Design contests suck. Don’t do them.

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Graphic design, Thoughts, Tips for creatives

Every now and then a friend will forward me a post about a design or an illustration contest. I never apply. I never forward it to my colleagues, either. Not even when it’s my friends who organize the contest.

I just won’t do it because I oppose the idea of contests in principle. Yes, I did apply to contests before, more than a decade ago. Not anymore. Here’s why.

Design contests suck. Don't do them.

All you need to judge someone’s quality of work and style is their portfolio

Visual artists and designers typically have public galleries filled with amazing projects. You can tell by browsing their websites whether they’d be able to do the kind of work you’d want them to do. There’s no need to make them jump through hoops in order to prove they’re the right professional for you.

But it’s easier to run a contest and wait for hungry artists to apply in droves and make your pick, than to spend time doing actual research, right? I can understand the appeal. Still, it’s unethical.

Test work should be paid as well

If you really can’t decide which one of the artists in your favorites list would be the best, or you worry that their approach might not work for your project, you can always hire them for a test. Hire them – this means, pay them for their work, and pay them fairly.

Artists should not bear the burden of proving themselves to you because you can’t decide. They have prior work to show you, and that should be enough. Their communication skills during the negotiation give you insight into what working with them would be like. If you want more than that, then pay them. You don’t get to demand stuff from people because you’re the client. There are plenty of clients in the world. We’ll just avoid the ones that don’t treat us well.

If you wouldn’t ask a hairdresser/car mechanic/surgeon/dentist/lawyer/babysitter for free work, then don’t ask artists, either.

Speculative work is taken for granted in design circles, but if you tried to pull it off in other professions, they would call the local psych ward to see if a patient of theirs has escaped.

Imagine saying to a dentist “Fix one tooth for me for free, and if I like your work, I’ll become your regular patient and pay your normal rates in the future.”

Seriously, try that. Oh what, you’d be too embarrassed to pull that off? Of course you would. Can you see how little respect artists and designers get for their skills, when people are 100% comfortable asking them for free work?

Contests leave an enormous time-wasting footprint

Let’s say you’re running a contest for a logo design and you’re going to award the winner $1000, which is the bare minimum for quality logo work.

20 people apply to your contest, and each of them spends 30 hours on average to come up with a logo design according to your brief.

One of these people will win the award. All the other designers have wasted their time on this project. That’s 19 times 30 hours, 570 hours total. That’s 23.75 days. That’s more than three quarters of a month. That’s time that other human beings invested in your project, that they won’t be compensated for, and that they might have used to create more value in the world.

  • Those people could have worked on open source projects.
  • They might have volunteered their skills for causes that need them.
  • They could have organized a free graphic design workshop for underprivileged high school kids.
  • They could have worked on a project of their own, that would change the world in a meaningful way.

Sure, they had a choice. We all do. But contest organizers have to accept the responsibility for wasting so many human hours.

Time is the most valuable resource we have. Wasting other people’s time on purpose is irresponsible and disrespectful.

Contests are expensive, but it’s not the organizer who’s paying the full cost of that, and that’s not fair.

Time is the most valuable resource we have. Wasting other people’s time on purpose is irresponsible and disrespectful.

But what about non-profit projects?

It doesn’t matter whether your project is for-profit or non-profit, spec work is still not the way to go. There has to be a clear distinction between volunteering and paid work, and the contest is trying to blur that line.

Contests demand volunteering under the guise of offering paid work to the lucky one. The application process is volunteering. Only the winner will be awarded monetary compensation.

If you can’t afford to pay a professional, it’s OK to put up a “job” ad for a volunteer. People who are willing to work for free will apply, and then you can sign a volunteering agreement with them and proceed as you would with a paid professional.

If you’re offering payment for the project, use the normal hiring process where you vet potential service providers, examine their portfolios, meet and interview those whose work suggest they have the skills you need, and choose the one who leaves the best impression to work with you.

If you have a fixed budget and really can’t go over it, disclose it as soon as possible, so that the freelancers know whether or not they should go through the interviewing, proposals etc. at all. If your budget is way below what they normally charge, the hiring process will be a waste of time for them.

Being a non-profit does not give you the right to engage in unethical business practices.

If you don’t intend to pay every single work who submits their “test” to your contest, than don’t run a contest.

Contests don’t guarantee you’ll get quality work, or that the “best” will win

In my talk about design revision hell, I explain why it’s counter-productive to offer a client multiple variations of a design for them to pick. Clients typically aren’t experts in this field, and can’t tell a good design from bad design. Non-designers often pick their favorite on the basis of whether they personally like a particular color or symbol, without even thinking how their users might feel about that choice.

