks to be a book available in digital form only who did the same for his book's cover.

What it also doesn't appear to say on the page is that the publisher is the University of Michigan Press. (Please don't email them either.) The author explains that she gave the idea to the press, who agreed.

Her arguments in favor of the contest: that most methods texts have pretty badly designed covers, that she wants a cool cover, and that this process allows more people to contribute ideas. The winner gets $150, which she claims is fine given the budget for the book; publishers of academic books in her view/experience rarely pay much for a cover design anyway.

My arguments against her: getting a professional to do the job is a better way of getting a good design; spec work is unethical even if those who apply are happy to do it and want or need the cash; if budget was really an issue the press could have farmed the job to folks in the UM design program (or even in the design program at the author's school), where it can be part of the apprenticeship aspect of the program; and $150 is pretty meager pay for a cover design, even given the competition. (What I didn't say is that university presses can and do often have great cover designs and designers, and that there's no reason why UM Press shouldn;t have been able to find someone to do it well.)

For those inclined to chime in, here's what I want to know:

1. This is spec work, right? Or not?

2. If it is, does it matter--that is, is it on the level of spec work that, say, design students are at when one of their class assignments is to create a logo or an ad for a local company or nonprofit or their own school, one of which the organization in question will use? Is the personal nature of the contest--she wants her friends to suggest cover designs and has posted the link to the page on a blog to which she contributes--a mitigating factor? Then again, it is on Worth1000 ... but then again (again), does this sort of thing happen all the time, and no one cares?

3. What are the ethics of Michigan signing onto this? Why didn't they tap their in-house folks to do this, or their stable of freelancers? Why on earth would they think this is a good idea? Of course, if the answer to 1. or 2. above is 'no', then this question answers itself.

4. For a book cover as described in the contest rules (6 x 9 paperback, front-cover only), what (ballpark) do you think the average designer who does such work would charge? Does $150 fall inside that ballpark?

Chad Kent's picture

The Pricing & Ethical Guidlines list the customary fee for "1 concept, design, and presentation of finished front cover and spine" as:

Textbook Hardcover: $1000-$2500; 2nd concept, $150-$500

Textbook Paperback: $725-$2500; 2nd concept, $225-$500

Of course, these are only guidlines. In my opinion, $150 is ridiculously low, but that's the other side of our super-connected world; there's always someone out there willing to do it for cheap…and it usually looks it in the end.

I can't imagine spending many hours on a book jacket design for less than a postcard's worth of fee. Worse than that, it's a competition, so there's no telling who gets it.

Si_Daniels's picture

I've only skimmed the post and didn't follow the link. However, I wonder how the author would feel if the book content was also a spec project?

blank's picture

$150 is what people pay for eBook cover designs on crappy job sites like Doing a $150 job via a spec contest is just despicable.

paragraph's picture

This does not sound kosher. The brief is a pretty standard one, as one would get from a publisher; yet the competition setup, the required reading link, the fee are all suspect. I wonder whether it is not in itself a sociology research project (... sociologist and communication scholar who teaches research methods in the Media, Technology and Society program), with the participants as Guinea pigs.

In any case, it is clearly exploitative and in poor taste. The publishing industry might be in a tight spot but this is shameful.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Simon, in a sense, all books (or at least their first couple chapters) are written on spec. I think that's part of the problem here--it's hard for authors to know the ethics of work involving other people in the trade because they're paid on a different principle. It's especially hard for academics because it's rare for academic titles to make much money; textbooks (of certain sorts, anyway) do better, but often not a lot better. The payoff for academics of publishing is dissemination of their ideas by a press with a reputable editorial staff, and hence increased stature in their field, which is necessary for tenure and promotion.

