Dear young designers – this is what a spec work contest looks like.

I have always been very vocal in my stance against spec work, a system where design concepts are requested at the interview phase or as contest entries in order to qualify for the contract. That stance is made possible by the fact that I have the confidence and experience to recognise it and reject it. Of course, spec work is rarely targeted at (…ageing) professionals like me. It is usually aimed at young people who are just starting out and are in the most desperate and vulnerable phases of their careers.

And here is a classic, and shameful, example of that.

NHS Greater Clyde and Glasgow has set up a project called “Whose Round?”, which is “a project that looks at alcohol consumption in Glasgow and aims to develop and deliver an engaging campaign that young people and young adults can contribute to and be a part of.”

So there, in that first sentence, you have the first hint of manipulation – that young adults can contribute to and be a part of.” This is where your bullshit sensors should wake up.

On their campaign web site, they announce “Are you 16-26 years old and live in Greater Glasgow & Clyde? Then this competition is for you! We’re looking for creative entries in four categories for the chance to win a cash prize of £1000.”

It’s for you, you desperate, vulnerable young creatives! It’s for you!

The brief explains that “The campaign will run over 2–3 years and will use a variety of marketing and media options; including but not limited to social media, web and mobile technologies. This will allow the target audience of 16–24 year olds to engage with the themes and messages of the campaign as well as to co-produce the content and influence the delivery media.”

Okay. Now your bullshit sensors should be spinning. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has an annual budget of £3.2 billion. Why does an organisation with that much money and influence need 16 year olds to do their work for them for free?

From the brief it’s obvious that this is not merely an art contest. Entrants have to have quite a bit of competence, knowledge, and training just to enter:

The brief offers the carrot:

“FIRST PRIZE: £1000 in cash.
RUNNERS-UP: The top three entries from each of the four categories will all be previewed as part of a city wide exhibition.”

So after all the work you will put in, you won’t be paid for it. Only one person will be. The rest of you will get to see your artwork displayed on a public version of your mum’s fridge. That might be enough for some young people. But then you read the other bit in the brief:

All submissions may be used for marketing and website purposes by Whose Round Glasgow and NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde (GGC). Any artwork or submissions used will be attributed accordingly.”

That, young professionals, is where your bullshit klaxon should be howling.

What this means is that even if you do not win the contest, your submissions – aka your labour – will still be used by the tendering organisation as if you had won the prize. But you won’t be paid for it. Not one cent.

You see, spec work means that you are somehow supposed to pay for your textbooks, and your rent, and the electricity meter, on the warm fuzzy glow of having “been a part of it.” The people who decided that this was in your interest have huge salaries, public sector pensions, paid holidays, paid sick days, legal rights, union protection, no student loans, and easy mortgages, and would throw epic public tantrums at the mere suggestion of being deprived of any of them. You? You get to see them using your artwork and your name in their brochures.

You got that with your primary school fundraising calendar.

An organisation that actually had your best interests in mind would conduct a public and transparent tendering process. They would choose you based on your CV and portfolio. They would refuse to let you do a minute’s work on the brief without a contract. They would not ask for any design concepts until you had signed the contract and staged a planning meeting. They would work out a compensation schedule for you for every use of your artwork throughout the project’s life cycle.

They would also not include small print in the Terms & Conditions like:

“By participating in the Competition, entrants grant Snook a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5 SCOTLAND Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike 2.5 UK license; {they} cannot submit, sell or distribute the content as part of this entry into another competition or agency within 12 months of the winners being announced.”

“Under a Creative Commons CC-BY- NC-SA 2.5 SCOTLAND Attribution, Noncommerial, Share Alike 2.5 UK license, entrants will allow Snook to Share: Copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; Adapt: Remix, transform and build upon the material.”

Did you get all that? Entering this contest means there is a chance that you will see a city centre agency using your own artwork and taking credit for it in future. And if you try to use your own artwork again, they will come after you.

Projects like Whose Round don’t care about you, your creativity, your portfolio, or your future. They’re out to milk you for everything they can get out of you – grooming you to believe they are going to treat you like a real professional, but guaranteeing you only a pat on the head because, after all, you’re just a kid. They want you for unpaid labour that they can use themselves for promotion and profit. These contests are how they do it.

And you’re going to see a lot of them over the course of your fledgling career.

So yes, that’s spec work, and yeah, grownups are bastards.

Protect yourself and respect yourself. You are going to have an amazing, wonderful career in the creative sector. Don’t you ever let anybody – and certainly not a representative of the state – manipulate you into believing that you can get your foot in the door by whoring yourself out to them.

Learn more about spec work, see one professional industry’s opinion of it, sign the pledge not to participate in it, and educate your peers.


  1. I’d like to share the rather weird and creepy response I received to this post from the agency running the spec work competition on behalf of the NHS. My comments at the end.

