Design Contests: Opportunity or Manipulation?

A recent happening at Smashing Magazine has sparked my interest in the issue of running a design contest in order to solicit designs to use as commercial identity. Smashing posted a request not too long ago asking for submissions in a logo design contest to create the identity of their magazine. It has since ended, and although there were over a hundred submissions, there was also those who disagreed with the process. The discussion in the comments of the first post is indication enough that there is divide among the artistic community as to the proper response when presented with this sort of opportunity.

But is it an opportunity? I’d like to take the time to set down some of my thoughts and see what I really think about it.

The Offer

The idea behind these contests is for whoever is running it to be able to pick and choose among (what they hope will be) many entries vying for the prize. The prize in many cases is something that will appeal to the particular crowd of designers – in the case of Smashing it was a 250 gig external hard drive. The reward also included recognition of the designer’s name on the footer of every page of Smashing’s site.

Those Who Like It

Young or inexperienced designers are usually going to be attracted to this sort of thing. It’s an opportunity for them because it requires no previous design experience or a portfolio of any sort; you are offered a level playing field against experienced designers. Of course the blade cuts both ways, and experienced designers don’t get the credit they should for being able to design quality work. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can definitely understand the appeal of throwing your proverbial hat into the ring of a design contest. Besides being a chance to exercise your creative juices, the contests are usually risk free. There are lots of entries and you won’t be scoffed at if you happen to be among those who aren’t chosen. The ego of an artist is a very delicate thing, especially in the design world, and one of the most timid places to be is at the beginning of your career as a designer with little experience and no portfolio. How can anyone not understand the appeal of a design contest – especially a fairly prolific one such as Smashing Magazine’s.

Those Who Don’t Like It

On the other end of the spectrum are the seasoned designers. I would group in anyone who has a solid experience in the design world and an understanding of how everything works. Such a group might bring up the AIGA position on spec work. I must admit that before seeing it mentioned in the comments at Smashing I wasn’t aware of it, but it is a very interesting read. Here’s some:

AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.

I find it very difficult to disagree with their stance. The AIGA is the professional assocation for design, and has been for over 90 years. This makes a lot of sense.

Think of another profession, any respected profession, where the work is asked for before payment is given. Imagine requesting that 10 contractors all go to work on your house and you will pay someone at the end – whoever’s work meets your approval. Or imagine asking for treatment from three doctors and only paying the one who’s diagnosis you liked? So you see how silly it is that designers should be asked to work without the promise of pay?

The Divide

Again, it’s a sticky situation. There are good reasons for both sides. I’ve been on both sides, and I know there are good reasons. But there does seem to be something important about new designers choosing a solid professional philosophy when walking into the field.

Designers: don’t let your professional integrity be challenged for the sake of a business or company’s shallow pockets. Respect your work enough to require payment for services. Believe me, your work is well sought after. There is work for you out there. At the same time, take calculated risks. Not everything will pay well, if at all. Some opportunities are just that – opportunities. Some are too good to pass up. If everything was as cut and dry as a statement of policy like AIGA’s above, no one would have work. Work on developing your instincts and trust them. Sometimes in the design field that’s all you have to go on.

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2 thoughts on “Design Contests: Opportunity or Manipulation?

  1. I’m not bothered by design-for-glory competitions. There’s a lot to be said for community involvement – Slashdot is a great example here. Their current design (a Web 2.0-ish riff on the classic layout that hadn’t changed yet this millennium) was spiffed up by a member who received an ultra-snazzy Mac Pro in return for his work.

    Even so, I don’t know many designers who have the time to participate in such contests.

    But in the case of Smashing…a 250gb external hard drive? Fry’s is selling a 250gb Seagate (internal) for just $50. A good USB 2.0 enclosure can be had for about $25.

    Unless I can redesign their site during a few lunch breaks with a guaranteed win, I think I’ll pass.

    Here’s wishing you a contemplative triduum!

  2. An interesting read, Ryan.

    Thanks for the visit and pointing me towards your article here. It does seem to cause a divide amongst designers, and you’re right that it’s not cut and dry.

    They’re not for me however, and personally don’t think they’re good for business.

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