Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

The value of Canadian design

The value of Canadian design
Email to a friend Comments (42)

This morning at coffee Peter, one of the designers at our firm, noted that he had a hot topic suggestion for our ideasonideas. He wasn’t kidding, but when he sent me this link I thought that someone might be. Go ahead and read the post, and see if you agree with me. We have quoted the content below.

The call for entries

This is how the posting on the Design Exchange site reads:

My Canadian Cultural Gateway Webpage Competition
Design Competition Submissions deadline:
March 24, 2006: Web Designers Show Your Stuff!

The Department of Canadian Heritage in collaboration with Design Exchange are hosting a national design competition as part of the redesign of the gateway planned for the fall of 2006. The aim of this competition is to select a winning design that will be designed for, produced and chosen by Canadians to be representative of their values, heritage and culture. A selection committee will shortlist three (3) design concepts. The Canadian public will have the chance to determine the winner through an on-line voting system. The winning team will receive a guaranteed fee of $2,500 CDN upon delivery of the source file and the final two-page design brief. Additionally, the winning design team will be acknowledged by the Department of Canadian Heritage on

On-line voting for Viewer’s Choice Awards: April 1-31, 2006

Announcement of Winning Design at digifest 2006, the Toronto based International Festival of Digital and Media Culture: May 12, 2006

In a nutshell…

Two significant cultural institutions in Canada, namely Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange, don’t think that the design profession deserves to be treated with more respect than a bunch of kids entering a colouring contest.

Why many designers believe that “spec” is a four letter word

Some people likely don’t understand why there’s so much hubbub around spec work. I’m sure that a few even feel that we just need to chill-out. Fine enough, but I’m convinced that most would change their minds upon considering this practice, and what spec implies.

Take your profession. Think about how hard you have worked to learn what you currently know. Now, pretend that every month or two, you have to defend what you do to your boss, and then she will pick and choose who gets paid for their work. Ultimately, that’s what spec is. When a potential client asks for work on spec, they basically negate the entire value of a profession.

Design is a challenging practice. It generally pays modestly, but requires many years of discipline before many will produce work of any significant mention. An effective design effort can mean success for a group; whereas, a poorly planned effort can result in great detriment.

A world on spec

Next time you need your car fixed, I encourage you to visit your mechanic and explain that if you like what he does, you’ll think about paying him something for his efforts. Or for even more fun, go to the doctor, and ask him to remove that hairy mole from your left elbow. Then explain that he should be grateful for the opportunity, as anyone with an exacto and some band-aids could have done it. If you want him to be really keen, tell him that he can put his name on the band-aid–it will be really great “exposure.”

Really, I encourage you to try this. See how well it works. And if they complain about it being unprofessional, tell them that they are just being too sensitive about the whole thing.

The value of Canada

I suppose the even bigger question for Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange is, “what’s the value of this project?” First off, if they are willing to skip any proper design process in the development of this effort, what quality of work are they really to be left with?

Additionally, I have to question the monetary remuneration that they are willing to put on such a significant project. You see, the design of the nation’s cultural portal, the one that will be representative of Canadian values, heritage and culture is worth a whopping $2,500. That’s right, about the same as two months rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver.

Clearly, neither of these organizations truly understands nor respects the value of our profession.

Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange should know better

When the bowling club down the street offers fifty bucks to local kids to draw up a new logo, you can sort of understand the whole thing. No designer would get pissed about this. No one’s hurt, and really, if the drawing on Uncle Wally’s bowling shirt is a little on the ugly side, who’s to say there’s anything really wrong with that?

These folks however, know that Canada’s creative population adds vibrancy and depth to who and what we are as a nation. How they could have made such a blunder escapes me. On one hand, I thought that perhaps they were strapped for cash, but I checked… Canadian Heritage’s operating budget for 2005 was $172 million.

Here’s a thought

Perhaps my whole perspective on spec work is simply backwards. Maybe I’m one of those designers who just can’t get past that peculiar notion of being paid for what I do. How silly and short-sighted of me.

I’ve reconsidered my entire stance. Let’s make spec easier, and let’s begin with the people at Canadian Heritage. Really, why pay, when we can get it for less? Here’s my suggestion. Let’s ask the people at Canadian Heritage to do their jobs on spec.