This is why I'm not hoping to gather arguments and smash her defenses to the ground; I think it would be good if I could persuade her that quality matters for all parts of a book, and that the more that people who make all of those parts think about each other and support each others' work, the more quality books there will be published (or, the books that are published will be of higher quality).

paragraph's picture

In my experience, most academics are encouraged or even required to publish. At the same time, many of them are on salary while writing their work. Arguments such as ‘I only research/write in my free time’ are hard to take seriously. How does this excuse exploiting designers?

Maurice Meilleur's picture

It doesn't excuse it at all; at least, I don't think it does. (That's why I told her what she was doing wasn't ethical, that why I posed you all these questions, &c.) That other people are paid for their creative work according to a different principle than she is, a principle she doesn't know or understand, might explain why she wouldn't think of all the effects of her choices. Unless you think someone is acting maliciously--and the author here clearly is not--it's good to keep those explanations in mind when you're trying to convince them of their error.

paragraph's picture

I get it now. Sociology: no idea about people, society, consequences or morality. Huh.

Chris Keegan's picture

Professionals won't waste their time with these things, but they are a good opportunity for a student or novice to possibly get a job in their portfolio, or do just do as a creative exercise.

DTY's picture

Perhaps another way to explain the problem to a sociologist would be to point out that the expected return on creating a design is $150 divided by the probability that one's design will be the one chosen. If, for example, 15 students of equal skill submit designs for the contest, the expected return is $10, and so one should not expect to get more than $10 worth of design work, which is maybe 10 minutes :)

jselig's picture

It's rather demeaning that other professionals hold such little regard for the design industry. Can I have the professor come in for a lecture and if I don't like their delivery not pay them or ask them to tweak it and give the same lecture 2-3 more times and compete with 15 other guest lecturers for the fee? hardly.

1. yes it's spec work

2. There's a sucker born every minute and the more that keep taking these jobs the harder it is to be taken seriously as a designer.

3. They should be ashamed that they are undermining an industry and peoples lively hood so they can save some money and still mark up their printing costs. Surly the union would go on strike if they found out classes were going to be taught by 3rd year TA's and ousted all the tenured professors.

guifa's picture

I wonder whether it is not in itself a sociology research project (... sociologist and communication scholar who teaches research methods in the Media, Technology and Society program), with the participants as Guinea pigs

Given the read tape on any kind of legitimate study involving people, I'd doubt it. To start off with she'd have to have the project approved and she'd have to inform you of it and you'd have to consent. One of the instructors I worked with at Auburn was doing a project on learning methods and just wanted to use agreggate student scores from the exams she gave. An incredible amount of paperwork for something so simple.

$150 sounds okay for a student project. I agree though she should have first proposed it to her university's department. (actually, it's dispicable the amount that universities farm out design work or other such things when they could just do it internally and help students better pay for college)

«El futuro es una línea tan fina que apenas nos damos cuenta de pintarla nosotros mismos». (La Luz Oscura, por Javier Guerrero)

Chad Kent's picture

Found an interesting site that is working to educate designers, and those that wish to employ them, about the vast down-side of spec work.

They have a pretty useful campaign going to help spread the awareness through the web and print; there are "anti-spec" posters contributed by other designers.

Like this one by Von Glitschka of Glitschka Studios

aluminum's picture

I've been meaning to write up a blog post about this. Maybe I'll share my thesis here and get some feedback...

I believe it was the NYTs that recently had an article on CrowdSpring as a tool to have graphic design work done. A colleague recently went this route and was asking for feedback on logos that were being submitted to his crowdspring request.

I replied with the standard 'it's a lose-lose proposition' and was replied back to with a suggestion that I might be elitist.

I didn't take offense to that nor do I think it was meant to be one, but it did get me thinking that I need to formulate WHY it's a lose-lose situation. So, here it is. I tried to use some math and a (silly?) analogy to hopefully get my point across. Would love some feedback on it:


Are design contests a good buy?

Many people believe that 'crowd sourcing' (a pretty way to say 'contest') is a good way to generate graphic design solutions. The typical method is to offer a cash prize , offer a brief project request, and then have a number of people enter a design solution hoping to win the prize.

