VIDEO: why professional designers should not participate in spec competitions

10.05.2022 Professional Practice

The proliferation of speculative design competitions is damaging to the integrity of our profession. Normalising design as unpaid, throw-away work devalues the perception of the profession not only among designers but within the general public as well. As a Council representing design professionals, we strongly urge that designers not participate in spec competitions and speak out against these practices.

In response to the continuous rise of spec competitions, the Council created a video primer outlining what exactly defines a spec competition and why we believe them to be exploitative and unfair. Serving as a resource on this subject that can be shared, the video aims to give a concise analysis of what defines a spec competition and some of the ways in which they are presented as legitimate, even when they are not. While also explaining terms such as speculative practice, design challenge and pro bono design work. By providing designers with this information, we hope to demystify spec competitions and make them easier to identify and avoid—a practice that is frowned upon by professional organisations such as ours and our Members.

"Why professional designers should NOT participate in Spec Competitions" via the International Council of Design's youtube channel

We encourage the design community to build awareness of this issue among designers, especially young designers and design students. We believe that organisers of speculative design competitions and contests look for free work, new ideas, and the PR buzz created by these contests. Every click, like, share and work submission validates the competition, and the organisers, often preying on individual designers and their hopes of being recognised . However, as long as thousands of designers are willing to work for free for the possibility of ‘exposure’, clients will wonder what they are paying for when they are charged for design work. Spec competitions normalise the non-payment for design, eroding the perceived value of all design services. This is why the Council believes professional designers should NOT participate in spec competitions.


INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS: the intangible rights to created works, such as written works, works of art, designs, images and symbols, musical works, filmed works, software, inventions, and other works. In most countries, intellectual property rights cover four broad categories of rights: copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Intellectual property rights are exclusive rights, granted to ‘rightsholders’ (creators or authors, inventors, and businesses). By enabling creators to monetise and profit from their work, intellectual property rights encourage the development of creative expression, new technologies, and new inventions, resulting in economic growth.

PRO BONO: it is widely misunderstood that the Latin ‘pro bono’ means ‘for free’. In fact, the term means ‘for good.’ To work to advance a deserving cause is encouraged. However, the precise working relationship between the designer and the recipient should be carefully determined, defined and described in an agreement. The conditions of unremunerated work, including ownership of rights, should be adhered to strictly. The value of the design services rendered should be communicated clearly to the pro bono recipient.

SPEC COMPETITIONS: design competitions asking designers for new work, i.e. to provide design services for free or for the potential of payment (also called 'crowd-sourced design’).

SPECULATIVE PRACTICE: speculative practices (also called ‘spec work’ or ‘free pitching’) are defined as: design work (including documented consultation), created by professional designers and organisations, provided for free or for a nominal fee, often in competition with peers and often as a means to solicit new business. The Council recommends that all professional designers avoid engaging in such practices.


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