If design was an iceberg

If design was an iceberg:
I can understand the investor attraction to spec work websites. After all, the sites profit through nothing more than the sale of contest-listings. So as long as the listing database is intact, and the turnstiles are kept moving, the concept appears hugely scalable.
I can also understand the initial client attraction. The cost of a service plays an important role in the purchase decision, and with spec work, the client spends as little as she wants. Often nothing.
underwater iceberg
But work produced ‘on spec’ isn’t just a cheaper form of design, on the whole it’s also vastly inferior, because once the volunteers producing the artwork figure-out how to win, the design process has long since disappeared. What designer puts 100% into a project when there’s a minuscule chance of getting paid? And those who do give 100% are even likelier to leave with nothing but a sense of dejection.
Ultimately, contest holders are left to compensate for the emaciated design process by attempting to fill-in the gaps, “Change this. Add that. Combine these. Try it in blue.” They’re paying to be designer-for-a-day, when the reality is that they either don’t need a designer (imagine hiring a plumber then telling him what to do), or they haven’t realised the time-sapping downsides.
Multi-million dollar investments in contest-listing websites will inevitably prompt a more aggressive marketing push, but as long as self-respecting designers continue to differentiate themselves this won’t affect client acquisition.

There are plenty of ways to set yourself apart. Here’s a very quick example from my book:

Where Photoshop comes into play
Showing your designs in context — in other words, as they will be seen by others — is key to helping your clients visualise how great you can make their companies look. It’s comparable to buying a new car. The car might show a fresh paint job and have that “new car smell,” but unless you take it for a test drive, you won’t be entirely convinced. That’s why showing your designs in context can be what finally cements the deal with your clients.
p144, Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities, New Riders, 2010

As a designer, what are you doing to differentiate yourself?

As a client, what are you looking for when choosing a designer?

Iceberg photo composite by Ralph Clevenger

Published on David Airey, graphic designer