I propose that they all do their jobs for the next month as usual. At the end of the period, they can write summaries of their activities for us to review. We’ll post them on, and all of Canada can vote on who we should pay.

The winning contestant will earn $2,500, and will be named on (Sheesh, and they said it would be tough to cut the federal deficit.)

Spec work screws us all

I can forgive the general public for not understanding why spec work is so damaging to our industry, but I feel quite differently about all of us. We’re professionals and we have a responsibility to act as such. If we don’t take a stand on this, we are the ones to blame for the challenges our industry faces.

When you or your firm does work on spec, you forever diminish the value of your work. Why would anyone pay you a fair rate, when they know that you are willing to do it for very little, or even for free? Greater yet, what are you saying to your peers, by undercutting costs so greatly, that you reduce the possibility of being reasonably compensated for your work?

Parting thoughts

In the meanwhile, I would just like to send a big thank-you Design Exchange for “promoting the value of Canadian Design.” Really, with contests such as this, you’re doing one heck of a job.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Well said! Spec work, or even low-balling, hurts everyone in the industry. Wondering why you see so many jobs where they want you to know everything under the sun but only pay $15/hr? Spec work and low-balling are the answers. Yes, you need to eat. Yes, you want to get your foot in the door. But you aren't helping anyone by devaluing your work and letting clients get away with it.

    Clients should get what they pay for, and we should treat our profession and ourselves with respect. If we don't, clients won't.

  2. Mark says:

    Well written piece that was well covered recently by the CBC's Monday night episode of On The Coast with JJ Lee. It appears that Design Exchange has actually sent out an apology in its Express newsletter, saying Oops! We Made a Mistake! Our recent Express alert included a teaser announcing an upcoming project with This project is only at the conceptual stage and no decision to proceed has been made. We apologize for any inconvenience the announcement may have caused.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for posting, it sounds like you folks have already been involved in this discussion. :-)

    I like their response, it's very pleasant, apologetic and seemingly reasonable; nevertheless, I'm just not sure if I buy it, especially when I look here:

    Maybe they work differently from the rest of us, but I've never put a project online that wasn't ready for public consumption.

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that someone over there is now just trying to escape what could prove to be quite a schemozzle.

  4. Greg says:

    To me design contests is another form of volunteering, albeit in poor form. I think the integrety of the profession would be in better shape if non-profits and charaties would ask for help rather than dumb down the process by holding an event that shares more in common with hitting pinatas and eating the most hot dogs than crafting an experience or improving a process though creative and critical thinking. Designers deserve more dignity than this.

  5. Pingback: OPEN 7 DAYS Links

  6. For the record, the reason the Design Exchange recanted on its call for spec work is because the president of the GDC (Society of Graphic Designers of Canada), Peggy Cady, called them out on it. My understanding is that it was her communication to them that was directly responsible for their retraction. In part:

    "The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) has taken a strong stance against open design competitions on speculation, and limited design competitions where designers are not provided with equal compensation in accordance with the work involved. The Institute of Communications & Advertising, the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, as well as the US Graphic Artists Guild all advocate strongly against these practices.

    Contests undermine and devalue the profession of graphic design. They also damage the Canadian economy.

    We are surprised and disappointed that that both the Department of Canadian Heritage and Design Exchange are hosting a design competition.

    The GDC is available for consultation on how to handle competitions for work, and has reference material available at We also serve on the Design Working Group of Trade Team Canada-Cultural Goods and Services and will bring this issue forward for discussion."

  7. Jason B says:

    This is a topic that I, as a fairly young designer, am wrestling with. Even though I have only been in the field for a few years, I have already run into this issue. When I was looking for a new job, recently, one agency that I contacted asked me to produce an ad. No strategy or creative direction was given, and there was no guarantee that I would get an interview, let alone the job! I declined on principle, but I wonder how many others agreed.

    I must say, though, that I am guilty of entering online logo contests. So I am trying to determine for myself what stance I support. Are all "contests" out, or can it be "okay" in certain circumstances?

  8. Tim says:

    Greg, I do *alot* of work for charities, but I don't do it on spec. I treat working for charities the same as working for any other organization -- I do a project bid and follow the same rigorous planning and design process.

    The big difference is that I often donate some, most, or all of my proceeds back to the non-profit -- the exact amount is put right in to the contract up front. They then know the value of the work that I have done for them and I get a tax break. Win/win. Just giving it away is plain bad business practice.

