6 Reasons Crowdsourcing And Spec Work Sucks

It’s a revolution, or at least it seems to be if you listen to just about every hype-filled business blog out there. While crowdsourcing has resulted in some cool promotions and occasionally even a worthwhile end result for both parties involved, it’s rarely the best solution for any business (or any service provider, for that matter).


Hailed as a masterful way to get things done cheaply and easily for businesses, crowdsourcing is effectively digital outsourcing on steroids – a sure-fire method for getting work done on the cheap, while still maintaining control over the end product and project quality. Projects are issued, typically on one of several online marketplaces, and rather than competing for the project with applications and pitches, designers compete for the project with the finished project.

If you can’t already see how this equation doesn’t quite work as a long-term business strategy, these six reasons will no doubt make it a little clearer. Crowdsourcing, while worthwhile for some, just isn’t good for most online business, whether they’re on the project posting side or the service side. If you’re a new designer looking to gain some experience, check out these six reasons crowdsourcing sucks before you spend your time on a crowdsourced design competition:

Crowdsourcing Just Isn’t Good For Getting Things Done

From a business point of view, it’s always best to go for the best returns in exchange for the least time. As they say, time is money, and wasting time on mindless tasks is much the same as dropping coins down the drain. Crowdsourcing might make for a large pool of available design options, but for business owners and entrepreneurs it attracts a lot of wasted time.

Crowdsourcing Just Isn't Good For Getting Things Done

When you’ve got an in-house design team, or even a contracted team, small changes don’t take much time to occur. However, when you’re communicating with hundreds of people, all of whom are competing for a single payment, the barrier between request and action becomes much wider and projects quickly fall behind. From a simple productivity standpoint, crowdsourcing pales next to a dedicated design team.

Crowdsourcing Is A Poor Deal For Businesses

When you work with design contractors, every project can be revised and improved until it’s perfect for your business. When you work with hundreds of designers, each competing for a single payment, revisions become less of a request and more of a pipe dream.

For businesses that are focused on long-term goals, a short-term strategy like crowdsourcing simply isn’t the way to go. Hiring a contract-based design firm or freelancer to take care of projects might cost slightly more and give you less immediate access to variety, but it also offers one incredibly valuable currency that crowdsourcing doesn’t: long-term potential.

Crowdsourcing is an even worse deal for providers.

How would you feel if the following email showed up in your inbox:

We’ve got a project for you. Pay is $500-700 depending on scope and requirements, but we’re going to need to use a new payment system. When the project’s finished, we’ll roll two dice. If they add up to 9, you’ll get paid. Otherwise, we’ll discard the design and forget about payment.”

Crowdsourcing isn’t just ineffective and inefficient for businesses, but a near total waste of time for service providers. Sure, if your design is good enough, you’ll end up getting paid for the total projects. However, when you’re competing with 100 other designers, merit becomes less of a factor and taste becomes the determining influence. It’s hard to cater to taste on competition, and most designers end up missing out on payment altogether.

Crowdsourcing Kills Creativity

A standard design project gives you some room to move creatively, even if it’s for a relatively rigid and static web presence. Even the simplest WordPress template can be created with your own personal touch, and this flexibility and creative license is what attracts so many designers to the industry. They’re not just working for other people, but for themselves – creating designs that they enjoy too.

When a design gets crowdsourced, creativity dies. No matter how loose the specifications are and how accommodating the job provider is, the first few designs almost always end up dominating the creative output for the entire competition. Once designers are exposed to those first few samples, creativity suffers and everything ends up looking the same. While great for consistency, crowdsourcing kills the creativity that fuels great design.

Creativity Killer

Crowdsourcing Can Hurt Reputations

Popular blogger Timothy Ferriss stirred up some real controversy with this post on crowdsourcing his book cover design. The no-spec community is already quite vocal on crowdsourcing, and even the slightest mention by an online business or web company can end up with them in design hell. For businesses, it’s always best to think about the long-term implications of crowdsourcing. Running an ultra-cheap design contest now might end up providing some good work, but as a long-term solution it could end up locking you out of working with great designers.

Crowdsourcing Generally Results In Poor Work

Every 100 competitions, crowdsourcing may turn out a true design gem. The problem is that 1/100 aren’t good odds for most businesses. The vast majority of businesses, whether online or offline, want consistent good design, not one-off miracles and generally mediocre design.

