I’m an artist of sorts. I write a lot for this blog, and I also write a ton of fiction (my first novel comes out on February 8th on Amazon and B&N).

So I understand all the arguments against spec work. If you are not familiar with spec work, it is basically asking a freelancer to write or design or code something for you to near-completion before you actually hire them. Sites like Crowdspring, 99Designs, and more are putting buyers in touch with freelancers to do exactly this.

That said, I love Crowdspring. Three months ago, I used Crowdspring to get an awesome cover design for my novel. I don’t think it’s evil, I don’t think it’s trying to exploit starving artists, and I don’t think it’s putting freelancers out of work. Here’s why:

Crowdspring et. al did not invent globalization

Crowdspring is not creating more competition for you–you can thank globalization for that. All Crowdspring is doing is making it easier for designers to connect with people who need designs. And here is where tough love comes in. If you are a designer and are struggling because of overcrowding in the market, it’s not fair to blame a free economy and the realities of supply and demand. You may either need better designs or a way to run your business smarter, faster, and cheaper.

But you aren’t alone–lots of industries are experiencing this right now. You just have to get ahead of the curve or differentiate yourself better. This is a good thing.

Crowdspring is not about being cheap

I paid about $800 for my cover design. Apparently that’s a little high… but the point is that Crowdspring is not full of buyers who are trying to get design work done for pennies. The designer chooses what projects to work on knowing full well what the potential upside is. There is basically no way to exploit a designer because they have too much information–they know the upside, the know the competition, and they have the choice to submit or not.

You are an artist and you should be able to make a living

Back to being an artist and wanting to get paid for that–I get it. I do plenty of art, and I understand it is not fun to work tirelessly and for free just to prove that you deserve a shot at getting paid for your ideas.

But nobody is saying they don’t respect you, or that you can’t ask for money in return for the art you make. The issue is that if you choose to do art as a business, you have to offer value. That is how business works. There is no rule in life that says you should get paid for things you enjoy doing, or for things you want to be your career, or for things you think you are good at. History is littered with misunderstood and underpaid artists, but artists have an opportunity now to reach more people and distribute their work smarter, better, and faster.

Your portfolio is not representative of what you could do, but what you have done

To be honest, if you handed me portfolios for all the designers who entered the contest, I would not have picked the same winner as I did. The work she had done before was nothing like what I was looking for, but she still ended up delivering the best (by a longshot) design for my novel.

So I understand why people want to paid for every hour they work, but from a buyer’s perspective, it’s a total crap shoot to hire someone that may not be able to deliver.

Non-designers need to see the results. They need to experience what working with you is like, and a portfolio is a terrible way to preview what that experience could be.

Crowdspring helps designers build relationships

My books are part of a series and I need a similar look for multiple covers. I have no intention of posting the second cover of the series as a project on Crowdspring–I’m just going to go directly to the designer who won the first cover.

Did I mention there are seven books in this series? And that I have another series planned that’s a trilogy? Are you starting to see how this adds up?

(Note: This is not to say I won’t use Crowdspring again–if I wanted a website design, I would certainly post that on Crowdspring, as it’s not the same type of work as a book cover.)

Anyway, I am not an anamoly here. I chatted with a friend who used 99Designs to design a logo, and he said the same thing–he now uses the winning design company for all sorts of projects related to his original logo.

That’s because no company designs in a box. Even after you deliver the files, you still own your style, and that’s the secret sauce. No one can design exactly the way you do, and there is value to that for the company long after the project is completed.

So if you can win jobs on Crowdspring, it’s a good lead generation tool. Really, that’s how I would use the service if I were a freelancer–I’d look for projects that interested me and buyers that were a good fit for my business. Here are a few great examples of people who have used Crowdspring for this:

Tomorrow I’ll share my thoughts on how designers can win more jobs, from a buyer’s perspective.

13 thoughts on “An argument in favor of Crowdspring et al.

  1. What is interesting is that your ‘contest’ resulted in a lot of plagiarized work, in your name. As a writer, how does that make you feel? Do you know that the one that you chose isn’t?

    Try a spec work model in real life. Look the people in the eye. You won’t be able to do it, because you know it is wrong, doing it on the Internet doesn’t make it right.

    1. I don’t fully understand your comment Andrew.

      1) How did my contest result in plagiarized work in my name?
      2) Do I know the “one I chose” (I’m assuming you mean the design I chose) isn’t… what? plagiarized? In my name? A writer??? O_o

      Spec work happens all the time in “real life.” When you go on an interview and spend multiple rounds providing “answers” and “devise strategy” to a pressing problem they are hiring to solve. When you meet with someone for “lunch” so they can “pick your brain.” When you give a free speech or write a free blog to sell your consulting services… I’ve done all of these things in “real life” and yes, there was some “looking people in the eye” involved.

