The Real Problem With Design Contests
Jacob Cass of Just Creative Design recently wrote an article entitled “How NOT to Design a Logo” on Web Designer’s Depot. It received a lot of attention and eventually ended up on the front page of Digg.
The article acted as a catalyst for many design related frustrations. The comments strayed from the definitions of quality, to the apparent nerve of designers who don’t do work worthy of their “thousand of dollars” price tags. Most of this debate fell around the ethics of design contests in particular.
It got me thinking. Many of the degrading comments were based on false assumptions and skewed experience. I didn’t get the sense that many actually understood a designer’s true issues with these kinds of contests.
This is in defense of the designers who would rather not be entry 134 of 400.
What the Argument Isn’t About
The world has hardened people. No matter how fair something is, there will always be someone calling shenanigans. People need to be reassured that they are not being scammed, especially when they are personally invested in the end result.
This isn’t a matter of professional designers becoming obsolete. Obsolete is continuing to build horse drawn carriage innovations after the car is invented.
The designer’s argument is not simply against the low bargain prices for businesses. It’s against how those prices get lower in the first place.
It’s about acknowledging that a difference exists between professional and amateur. It’s about defining a successful logo as more than something that “just looks good”.
Crowdsourcing vs. Outsourcing
“Why isn’t this the designer’s version of outsourcing? The rest of the working world has to worry about losing work to other people willing to do it cheaper!”
Outsourcing is a different business model from crowdsourcing. With outsourcing the jobs of people in a higher paying area are moved to lower paying countries. This brings a relatively equal level of quality with a lower pay grade. You tend to hear about this in terms of factories being shut down and moved overseas. It is an unfortunate situation, but compensation is still provided for all services rendered.
Crowdsourcing is different. Work is taken from the professional realm and thrown to a large group of people from all over the world with the hope that someone in the crowd will have the necessary qualifications or a winning idea. This cuts costs because instead of paying in advance for a possibility of success, most crowdsourcing works with a “paid on satisfaction” method. Investments are made on successes only. Sites like 99Designs run on this principle.
What’s Wrong With It?
There are some very real problems associated with this style of work. For starters, design contests are not a sustainable business model for full time designers. Time spent on work has no relation to compensation. It has to do with the personal taste of the “client”, and a certain degree of luck.
Contests remove the interaction element of design projects. Ideally, a designer would be able to meet with the client many time prior to the final project. This would allow them access to the materials and information they need, as well as give time to educate the client on logo practices. Education. This is a big one here.
Does the average person realize that there are different ways in which a logo can be built? Do they realize that the logo created in Photoshop saved as a bitmap at 72 dpi will not scale well or look as sharp printed? Do they realize that printed materials should be done in CMYK, and not RGB color?
Revision rounds are almost non-existent in the context of a contest. Sure, a contest winner could be hired again after being chosen to make a few changes, but in a true client-designer relationship this communication would be constant. The end result would be a collaboration instead of guesswork.
There were some defending logo contests because they themselves had commissioned some for their companies before. It was cheap, and they had an overall positive experience. People who think that they will have good results with this method should use it.
They should not, however, then feel qualified to inform higher brow designers that their work is overpriced and now obsolete:
“Logo design contests are great, its the only way I go. I get my pick of 5-10 designs for less then $20.
Designers these days are a dime a dozen, be happy you get the work.”
There are those in favor of contests, and those who are not. Being in favor should not be synonymous with belittling designers who choose not to take part in them.
Professional does not always mean huge prices. Part of being a professional is scalability. If a client has a budget, it is worked towards. If the client can still not afford them, they can move on. There are logo design sites out there that work just fine this idea of payment for products.
Defining a Successful Project
If you define a car as something with four wheels to get from point A to point B you will be satisfied with any car dealership. If you want a nice engine, good mileage, and increased functionality… it’ll take some extra research at for specialty dealerships. (Photo by Vlastula)
Design contests have changed the professional playing field, not destroyed it. It’s upsetting when people suggest that designer’s time should not be compensated unless they can produce something that the client likes. Consider this example from David Airey’s article on spec work:
“I went for a dental check-up yesterday. After the dentist inspected my teeth, she suggested some work to prevent further tooth decay. I told her to go ahead, and if the dental work was satisfactory, I’d be more than happy to pay. She responded that she wouldn’t be able to do that, because she normally provides a service when a fee is agreed upon up-front. I said I’d let her know after I checked in with other local dentists.”
Design work is not as tangible as dentistry. It’s easier to judge the quality of a filling than a color scheme. But designers invest the same common factor into their work as anyone else. Time. The argument should be for this. If a designer is spending time doing work for you, should they be compensated?
It’s also about sharing risk. A business that commissions a design contest is taking on very little. On 99Designs, a business could see hundreds of logos for mere pennies a revision. The difference is that those pennies are not divided evenly among the participants.
Logos are highly customized. They are not like most other products, which can be returned and resold if it isn’t satisfactory. You can’t just adapt a lumberjack logo for a knitting society.
Design is not just a Hobby
Many comments painted design work out to be worthy of “hobby status” and nothing more. Here’s an excerpt from one reader’s view on full time designers:
“…Let’s be clear: designer = often talented artist who never made the leap into the *real world, and is desperately trying to make money off a personal hobby
That’s like me trying to make a career out of rock climbing. Possible, not likely. Maybe I’d find odds and ends ways to make a (barely) living from it, sure…”
Hobbyists do not replace professionals. I can build a shed. That does not make me an architect. Nor does it give me the right to tell an architect how much their work is worth. I do not know enough to qualify me to make such an assessment.
It’s a common defense for student exposure. I’m still a student myself. I know the appeal of design contests as portfolio builders and job opportunities. It levels the playing field for the new guys with good ideas.
On the other hand, I am able to find work without resorting to design contests. It isn’t always easy, but far more worth the time. I do not work 10 hours and get compensated for a possible two.
Design contests give an illusion of work, but no consistent result. It would be too easy to devote time to project proposals that may never see the light of day. Design contests are just that; drawn out proposals. It may feel productive and gives portfolio pieces, but it also lowers your own value.
Design Contest Math Examples
Sometimes the proof is in the numbers. Let’s look at one of the popular contests currently running over at 99Designs. At the time of writing, this contest for a beauty and skin care company logo had just under 600 entries. The winner will receive $500, which is big money. But wait! Let’s look at some math to cut that number down to size.
This is a hell of a bargain for any company looking for a quick logo.
Design contests do not always have the most respectful atmosphere towards the work being done. Take these quotes from the project design brief:
“We reserve the right not to choose a winner, but we very much hope to award the best designer and receive a unique brand.”
“UPDATE: I’m extending the contest for another week. I feel that the designs submitted have only gotten better with time, and that a little more time will allow for less stress and a better end result.
Thank you all for your hard work and creativity!”
Extending time for less stress and more entries? Remaining very “hopeful” about picking a winner? With wording like that, it almost seems like the business is doing the contestants a favor.
Ultimately, it is up to you. As with any ethical question, there is no universal solution. You can find entire sites dedicated to the debate of spec work ethics to prove it.
There are plenty of great resources out on the internet that you can use to educate yourself more on this topic. I’ve put together a list of my own recommended reads in defense of the design community: