How Art/Design Competitions Exploit Artists - and what you can do about it

As an illustrator, I’m frequently confronted with work “opportunities” that do not merit consideration, and I know I’m not alone. The impetus for this article was my frustration at being invited — yet again — to enter a contest where I don’t get paid to submit a design and if my design wins, the prize isn’t worth my effort anyway. These types of contests exploit artists. (I’m using “artists” here to refer to all types of creative professionals, including illustrators, graphic designers, fine artists, and photographers). It’s called “spec work” — work done without guarantee of any compensation, though usually with the hope of gaining some reward. I’ve been thinking that it would be worthwhile for the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators to make a statement on such exploitative contests, and for its website to offer advice to the organizers of such competitions — many of whom don’t realize that they’re exploiting anyone. That way, artists like me can refer contest organizers to the website instead of typing up a long explanation or worse yet, saying nothing at all. We can make a difference in how artists are treated, one competition at a time.

What types of competitions am I referring to?
The contest I mentioned above was a t-shirt design contest held by a not-for-profit scientific organization. The guidelines were thorough; the design needed to be very specific to a location and event, and the organizers even went so far as to say “[We] shall have the right to edit, duplicate, or alter the entry design for any purpose which it deems necessary or desirable, without the need for any further compensation, and/or permission.”  So what compensation could one expect for one’s creative efforts? In this case, a free t-shirt. Seriously.

GNSI member Jenny Keller reported that her local public radio station held a contest to design a mug that would be given to donors as a thank-you gift. The winning artist would receive “significant on-air mentions” during the station’s fall and spring membership drives.

Another GNSI member, Nicolle Rager Fuller, described a situation where she was invited to enter a contest to design product packaging for a large, well-known company. Entering the competition would mean relinquishing one’s rights to one’s submission, whether or not one wins. In this case, the prize was $30,000. Such a significant award attracts many participants; when I viewed the contest website there were nearly 2,000 people “checking out” the project. “Luckily,” Fuller said, “I don’t have time to be tempted by spec work.”

The contest Fuller referred to was one of many hosted by one of many similar crowdsourcing sites, including and, the latter of which apparently has over 175,000 “Creatives” signed up. Zooppa calls itself “The Creative Community for Leading Brands,” which, if it’s true, is a depressing sign for the future of independent creative professionals.

Businesses and not-for-profit organizations are not the only groups crowdsourcing designs. GNSI member Stephen DiCerbo alerted me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual Duck Stamp competition is another example — this one federally legislated. To have one’s artwork considered for the stamp, each entrant must pay an entrance fee (a steep $125) and shoulder the cost of shipping one’s artwork to the judging panel. The winner receives a sheet of stamps and is required to attend a series of events (for which the transportation and lodging costs are mostly funded).

All of the examples above seem innocuous compared to the following. I read about a 2013 design competition held by billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, to redesign the team’s uniform. The way to participate was to post your submission on Cuban’s blog. His conditions: 

“Who will own your design? The minute you post it, the Mavs will. If you think its horrible that the Mavs own your design. Do not post. If you think its cool that the Mavs could possibly use your design and you will have eternal bragging rights, then post away. If we really like your design and you, I may even throw in some tickets. If we don’t use your design, it will still be here on this site for now and ever more for you to glance longingly at. If your design is close, if not identical to other designs and we pick one of the other designs, for whatever reason, then that’s just the way it goes. If we don’t choose any of the designs, including yours, then we don’t choose any of the designs. That is life in the big city. Move on.”

The arrogance contained in his terms is astonishing to me; apparently, Mark Cuban does not respect the work done by creative professionals. 

How do these types of contests exploit artists?
Regardless of what the winner receives, these design competitions are exploitative because the entrants whose work is not chosen receive nothing, and in some cases even lose the rights to their submission. Keller used this analogy when communicating with her radio station about their mug design contest: 

“It would be like asking restaurant businesses to compete to donate food for the pledge drive. As in, “Okay, you guys go ahead and make the food you want to donate, bring it all over, and then we’ll look at all the donations and pick the food we like best. Be sure to do a nice job, because this is a contest, and if you win, we’ll mention your business on the air! If we don’t pick your donation, however, then tough luck — you’ll get nothing for all your trouble. Sorry, too, for all the wasted time, effort and resources you’ll have put into it.”

Like restaurant businesses, artists have bills to pay and can’t afford to create work for anything in return.

Why do artists allow themselves to be exploited by entering these competitions?
Considering the prevalence of art/design contests and crowdsourcing sites that promote them, many artists must be doing speculative work. Spec work has been part of the graphic design field for a long time; thus some accept it as a way of doing business (though many designers do not, as demonstrated by the excellent resource Some artists are lured to participate in contests because the award would actually make it worth their while (only if they win, of course). In situations where there isn’t much of a prize at all, promises of exposure are apparently sufficient to attract enough participants, many of whom are likely amateurs or just starting out in their careers.

Why do businesses and organizations hold art/design competitions?
I can think of a few possible reasons:

  • They have little/no budget but need creative work done
  • They view the hoopla around a contest as a way to promote their organization or event
  • They believe they’re doing artists a favor by giving them exposure
  • They believe their contest will result in a number of excellent options for them to choose from

In many cases, I think contest-holders are unaware that they’re being exploitative (crowdsourcing sites and Mark Cuban excepted).

