Web & Graphic Design

Tips for choosing the right prize while running a design contest

Just because most designers fancy themselves somewhere in the back of their minds as promising artists, doesn’t mean they should have to work the way struggling painters of past centuries used to. Unlike a musician or poet, who could turn their problems into great songs, a graphic artist seldom finds working for scraps as a good environment for creativity. Great innovative ideas come when you’re able to distance yourself from the mundane and focus solely on the task at hand.

It’s true that coding or other left brain activities can be automated to a certain extend, reducing development time and resulting in competitive prices. Yet, applying the same principle to graphic or web design activities, in order to achieve lower costs, would defy their very same purpose: achieve a distinctive solution used to best communicate an often commercial message to the target audience.

Like it or not, it’s just not possible to achieve a professional end result, while working at an amateur  level.  Unless you’re willing to offer at least the market’s average, then don’t be surprised if the submissions look more like working granny’s talent showcase or basement kid’s bid for a PlayStation. These are actually the lucky situations, when their submissions are actually subsidized by their current conditions and they’re driven by a need to gain experience or fill their time with something. However, you shouldn’t be surprised if a large amount of the submissions seem strangely familiar.

Your deja-vu feeling should be a clear indication about one of these two things: either the designs are deeply “inspired” by other existing examples or you’re paying for generic, no name and definitely no personality work. It might help you fit into the crowd, but usually that’s a case where you want to stand out as much as you can.  Also, try not to fool yourself into thinking that your clients won’t recognize an amateurish or cheap looking piece, just because they’re not professionals in this area. We’ve all been bombarded with quality design examples for the last few decades that we’re pretty competent at subconsciously recognizing good work when we see it.

Suppose it’s your first contest and you’re still unsure as to how much should your budget stretch. Here’s what will usually happen depending  on your choice:

  • obscenely small prize, about half or two thirds than what you’d normally get. Don’t expect to see more  than a dozen designers joining in. If you do, then you should be convinced they are at the very best hobbyists going for a quick buck or poor East Asian “professionals” who don’t have much time or the interest to spend on your  project. This might work for a brochure with a limited distribution or some vector tracing work where there’s not that much creativity involved. However, would you run the risk of buying a copycat concept or execution if  you were redesigning your logo or the packaging of a product you’ve invested extensive time and effort to create? I bet not. Plus, most respectable designers would feel offended by having  their work underrated. Even those joining in would be reluctant to provide you with more than shallow, one  minute revisions.
  • a  moderate prize or slightly higher than the market’s average. This is usually the most common scenario out there. The number of submissions you’d receive can range from a couple dozen up to even a hundred or more. In this case, the decision to enter the contest will usually be driven by some emotional aspects as well: how easy it is perceived, how fun/interesting  it looks, how knowledgeable of the subject the designer is. Do not expect any overzealous participants, nor more than a couple completely different concepts per designer.
  • a generous prize.  That’s the ideal scenario of the three and it works on multiple levels: the actual financial gains, showing respect to the designers’ work and earning their respect in return, generating positive word of mouth etc. It’s not uncommon to receive hundreds of submissions of which there would  be plenty five star designs.

If you’re not happy with the way things are moving along, you can always increase the amount. However, it’s best to do it from the start.

You should always consider the amount of time needed to come up with a proper submission and then consider adding a little extra to compensate for the risk of actually losing the contest. It’s also better to increase this bonus based on the project as well. Designers will be more reluctant to waste two or three days on a  project, if they feel it’s not worth it, than they would  about spending a couple of hours.

Next time, we’ll delve deeper into what other elements contribute to the success of a design contest.

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