    “Hi Heather,

    I saw your blog post about the Whose Round Competition and wanted to highlight some facts behind the what and why of Whose Round and why it is framed as a competition.

    First of all, let me start out by making this absolutely clear. We are not setting out to exploit anyone. I nor anyone as part of our company and collaborators would set out to exploit young people, we care and run many programmes on teaching, educating, paying, rewarding young people both inside our professional lives and as voluntary positions speaking at old high schools, undertaking charity work and metoring young people.

    So for the facts to clear up some of the points you’ve made/stated.

    1. Whose Round is part of a competitive and transparent tendering process. Snook applied via Public contract Scotland to secure work that had a focus on developing:

    – A co-creative process to develop an alcohol awareness campaign

    – Consider user-generated content and behaviour as part of the process

    – Develop a blended social marketing campaign

    With a focus on:

    – Keeping people safe on a night out

    – Keeping people safe whilst out drinking

    – Making people aware of the long term negative (as well as short term) effects of alcohol

    2. The process to date (January to July 2014)

    We have just undertaken a 6 month process of research with young people across GGC spending time in their community groups, on the street and working closely with a small cohort to develop The Matter, a newspaper of published research which is co-produced by us and young people.
    Both the young people we had involved did so as an extra curriculur activity that they chose to apply for because they care about the subject matter and their peers.

    This took us to the stage of developing up, in-house, the actual campaign we will launch this year. We felt at this stage, we needed some more research in action to really get our campaign as right as we can for young people.

    3. Moving on to Whose Round

    To clear up NHS have just set up a project called ‘Whose Round’ I’d like to correct that as Snook have just set up a project called Whose Round, not the NHS.
    We have a full team working on the umbrella campaign of Whose Round and our own content which will run as our main visuals/content etc.

    We chose a competition format to reach out to more young people to get involved, and could have continued to run more co-creation design sessions, call outs for ideas on twitter/other platforms but chose a competition format. Not to exploit, but to reach out and see what ideas are out there.

    As I said we’re currently working in-house on this. There are 50 ideas in development by us to test with young people over the summer.
    We regularly have people who are interested in our work across all sectors and ages attend to pro-actively share their voice by getting involved in the design process that we don’t offer money to, they come out of goodwill, intent, something fun to take part in and we try to share back whether that’s advice, a presentation, some knowledge, or a pizza.

    4. Whose Round social

    All the T+Cs we spent time putting together were not in small format but were in point 11 on the 9th and 10th page with a larger call out on what submitting content might mean.

    The Whose Round social is also an opportunity for us to address and be upfront which we fully intend to do, talking everyone through face to face, the T+Cs. I would make sure we never hide these.
    Additionally at this Whose Round social I’m keen for our design team to work with young people/designers to learn some design tools and work up their ideas. This is outside of our remit on the tender but we do so because I believe in investing time in supporting young people to pro-actively bring their ideas to life.

    5. Co-creation versus Competition

    We could of just continued to run focus groups (as we have been doing) where we teach design skills to young people in Glasgow (and greater Glasgow communities) and use this as a form of research to gather insight for our design team. Or as I said, run more informal events to co-create ideas/content.

    We could have run this without cash. But we made a call and decided to do so. This wasn’t part of our original tender, we decided to put forward the cash.
    We could have run this as a hack day where people come along and contribute – but we decided competition to give more thinking time on it.

    There are many charities/public/private organisations running calls for input on a variety of levels who offer rewards, vouchers, cash, mentoring, a ‘thank-you’ of some kind. We put forward cash as we thought this might be better for someone to win than get a camera/computer/tripto somewhere becase they might already have it/not want it.
    We also expect that some people may only submit very early stage ideas – not formed usable content and over and above this our intention is to learn from what people are suggesting and interpret insights into the full design of the umbrella Whose Round campaign.
    We have also looked to collaborate with Universities and Colleges to run the competition with their students as an opportunity to work on a live brief and be supported in developing their ideas as part of the campaign.
    Ultimately, this entire process we could have done in house without the competition or without the ‘carrot’ of £1k. We did however make a conscious decision to engage people in this way to support on ongoing collaboration/engagement with the young people this campaign aims to target.

    7. Personal

    I have, for the last 6 years run an internship programme ( ) which I fully pay. In fact I pay 66% more a week to my interns than I was paid in London as an intern and have taken 4 of these interns on as fully paid employees.

    We take part in national graduate programmes to train and mentor young people.
    We work regularly with colleges and universities to support developing talent.

    I take on our client’s children as interns every summer.

    We all regularly teach young designers at colleges, unis around the globe.

    We share as much content as possible for people to learn from our work, process and ideas.

