Design Contests Are Unethical

First, here’s AIGA’s position on spec work:

AIGA believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients. To that end, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into client projects with full engagement to show the value of their creative endeavor, and to be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.

What is spec work?

AIGA acknowledges that speculative work—work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid—occurs among clients and designers.Yet not all unpaid design work is considered “spec work.” In fact, unpaid work may take a number of forms:

  • Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
  • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
  • Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
  • Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
  • Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

Not all of the above are considered speculative work, and in fact many designers choose to do unpaid work for a variety of reasons. Students and professionals may draw different lines on what constitute unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the associated risks.

The risks of spec work

AIGA believes that designers and clients should be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work:

  • Clients risk compromised quality. Little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs.
  • Designers risk being taken advantage of. Some clients may see this as a way to get free work; it also diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives.
  • There are legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.


Powell’s Books is holding a design contest.

Standard stuff here. Solicit hundreds of designs, pay for one. With a gift card to Powell’s1.

My hunch is that Emily Powell doesn’t order three meals from a restaurant and only pay for the one she likes. And I bet she doesn’t use Powell’s gift cards for that meal. But that old analogy may not fit Powell’s Books.

So I did a little digging. Turns out Powell’s has a policy that explicitly requires the purchase2 of all books you take out of the store—not just the ones you enjoy after you’ve read them.

Likewise, if you ask for 100 designers to do work but only compensate one, 99 designers just wasted their time. And that’s just rude.


Jeannette Langmead illustrates the folly of Powell’s design contest with—what else?—a Powell’s design contest submission.

That last line bears repeating:

Participation in design contests is so tempting because paid work is hard to come by, partly because companies run contests instead of hiring artists!!

The strange thing is that Powell’s boasts a team of three designers on staff. Seriously.

You’d think Powell’s would use the designers they’re already employing.

When pushed, Powell’s responded:

Good intentions are nice, but grow up, Peter Pan. Powell’s isn’t your Great Aunt Sally asking for a favor. Powell’s has money and wants you to do work for them.

In that vein, I felt compelled to make my own submission.

Langmead has a pretty good solution, if not perfect, to ease the blow to designers. I hope Powell’s considers it: “Pay the winners in cash and the other entries with gift cards. That’s fun for everyone!”


Design contests are unethical.3 May the first-ever Powell’s Design Contest also be the last-ever.

For further reading, visit (and their FAQ), which would be hilarious if it weren’t real.


1. Remember all those times you paid your landlord with exposure? Or book store gift cards? Me neither.?
2. You can use a gift card (that was bought with real money at Powell’s).?
3. With rare exception.?

By Michael Buchino
Published July 20, 2013
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