SpecWatch has been cataloging unpaid and refunded projects, and those terminated due to copyright violation.

In their own words:

“We’re not going to debate the morality and / or ethics of participating in design contests and calls for crowdsourced design. We’re not going to debate whether these kinds of services are an effective way for buyers and clients to obtain design services. We’re not even going to debate how good, or bad, the work produced by design contests is or isn’t. Those arguments are raging elsewhere. Our main purpose is the look at the actual logistics of design contests and crowdsourcing to present the facts behind same. We’re not going to comment. We’re not going to editorialize. We’re simply going to present the facts as we discover them…”

Here are just a few examples of what’s going on.

“The winner of this contest was unawarded as she has used so much clipart we have had to suspend her permanently”

“According to the “suspended” designer’s profile, they had entered 711 contests and won 37 before being suspended “permanently”. Their portfolio still features the ‘unawarded entry’ as an example of a 99designs “product”.

No comment necessary.

Crowdspring vs. 99designs “Logo Smackdown”

“Two design contests, for the same logo, were run simultaneously on 99designs and Crowdspring by a Texas Startup Blog who wrote about their “Logo Smackdown”.

As if these contests weren’t wasting enough of designers’ time, one project was never going to be awarded from the outset. And this certainly isn’t the only case where no winner was selected.

“How do I know when buyers are trying to trick me?”

“A guy posted a project for $1000, after the project ends, seems like Crowdspring gives him his money back (even though there were more than 25 entries), and after that he sends me a message saying that the prize was to attract designers only, and offers $200 for my design. I’m okay to losing projects to other creatives, but this sucks, now how do I know when buyers are trying to trick me?”

Nasty. And it’s not an isolated incident.

How about this one, where yet another prohibited iStockphoto image wins a contest?

One of the contest holders on 99designs had this to say about the process after unknowingly selecting a copied logo as their “winner”:

“We are considering holding another contest, but currently questioning the value, considering the time investment of several people in our company policing designs, vs. just hiring someone directly whom we can then hold accountable for any infringements.”

You can read the whole sorry tale of plagiarism via SpecWatch.

Have you had any similar contest experiences?

This appears to be a regular occurrence on Crowdspring and 99designs, and to see for yourself you should follow SpecWatch on Twitter.


Started to follow them after a retweet by you yesterday. Interesting stories. I’m wondering how many people would react if one starts a spec-competition for a specwatch-website called “I’m an oaf doing specwork.”

I have seen a slew of posts the past few weeks regarding the horrors and negativity involved with crowdsourcing and spec work. It is GREAT to see these bad practices being exposed to the public and potential client. I encourage all designers out there to post, share or tweet about the cons of spec work to their audiences to help squash it for good!

This would have been a great thing to put with your Twitter post from a few weeks ago. There seems to be a lot of anti-spec stuff on Twitter. NoSpec, SpecWatch, and even a guy I follow created a site/account hilariously titled “CrowdSprung” which basically shows the sort of work that is being put out there.

There is a part of me that thinks that most of these people calling for work are too seedy to do business with anyways, but then someone with some celebrity status like The Pet Shop Boys will extend their hands to a site like Crowdspring and give them a sort of validation to what they are doing (a tour poster for 300 dollars). This is especially frustrating.

The funny thing is that everyone gets screwed. I’ve seen good design work on these sites, so someone is getting underpaid. On the client side, I would imagine there are honest people using this site paying decent money and getting ripped off by clip-art users or just plain bad design. I wonder how anti-spec sites can reach out to would-be clients as well.


I’m sure you’d get some designs submitted. Reminds me of the 160over90 experiment with the $50 dollar logo brief, and Cheeses of Nazareth.


What I like about Spec Watch is the lack of any editorializing. It’s a completely unbiased view of what unsuspecting designers are subjecting themselves to. There’s really no need for additional commentary, because the contest results speak volumes.


I wasn’t familiar with Crowdsprung, but just searched via Twitter. Seems the Crowdspring guys aren’t too happy about it. Don’t blame them either, given that it features their badly designed product.

Underpaying, not paying at all, copyright infringement, time wasting… kind of sums it up from me.

As someone who has recently begun dabbling with crowdspring, I’m extremely interested in specwatch, but unfortunately I don’t use Twitter, so apparently it’s of no use to me.

As for crowdsprung, the whole concept seems rather juvenile. Of course there’s bad work to be found on contest sites: the majority of it is very poor. But there’s some good work, too. To show one terrible design out of 100 is like pointing to one bad TV show as evidence that TV on the whole is worthless.

That’s not to say that the buyer has a good chance of getting a good logo. One of the biggest flaws with these contests is that anyone who would use one to get his logo almost certainly doesn’t understand or appreciate good logo design. So most of the buyers ending up picking crap designs. For the designer, the experience is the equivalent of training as a gymnast for eight years, going to the Olympics, competing against the spectators, and being judged by the cleaning staff–and losing.

Hey David,

Interesting to see all the debate flaring up these days.. glad I got out [of spec work] back before things got nasty. Thanks for the great advice you gave to me a while back about doing pro bono. Definitely has gained me more exposure than I could have ever dreamed of. Keep up the great work and excellent insight.


The idea behind Spec Watch is absolutely brilliant.

‘Just the facts’ goes a long, long way.

And while Spec Watch has chosen not to engage in conversation (time-consuming), I can only think that there is a LOT of work going on behind the scenes.

Kudos to them for running a fantastic campaign!

Whoa, that’s scary, especially since I’m a “regular” on 99designs. I’ve won a contest (just one so far) and have come pretty close at other times to winning, but I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It’s really making me think twice about going on their site again. Thanks for the heads up!

I think competition sites are a good tool for beginners/students to learn to read a brief and get into the habbit of designing to a deadline. Nothing more. Do not expect an income from these sites or to build a reputation in the design industry. Use them as a learning tool.

Interesting post. I know the spec problem is becoming a troublesome issue, although I think it’s here to stay, as the “cheap consumer” always wants “cheap”. I try and work with the “realistic client”.

Their website’s quite a strange concept; having a website that solely points to a Twitter account. Is this a new wave of web-strategy?

Spec Watch is not even close to being unbiased. From a cursory look, their selection of facts is tendentious. For instance, they report on one contest on crowdSPRING being closed due to having less than 25 entries, and then note that it apparently had 29. What they don’t mention is that many of the entries were duplicates, same entries modified and resubmitted. This is hardly fair.

They also re-post discussions. Sure, the actual opinions are not worded by them, but you can easily infer which side they come down to. For instance, in one case they re-posted a discussion from crowdSPRING about a creative using pirated software. One side was defending it, and the other was criticizing. At the end Spec Watch concluded with mentioning how many projects the side self-admittedly pirating software was involved with. Does anyone really doubt why they found this particular discussion or number interesting?

The point is, you can be biased in your selection of facts. I myself still sit on the fence about crowdsourcing, but Spec Watch is about as balanced as Fox News: not very.

Wow, that posting the offer of $1000 to attract designers then retracting it to offer the winner $200 is a new low.

If you translate that to retail law that’s almost like illegal bait and switch advertising.

I’ve never read the terms of entering these contents, but i assume everything is in the favor of the site and clients, and the designer has no legal recourse to get paid?


That’s fantastic news about the pro bono work. Good on you.


Given that you regularly participate at 99designs, I’m sure this page will be of interest:

Refunded, abandoned, unpaid and locked contests


There’ll always be those clients looking for cheap work, but it’s possible to find designers in their budget range without exploiting many more through design contests. It’s up to the designer to say no, and I think Spec Watch will help many choose to do just that.


“At the end Spec Watch concluded with mentioning how many projects the side self-admittedly pirating software was involved with. Does anyone really doubt why they found this particular discussion or number interesting?”

No. Because it’s illegal.

Where Crowdspring are concerned, clearly Spec Watch isn’t focusing on an isolated incident. Look at these refunded Crowdspring projects. What a waste of designers time. And these Crowdspring stats don’t paint a pretty picture either.


That’s right. The designer is exploited, while the spec websites are protected. Shame.

David, precisely, and that makes it useful for an appeal to fear. Not really a hallmark of neutrality.

I see by your reply to Andrew that you don’t really care if you’re spreading half-truths. It’s pretty reasonable not to count variations of the same design as a separate work. By that standard, there weren’t 25 entries. It’s a bad situation for the designer, and the client was being exploitative, but making crowdSPRING look like they break their own rules is unfair.

Reinis, an “appeal to fear” is a fallacy, but because the vast majority of people contributing to spec websites don’t make money, use of pirated software is almost inevitable.

The question is whether an unbiased reporter would consider that relevant, David. I believe they wouldn’t, since it’s between the creatives and software vendors. Sorry if I’m coming off as a blowhard, but I’m just applying critical thinking to SW’s claims and concluding that it looks more like lip-service to neutrality while spreading any negativity you can.

I used to participate in spec work and despite the selling points that they throw at designers, I learned way more doing 1 pro-bono project for a non-profit organization which offered actual client interaction than I did doing 50+ logo contests. Like David said, it’s up to the designers to put an end to spec work.

P.S. Be real, would you trust a site that produces this kind of incompetence: http://www.crowdspring.com/projects/graphic_design/logo/logo_for_crowdfunding_company/gallery/crowdcube__2


It seems Spec Watch have been following your criticism, and published a response that should help you better understand their stance:

Spec Watch response to critics


I’m very glad that you too, like Sean (above), have seen the benefits of pro bono work instead of spec contests. It makes so much more sense from a learning standpoint.


I have a simple mentality. Only have 1 pro-bono job on the go at any one time, no spec work. With pro-bono you can choose which clients you want to have and you can do it in a way that then builds industry cred with other potential clientele.

Keep thing simple. Keep the books turning over revenue. No need to complicate stuff with spec work where revenue isn’t guaranteed.

I’ve also had to train design departments in major corporates to break out the spec mould when dealing with their Marketing departments. Nothing depresses a design team that invests a whole lot of work in a concept that doesn’t go anywhere.

I wrote a piece on the real cost of crowdsourcing at http://kgcreative.tumblr.com/post/128514803 a few days ago.

Reinis, the reason why specwatch and other similar sites are necessary, is not because of their neutrality, but rather because outfits like Cs and 99 logos have rather large advertising machines that try to counter (very effectively, until recently) any dissent and attempts at showing what’s really going on.

We need education and push-back on these types of sites, and we need to really show the kind of exploitation on the creative community that is going on.


SpecWatch does not claim to be neutral though. They even admit on their “Why?” page that they ARE biased against the people who cheapen themselves for spec work:

“Admittedly, we are biased against designers working at high-risk without payment, so we will point you towards selections that re-enforce that position.”

I used to think these contests would be a good spring board for launching my career. I could do these alongside my classwork, get feedback from my classmates and instructors, and even make a little money on the side.

But after seeing contest after contest go unpaid (which to me sounds like the “client” is just looking for ideas to steal), the sheer amount of unoriginal, duplicated, and downright illegal (use of iStock clip art anyone?) submissions I see it is not the type of environment I want to be associated with.

A much better use of my time would be working on personal projects or even creating fake clients to do work for in order to keep my skill set growing rather than offer myself up like a prostitute, which is what spec really is when you get right down to it.

“I’m a “regular” on 99designs. I’ve won a contest (just one so far) and have come pretty close at other times to winning”

Out of curiosity, can you tell us what you won vs. the number of hours you spent entering all the contests?

Spec work or not, I find that so few freelancers every sit down and actually figure out what they need to charge for an hourly rate to even survive.

Thanks, David. I follow Spec Watch on Twitter so I already saw it. They bring up some valid points, but this part I think is disingenuous:

“What ever opinions people read into that are their own. We cannot help that.”

It’s like saying “we set up the trap, but it’s not our fault if anyone fell into it”. If they changed the selection of facts, the audience would be lead to a different conclusion. For instance, had they included the fact that many of the 29 entries were near duplicates, it would still most likely be unfavorable for crowdSPRING, but to a lesser degree.

Their best point is that crowdSPRING apparently does not take duplicates into account in their marketing or FAQ. This is a clear and significant fault on crowdSPRING’s side. Kudos to Spec Watch for identifying it, but I think it’s undermined by their less fair criticisms. Using poor argumentation hurts your credibility.