  9. Clayton Misura says:

    This seems to be a "Canadian" general, I think creative work - of any kind - in Canada is considered to be of a lesser monetary value, than a large majority of most other professional work. Shame.

  10. Hi Jason,

    I think it's admirable that you've declined to take part in spec work requested. I believe that you have noted one of the key challenges with this sort of work. It often forces the designer to work in the dark, as there is no clear method for communication with the client. As a result, much of the work presented on spec is watered-down and rather route.

    With regards to contests, I would highly encourage you to avoid them. Young designers all need to build their portfolios, and more senior designers understand that. That said, contests rarely teach you much about the design process, or result in bringing you more work.

    If you are really struggling to get your hands on some projects to work on, I would suggest helping out people you know, or groups you believe in and want to support.

    Find a group that you feel can benefit from your services, and engage them in a your design process. Perhaps you could help out a local association that you are a part of, a charitable group that needs help, or even your kid sister's grad class.

    These are groups who often don't have the resources to engage designers, and may really appreciate your contribution. You will likely find some good friendships as a result of these efforts, as long as your intentions are sincere, and you help them accomplish what they need, instead of just using the experience to pad your portfolio.

    I hope that helps. :-)

  11. Jason B says:


    Thanks. It is very helpful and encouraging to know that there are others out there who are thinking along the same lines that I am. Basically, it's good to know that I am not alone.

    As for contests, I think that as my work experience grows, the allure of contests will diminish.

  12. Niko Vujevic says:

    Why don't you forward your idea to the head of Heritage Canada, Harper and a few other people in gov't and see what happens.

    Considering how keen Harper is no reducing gov't size, he might like the idea of doing work on spec.

    All the best boys!

  13. Shane Guymon says:

    I think you have a good arguement that you are presenting. the only thing I could really say in defense is that these types of contest really do benefit some people. For instance students who are trying to get into the industry can win these competitions and then that in turn will strengthen their resume and benefit them. Also it helps out the young up and coming Designers who are trying to get some recognizable work. So in some instances it does help and benefit "The Little Guys"

  14. Shane Guymon says:

    One more thing, I seriously doubt that any recognizable firm would enter one of these competitions. Infact when people do these competitions they know they probably aren't going to get the best of the best in the business doing these things. So in all reallity they are paying a low amount for something that won't neccesarily be wonderful.

    I mean you do realize that good designers, even great designers do work for free. they will go to a non-profit organization and will dish out a really nice design for absolutly nothing. but I guess that is diffrent and OK because you are "helping out the community" I would agree with that if I didn't see the people using that stuff in portfolio's and posting it on their website, and entering it into shows. It is a win win situation.

  15. Scott says:

    Wasn't the whole "design spec" thing covered very well in a CA "Design Issues" last year? I think it owes a link or a reference.

  16. Cat says:

    Over at the graphic design forum we've been discussing the problem of working on spec and these so called ‘design contests’.

    Almost weekly we run off some misguided soul who posts an offer, believing we'd all jump at the chance to work for the promise of nothing. Monthly we attempt to educate one of our own who believes they are getting a portfolio.

    And like Matt over at GDC/BC blog said “Unfortunately, as long as designers keep doing spec, clients will continue to ask for it”.

    So true. So very true.

    At Creative Latitude we have several good articles we generally post when this subject comes up, along with downloadable protest letters.

    But we feel it's time to do something more in-your-face active.

    One idea is to schedule an anti-spec week featured on blogs. Early days, the details have not been worked out yet but as soon as I know, I'll start shooting the information around via Creative Latitude and 'Designers who Blog'.

    You see, the wonderful thing about being in the design industry these days is our growing power.

    There are fluctuating figures of 200-400 thou designers in the USA alone.

    How many of them have blogs? How many in Canada, Australia, France, SE Asia, etc?

    Think about it. If just a small percentage came out against spec jobs or contests, all at once, sporting some sort of icon or logo, we'd be sure to get the publics attention.

    Don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of pounding my head against the spec issue. Let’s take it public.

  17. Hi Scott,

    If you have that link available, please feel free to post it here. I think it would be useful to the discussion to have some links to more insights and perspectives.