      I guess I didn’t realize people were so passionate about this topic… but probably should have. My bad. Regarding your tweets about my work on this blog, in books, etc–people scrape them all the time. But my blog has gotten me paid speeches, job interviews, and more.

      I think the reality is that the business model for freelancing is changing and Crowdspring isn’t to blame for that. Why freelancers are trying to fight that is beyond me… better to change with it and survive, than fight something that will not get any easier (see Cory Doctorow on this stuff–it’s not like the internet will get less ubiquitous, or less useful for sharing/copying things…)

      1. I’m not understanding the other commentor’s point either, but as I’ve mentioned in my other comment, I’ve come to be convinced of the validity of plagiarism as one of the real underlying reasons (buried under hundreds of comments in dozens of blogs that require days of reading to sieve through) behind the mostly meaningless slogans against crowdsourcing. In fact plagiarism is about the only defensible reason for my decision to suspend my involvement at Crowdspring (for not wanting to be associated with the plagiarizers).

        From what I’ve read, the problems with plagiarism on crowdsourcing sites (which I’m led to believe is quite rampant) are primiarily twofold:

        1. From the designer’s perspective, your ideas might be copied by others who eventually comes to be selected. So winning ideas can get exploited by others (others that are working as designers), and so designers are indirectly discouraged from putting forth their best ideas.

        2. From the buyer’s perspective, plagiarized works mean copyright problems down the road, especially for logos. Because of the relative anonymity of sites, it is more difficult to hold the plagiarizers accountable, so buyers are exposed to more legal risks.

        The above two points are my interpretations of what I’ve read; they are not my opinions.

        However, my personal experience does confirm that copying is a problem: As soon as I post something, the layout is almost immediately copied. I wouldn’t say my concept per se was plagiarized, since the copiers quite obviously didn’t know the why. But it does discourage designers (“What if the buyer didn’t realize that was a copy, that the copying is not making sense, etc?”) But it’s true that copying is a problem, and that tilts the scale somewhat.

        So I hope that this is a relatively neutral comment, since I’m more like sitting on the fence right now than on either side.

    2. Ahh, I understand your second point now. I did do a lot of due diligence on the person I was planning to choose before actually awarding the award. I made sure she owned the rights (or had paid for the rights) to use the images, fonts, and links she provided. She sent me the design files, showed me the images on iStock (and others like it), and more. She told me that her image rights only extended to 500,000 print impressions and said to contact her if I went over (hah! Selling half a million of one book would be an amazing problem to have). I also checked her company out, her portfolio, etc. to make sure she was legit.

      Lastly, there was in fact someone who started copying her designs during the contest… I was super involved in the process though, and knew that she had submitted first. So I guess you have to hope that the buyer is trustworthy enough to award the original creator… also, the buyer has to trust the designer to an extent with copyright infringement and more. It’s a two-way street, which is why I say I used the service to connect with a designer and start a relationship.

      1. I totally agree with how you approached the problem. A lot has been said about the “lack of communications” on crowdsourcing sites, but my experience does not confirm this “lack of communications”. Perhaps this “lack” is something that is obvious to people who have done regular freelancing, but it is not obvious to someone who has only done in-house work.

        Regarding communications I do see two specific problems on Crowdspring: The impossibility to contact the buyer before you submit your first entry, and a potential impossibility to contact the buyer after final approval. While the first is just a hassle (though it arguably adds some weight to people claiming crowdsourcing to be a form of gambling), the latter does weaken the claim that crowdsourcing can be a lead generation tool.

        Going off a tangent, I also find the contract terms somewhat disturbing. In my two days of reading up on the controversy, I’ve come to the conclusion that despite Crowdspring’s claims, designers who participate on Crowdspring projects actually get no portfolio rights in return unless they specifically ask for them from the buyer. So I’d say the claim of “no respect” actually has a valid foundation (that is, again, buried deep inside hundreds of comments), on suspicious contract terms. A few days ago I was checking out an NDA book cover project and I noticed how the NDA would put the designer in the ridiculous position that he/she can’t use the piece in his/her portfolio after winning the contract, even after the book is published and even though the book would credit the designer. Such obvious oversights seem very careless, and the fact that one of Crowdspring’s founders used to be an IP lawyer does not exactly make the situation any better.

        1. Monica: much thanks for writing about crowdSPRING and your experience.

          Ambrose: I wanted to address both of your points about communication (and your later point about portfolios). First, we just made a change permitting designers to communicate with the buyer before you submit your first entry. We did this because many designers had legitimate questions and it didn’t seem sensible to require them to submit a design first before they could ask a question. I believe this change is already in production or will be tomorrow.