I’ve seen contests with some great submissions, where a crappy design won, because the client had no sense for what good design.

“But I’m different. I have a good taste. I’m a hobbyist photographer, I have a keen eye.”

I’ve heard that before. The folks who thought their taste was impeccable weren’t any better than the regular Joes who don’t harbor such illusions.

People who are not trained in design don’t know what criteria to use to judge a design. They lean on their personal preferences, and that’s it. Will this appeal to our target demographic? Will this reproduce well on a tiny badge? How about a billboard? How about as a vehicle graphic? On a silk-screened T-shirt? Is this communicating what our company is all about?

Having good taste is not nearly enough. There are practical concerns designers think about when creating their proposals. (The good ones do, at least.)

Artists and designers: there are better things you can do than to engage in a contest

I know that the promise of a lucrative “reward” is tempting. It might be ten times the amount you’re currently charging for similar projects. For 99% of contestants it’s not worth it. That 1% probably won’t be you. Contests are a lottery, no matter how good we may feel about our skills. (And losing a contest can put a significant dent on your confidence.)

Use this time to work on your own creative projects—that will pay off much better.

Here’s why spending time on a personal project is better than wasting it on a contest:

  • Your personal project will be a great portfolio piece. Losing contest entries don’t make good portfolio pieces. (Do you want your potential client to see you as a loser?)
  • Your personal project will give you fulfillment and joy. Losing contest entries will leave you with bitterness and disappointment.
  • Your personal projects give you a reputation of a dedicated self-starter. Contest entries give you the reputation of a person willing to do free work.
  • You might even earn money from your personal project, if people like it. Unless you win the contest, your piece will likely not be a money maker.
  • Personal projects give you the greatest creative freedom possible. Work done on a brief with an uneducated, meddling, nitpicky client isn’t nearly as fun.
  • Time invested in your personal creative practice is never wasted. Time wasted on a project that didn’t fly will haunt you.

When you’re tempted to join a contest, ask yourself: How can I use this time to give value to even more people?

Create something beautiful and publish it. Do a community project. Help someone who needs it really badly. Mentor those less experienced and less fortunate than you.

You don’t need contests to make your big break and get on the radar of potential clients. In my personal experience, personal projects run with dedication and passion do the job much better. And if you want to get more client references for your portfolio, volunteering for a cause is much more beneficial to you, and to our community.

Don’t wait to be chosen from a lineup. Ride the wave of your inspiration and create in a way that only you can.


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4 responses to “Design contests suck. Don’t do them.”

  1. Hi Nela! It’s a good thing I read this, it made me feel better. I also find it kind of weird because I have a friend who apparently enters in these kinds of contests and he always wins them. And he’s a graphic designer. It baffles me.

    On the other hand, I have a question. I’m a college student and I’ve seen scholarships where in order to win them, you need to submit a design. Do you apply the same response you’ve said in your article to scholarships? I’d just like your advice on that.

    Once again, well said article! :)

  2. Thank you, Claudine!
    Interesting to hear about your friend – I don’t know anyone personally who consistently wins contests. I wonder what his tips for entering contests would be :)

    Hmm, I didn’t know scholarship contests were a thing. That depends, who is running the contest, an educational institution or a private company? Are you required to create a new custom design for them, or are you able to submit previous work? How many winners are there? How important is it for you to get this scholarship?
    You may be able to earn this money by doing freelance work instead. But I know education is terribly expensive, and I don’t want to deter you from something that could make it easier for you, if you feel optimistic about it. It’s a very personal decision and sometimes there’s a gray area.

  3. Good point! Just today i’ve discussed with someone about the photography contests and how the companies use them to get a cheap promo material.

  4. Thanks for chiming in, Luka :)

    Oh yeah, I’ve actually worked for a tourist agency who organized a Facebook photo contest in order to get free photos to use on their websites.
    One person noticed the shady terms of use and voiced their concerns, and then the social media manager lied something about the terms of use being from the contest app, not from the company, and “we’re not able to change them”, bla bla bla. That was pretty terrible. Our boss was a huge jerk, and he had a ton of “bright” ideas like this. Warning him about it being unethical made no difference.

    Creatives should be extremely wary of any terms of use they’re agreeing to when submitting their work, and *never* join a contest that stipulates the organizer gets the right to use your work regardless of whether you win.

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