Web & Graphic Design

Feedback, communication and respect during a design contest

One of the most frustrating aspects of participating in online design contests is receiving little or no feedback at all. There’s no point to single out a certain website, because you’ll get to see the same pattern, whichever one you browse. Once you go past certain guidelines, which let’s face it, are mostly empty words published to inflate some corporate egos and project a spit polished aura of false empathy, it boils down to the type of human beings that interact within those online establishments. Usually, you should expect humiliating treatment from any contest holder that’s there for any one of these reasons:

  • to get cheap or almost free ideas/executions (especially if it ends with an abandoned contest);
  • to get an easy pass into the land of countless free revisions which would normally be unheard in a normal and honest client – designer working relationship;
  • to compensate for an inability to visualize and document a professional brief that would guide the designers into understanding the real requirements of the projects;
  • to justify their less then stellar management abilities and difficulties to make executive decisions  by requesting a huge number of variations, even ones they already know are not suitable for the job.

Fortunately, there are enough signs to spot such red flags and save your time and energy: previous contest activity (bad temper and lack of manners have a tendency to persist) including responsiveness, tone and language, level of interest and feedback given, tolerance to criticism and bitterness. No matter how tempting the prize might be, it’s always safe to wait a couple of days before submitting anything. That’s usually the sweet spot between being to early and being to late. This timeframe will help you gain some insight into the individual mechanics of the particular person running the contest (although usually it’s an agency) without the risk of being too late and having the CH already made up his might about a certain design. Of course, there are always cases where the person running the show is actually very nice and knowledgeable of the whole process. These are usually very rewarding experiences, regardless of the final outcome of game.

After all, why is feedback so important? Well, design is about communication as it is about shapes, sizes and colors and feedback is one of the prime examples of engaging a dialogue between the client and the professional designer. Personally, i wouldn’t trust anyone not asking for feedback. Why? Because such an attitude spells cheap cockiness, ignorance and lack of respect to name but a few. It’s hard to believe that such an individual would be able to provide the right solution, without the slightest need for fine tuning – it would be an historical event in its own right.

Why would you want to give feedback? Probably the hardest things about it, is not being able to properly identify and verbalize the actual elements that prevent a good design from being a winner. I’ve been fortunate enough to observe a wide variety of individuals having to comment on drafts and work in progress items. While most are able to say if they like them or not and even provide a rating, there’s very few who can pinpoint the actual details that they dislike. Still, taking the time to thoroughly analyze a piece will normally yield a fair amount of pleasant surprises, as well as a better understanding of your own requirements.

As a sidenote, it still baffles me to read about clients requesting designers to decide on the actual content elements to be featured on the homepage of a website or to do what otherwise would be considered classic copywriting tasks such as finding a motto, the selling points and the actual sales copy for a print ad. This should always start with the person who knows the message best. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a shiny wrapping around an empty box.

Plus, let’s not forget that being a contest, there is a certain etiquette and some unwritten rules which you should at least try to follow. Believe it or not, most designers are aware of the risk that they might lose. However, they normally have other reasons for joining in, besides the prize: building a portfolio, gaining working experience and learning to deal with clients. So if you don’t really care all that much about fine tuning the work being submitted, you should at least be civil enough to spend 5-1o minutes in exchange for the countless hours spent by each designer working for free.

This of course leads us to a very touchy subject known as respect. Any risk free chance to decide among tens of different submissions brings a lot of power. For most, not having to deal with the consequences of your own actions may seem like a liberating feeling – in “the beast is loose” kind of way. Don’t be surprised if in such unfortunate cases, you’ll see copyright suddenly disappear from the dictionary only to be replaced by sharing inspiration between designers and why not copying mainstream concepts and executions under the loving supervision of the CH’s eagle eyes. It’s no wonder why such a person will end up abandoning the contest altogether or having a buddy come in and save the day and the wallet in true conman fashion.

Don’t underestimate the designers’ IQ either, by using  the age old cliche of promising additional work following the contest. That’s especially a bad strategy to consider when you’re trying to justify a small prize. It’s not like you’ll become generous once you find a winner, so who would want to work more  for less. Would you? Also avoid this trick when working on a top class project where you expect “killer” designs, especially if it involves a national or world  recognizable brand. The only ones willing to enter will be those craving for something to fill their  portfolio with,  not people who already have plenty of experience and understand the requirements of such a project.

Also, try not to forget that at the end of the day there’s usually only one winner and no matter how much you try to sugarcoat it people will be disappointed to say the least. It’s especially tough when you see you’ve lost to a crap design that breaks every rule in the books of common sense and good taste and which would have made quite a stir a decade ago. In such moments you should particularly refrain from sending phony consolation messages such as “It was a tough choice and your work was truly amazing” or “I’d love to buy your design as well, so I’ll be contacting you soon” (spells like never). You won’t be getting any extra credits for being a sweet liar besides making stupid choices.

In the end, participating in design contests is a personal choice. There are both pros and cons. It might work better in certain moments of your professional life just as it might be a big waste of time and effort. It doesn’t hurt to try it, if only for the fun of it, but in the end it could hurt the industry as a whole by applying the very same principle used by fast food chains: cheap meals, fast service, unhealthy products. Bon appetit!

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