          Second, we’ve always permitted the designer and client to communicate after final approval. Once a project is completed, there is no longer a restriction on private messages. The only reason we restrict private messages between participants and the buyer is because we’ve found that in-project comments (which are, by the way, private) are a better way for the parties to communicate.

          To briefly address your comments about portfolios. In NDA based projects, we ask buyers whether they’ll allow use of the designs (unedited) in portfolios. We explain that if they do not, that will limit participation and many buyers allow such use. Our NDAs clearly state when portfolio use is permitted. More and more buyers are permitting portfolio use in NDA-protected projects.

          Designers have ALWAYS been able to use any design in their portfolio, even from NDA projects, as long as they change/remove client-identifying information from those designs. This is no different from doing confidential work for offline clients.

  2. @Ross – To answer your two points:

    A “potential impossibility to contact the buyer after final approval” is strictly from my personal, first-hand experience. While it is true that in theory such contact has always been possible, in practice it is not always possible because buyers are not obliged to receive notification emails. Thus, while any message is guaranteed to be delivered within the Crowdspring system, there’s a chance that it nevertheless will never get to the buyer, as once final approval is given the buyer no longer has a reason to check messages on Crowdspring. This is not only a distinct possibility, but in fact this is how it played out in 100% of cases in my own experience.

    Regarding portfolio rights, I have to say that Crowdspring’s message to designers is conflicting and ambiguous. While parts of the site state that portfolio use is not allowed if the contract says so (thus implying that if the contract does not say so it is allowed), the contract clearly states “work for hire”. I have read from multiple sources that this means no portfolio rights, and I find it very disappointing that designers are led to believe that participation in these projects is a way to build their portfolios while in contract terms this is actually impossible.

    If we must remove identifying information to put the piece in our portfolios, then why bother working on Crowdspring projects? Why not just create portfolio pieces for made-up companies, as the “against” people insist on saying?

    1. Ambrose, we don’t require anyone to check PMs on crowdSPRING. We deliver PMs via email (including content) in part to make sure that such communications take place.

      Work for hire doesn’t mean lack of portfolio rights. It can – depending on the nature of the agreement. But parties to a contract can always agree to specific terms for specific situations (such as portfolio use). That’s why projects that expressly permit portfolio use expressly state so.

      To answer your last question – some designers elect not to participate in projects that limit portfolio rights. And that’s OK. We have hundreds of open projects and plenty of choice – lots of projects that don’t restrict portfolio use.

      Other designers don’t find portfolio restrictions to be nearly as important and do participate. We clearly disclose before you decide whether or not to participate the terms (including any restrictions on portfolio use) and so everyone can make an independent and educated decision.

      1. If communication breakdown occurs between draft approval and final approval (as it has happened), PM is impossible. When the situation is brought up, support approves the final files on behalf of the client. I’d say this has already broken the client-designer trust. Would the designer PM the client at this point? No. What should have happened is that PM should be allowed after draft approval so that the designer has multiple paths to contact the client in case anything happens, and/or support should contact the client before making any decisions on what to do.

        Anyway, while I know your credentials, I think you’ll have a lot of explaining to do to convince people that “work for hire” does not mean no portfolio rights. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve read this interpretation from multiple sources, including a book. If “work for hire” on Crowdspring really does not mean no portfolio rights, this should be clearly stated in the standard contract. I would say this ambiguity at least partly contributes to the perception that there is “no respect” in spec work in general and crowdsourcing specifically.

        1. Ambrose – we always allow communication in wrapup. Those are private communications and unrestricted (and we deliver them via email, in full). In fact, the parties can use wrapup to communicate even after a project is completed. We keep such communications in wrapup so that it’s easier for us to help resolve any disputes (those are rare, but if communications were in PM’s, email, etc. it would be difficult for us to help).

          I don’t have anything more to add about portfolios other than to say that you might be right that we also need to include portfolio rights use in the contracts (right now, we include such language in NDAs only). I’ll take a closer look because you’re absolutely right that there’s a potential for ambiguity and that’s definitely something we want to avoid. Thank you.

  3. If all the wrapup messages and PM’s all go to email then I don’t know what’s up with the communications breakdown. Maybe everything just went to the spam box and it takes an effort for the buyer to check these emails (and so as soon as they think the dialog is over they no longer make the extra effort).

    I’ve been saying for a while that the spammers have already won. Maybe this just vindicates my view on the decreasing usefulness of email (another thing I don’t want vindicated…)

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