  18. paul says:

    thank you for this - that's how i feel too. thankfully i don't often come across clients that want work on spec, and when i do, i basically give them the same spiel and send them on their way after i've give them an earful. those sorts of clients aren't worth working with, regardless of your experience level.

  19. Rajio says:

    While there is some value and benefit to doing pro-bono work, lowballing and spec work hurts everyone. Creative discipilines in general are undervalued. Look at architecture for instance; we value it culturally but architects make very little money; especially considering their schooling, lisencing, liabilities, et cetera. It is very dissapointing to see that such undervalueing of creative and cultural pursuits is a systematic thing and officiated by our government. I can even forgive the design exchange but the department of heritage should know better.

    Do they really expect the best and most talented designers to vie for this prize? anybody talented enough to do this competition justice is likely smart enough to know that it would not be worth it. even for the 'glory' of competition's sake.

    Atleast Bruce Mau included in his manifesto that one should not enter design competitions; their just plain bad.

    anyhow, way to say what we were all thinking. good editorial. you're not alone in this stance.

  20. Jack Yan says:

    Totally agree. Some years ago, the Australian Graphic Design Association tried to get its members to stop spec work—to some extent it worked, or at least raised awareness. Hope we can end it globally: designers are paid little enough as it is.

  21. Cat says:

    Now the Canadian office (Toronto) of United Way is having a logo competition.

    I've discussed it below:

    We won't have the NO SPEC site up until this weekend, but you can be sure we'll be featuring the United Way 'competition'.

    From the GDC code of ethics concerning competitions:

    Competitions & Fees
    36. A Member, when consulted, shall encourage procedures that support fair and open competition based upon professional merit, and thereby promote and achieve the protection of the public.

    37. A Member shall not take part in or conduct, either as a judge or an entrant, open competitions for commercial purposes on speculation.

    38. A Member may take part in a limited design competition where each participant in the competition is provided equal compensation in accordance with the work involved.

  22. christina says:

    Has anyone mentioned that taking part in spec work can result in losing your R.G.D. status in Ontario?

    Also, samples of work awarded on spec may pad your portfolio, but it does more harm then good at an interview. It's a small community, and most public calls for spec get talked about sooner or later. Your interviewer may well be aquainted with the circumstances, (especially if it's a prominant contest) but they may not appreciate your ethics.

    As far as gaining experience, there are a number of freelance agencies out there who are usually looking for up and coming designers

  23. paul weadre says:

    so it's a competition, if you don't like it don't enter it.

  24. Daithi says:

    No competitions. No spec work ever. That should be the rule EVERYWHERE.

  25. Jason B says:

    No-Spec is an online resource whose "mission ... is to educate both clients and Visual Communication designers (also known as 'graphic' designers) about the nature of speculative, or "spec" work."

    Helpful articles and information.

    Thought I would share.

  26. Simon says:

    Y'all are missing the point - the 'spec' invitations target those designer who for one reason or another are full of enthusiasm for their chosen prefession but lack the self-confidence needed to make a success of it, and hold out hope for a 'lucky break' which such a competition promotes. Self-doubt is prevalent in many industries but much more so in frequently isolated trades such as in design, where those who entered the field without college training might find themselves unaware that a peer group exists, much less take advantage of one to further their careers.

    The solution is better networking amoingst design professionals, and especcialy an end to the elitism and snobbery that oftens comes from earning a qualification - I've seen raw self-taught talent that could change the wworld, but they depend on spec work solely due to a lack of confidence in their skills, and prospective employers and agencies depend on exploiting this.

  27. Gerry says:

    I think that while the discussion of on-spec work is healthy and correct, this is all ignoring the fact that the original idea was to give everyone a chance to help define Canada Culture on the web.

    How many times have you wandered to a significant website that looked like one persons lopsided vision of what should have been a grande exposition but ended up looking like a two year olds colorblind scratchings.

    Perhaps their idea of a contest to find out what people wanted the site to look like was flawed. I agree. But how would you get enough feedback from the community to do it properly? Allow it to become something a committee defines? A committee of designers? A committee of users? A committee of blue haired grannies who hate anything that looks vaguley hour-glass-shaped or has the color purple?

