Imagine that there’s a new pizza shop in town with a unique promise: you only have to pay for the pizza if you actually enjoy it. In fact, they’ll make you several pizzas to choose from, and you’ll only pay for your favorite, if you like it.

Sound too good to be true? Some company owners are turning to a similar business model: crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing websites provide a platform for clients to outsource potential work to a crowd of vendors. Each job is run as a contest, in which vendors work “on spec.” This means each participant follows the specified guidelines without any assurance of compensation — in the hope that the client will choose their work and they will be paid.

Crowdspring and 99designs feature mostly graphic designers who create logos and other artwork. On other platforms, you can find photographers, videographers, writers, and developers.

Spec work is controversial. Are these websites ethical? Are they fair to vendors? And do they provide business owners with quality work? 


The Bad

Some say that spec work is immoral. Having people work for free is slavery! Even if someone is getting paid, nobody is guaranteed minimum wage. Practically, vendors working on spec often earn extremely little. Back in 2009, a study showed that on average, a group of on-spec workers tended to earn just under two dollars an hour for their work.

Opponents of crowdsourcing also believe that the process devalues the design industry (or the other industries mentioned above). In an attempt to outbid rivals and win projects, many designers work undercharge. This leads clients to value the entire profession less.

For prospective clients, the process may result in designs that look pretty but fail to serve the intended purpose. A designer’s job is to work with a client – to understand the company, to discuss expectations, to receive feedback on an initial concept, to confer about revisions. Crowdsourcing minimizes many parts of this, forcing designers to work somewhat in the dark, endeavoring to meet vague expectations with little collaboration. Designers may also rush to slap work together since they cannot give an abundance of time or effort to any one project. 

So a crowdsourcing website might land you with something like this amateurish T-shirt design…Or perhaps a logo like this one (the winner of a design contest on 99designs). Looks like this Mexican restaurant is the one to visit if you’re hoping to have a heart attack!Even the fact that the vetting and refining process is in the client’s hands can lead to an inferior result. Although a final decision is always at the client’s discretion, most clients aren’t educated design professionals. The design they choose might be eye-catching but ineffective. Plus, clients are usually unfamiliar with the technical aspects of design, such as vector vs. bitmap-generated designs, bleed and trim options, or different color models.


The Good

Others believe that crowdsourcing is an innovative and modern solution to an old-fashioned problem. They give smaller companies and people access to jobs they could never get otherwise. The win is all based on merit. That results in users who throw themselves into the process. For example, a videographer might create a video like this one to pitch himself:

Crowdsourcing websites also level the playing field for smaller clients, and give companies of any size access to talent across the globe. 

Those who support crowdsourcing believe that the process actually ensures higher quality work. After all, if a designer is guaranteed payment at the end of a project, there is little incentive to push towards the highest level of creativity. Conversely, designers who work on spec are highly motivated to produce their best work to secure the prize. While the time constraints of spec work may seem to be a disadvantage, they can also force the designer to work from creative whims and ideas instead of falling prey to overanalysis.

Finally, crowdsourcing is good for inexperienced vendors who are just starting out. Newbie designers can easily build a portfolio, gain experience, and network with clients.


The Truth

So is spec work a cop-out? A moral disgrace? An insult to the design industry? Or a legitimate way for clients to find great talent at a great price?

It’s a mix of both. 

I see no ethical issue with posting a project on a crowdsourcing website. Nobody is being compelled to submit a design. It’s like the Olympics: if you are willing to compete, you compete voluntarily. You might take home the gold, or you might lose and walk away with nothing. 

In fact, there are many industries that work this way without calling it “spec work.” Most artists create their works without knowing whether it will sell, and most entrepreneurs create businesses with no assurance that they will succeed. Taking calculated risks is part of business — not just for freelancers working “on spec.”


The Bottom Line – for Designers

But even if spec work is ethical, is it a good idea? From the designer’s end, the answer is usually a resounding no – at least if you live in America or another first-world country.

Let’s imagine a freelance coder in Bangladesh makes a calculated decision. If he does 30 “spec” projects a month, he will win (and be paid for) ten, each of which will pay him US$30. That will net him US$300 for the month, which is well above the average salary for Bangladesh.

That is an intelligent choice.

For an American, the same logic means it’s usually financial suicide. You will always be competing with people who can do the same work for less than you — a lot less than you. The advantages that you bring to the table — cultural similarity, experience with similar clientele, similar time zones, the ability to meet in person or by phone — are minimized. 

Often, newer designers will opt for spec work to create a portfolio. But they could always make a spec portfolio for fun, without working in a pool of cut-throat competitors who may steal their ideas and take home the money (yes, it happens in crowdsourcing competitions). 

At the same time, some newbie designers may find that a real-world challenge, like spec work, can motivate them to work their hardest. That’s fine, but once they have an adequate portfolio, it’s time to walk away from spec work and find a job that will adequately compensate them.


The Bottom Line – for Business Owners

But assume you are a business owner, rather than a designer. Is crowdsourcing a good low-cost option for high-quality work?

The answer is complex. The pricing on these websites is fantastic, and the tight deadlines usually move the job along quickly. But will you be satisfied with the result? Or will you spend a lot of time managing the project due to different time zones, cultures, and expectations?

For example, imagine that you hire a traditional designer to create your company logo. You find someone with experience.  You are impressed by their portfolio. The designer meets with you in person several times, asks intelligent questions about your expectations, tours your business, and physically tries out your products or services. After a brainstorming session with you, the designer develops a rough plan for the logo. You provide the designer with some feedback, which is incorporated into the final design.

Now let’s say you instead attempt to use crowdsourcing. The process could not be more different. In this scenario, twenty or more designers will submit rapid-fire options for your review, and you choose one. If you don’t think that any of them fit your business (or you end up with a bunch of amateur attempts like this firefly-lightbulb monstrosity — a classic overly literal, visually jarring, and not very creative crowdsourcing submission), then you’re back to the drawing board.

At the end of the day, crowdsourcing websites have their place. But to make the process work, you’ll need to be an effective project manager with enough skill to select the wheat from the chaff. You’ll also have to decide whether crowdsourcing is right for each specific project. If you’re looking for high-quality work that requires a strong understanding of your company’s identity, dynamics, or culture, you should invest in someone who can meet your expectations. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative for a straightforward item that won’t make or break your company, you may find crowdsourcing to be the perfect solution.