Most good designers avoid crowdsourcing and spec work as much as they can, which leaves businesses stuck dealing with design that’s, simply put, pretty bad (not saying designers are bad, but the general result usually can’t really be compared to work done by an in-house team or freelancer).

In the mad scramble to win more competitions, designers churn out work that’s acceptable, all the while ignoring the chance to do truly great work. As a result, most crowdsource-based marketplaces become seas of good-enough design, and miss out on the great work and consistent quality that comes with an on-contract or in-house design team.

For some examples of crowdsourcing and spec work turned bad, you might want to check out Spec Watch.

Your Turn To Talk

I’d like to know what your take is. What do you think? Please take a minute to leave a comment below and let’s talk about this :)

Images in this post: Sreejith K, Joe Lanman


  1. says

    Once again, I’m well inclined to agree with the message on this seemingly prolific topic.
    My only guilty confession, we won a contract by submitting work on spec and it paid off with a great client, and a great project.
    But as a general rule, no, we would not want to get into the spec work game… a prospective job would have to be phenomenally out of this world to entice me to put that much work in for potentially no gain.

    There is also the argument, not covered above, that spec work harms the industry at large by perpetuating a mindset in clients that we are merely a service that can be brought for the cheapest bid and not skilled professionals who’s time is worth money.
    Not only does this affect others in the same industry, but it also sets a precedent with that particular client that makes the project based on how much they can get out of you for the money they’ve agreed up front, and not one of mutual respect.

  2. says

    This is a great post. I totally agree. Let’s face it, crowdsourcing is a GREAT business model for those who run sites like Crowdspring or 99 Designs. Unfortunately, it’s a terrible business model for the designers themselves.

    Perhaps your readers would also be interested in reading an interview with Adam Schillings, “Senior Designer and Designer Advocate” at 99Designs.com. The link is found below:


    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ben Parlier says

    Great and interesting post. I’d like to add that spec work is TOTALLY based on the tastes of the business needing the work. There’s no chance to design something truly effective (read: a design that will make the business money). If these businesses knew what was effective, then I guess we’d all be out of a job.

  4. says

    I think that it’s obviously best not to be involved with crowdsourcing sites as, chances are, you’re going to lose out.

    Also the type of client that uses these sites either doesn’t care much about good design, in which case you probably wouldn’t want to work with them anyway, or they don’t know enough about design to see that whatever design they choose is not necessarily a good fit for their business.

  5. says

    I always agree with these statements about crowd sourcing, but I feel that whenever a designer blogs about this, he is just preaching to the choir. Most likely we will all agree with you. We have to somehow get this message out to the “client” community, so they understand.

  6. says

    @Jason: Great point! Actually, one of the reasons I told Mat to go ahead with this article is because I know that a lot of my own clients and possibly future clients read or will read SpyreStudios (since it also acts as my portfolio in a way). My hope is that articles like this one makes them think twice before going for crowdsourcing.

    In fact, it would be very interesting to hear what clients have to say about this. So if you’re not a designer and you’re reading this, why not leave a comment below? :)

  7. says

    @Jon: I did actually think that to myself after I posted that message! :)
    I wonder if there is a way to get this argument into the mainstream media. I have seen articles on CNN and the BBC that were about the designers battle with IE6, so I bet at some point, some journalist might be willing to write about this topic as well. Anyone got any connections?

  8. says

    Thanks for the great article. I think also giving clients too many choices (sometimes hundreds when it comes to crowdsourcing) dilutes the project.

  9. Kathryn says

    I am a client, and I’ve seen & used a crowdsourcing site. I completely understand and agree with the points you’ve raised. I can see how this would negatively affect great designers and potentially limit great design itself. However, my reasons are simple. I had no money. I have loads of bookmarks of some amazing freelance designers’ sites, who I would have loved to have used but it would have taken me months and months, maybe a year, to save up the money to use them – during which time I’m missing out on time spent growing my brand. I really mean it when I say no money – there’s no money I could have take from anywhere else, no money being spent on other things instead, just NO money. I run a very small business on a very low budget, and I was prepared for the fact that crowdsourcing might get me something of good but not knock-me-down-amazing quality. That’s exactly what I did get, and it works, and I like it. And within the local, small-business market I operate in, I still have design that looks professional, modern & appropriate. So, I get your point, but as a consumer I’d say there’s always going to remain a niche like me who will use and promote crowdsourced design. It happens in many other industries too, and it kinda sucks, but it is what it is.

  10. says

    Good points made. I myself have experience with crowd sourcing (was never a successful venture for me) and I would like to offer a PRO to accompany these cons.

