A Professional Perspective on Design Contests

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In the past week, via Facebook, I happened to spot 3 different companies advertising for design contests. These contests ranged from a design to be printed on a book bag, to a full website. I should also note that some of these did not have cash “prizes”. These types of contests are nothing like the type of design contest that seeks to award designers for outstanding work on a particular project (think: Webby Awards, Davey Awards, AIGA contests, etc.). While many people think these type of design contests are perfectly okay and a positive thing, professional designers like myself have a different perspective.

So what’s wrong with design contests?

Creative contests have their place, don’t ge me wrong. I even won a few of them while I was in grade school. But the disturbing trend I’ve seen lately is businesses running contests to basically obtain professional level design services.

As soon as a business deems it appropriate to ask designers to submit original work in a contest format it cheapens the design profession overall to a whole audience of people. These people┬ámay get the idea that designers just whip this stuff up, that it’s “easy”, and that just because you create it, doesn’t mean you should be paid for it.

What is important to realize is that design (and the skill necessary to create it) is not a commodity. It makes it more difficult for new designers and freelancers to charge going rates when people have an impression that design is just “fun” work that requires very little effort or skills. A large portion of what separates a professional from someone who just creates stuff in their free time is not just development of talent and skills, but also the experience of working with a client on a project. That is missing from design contests all together.

But there’s a prize!

To that I ask, but where’s the paycheck to all the designers who used their talent and skill to produce something for you and didn’t get picked for that “prize”?

Let’s say instead of a non-cash “prize”, a particular contest is offering $1000 for a design. Let’s also say they get 300 entries to their contest. That’s basically paying $3.33 for each of the entries but getting hundreds of different designs to choose from (and remember, only one designer will actually walk away with the money). In the majority of cases, the design will be used by the business for a long time, whether it’s a logo, a design to be put on a product and sold, or even a website. A $1000 is a real deal when you factor in those aspects (and not to mention, it can be far below the going rate for professional design).

Here’s something else to think about. What are the costs of the professional equipment and supplies needed to create a design? You’ve got a computer, design software, maybe a Wacom tablet, etc. Then of course one has to have the knowledge and skill to use that equipment to produce a design. Naturally a designer’s time is valuable. Maybe they spend 10 hours creating a submission (and normally charge $50/hr, that’s $500 right there). You see where this is going? Professional designers have costs (just like your business does). Their time is worth a certain rate because of their experience, skill, and business expenses. Can you see how soliciting them to submit a design without any guarantee of payment might be considered a bit of a slap in the face?

Much like there’s nothing to stop people from running contests such as these, there’s nothing to stop people from entering contests such as these. But at least call a spade a spade. A business is not “hiring” anyone with this format. They’re not even doing anything for all the designers who many enter that don’t get picked. There is really no benefit to those people. The business is simply soliciting for free, completed design work. And if you’re entering the contest, you’re working for free with no guarantee of any compensation for your work.

But it will be great to add to your portfolio!

I especially feel for people just getting into the design industry because things like this are tossed at them like it’s, “good for your portfolio”. They don’t get to interact with a real client, so they get little experience at all out of something like this other than using their creativity to come up with some random thing that may or may not fit what the contest creators are after. And they’re not very likely to get any sort of compensation for the time they spend on creating their design. Just adding some random piece of design to your portfolio means very little in my book. I get approached all the time by designers eager to work for my company and I’ve reviewed a lot of portfolios. When I see a portfolio piece I ask, “What were the client’s goals with this and how did you meet them? How did you work with the client? How did you handle client requests or any difficulties that came up?” And believe me, I’m not the only one who asks questions like these when considering hiring a designer. So everyone, please get over that, “you can add it to your portfolio” thing. You sound like a bad Craig’s List ad.

When the tune changes.

We’ve confronted some of the businesses running design contests and pointed out some of these things only to receive a responses such as:

After this point, if the conversation continues, the business running the contest often just gets deeper and deeper into a quagmire of excuses sounding more and more whiney the longer it continues. Usually they settle into a place where we (the professional designers) are just “attacking” them, raining on their parade, and/or generally just sucking all the fun and good-natured spirit out of the whole affair. Basically, they completely miss the points we’re making on why asking for professional work to be done in contest form is not a good idea.

Do you think asking lawyers, building contractors, auto-mechanics, or a bevy of other service industry professionals to participate in a contest where they provide work for you and have very little chance of getting paid for it would go over well? Doubt it. Then why is it okay to ask designers, artists, and others in the creative services industry to do the same?

It’s not like this is a new thing.

Design contests have been around for a long time and there are different kinds. Some really can be fun, but it’s all hinged on the approach of the contest creator and the perspective of the intended audience. What’s important to understand is why certain types of contests are seen in a negative light by professional designers and that’s what I hope I’ve illustrated with this article.

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