I find it curious that no discussion is allowed on their site. They told me on Twitter that the reason is because “discussions are often mired in minutia, not facts” and that “there’s nothing to debate about [their] releases”, and also that they “supply catalyst for discussion”. For one thing, this is self-contradictory, and for another, an excuse you would expect from someone trying to keep their site free of opposing viewpoints.

“We need education and push-back on these types of sites, and we need to really show the kind of exploitation on the creative community that is going on.”

I’m not arguing against that. I just don’t support dishonest campaigns. Aside from moral reasons, it’s also more likely to just entrench the opposition.

“SpecWatch does not claim to be neutral though.”

Not explicitly, but they put a big emphasis on only reporting the facts and not editorializing. It amounts to presenting yourself as neutral, making their position just inconsistent.

If you are taking a 90% risk of working for free, why not do just that? Volunteer your services for REAL clients who are in need. Start with small, startup businesses who do not have a web or brand presence. There are plenty in every community. A talented designer could easily build a portfolio and a reputation in a small amount of time, which will lead to paying clientele. How would that hurt you? If you are passionate about art and design it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to your time.


That’s a good point about pro bono work building credibility. If I was employing for a design position I wouldn’t be impressed by a job candidate saying they participate in spec contests. It gives the impression that the work isn’t valued, because it’s given away in the hope of financial reward.


You say that Spec Watch has set a trap for people to fall into. The way I see it, the situation is precisely the opposite. With their marketing and advertising, contest websites set the trap for designers. Spec Watch helps warn the unsuspecting with facts.

You also call the Spec Watch campaign “dishonest”, which is odd considering you’re “on the fence about crowdsourcing”, and all they do is post information that’s freely available elsewhere. If a forum thread is quoted in one of their updates, the entire thread is linked to so readers can view the whole conversation.


Relevant linkage is always welcome, so cheers for writing about your own point of view. It’s one I share.

Thanks very much to everyone else for joining in the chat.

SpecWatch should be calling out the companies – by name – that abandon or request refunds on projects.

I’m sure CrowdSPRING & 99designs do their darned hardest to avoid refunds – it’s not in their interest to give money & fees back to the customers.

Anyway, designers complaining about crowdsourcing is like brokers complaining about eTrade, photographers whining about iStockPhoto or travel agents complaining about Expedia. It’s not going away.

These contest are ill conceived and rather amateur. Hopefully after incidents they loose a lot of credibility and no-one ever comes back. I am amazed someone can use a ton of clip art and submit it as their own legitimate work.

“Anyway, designers complaining about crowdsourcing is like brokers complaining about eTrade, photographers whining about iStockPhoto or travel agents complaining about Expedia. It’s not going away.”

No way!! First off, stock photography is something a photographer does a head of time and sells specifically as stock photography. Its like a retail store purchasing items to stock their shelves and let people purchase what they need. Stock photography is an entirely different animal in that most stock photo needs are STOCK. A logo should never be STOCK becase a logo is the identity of a business. You will never find STOCK WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY! That is more like getting a “stock” logo than stock photography.

I dont know too much about stock trading.. so i am not going to comment.

But the travel agency.. If you really think that the importance of your business’ identity and future is the same as your next vacation to Florida, then you are really mistaken.

It is slightly similar in that you are giving up QUALITY of service to save money.. But the point here is that theese crowd sourcing places tout the QUALITY of their logos.. when their logos can’t possibly be any real quality because people do not know crap about their clients, their client’s clicnts, and the business that they are desinging this logo for.. A website can easily book you a trip.. you know you want to go to florida, you know where you want to stay, and you know how much you want to pay… Logos are not nearly that definite, and they never will be.

I was always against these type of sites but decided to really see for myself what it was like. I “operated” for 6 months, won 5 contests, nearly won a handful of others. I had learned what I was wanting to know. I looked at it as sort of a research thing.

On a contest not getting 25 entries and being refunded:

many times if a contest was coming close to closing w/o the required 25 entries, I would do 2 or 3 so-so designs, different from each other completely, but no chance of winning – just to make sure the contest would be awarded – would private message 3 or 4 of the other “regulars” that were in the contest and ask them to maybe consider buffing up the gallery with a few so-so designs just so we can hit the quota and the contest has to award.

