Web & Graphic Design

Pros and cons of participating in design contests

The very few times when i think about the meaning and purpose of contests in general, i picture them as one-off events where you give your all  for a chance to achieve something you truly desire. They help mobilize your strength and creativity to defeat all other competitors. It’s more or less a battle, which in a perfect world would be entertained with fair-play, but in reality it’s either as cut throat as you can imagine or just plain rigged.

Now, have you ever wondered how it would be like to apply this very simple concept to mundane tasks or jobs? For example what about holding a contest to select the best defense for your case in court or one  to get the best diagnosis from a bunch of doctors. Why not go further and pay only if you’re satisfied with the end result. Wouldn’t that be a dream world? Thanks to the Internet, you can now do just about that if you’re in need for a design or copywriting project. That’s what you get when you mix the age old custom of pitching an advertising or marketing project and combine it with the modern eastern philosophy that any price is good as long as it’s above zero.  From a designer’s point of view is the worst of both worlds: you risk to work for free and if you do get paid its below what you’d normally get from a regular client.

Much like any other professional working in the services industry, a designer’s job is to provide you with a (creative) solution tailored for your own specific needs, based on years of experience and learning. Even though apparently there are no tangible resources used in the process, this doesn’t mean it should be free. Similar to a lawyer or a doctor, you’re paying for the time spent conducting due diligence on your projects’ behalf. Unlike them, you also have to deal with technology related costs which add up and can turn pretty steep at times. On the other hand, even institutionalized advertising is still much younger in comparison with the other two professions previously mentioned. It’s no wonder why most potential clients have little or no understanding of how it can improve their overall sales. Plus, graphic designers are often associated with hippie, irresponsible, wing it characters based on decades old stereotypes.

The benefits of participating in design contests

  • Probably by far the best thing you’ll get out of participating  in design contests is having the chance to gain experience and build an extensive portfolio in a relatively short amount of time. If you’re serious about being a designer, you cannot live on contests alone, but attracting clients can be hard when you’re just starting up. Just like stock  photography sites, while they do provide a decent income once you go beyond a certain level, the whole experience is not as rewarding as the real deal. Plus, there’s always the feeling of amateurism and playing in the Little League. That’s why you should use it more as a means to an end rather than the end itself.
  • Get lots of inspiration and be motivated to step up your game and learn new tricks. Seeing how others approach the same design brief will literally help you step out of the box and acknowledge that there’s always more solutions to the same problem.
  • Make (sometimes) a significant amount of extra cash. It’s true that you can make the same amount of money in half or even less time, but luck plays a huge role in all of this. You can draw the winning logo design in half an hour and make 500 bucks. Or you can struggle for a week.
  • Gain some regular clients based on previous wins. In time, it can even lead to more work through word of mouth. While its true that the “more work ahead” line is overused as a dubious motivating technique, it does ring true every now and then.
  • Have to deal with an incredibly varied array of human personalities, which is a good way of becoming a great communicator. That’s probably why it’s one of the most challenging things about the whole experience. While it does take plenty of time explaining everything, it also pays off. Those who matter, will understand you’re looking in the best interest of their brand and will be more open to discussing various options, thus improving your chances to win. Plus, you’ll learn how different people react in different situations. For example, i’ve learned that usually SEO and IT professionals are greatly challenged when it comes to visuals and more prone to picking up a winner based on stereotypes or the coolness  factor. They have a hard time understanding branding and often confuse their own preferences with those of their target (Web 2.0 style, stripes, glossy look and things which were a fad almost half a decade ago).