    Instead of trying to oust the entire thing based on the fact the contest rules were flawed, offer some better suggestions for getting the most feedback on what the design community thinks the Canadian culture portal should look like. Realise there won't be a huge payout for everyone, that your opinion and guidance is being requested and avoid focusing on the way the idea was presented and concentrate on the concept that was being considered.

    Come on. It's Canadian Culture. How it gets presented is up to you and your community.

  28. Hello Everyone:

    I really found that all your postings are current and valid and I am asking you for permission to post them on my website. The purpose behind that I would like interested members of the Ottawa-Outauis valley to read your comments and get connected with you.

    My intention behind this is to form a lobby group who are interested in changing government's policies and practices that are totally out-date, out-of-touch with Canadians' reality. Independent consultant like you and myself should not pay bundle of monies on Merix and other useless Federal Government's Procurements where big corporations know where is the beef.

    With respect to your experience which I share with Heritage Canada while I was involved in writing a proposal to get funding for cultural initiative, I got the run-around where I lost money and interest. If Heritage Canada were able to spend lavishly (about 10 or 15 Millions) on "Raising The Flag" Campaign during the Quebec Referendum where the bucks were passed through "love" deals with big corporations specialized in communications and advertising, and argue with you on peanuts, then I believe that there something fundamentally wrong here and it should be change through "effective-policy" making and development.

    As the proverb says: “If you would like to see the change, be the agent of change." We must act collectively to stop these unfair policies and practices that are going to bankrupt small businesses.

    If you agree on my propositions, please email me and we will take these issues to the next step. Keep in touch; don't be strangers, we all in the same boat and journey for survival.

    Best wishes

    Gamal A. Elbanna

  29. bryan says:


    I think it is you who has missed the point. It is these designers who have entered the design world with little confidence in their abilities and living on spec that are pulling the profession down. There is nothing wrong with raw talent flooding the design culture. Often times raw talent wins out on education hands down. However, the ability to sell oneself is crucial to any designers success in this business. Whether it be to get the next big job at an agency or to grab the next big freelance job, being confident in your abilities as a designer is #1. If you don't think you have the goods, then get out. Would you go to a doctor or a mechanic who wasn't sure what they were about to do would actually work? I don't think so, and I don't think you'd want a designer who was unsure of his ability. This just doesn't make sense. I also believe the vast majority of those opposed to spec are those at the head of agencies and experienced freelancers who are tired of the business world wanting free ideas.

    The point I think the majority on this site and within the design profession are trying to make is that spec hurts everyone by opening the doors to joe-college-grad to land a job he is nowhere near ready to handle, thus inundating the world with bad design/execution, and by belittling the experience many designers/agencies have worked so hard to put behind their name and talent.

    The point here is to educate both the designer and the client about the downfall of spec. Sure, many a designer has landed a great job or got his start by working on spec, but this has been a great detriment to the profession and it's great to see people finally speaking out about it.

  30. Pingback: Forrest Rees Creative

  31. Hi Gamal,

    Thanks for your feedback and thoughts; however, at this time we're not really looking to lobby the government or challenge practices/spending.

    We chose to focus on their contest to underscore how common a problem spec work is. If anyone, Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange should certainly know better.

    I think it's important to note that both of these institutions do important work in Canada. We're not in opposition to their practices, but do believe that this was a rather significant faux pas, that needed to be addressed.



  32. sokol says:

    Hilsen fra Klovnen "Tulliball"

  33. Pingback: Aretha had it right. en Fancy That

  34. Pingback: ideations & executions | KEVIN BROOME » Blog Archive » No More Colouring Contests

  35. Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … » Blog Archive » ideasonideas on NO!SPEC

  36. Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … » Blog Archive » broome on NO!SPEC

  37. Pingback: Aretha had it right.

  38. Pingback: 15 Blogs de diseñadores profesionales | frogx.three

  39. Pingback: Inspiracion… | Blogger Magazine

  40. Pingback: Motion Graphic Designers’ Organization » It’s Funny Cause it’s True.

  41. Pingback: Broome » No More Colouring Contests

  42. Walt D says:

    Sometimes competition and rewards are an excellent incentative to make companies excel to a new level.

Voice Your Opinion

Thoughtful and critical comments are welcomed, and we ask that you use your real name (just seems fair, doesn't it?). Offensive, derogatory, and dim-witted remarks will be removed or result in equally mean-spirited finger-pointing and mockery.


Not published