    • Great for novice designers that aren’t sure how to go about selling their work.

    Crowd sourcing really opened my eyes to the types of design trends that were being made, borrowed, or stolen :) I could get a clear picture of just how competitive the industry is and how much hard work it takes to ‘sell’ your work. Everyday I had the opportunity to submit a design to an interested party and hear their feedback. Bottom line is, if your not relying on the cash, but have an interest in getting feedback on your designs, Crowd Sourcing is Great!

    On another note, I’ve noticed what most users do to sell design work and make some money; they keep their submissions until the very end then submit their work for a quick review and perhaps an even quicker turn-around. if not they move on. Kinda screwy

    I know no one’s saying this, but lets not do-away with Crowd sourcing. Lets appreciate the good parts and be inspired to make it better. :)

  11. says

    Just yesterday I declined a project because they were asking me to do spec work. What was particularly difficult about it was that I currently am looking for work, and having that job would be nice, but I felt like my portfolio should be enough for them to judge me.

  12. says

    @frazer is right on the money.

    This article is focused on the wrong businesses/examples. We use crowdsourcing at Local Motors to design our vehicles – and it’s wildly successful. We actually call it co-creation, because we aren’t “outsourcing a design job”, instead, our internal designers and engineers are working with our talented community to collectively create something better than any single person’s creativity would deliver. Unfocused and unmanaged, this process will fail, but that’s NOT what successful companies are doing.

    Take a look: Check out htttp://www.local-motors.com

  13. says

    Some greats points in the comments here! Thanks for the feedback everyone :)

    @Design Informer: Thanks for sharing this one. Really interesting view on spec work. After reading that post once I actually read it again, but this time I tried to read between the lines. It says:

    I already know what happens if I stick to my guns and don’t do spec work. NOTHING. They’ll find someone else. Trust me.

    Well, that’s actually what’s wrong with the design industry/community. If you say no to spec work because you believe you deserve to get paid, they’ll simply go find someone else. They’ll ask hundreds of people to work on something and pay only one designer. I don’t think any amount of exposure is worth it. I think Harlan Elisson (who doesn’t take a piss without getting paid) said it best in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

    I should probably mention that I’m no stranger to spec work and crowdsourcing. I’m a musician, been playing for 15 years. We work for free most of the time, it’s fun and we do it because we enjoy playing no matter where and for who. But we do make money from selling CDs, t-shirts and all that. No direct revenues from playing, but indirect revenues from selling merch.

    I have a question for Tim though. What does your co-creation process look like? You have in-house designers and engineers, but where does your community come in? And how do you handle things like project management and payments? I’m curious to hear what your community actually does and how these people get compensated for their efforts.

  14. says

    I don’t see how this is a problem. Kids on DeviantArt do free “requests” and sketches all the time before they start doing “commissions.” I wrote bunches of stories for free before people started paying me for it. Isn’t learning by doing the best way to learn? The only qualm I’d have with it is that the impersonal contests and financial incentive ( = automatic Serious Business) encourage swiping others’ work instead of developing your own talent.

    If any of you are losing work to “untalented” designers who work for free / cheap, you’re losing clients you wouldn’t have wanted to have anyway. If they can’t tell what makes you better, then they certainly wouldn’t have picked you on account of your talent. And they probably would’ve been heck to work with.

  15. Lokin says

    You missed one VITAL piece of the puzzle. Freelance work or in house design teams have the ability, skills and time to understand the Brand and what needs to be communicated as well as a better understanding of the target audience. It’s like rolling 7’s three times in a row. You expressing the brand, communicating it’s product/message effectively and to the correct target audience. Crowd surfing you get wam-bam crack shots at what a designer thinks the client WANTS to see disregarding the merits of “True Design” seeking only to seduce the client into a win.

  16. Lokin says

    i.e. Here’s some freshly stolen poop splashed with perfume that I’m sure you will love.

    Who cares about the target audience!! Clients dont have the design understanding so

    they fall for what they PERSONALLY think “Looks Cool”. There goes the target audience

    neglected yet again!

  17. says

    I believe that crowdsourcing does have the POSSIBILITY to become useful for businesses. It provides an opportunity to tap into the latent creative potential of the amateur. Anyone can have the potential to produce good looking, innovative design, and anyone can now get access to the tools and educational resources to do it.