Is there a way to hold a competition without exploiting artists?
Happily, yes! The way to go about doing this is to contact a few artists whose work you’ve seen and will be a good fit for your project. Invite each to submit a reasonably detailed sketch or a completed design/illustration for your project and offer each artist appropriate compensation for their efforts and for the rights you expect to own. Put it in writing. From the submissions, choose the best and then offer the winning artist additional compensation either to finalize his/her submission or simply as additional appropriate compensation. This isn’t my pipe dream; it’s standard procedure for some excellent organizations including the United States Mint and the Royal Canadian Mint, entities that regularly engage artists to design coins.

If you’re a not-for-profit organization and you have no budget to pay an artist, ask yourself what you would do if you need funding to pay for your accountant, plumber, or lawyer. Would you fundraise? Have it done by someone in house? Do without? As a last resort, consider the suggestion Jenny Keller made to her radio station:

“Approach an artist whose work you like and ask him or her to create a design you fully intend to use. Even if your artist is willing to donate the work (—not a practice I generally encourage, but—) at least he or she would know from the outset that the work would end up being used for its intended purpose, that it would have been created for nothing, and would—presumably—reach an audience the artist has deemed valuable to the development of his or her business.”

In my view, directly hiring a vetted professional artist rather than holding a competition is more likely to achieve a desirable result. By working with an individual from the outset, an organization can provide guidance and feedback along the way, ensuring that the final work is appropriate and professional. To me, this has far greater appeal than spending hours sifting through mostly inadequate contest submissions, or worse, sifting through only a few amateur submissions, none of which are suitable. It might not be clear until it’s too late that contest guidelines were too vague, the deadline was unreasonable, or the contest promotions didn’t reach enough artists. 

What should I do if I come across or am invited to enter a contest?
My advice is that you should engage and educate the contest organizer about how spec work is exploitative, and refuse to participate. Believe it or not, you can make a difference! Keller wrote a letter to her station and she received a call back from a representative who was very interested in her remarks and wondered what he could do to correct the situation. He didn’t want to exploit artists. Nicolle Fuller explained her views on spec work to a representative from the large company holding the package design contest and was assured that she’d be kept on file for future paid work. That’s an easy promise for them to make, but the fact that an artist whose work they liked refused to enter a contest with a potentially large reward must have made an impression.

If you don’t have time to compose long explanations to contest holders, feel free to send them this article. 

Is it okay to enter contests if I’m new to the profession and need to build my portfolio and my clientele? Or if the contest is for a cause I passionately support?
I discourage it because it I think it devalues our profession but I realize we all have our reasons. I probably entered a competition or two earlier in my career, when I had more free time and less awareness of the ramifications. But please consider the following before you decide:

If you can afford to work for free, why not do it on your own terms? Approach an organization you think you’d like to work with, explain that you want to build your portfolio or support their cause and work with them to produce an illustration on a subject you’re interested in that they agree to use in a specified way. Ask them if this might lead to paid work. Treat it like a professional project and sign an agreement. Be sure to retain the rights to your illustration (in writing) and send them an invoice indicating how much the illustration would have cost (but include a 100% discount). Perhaps you can convince them to pay you in other ways, such as a membership fee, merchandise, park pass, publicity, etc. This way, your efforts will not be for anything. Your illustration will be appreciated and you’ll have established a relationship — results that no contest can guarantee.

Do other artist/illustrator/design organizations take a stance about contests?
AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, has a policy that reads: 

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.

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers goes so far as to “prohibit members from taking part in, undertaking or conducting open competitions for commercial purposes on speculation.”

Those two organizations’ websites provide further details about how spec work can be harmful to both creators and their clients.

The Graphic Artists Guild’s Code of Fair Practice (Article 29) isn’t quite so forceful:

Artists and designers who accept speculative assignments (whether directly from a client or by entering a contest or competition) risk losing anticipated fees, expenses, and the potential opportunity to pursue other, rewarding assignments. Each artist shall decide individually whether to enter art contests or design competitions, provide free services, work on speculation, or work on a contingency basis.

All of those organizations represent graphic designers. Additionally, the website I alluded to earlier — — is a campaign by graphic designers against speculative work. It’s a great resource. Several other graphic design organizations around the world are listed there, with their policies against spec work.

Nonetheless, I haven’t found a large organization of illustrators with a similar statement. I think it is important for artists of all types to be informed about spec work. Additionally, I think that the more professional organizations that speak out against spec work, the more likely we are to erode the mountain of spec work that’s out there. Therefore, I’m urging the GNSI to make a statement on the topic.

E. Damstra Leopard FrogAbout the Author:
Emily S. Damstra earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in science illustration from the University of Michigan and then embarked on a career as a freelance illustrator, creating zoological, botanical, anthropological, ecological, and paleontological illustrations for diverse clients. Her illustrations may be seen on interpretive signs in museums, zoos, and natural areas; on Canadian coins; and in many different publications, including the books Guide to Great Lakes Fishes by Gerald R. Smith (University of Michigan Press 2010) and The Atlantic Coast; A Natural History by Harry Thurston (Greystone Books 2011).  Emily has always lived in the Great Lakes region, where she gains inspiration from and a deep appreciation for nature through gardening, hiking, volunteering, and exploring the beautiful local environment. She currently resides in Guelph, Ontario and is President of the Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators.


This article appears in the Journal of Natural Science Illustration 2015, number 4.

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