The downsides of design contests

  • The biggest drawback of doing design contests it’s the risk and uncertainty of ever getting paid for the time spent. There are basically two cases here: your submission might not be the winner or the client might abandon the contest altogether. It’s also not as uncommon for a client to simply use the designers’ work as a free source of inspiration and then replicate it by their in-house team.
  • The risk of joining a rigged contest (a slim chance but a chance nonetheless a practice with an unfortunately high occurrence rate). You should look for several signs such as: some last minute entries that sum up a lot of elements from other designs by a ghost or first time designer, the copycat receives better overall ratings than the original designs, the winning design is indisputably lower in quality than most of the other submissions etc. This is usually done either by a cheap contest holder willing to rip off the work of designers/get a free ride or by an insider close to them.
  • Having to deal with the insecurities and hidden agendas of clients. More often than not, the contest holder will have their mind set on a specific submission (even early on in the game) and work with the designer to improve on it. However, it will continue asking for designs from others just to validate his decision. While that’s clearly unethical, you’ll learn to spot it after a while.
  • Being beaten by a competitor who has copied parts of your submissions is clearly annoying. What’s even more so, it’s when the client is endorsing such behavior. It’s not Shareville, so borrowing design elements between contestants should be a clear no-no.  Yet, some will request a specific designer to include either the layout or the icons from another submission which is a soft case of copyright infringement.
  • Often poor, incomplete and ever changing specifications in the brief as well as sparse or no feedback from the client. While it’s always frustrating not having enough information in the first place, it’s even more so when rules change during the game. Don’t be surprised if you see stationery requests added to a logo design project just a few days after the start. Also, unlike during a contract, it’s up to the client to decide if they’ll increase the prize along with the requirements.
  • You have absolutely no control over the outcome of the contest and it’s often down to luck, no matter how many five star submissions you might have or the amount of positive feedback received.
  • Because communication is done entirely through emails and small messages, the final choice is largely based on emotions (or family/friends’ advice). Unlike when dealing with a client face to face or over the phone, you  have less chances to explain why your design choices work best for their product. I often got responses like “my friends thought it looked cool” or “i asked a friend and said why not try this color”.
  • Not dealing with the client directly robs you of all the non verbal cues that might signal either a tasteless goon or a stubborn/control freak you’d be better off without. Your best clues lie within the brief. If the client point to samples or inspiration sources of debatable quality/taste then it’s best to pass it on to others. You might not want to work hours or days only to see a kitsch or copied design get 5 stars and the prize.
  • The websites holding the contests are money making machines. That’s why when it comes to picking sides and arbitrating disputes, they’ll often go with the client since that’s where the paycheck comes from. “Made by designers for designers” is as crap talk as you’ll ever get. They’ll try to sweep any dirt under the carpet and remove/silence anyone not willing to keep quiet about disputes. As an example how much they care about designers’ welfare, their terms won’t even guarantee you the right to use your own work for your online portfolio. Plus, promoting logo design contests for as low as 100 bucks or making 70% of any stock logo sold (just for hosting) doesn’t seem too emphatic.
  • Supporting design contest websites will lower overall prices in the design industry so even those in for a quick buck will have to deal with it later on in their careers.

Normally, i don’t have an issue with those small business owners who struggle when having to spend a lot of money on design services. I even find it refreshing helping them, since they are often nice people, willing to listen and learn more. They deal with you directly without employing a stuck up, pretentious “professional” to manage the contests with lines straight from the textbooks.  Yet, it does get pretty old, when just a few submissions into the contest, some client turns from this humble, nice person into a control freak, setting loose a revision and visual experimenting extravaganza.

Still, there’s another thing which I’m struggling to understand and i can only justify it through chronic greed. It’s when big corporations or privately owned businesses selling  luxury products are willing to award obscenely low prizes. How would you comment on someone requesting a logo or packaging for a soon to be released sophisticated premium product targeted at a rich demographic, but who’s reluctant to offer more than a couple hundred bucks for it? How’s that supposed to attract talented and serious designers instead of young hobbyists or shady individuals willing to copy existing brand identities for a quick win. Also, if they cheapen on the marketing front, how will i know they don’t do the same while building their products?

I hope this will help put things in perspective and maybe save you of some unpleasant experiences while participating in design contests. If, on the other hand you’re thinking of holding one in the future, you might want to check this blog from time to time. Later on, I’ll be posting some tips for managing a contest so that you get the most out of the designers’ potential.

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