Spec Work Sites and the Golden Ratio

logoidolThe graphic design market is gaining momentum via social media and blogs. It seems the current way to introduce myself into it is to chime in about spec work online — or as I call it, the logo contest model — as used on sites like CrowdSpring and 99Designs, as opposed to RFQ sites like Elance and Guru. So here goes.

The first thing I’ve decided is not to lose sleep over the existence of such sites, or bother with movements that protest them. They serve a niche, and as a businessman who likes the Golden Rule, I know there are expenses I’ll have for which I’ll wish there was a crowdsourcing portal, so I can compare bids. Like the TV commercial says, “When ______s compete, you win.”

“Yeah,” you might say, “but spec work is wrong.” It depends.  

What’s Your Objective?

If you approach your craft with the goal of keeping busy (designing more, marketing less), then you’ll love CrowdSpring. You will also starve to death. If your goal is to maximize your pay per hour worked, averaging in your necessary business maintenance and marketing time — call it the Golden Ratio — you’ll keep CrowdSpring to a minimum.

Here’s my plan to integrate contest-type sites into my workflow. (I’m posting it in the form of advice for you, but understand, this is based on the flimsiest first- and second-hand experience, but mostly having thought about it for a while, and reading this, and this. It’s what I plan to do.)

Don’t bother with these sites until you get some momentum in more traditional, quote-based work. Once you have, don’t never spend more than a few minutes on these contest sites per day, probably a total of an hour a week.

On the sites, you can search-limit and sort contests by kind of work, time remaining, number of entries, or prize amount. (And yes, I’m purposely using sweepstakes language. Sue me.) If there were a way of sorting the contests in order of suckiest entries, that would be ideal. In lieu of that, sort in order of number of entries, starting with zero.

Open each entry in order, without too much regard for the prize (unless it’s a laughably small amount; use your discretion). Read the brief, and use your favorite brain exercise to see if an idea comes to mind. If after a few minutes nothing does, or you don’t like what does, stop, flush your brain, and go to the next one.

If after reading the brief you get an idea that blows you away (and don’t we all love it when that happens?), commit it to vector immediately, skipping a pencil sketch, if you can. When you’re about 80% happy with it, where at least the basic idea is represented well, ready it for submission. Noodle it at least three more times, improving, honing, and put those into the queue. Don’t forget, these people are expecting to buy this idea as is, and you want that, because any custom work is diluting your Golden Ratio of money per hour. Besides, five or six variations from one contestant tends to intimidate the next visitor, and drives this contest down the next guy’s list sorted by entries. But just to emphasize, your entries all have that same kick-ass basic idea. If they don’t, don’t enter them.

Once you prepare the art and make thumbnails (GIFs or PNGS; see their instructions), only then do you enter them together, using pleasant, persuasive language in the accompanying text. Don’t let minutes go with only one entry; you’re being watched.

Once you enter one contest, or if after an hour of searching nothing strikes you as worthy of entry, leave, and get back to work. If something else pops into your mind later, return, and if there are still no entrants, or the entries are suitably sucky, submit it. If you find yourself daydreaming about the design challenge, trying to solve the puzzle, break that habit before it starts, and get back to work. People holding logo contests aren’t paying you to think. At least not for long periods of time.

Carpet Bomb vs. Sniper Rifle

The objective here, clearly, is not to carpet-bomb the contests with entries, which works better in a quotes-based environment, but rather to target the most likely contests, like a sniper.

If your entry is as good as you think it is, the entrant will email you wanting changes. Depending on what they are, this is a good thing. If they’re suggestions on how to better stage the basic idea, or requests to change the typeface or color scheme, you can assume you’ve hooked him. Even if he suggests a rather drastic change, try to see the big picture; it might be as good an approach as yours, or better. Handle the changes the way you would any other client, and submit. Make each transaction a design revision as well as text; don’t just converse with him. Time is money, and he set the price, not you.

This flow of requests for revisions might or might not stop. If they go beyond a certain point (which you set), have prepared a boilerplate statement that goes something like,

I think we both see the merit of my idea, or you wouldn’t be asking for so many revisions. Experience tells me that, when it’s time to apply the logo to various media and surfaces and sizes, changes and variations need to be made anyway. Tell you what: I offer free revisions (you set a limit here) once you become my client, and I can give you my full attention and range of services. Looking forward to working with you on Monday (whatever day the contest ends).

In other words, “Negotiations are over. You love me. So pick me.” (Unlike this post, use only business words, not contest words.)

The day before the drawing, send him a reminder that you’re looking forward to working with him, and attach a revision to your best entry, even if cosmetic.

If you win, make good on your promises, follow through, and get him to know how serious you are about his happiness. There should be a sensation of a switch being thrown. Before, he was an entrant. Now, he’s a client!

If you lose, chalk it up to experience, be glad you limited your lost time this week, put the best pieces into your portfolio, and move on.

Why Bother With Contests At All?

Ultimately, with your Golden Ratio in mind, you’ll use both the contest sites and the quote sites as marketing opportunities. Once you’ve worked with any of these submitters, when they need more design work, you want to loom as large in their mental (or literal) Rolodex as the listing site. Neither you nor he are contractually obligated to ever again use the service that introduced you. You want them to go back to you, and forego the sites — both kinds.

They think they’re shopping for art. But you’re shopping for clients. Until you build that clientele, since you have to make a living, emphasize quoting, and frequent Elance, et al. But don’t rule out contests.

P.S. I look forward to getting a transcript, in whatever form, of the “Is Spec Work Evil?” session yesterday at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin. Please comment here to tell us all where to find it. Thanks.


3 responses to “Spec Work Sites and the Golden Ratio

  1. rosskimbarovsky


    My compliments on keeping an open mind. You are absolutely right that crowdSPRING presents numerous marketing opportunities and that people who can take advantage of such opportunities can develop clients beyond their work on our site.

    I don’t agree with everything you wrote, but I very much agree that freelancers should take advantage of all opportunities available to them, and measure each opportunity on their own risk/reward scale.


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  2. The problem is that clients simply do not understand the ROI factor for designers. It has been said over and over again – you get what you pay for. Cheap = cheap results.

    However, if that is what clients want, then by all means engage yourselves with these sites.

    I, as a professional designer, don’t have the time or resources to enter into “contests”. I find my clients through hard work, networking in the real world and dedication to my craft, therefore I am consistently busy and engaged in quality work.

    What you put out is what you get back. Seek out quality clients and you will be engaged in quality work. Seek out bargain hunters and you’re going to go nowhere very fast as a designer.

    I for one do not think ‘marketing’ myself to the paying-pennies-clients is worthy of my talents or my time as a designer of over 8 years experience in the business – I’ve run the gamut as an in-house employee, part-time and full-time freelancer.

    Crowd-sourcing is a bad idea on so many levels, and really, it just takes a little knocking around for new designers to learn this the hard way.

  3. Awesome story, I did not thought reading this would be so cool when I read your link!!

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