What’s wrong with asking people to work for free.

After 10 years of fielding requests for free creative work, here are some thoughts on why design contests, crowdsourcing, and spec work suck.

What’s wrong with asking people to work for free.

Fun, slightly ironic fact: I wrote this post for free.

Which is to say, I didn’t get paid to write it. Sure, ARTCRANK is the company I founded and continue to run. But what compensation I get comes from selling handmade, bike-inspired posters created by artists, designers, and illustrators — not hunting-and-pecking my way through a fusillade against the evils of design contests, crowdsourcing, and spec work.

If anything, writing this will probably turn out to be a career-limiting move in the long run. But career-limiting moves are kind of my specialty anyway.

Part of the reason I don’t mind writing about this, sans compensation, is that I’ve had a lot of practice over the past 10 years. From the moment I first hung out our shingle on the interwebs and created an ARTCRANK email address, I’ve fielded solicitations from brands, businesses, and organizations around the country, asking me to help them find people to give them free work.

Admittedly, they don’t usually phrase it that way. Instead, they ask me to help promote a design contest where a bunch of people submit work, they pick a winner, and that person gets some sort of prize — typically valued at far less than it’d cost to hire a designer. Or they tell me that they need artwork for a new product. They can’t pay, but they promise that it’ll be great exposure for the lucky individual. Oddly enough, none of them seem to accept “exposure” as payment for the product in question.

I’ve gotten enough of these requests that I’ve developed a standard response letter outlining the reasons why ARTCRANK has a standing policy against promoting design contests, crowdsourcing, and other requests for spec work, i.e., work done without compensation or with only a chance at winning a project, prize, or payment. In cases where the request comes from a national or global brand, I also include a reference to the company’s last reported earnings statement or profits to confirm that it can, in fact, afford to compensate creative professionals fairly for their work.

Usually, this is the last that I hear of them. But every so often, I do get a response. Few things are more sadly amusing than watching people who are paid full-time salaries perform all sorts of verbal contortions to justify taking work away from designers, illustrators and artists who are largely self-employed, and reliant on the income earned from their talents to afford luxurious indulgences like food, shelter, and medical care.

My favorite explanation is, “This isn’t really for professional artists. It’s just for fun.” Fine: Do a coloring contest for kids, then. Otherwise, this is just shorthand for, “We want professional creative work done, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

Most often, the people who proffer this excuse seem genuinely oblivious to the fact that contests serve to take work away from professional artists, while perpetuating the idea that “professional artist” is somehow not a real job. It’s a neat little twin killing perpetrated in the name of “engaging our audience,” “generating buzz,” or “giving exposure to up and coming artists.” As if it’s an act of righteous charity.

If a company or organization really wants to connect to its customers and community, there are a lot more effective ways to do it. Ask your audience for their opinions and input through social media channels. Hold a real-world event that brings people together, and invite them to share their ideas and experiences. Interview people who are doing cool, interesting stuff and share their stories through blog posts, videos, etc. Start a poster show about bicycles. (Kidding!) Just don’t ask people to give you something for free that other people do for a living.

I don’t know if this is common in other industries, but I have to suspect it isn’t. I didn’t ask a bunch of accountants to do our tax returns gratis on the chance that I might pick one of them for an actual business relationship. I didn’t post an open call for attorneys to file trademark applications for us, with a promise to write a check to the one who got the most votes in an online poll. And I definitely didn’t walk into the Apple Store and ask them to give me a free laptop because it’d be great exposure for their brand. That’s not how business works.

We found a tax accounting firm that specializes in working with artists and creative businesses. They know how taxes work, they give us smart advice, and we happily pay them for it because they’ve saved us a bundle (and thus far kept us out of prison).

We found an IP attorney who works primarily with authors and creative businesses. He’s helped us navigate the maze of trademarking our name and logo, registering us in the right categories, and firing off the odd cease and desist letter to someone who’s borrowing a little too heavily from our intellectual property and creative product. He charges us a fair price for the work, and we’re thrilled to have him in our corner.

As for Apple, well, they seem to know that we’re pretty much screwed without them. But the people who work at the Apple Store are super-nice, and always go out of the way to help us if something goes sideways.

It’s simple: You find experts who do great work, they charge you a fair price, and the world keeps turning. But for some reason, that all goes out the window when it comes to creative work.

This is not a windmill I thought I’d be tilting at when I founded ARTCRANK. And honestly, it’s not something I enjoy in the least. But our business is built on the work of talented designers, illustrators, and artists. Without them, we don’t have pop-up art shows or an online bike poster shop. None of us are getting rich on this, but we do our best to sell their work and compensate them fairly and promptly. So I can’t put our name behind anything that requires people to do the work they depend on to make a living without compensation, based on the possibility of winning a “prize.”

I know that there are people reading this right now who are shaking their heads and saying, “What’s the big deal? If an artist doesn’t want to enter a contest or give away their work, no one’s forcing them do it.”

By way of explanation, here’s a quick rundown of why this stuff still gets me worked up:

  1. Any project that asks people to submit creative work based only on the chance of being compensated for it devalues design as a profession. Especially when the company or organization in question can afford to pay a designer to do the work.

  2. Design contests and crowdsourcing aren’t “fun.” They take work away from people who create for a living, and reinforce the idea that creative expression (a) isn’t a real job, and (b) has no real economic value.

  3. Offering a cash prize — even a valuable one — is not the same as paying people for their work. If 100 people work to create 100 different designs, and only one is selected for compensation, 99 people still worked for free. And that’s bullshit. If you can afford to offer a valuable prize, you can afford to pay a professional to do the work. End of story.

Contests, crowdsourcing and spec work all contribute to a business climate in which creative people are regularly expected to invest time, effort, and materials to produce work without guaranteed compensation, competing against each other for the remote possibility of being paid inadequately — or not at all. That’s not just bad business. It’s predatory capitalism.

If nothing I’ve said so far has convinced you, ask yourself this:

Would you be willing to do your job for free and let a panel of judges, a random drawing, or strangers on the internet decide whether or not you deserve to be paid?

That’s what I thought.

If this is a subject you’re interested in learning more about, here are a few good resources to check out:

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Position on Spec Work

What’s the harm in crowdsourcing?

No Spec Site