    As professional designers, we may all have similar tastes, have been educated in the similar ways or subscribe to the same design blogs. Someone who hasnt been shackled by the incumbent design community may see things differently and produce a more innovative solution. What remains is to be able to define a framework and model that empowers more of these kinds of people to participate in crowdsourced design. And that solves the problem of “getting things done,” “revisions” etc. In a connected world, that shouldn;t be too hard. And if we are able to mobilise such a large movement, 1 / 100 doesn;t seem so bad after all.

    it may not be great for us professional designers, but we don;t really come into the equation. if we solve the problem of renewable energy, we;re not going to mine coal just so that we can give jobs to coal miners.

    i’m currently doing a phd on this subject, and as someone who believes in the potential of crowdsourcing, it is very pleasing to read such intelligent and thought provoking counter arguments. i will be equally as pleased with my research if i am eventually proved wrong.

  18. says


    do designers TRULY understand the target audience better or do they just think that they do? i agree that outsourcing to a designer who has no regard for the end user is bad, but how about outsourcing to the end user themselves?

    That’s a pure version of crowdsourcing.

  19. Ryan says

    I like to put it this way, how would a cabinet maker react if someone walked in off the street and said ” i need a chest of drawers, can you make one for me but in the mean time I’m going to 20 other cabinet makers to get them to do the same and when you are all finished I will choose the one I like”. They would tell you in no uncertain terms where to shove it!
    That’s what 99 designs thinks of us as designers. Its utterly contemptible, and demeans the value of our talents and services!

  20. Tim says

    At the end of the day, budget ultimately rules us all.

    I run a dozen or so startups and while crowd sourcing might not be a good idea for large corporations, website operators are loving it.

    My websites sell products – people don’t buy because my logo looks pretty.

    I’ve spent tens of thousands with agencies, and to be completely honest, I’ve had some kick ass designs that trumped them for $300 using crowd sourcing.

    Business owners will always visit agencies, because most business owners recognize that they aren’t designers and won’t be able to choose the right end product anyway. Choice is the enemy, 100 designs submitted = hair falling out!

    Dealing directly with thousands of small business operators every year, I know that the majority of business owners with physical point of sale will generally stay away from these sites – primarily because they don’t have time to mess around on the interwebs.

    Nice blog btw!

  21. says

    While you make some valid points, not every company can afford a design firm, and not every new designer will be hired by a design firm. So where do those people go? Should businesses do without logos until they can save up thousands to buy one? Do new design school graduates work at other jobs until they can get hired?

    Crowdsourcing provides a quick and easy way for any new designer to quickly build up a portfolio. Professional designers can earn some extra side money by freelancing on crowdsourced projects. Good design is good design, regardless of how much it costs. If there wasn’t a need for crowdsourcing, then those companies wouldn’t be thriving.

    I believe there is room in the marketplace for both traditional design firms and crowdsourced design.

  22. Des Igner says

    There is nothing good about crowdsourcing. The only people benefitting from it are the ones running the crowdsourcing sites.

    As far as it being a great place for beginners to get experience, how exactly is that? Experience in what? Designers that participate in crowdsourcing end up just doing production for the clients that like to play “art director”, a position, by the way, which they have no qualifications for. So what is a beginner learning from them? Absolutely nothing.

    What possible benefit is there in crowdsourcing for designers. It is already difficult enough to sell our services and get paid what the work is worth. Now there are countless people just giving away their services. That’s not helping things at all. f you work in an agency you will probably never notice how this affects the industry. Agencies, for the most part, have sales people and far larger clients with bigger budgets… But try going out in your own and it’s a different story. People are continually asking you to work on spec and and you just see more and more people going to crowdsourcing sites to get things designed. And the best part is that in their eyes they are getting work that is the same quality as a good, professional designer would provide. I highly doubt that there are good designers going to crowdsourcing sites to get work because every such site I have ever looked through all the work is garbage. And what’s to be expected from a bunch of people who are trying to get away with putting as little time and effort as possible into what they are doing since they most likely aren’t going to be paid anyway.


  23. says

    There are certainly some approaches to Crowdsourcing which don’t provide a high quality service, and there are some approaches which can exploit Crowd members, but it’s unfair to generalise Crowdsourcing as a poor quality, exploitative process.

    Managed Crowds of professional marketers and designers can provide an exceptional breadth and depth of creative input, without the downsides you’ve mentioned.


  1. 6 Reasons Crowdsourcing And Spec Work Sucks…

    While crowdsourcing has resulted in some cool promotions and occasionally even a worthwhile end result for both parties involved, it’s rarely the best solution for any business….

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