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Sunlight Labs Contest, Spec Work

The Sunlight Foundation's new contest sounds good at first blush, but we might want to think again.

Design for America...on Spec?

Artists, web developers and data visualization geniuses, here’s a chance to strut your stuff, serve your country and win some serious money in the process.

Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides tools to make government data more transparent, has announced a new contest called Design for America. Billed as a “design and data visualization extravaganza,” Sunlight is encouraging the public to create and publish data visualizations that help make complex government data easier for people to digest and interact with.

There are several different categories open for submission, including: visualizations of data that shows how the stimulus money is being spent, visualizations showing how a bill becomes a law, a redesign of a .gov website, and a redesign of any government form. Top prize in each category is a cool $5,000.


Sound good to you? Sounds like another classic pitch for spec work to me.

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PaulApr 16, 2010

Comments on this post


I love your blog, but you’re wrong on this one.

It can’t be spec work. It’s the furthest thing possible from spec work. The work does not belong to Sunlight.

*Sunlight doesn’t own or use what the winners create create.*

Sunlight is only trying to encourage them to make things that are open, and mash-up-able (using CC Attribution or an OSS license), using prize money.

Moreover, design contests are ONLY spec work if they’re used to select a designer for paid work going forward. This is a true contest, with no subsequent contract as an award. It is much less spec work-y than Threadless.

Amy at 11:53am on Fri, Apr 16th.



I’m glad to hear a dissenting opinion. It doesn’t happen enough here. And your points are good ones. But, even if you’re right and this contest isn’t spec work (I still think that it is), it’s definitely not “the furthest thing possible from spec work.”

Quickly, I don’t see why the spec work label wouldn’t apply to the Sunlight project, if what they are doing is asking for projects that visualize and promote (e.g.) HHS Community Health Data Initiative,, Sunlight Community data and so on. Call these three the clients. Whether or not you think that these clients are ones that perform a valuable service (I do), and regardless of the good licensing terms, I don’t see how this contest escapes the standard pitfalls to the profession.

To wit, rather than finding a firm to research and solve the problems that Sunlight is dedicated to solving, and paying that firm fairly, Sunlight is asking designers and aspiring designers to do this for free. This is bad for the success of the projects, and bad for the design profession in general.

Quotes from the NO!SPEC manifesto; grammar and spelling corrected, emphasis added.

Bad for the projects

Aside from putting clients under the impression that design doesn’t have worth, [a contest] also penalizes the clients themselves. Through contests, designers cannot do the marketing research required by the project, therefore they cannot create the right thing for the client, who then chooses on the basis of “the prettiest design”.

Bad for the profession

Unfortunately, there is a disturbing growing trend affecting the creative communications community in which companies use contests … [to] pit designers against each other … Creatives who fall into this unproductive cycle eventually crank out a massive string of poorly conceived, ineffectively executed and — in a growing number of cases — plagiarized work in order to win as many posted “contest bids” as possible.

So, some food for thought there, maybe. Anyway, take it or leave it. For the record, it’s hard for me to brook any anti-Sunlight talk, benefactor to us all that they are, but I can’t help it in this case.


Paul at 1:33pm on Fri, Apr 16th.

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