The logic usually used is the person offering the prize is getting multiple solutions for the price of one, broadening the chances of finding something brilliant.

However, the math doesn't add up. Let's start by declaring our variables:

1) Prize offered = we'll say $200, as that seems to be a slightly higher-than-average offering on these design sites.

2) Average Number of Entrants = we'll say 10, as that seems to be a slightly lower-than-average number of entrants.

3) Average hourly rate to higher a professional designer = we'll really low-ball this and say $50/hour.

Here's how the math works out:

If a designer is up against 9 competitors for each contest entered, let's assume that they win an average of 1 out of 10 times. For every 10 logos they design, they win $200. $200/10 = $20. At a $50 per hour rate, to break even, they can't be spending more than 25 minutes per logo (we rounded up 1 minute).

As someone that might be interested in using crowdsourcing to source your graphic design, you then need to answer these questions:

1) Can a vendor fully understand your business needs and requirements to fully explore a proper design solution in 25 minutes? Do you think there's full due diligence happening in the creation of these solutions?

2) Do you think top talent in the design field would be spending their time on these types of gambles?

3) Do you think your $200 given directly to a known designer who's work you like and trust would be a better investment? (As you'd get 4 dedicated hours of their time)

Ultimately, all a contest creator (client) is getting is many choices, none of which will likely be great. And, contrary to belief, the designer entering the contest isn't getting portfolio quality work. You have to cut corners somewhere if you're pumping work out in 25 minutes.

You can spend $20 at Old Country Buffet, or you can spend $20 at your local neighborhood restaurant. The former is going to give you a lot of options, but not one of those options would ever be considered a fine meal.

CAVEATS: To be fair, there's the 'global market' argument that states a $200 prize, while paltry in the US, might be well worth the effort in some 3rd world country. The problem is that it's likely a bit of a false economy. While living expenses elsewhere will certainly vary, the tools of the profession rarely do (typefaces, stock art, professional software, hardware, etc.)

aluminum's picture

Potential Conclusion (Sorry, editing on the fly here...)

As a contest creator, you may feel that you're spreading your $200 over many more potential design solutions than you'd get by just hiring one designer, but that's also the problem. The designers entering the contest are also spreading the amount of time, effort and talent they can spend over multiple clients. Neither side is getting one-on-one time to fully realize the proper solution. Quantity is being created, but not any quality.

(ultimately, my goal with this is to show that it's not just a bad bet for the graphic designers entering the contest, but that's it's also a bad bet for the person creating the contest...which apparently is contrary to what a lot of people believe. No matter how you may argue it, you never leave Old Country Buffet feeling smarter than when you entered.)

paragraph's picture

The whole proposition is bad. The main injury is, I think, not what the author’s trying to do (they do not have to know or follow the rules) but that an established publisher would go along with it: the loss of a potential client to the design profession if UMich Press goes rogue. And if one gets away with it, you bet there’ll be others.

agarzola's picture

1. Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that this qualifies as spec work.

2. Normally, I would say “No. It doesn’t matter. There will always be low-ballers willing to hold ‘bang-for-buck’ above all else, and there will always be bottom-feeders willing to cater to these clients. Furthermore, one cannot expect, in any industry (particularly one not regulated by a government body), for there to be nothing more than well-paying, 100% fair, completely on-the-level, win-win deals across the board. There is always —ALWAYS— room for mediocre clients/mediocre work, and flat out bottom-of-the-barrel deals. So yeah, I stay away from spec work, but being all militant about it and treating it as such an unheard of abomination is childishly utopic.” But in this case, there’s #3…

3. The ethics of University of Michigan Press signing on to this are, quite simply, nonexistent. When an University, an establishment that should hold the academic, personal and professional integrity of its participants above everything else, decides to associate itself with this kind of practice —one reserved, again, for poor quality clients seeking cheap labor—, the message it is sending out is this: “This is what we’re training you for. To go out and live off of the muck at the bottom of the barrel. No matter what we teach you here, in the end, price is king.” I don’t have a problem with Universities getting their students to do voluntary work for its projects. If students want to do free work for their alma mater, so be it. But this is just… low.