Every time I did this everyone complied 100% of the time with my “idea” – lol. There are many other things that go on with cS that I think people don’t know about.

I did not join into this site for the money, in fact the money I was awarded I gave away to a charity – I just wanted to see for myself what it was really like ( I could afford to do this.) To say the least, it was brutal, the creatives were extremely cut throat in trying to win, and many of the buyers were rude and down right ugly at times. It was a true learning experience. Suffice to say the majority of the creatives on cS disregard the various codes of conduct, and just hope they get away with concept stealing, etc., and as you know many do.

There were a handful of talented designers I observed, but sadly most of the design work was well below standard that’s for sure – just not unique, not creative, just the same old stuff warmed up over and over again. Also you would constantly see the same designs/motifs over and over again for different projects – it was actually funny to watch this one particular “creative” submit this one particular logo design over and over and over again, just modified for the new “client”.

One of the saddest things about cS – there are creatives on there that call themselves “addicted” to cS. It’s like the Stockholm syndrome for designers!

As a professional graphic artist having been in this business for many years, I found it really interesting to watch the interaction between the creatives themselves and with the buyers. I have never worked in such a way, always one on one with a client, face to face. I just thought it so incredibly impersonal and often felt very sorry for creatives that you could clearly tell spent a lot of time on a design and the buyer did not say one word to them and just completely ignored their efforts. Overall, it was sad. I truly don’t see anyway that cS could “fix” all the things that are wrong about their site. One suggestion would be to make all awards start at $1000 regardless to what it is. That would weed out many of the cheap creepy buyers – just a thought.

For those of you who think these are designer exploitation sites, then don’t use them. No one is forcing you to. Those who use them use them as an act of their own free will, who are you to tell others what’s in their best interest for them or that they shouldn’t be allowed to design for these sites or that these sites shouldn’t exist. If you don’t like the competition, tough, that’s free market capitalism and competition shouldn’t be eliminated just because you can’t compete. As far as guaranteed revenue, in no business is revenue ever guaranteed and it’s certainly not the governments job to eliminate (or even to reduce) risk. All businesses have risk.

Oh, and another thing (if any of my comments even make it through, I wonder) is that it’s amazing how you people argue that you won’t argue the morality of the issue but then you turn around and do just that. If you aren’t arguing the morality of the issue then what’s the problem? When you say something like, “This is hardly fair” isn’t the implication that unfairness is immoral and that things should be fair? Well, A: It’s not a fair world and B: I would say that the Internet and the way things are currently done on the Internet (including these crowdsourcing sites) is more fair than things were in a long time, because the playing field is more level than things were in a long time. The Internet levels the playing field, I know incumbents who have managed to unfairly monopolize everything outside the Internet absolutely hate that, but a level playing field is more fair than a government regulated unlevel playing field. Who are you to decide what’s fair? What, because anyone can now compete with you it’s not fair? Hardly.

Oh, and as far as uniqueness is concerned, pretty much all work is a derivative of previous work in some way or another. To say that your work is more unique than the work of others because you said so seems rather arbitrary. Yes, people improve on each others work, but I don’t see a problem with that, and it allows you to improve on the work of others. If you don’t like it, don’t contribute (no one is forcing you to, you can better serve the community and society by finding another job instead), but don’t attempt to diminish the rights of others to contribute to each others work just because you don’t want anyone to contribute to something you do (and don’t require the unnecessary restrictions on our rights and extra cost and work everyone must go through just to enforce your wishes that no one can improve on your work, extra work that no one signed up to but was instead forced upon them by an overarching government that doesn’t know when to mind its own business).

and regarding the fairness argument, some people are born into rich families, some people are born into poor families. Tough, that’s just the way it is. If you want things to be fair then everyone should be born into the same social class.

and don’t think this typing is going to waste, I’m also posting it on techdirt and making it clear to them that they should show up here. If they don’t, then people will know that you are censoring arguments you don’t like and it won’t look good on your part. People are already frustrated enough with mainstream media censorship.

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