    People we interact with, if through one of our programmes, or events we run, however we meet, we do our utmost to share contacts, suppot, mentor, go for coffee, give interviews, give feedback to on portfolios, support to find a job.

    Factually some of it is incorrect, again just to point out, the NHS didn’t set this up. So this point:

    The people who decided that this was in your interest have huge salaries, public sector pensions, paid holidays, paid sick days, legal rights, union protection, no student loans, and easy mortgages, and would throw epic public tantrums at the mere suggestion of being deprived of any of them. You? You get to see them using your artwork and your name in their brochures.

    We have national average designer salaries, they are not huge and no pensions. Some of our staff are contractors who don’t have paid sick days. I still have a massive student loan.
    Heather – I’m upfront and honest and only have good intent as do my team who are behind this.

    Again, and I said it at the start, this competition is not set up to exploit. We saw it as an opporunity to undertake some further research and idea development and chose this format over hacking day.
    So there’s the intent, I’m sad to read your blog post and perspective, perhaps without asking if we should grab a coffee/phone/talk through some of this before you wrote it and tweeted it out online. It’s factually incorrect, ill informed and points the blame unfairly at a campaign and group of individuals behind it who are looking to support positive change in Glasgow by co-creating it with the citizens who will use it.”


    There is so much wrong with this response I don’t even know where to start.

    It’s not just that they are determined to paint themselves as some sort of social enterprise devoted to working with yoof who just happen to run a design agency on the side.

    It’s not just that, like most people born and raised in Scotland, the writer has absolutely no comprehension of the concept of public money, duty of care to the taxpayer, or the need to behave ethically with government funds.

    It’s not just that, like most subcontractors happy to let the taxpayer make it rain for them, they have no comprehension of the fact that what they do with that money reflects back onto the state, that they are seen to speak for the state, and that the work they do determines what kind of state we live in.

    It’s not just that they have tied themselves into knots trying to present sucking uncompensated ideas and energy out of young people as some sort of educational project which is in their own interest.

    It’s not just that they think plying young people with pizza proves their caring credentials, or that anyone over the age of 18 will be happy with free pizza in lieu of saving up for an independent roof over their head.

    It’s not just that they are trying to dress up an amoral, unethical spec work contest in buzzwords and catch phrases.

    Indeed, it’s not that they have carefully have avoided mentioning spec work at all.

    It’s not just that they take the tack that other organisations do spec work prize contests, and that somehow makes it okay.

    It’s not just that they paint the CC licenses as somehow being in young peoples’ interest while avoiding an explanation of why those young people will be banned from using their own creations anywhere else for a year.

    It’s not just that they throw out buzzwords like “collaboration” and “care” and “engagement” and “positive change” to justify doing everything but paying people a fair wage for fair work.

    It’s not just that they think that helping young people enter the profession is a matter of running “hacking days” – getting stuff out of them – while completely neglecting their emotional and social needs.

    And it’s not just that they are so up their own backsides that they refuse to even see, much less comprehend, much less acknowledge, that they are exploiting young people. For money.

    It’s this.

    It’s that a major agency, raking it in hand over foot from the public purse, doesn’t think there needs to be a debate for the greater good of the industry and our society.

    Why not? Why shouldn’t we? What is it they’re so afraid of?

    It’s that they don’t think we should use this as an opportunity to draw a line under the exploitation of young people through spec work competitions.

    It’s that they don’t think we should even be discussing why, time and time again, it’s the public sector, public money, and public objectives behind spec work exploitation.

    It’s that they don’t understand that what they are doing makes our National Health Service look like a bunch of dicks.

    It’s that when you are told that you are doing wrong by young people, there is only one acceptable response: “Yes, we are, we acknowledge it, and we’ll stop now.”

    It’s that they don’t admit it, they don’t acknowledge it, and they have no intention of stopping it.

    It’s that they can’t stop it because they have a contract – the very thing they are denying to the young people being offered a shot at prize money in exchange for uncontracted and uncompensated speculative labour.

    It’s that having been exposed for what they are, all they care about is “highlighting some facts” and “clearing things up” rather than acknowledging their mistakes and putting an immediate end to their reprehensible conduct.

    And so we are going to have to agree to disagree here. This agency’s values say it is okay to use public funds to exploit young people through spec work competitions, and they aren’t going to budge from that. They’ll twist themselves in knots, right enough, but they won’t budge. They’ve traded their collective conscience for money and they are standing by it. You can’t persuade someone to change if they genuinely do not believe they are doing anything wrong.

    As for the rest of us, the spec work exploitation this agency promotes in the name of “engag{ing} people in this way to support on ongoing collaboration/engagement with the young people this campaign aims to target” does not represent the values of their peers, their own industry, of any professional I have ever met, or the values of the hundreds of people who have read and supported this post.

    Exceptionalism rarely is.

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