4. As others have stated, $150 is pretty low. But I’d rather give a project 3 solid, sure-paid $50 hours than have to fly through ten projects at 18 minutes each just for the off chance of making the same amount.

- — - — - — - — - — - — - — -
Will food for type.

FeeltheKern's picture

A pretty interesting (albeit teeth-grinding) story on Fortune's site about CrowdSpring. It's not so much the guys who run this, or the janitors in Toronto, guys in Mumbai, and Grandmas in Alabama taking part, but the college-educated U.S. designers who participate that bothers/scares me.

daniele capo's picture

Are design contests a good buy?

In the example you can reverse your math. If the designer expects 20$ for 10 project it is true that the client gets 10 projects to choose from for 200$ (20$ for one project). If the client choose a good designer, she is going to pay maybe 700$ and, of course, not 10 logos to choose from. So the client should be educated enough to understand that quality and ethics justify the gap from 20$ to 700$ (that is like saying from 0 to 700).

For my experience, in Italy, that is an unrealistic expectation. It is unrealistic also because we are (I‘m thinking of my country) flooded by ‘visual noise’ that (mis)educates people in the opposite direction.
The only way to fight against the disvaluation of design work is spending a lot of times trying to educate people about design, visual culture ecc.

paragraph's picture

Brave new world. When all the entries are in, let’s have a committee meeting and select a winner. Then we’ll ask the winner to incorporate ideas and bits and pieces from other submissions, as requested by the committee’s members ... that way everyone from Michigan to Mumbai is a loser.

merkri's picture

I don't know. Let's say that the award was 100000. Would that make it any different? I suspect that it's not the award process per se (this happens all the time in other fields), it's the amount involved.

I think it's difficult to say something like this is unethical unless you know the specific situation involved. As Chris Keegan noted, this might be appropriate for a student, or someone who is just looking to get noticed, or maybe they're experimenting with something anyway and want some extra cash for something they would have otherwise shoved in a drawer, or maybe they just want to because they do. Who's to say what this is worth to them? That's their decision. For some people, this might be demeaning, but for others perhaps not--it might be a small opportunity.

TypographyShop's picture

A friend recently sent a link to his fellow designers. The subject line was "In case you weren't sure graphic design as a profession was dead."

This is where he sent me. Logo Tournament is the most despicable sort of example one could find. They've got scores of kids - some with talent - around the world just giving it away day and night, clients paying peanuts for clichéd solutions. Worth's threat is nothing compared to these folks.

aluminum's picture

@MiseEnAbime I understand what you are saying.

To clarify, I was trying to distill it down to a 'what do you get for the dollar spent'.

The same $x spent on a designer vs. a contest will yield different results:

- With a contest, you'll get quantity, but typically very little quality.
- with a sole designer, you'll get quality, albeit probably not quantity.

So that leaves us asking the question "when you're shopping for graphic design, are you looking for quantity or quality?"

Of course the arguments about it being detrimental to the industry, or slave labor, or what have you are all valid, but there seems to be an easier argument to be made in that a client wanting to have a contest is just getting a bad return on their dollar.

Mr Doug's picture

Behind every contest lies a small nugget of truth:
In the end, something magic will happen.

It's not that she wants "more" or "cool" options. She simply doesn't have the budget to hire the right talent for the job. It's like hosting a "cool" party -- would you invite "cool" people? Or would you post flyers on every light post in town and cross your fingers the homeless don't show up? It's okay, something magic will happen and make it all better.

Contests don't create magic. If you build it, famous ghost baseball players won't come out of the cornfield. More mediocrity doesn't produce excellence, just more mediocrity. Good things simply take time, work and money.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

A follow-up to my original post: The contest is over, the entries are in!

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