Saturday, May 1, 2010

Are Design Contests Worth The Risk?

I've been a graphic designer now a little more than twelve years and have spent nearly two years in my own graphic design business. I follow various experts of my industry to learn more about what it means to be a graphic designer for either print or web, what is good and bad graphic design, and how I may continue to improve my skills and knowledge. In the past two weeks I've read numerous pro and con posts about design contests from various sources, including those I regularly follow. This post is my recap on what I've read and understood.

First, my overall assessment of graphic design, be it for the web or print: it is a vehicle for communication by which the trained professional studies the design problem, researches various ideas and draws several conclusions that communicate the new idea effectively in both color and black/white solutions.

Now here's my recap:

I can see where design contests do have a place within the design industry. It's a good opportunity for up and coming designers to have their work showcased and critiqued, and if chosen, awarded. It's also a good stopping point to view work done by others and to see how many levels they have taken their own investigation.

Some of these sites I've visited have several postings by the same artist; some tweaked a little, some a different color, and once in a while, a grayscale or black/white comp thrown in to show the new design will work in both color and black/white mediums. Sometimes this is done for students in art schools to give them an opportunity to show off their talent and gain a little notoriety. Contests run through an art school I have no problem with and did participate in such myself when I was enrolled.

Unfortunately for many new artists, this is where the good points stop.

I see many tweets daily from web sites posting contests or job postings (even if the word "contest" isn't specifically used, it's still a contest) in which the prospective entrant must post at least one solution/comp within the specified time frame in order to be considered for the "award" (winnings). I took a final look at one such posting this afternoon with new eyes, and here's my breakdown:

"I (the poster may or may not state their name or company name) need a logo designed for this new project (states project). If interested you must post at least one sample ("I don't want to see previous work" - I actually read this!) to be entered. The budget for this project is $xx, or low (I saw one as low as $20!) At the end of the time frame I'll announce the designer to receive the award (winnings). In return your work will be posted for all the world to see but you will probably not receive one penny for the work you have provided. Thank you."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the summary is true: you are giving up work for free, also known as speculative work, highly frowned upon within the professional industry. Please read the AIGA's stance on this issue at

Along with this idea comes another random thought: who owns the artwork now? Once you have entered one of these contests, you surrender the right to own that piece you created; if you were not the winner, you also didn't get paid for what you created. You may be able to use it in your portfolio, but use with great care and label it accordingly. You might set up a specific page on your web site that showcases these pieces separately from work you were actually contracted to create and received due payment.

Want more to think about? Let's say you want to advertise such a contest yourself. How do you know the piece turned in by a designer is one they have actually designed? Too often a designer may be in a rush and may "borrow" or "use" an idea from the internet or other source. As a contest poster, you must be very careful that the work you choose to be the winner was indeed not stolen. One such was to try and avoid this is to do as much research on the contestant as is humanly possible. If they have a website, view their work and see if it's similar in style to the contest piece. You may also want to try and Google for the logo and see if something similar turns up. This can be time-consuming so tread carefully. After reading this post, if anyone has any other methods for determining fraudulent use of art I will be glad to post separately from this article.

In conclusion: I agree with the experts I follow. Design contests are not a good method for getting your work seen, and there's too much risk in not getting paid for your efforts. If you design a piece, you should be paid accordingly for it. Period.

My thanks to Chris Spooner (@chrisspooner), David Airey (@davidairey and @logodesignlove), Jacob Cass (@justcreative), and Preston D. Lee (@prestondlee and @designblender) for their informative, well-thought out articles and examples that will continue to guide me through my journey.