Whether you’re a designer or a client, I’m sure you’ve heard of these things called design contests. Also called crowdsourcing or spec work, websites like 99designs, CrowdSpring, among dozens of others, dot our graphic design landscape. And they’re here to stay, unfortunately.
And I’m sure, either as a designer or a client, that they’ve had a certain pull or power over you. Or at the very least, you’ve been curious about them.
If you’re a young, aspiring designer, who possibly might be desperate for work or new clients, the promise of winning one might seem too tempting to resist.
And if you’re a client, who possibly might be running a new start-up with a shoestring budget, the possibilities are endless and the promise of paying bottom-dollar for hundreds of designs might seem too good to be true.
But it is.
Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, designer or client, the dangers and evils of design contests cannot be ignored. I’ll break down both of them for you.
This week we’re focusing on why they’re bad for the designers involved, and next week, I’ll talk about the specific risks to the clients that use them. Yes, design contests are, arguably, even worse in the long run for clients.
And if you’re a designer, and you just loooove design contests, great, more power to you. Feel free to skip this article. I’m trying to reach out to those who haven’t yet been tainted by contests, who might simply be considering them. I’m here to warn you before you jump in.
There are some things you may not know about these contests. While they may seem fair or fun on the surface, when you think about it they really aren’t. Here’s why:
I did some poking around, and it turns out the average chance of winning one of these design contests can range between .2% (that’s less than 1%) up to 10%.
Think about that.
Imagine working hard, and submitting 100 designs, which probably took you at least 100 hours, and only getting paid for less than 10 of those. And that’s if you’re lucky. The average chance of you winning any contest is roughly 5%. Which means the chance of losing is 95%…doesn’t sound like good odds to me.
And to make matters worse, even if a payment is “guaranteed,” there’s also a high chance that the contest will be abandoned; i.e., the person holding the contest cancels it or backs out. So no one gets paid. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
While there might be the oddball person who can feasibly make a decent enough living by doing this full time, they have to work their ass off for scraps. The average payout is usually in the neighborhood of $300 for a logo (just to use an example), which, while not bad, you have to factor in how many logos (and hours) it took to get paid for just that one.
Let’s use an example of someone winning 9 logo competitions out of 146, which is 6% (about average).
Each logo netted them $300. $300 x 9 = $2,700. Not bad.
But wait, they actually designed 146 logos, not just 9. So each logo technically was worth $18.49. Err….I just hope each one didn’t take them much more than an hour to do, because otherwise they’d be working minimum wage.
Remember, as a designer, you are a service provider. And as service providers, ALL we have is our time. Your time is valuable, and should be fairly compensated.
As service providers, ALL we have is our time. Click To Tweet
Imagine going to a restaurant, and ordering 10 different dishes.
You try each one, and decide on the entrée that you enjoy the most, and finish eating that one. Yet when the check comes you only want to pay for the one you actually finished. Outrageous? Well, that’s exactly what’s happening when designers participate in design contests.
No other industry does this.
I don’t go to 5 different dentists and have them do 5 different fillings to see which one I want to pay for.
I don’t have 20 different plumbers come to my house and I pay the one who I think unclogged my husband’s toilet the best.
Why is it our industry that gets exploited like this? It’s up to us as designers to not feed the monster, and refuse to participate in it. Other service professionals don’t do spec work, and neither should we.
When you, as a designer, work for free (which is essentially what design contests are), you inadvertently cheapen our work.
AIGA, the professional association for design, holds a very strong stance again spec work (design contests), and for good reason.
If we want clients to value our work and time, we need to value it first, by not participating in things like design contests. If someone wants something designed, they need to pay you, just like any other professional service provider.
Have you ever heard of Grace Oris? She’s another designer I follow, and she wrote an amazing blog post about her experience working for 99designs (probably the largest, most well-known online design contest website).
She described how she entered into all these contests, and wouldn’t win. She would become disheartened, about to give up, and then BOOM! She’d win one.
The joy and elation she felt would give her the energy to enter more, and the cycle would repeat.
The highs and lows she described sounded like a drug addict looking for their next high, or someone addicted to gambling. Interestingly enough, there is a very real phenomenon called “intermittent reinforement,” in which a behavior is more strongly enforced if it is rewarded only sometimes.
Since winning a contest is unpredictable and rarely happens, it reinforces the addictive nature of it. Do you want to be an addict, looking for your next fix?
I get it. You’re a design student, with no experience. Maybe you’re just starting out and need some portfolio pieces. Maybe the economy took a dump and you’re desperate for work, any work.
I know the feeling.
However, design contests are not the way to go.
This may sound harsh, but I believe it’s the lazy way out.
And by lazy I don’t mean you’re not working hard, churning out designs for them. Hardly. But it’s lazy in the sense that it, as a solution to your problem, it doesn’t require much creativity.
You can sit at home and enter these contests with the click of a mouse. There’s no real risk involved.
On the other hand, putting yourself out there and getting real clients…I don’t know about you, but that still scares the shit out of me.
Networking is hard. Working on your SEO, that is hard. Sharpening your design skills and getting real constructive feedback, that sucks sometimes. Thinking long and hard about your marketing plan isn’t fun. Following leads and meeting potential clients, that takes work and effort. And you will get rejected. That’s hard.
But you have to do it; it’s the only way to really build up your portfolio, reputation, and business.
Flip burgers in the meantime if you have to, just please don’t give in to the temptation of contests. Here’s a great article on how to find clients if you’re still struggling that involves zero spec work.
You can still get experience, still get portfolio pieces, and still get clients, in an honest way. If you’re willing to put the work in, you can do it.
So, it should be pretty obvious that design contests are always a risky gamble for the designer, period.
But what about for the client? Surely it’s a win-win for them at least.
Are you a designer that has done design contests? What was your experience like? Do you think our industry should celebrate contests, or shun them and encourage others to do so?