Why I Don't Do Design Contests
Updated: May 18
Recently I received a message from a well-meaning friend alerting me to a design contest for a brewery we both like. As I always do when this happens, I replied that I appreciate your thinking of me, but design contests are actually an unethical form of exploiting creatives.
"What?" you might be thinking. How is a design contest bad? Tons of artists and designers have a chance to get their work out there. Wouldn't it be cool to get your art on a craft beer label? How awesome would it be to have a logo you designed be selected to represent a new brand?
I totally get how people outside the creative community would think this is great. I also get how people just starting out in the art or design world would be completely thrilled to participate. This is why I don't publicly berate businesses that hold such contests (unless it's a really big company that should know better). Instead, I usually roll my eyes and let it go or occasionally send a private, politely worded message with an explanation similar to what I'm about to write here.
What if I went to a brewery, ordered five different drinks, and told them I'd only be paying for the one I liked best?
First, let me explain how a design contest usually works. A business announces the contest along with the parameters of what they're looking for. Artists and designers submit their work by the deadline, after which the business chooses which piece they like best. The winner gets a prize, usually no more than $100 and "exposure" of their work. The business, which now owns all rights to the design, uses it however they see fit.
Still doesn't sound too awful, does it? Well, what if I went to the above mentioned brewery, ordered five different drinks, and told them I'd only be paying for the one I liked best? Or what if you hired a bunch of plumbing companies and had them each fix one of your sinks or toilets, and whoever did the best wins a contract to remodel your bathroom while the others get no payment (but you'll tell all your friends about them ... they can buy themselves something nice with all that exposure).
Now, let me break it down from the artists' perspective. The business is getting mostly free labor (and often free publicity in local media outlets). They're not taking the time to do the client work of filling out a creative brief or providing feedback. They're taking finished work and running with whatever they like best. Just because a creative person enjoys their craft doesn't mean it should be treated as a hobby. They put their valuable time into this and should be compensated appropriately. Contest winners barely see anything close to fair compensation. The contest described above wasn't even paying real money ... just a gift certificate to their own brewery. And no, "exposure" is not money. The business will profit from this creative work. The payment should always be guaranteed, not hypothetical.
But if creatives are entering these contests willingly, what's the harm? They know the work may never be used and that they may end up not making money. They just want to practice their craft and get their names out there. The problem is, the people entering these contests are often young, inexperienced designers desperate to make a splash in the industry and start getting some real work. I've been there, so I understand that mindset. However, there are better ways to do this. Creatives just starting out should volunteer their services to local non-profits who need a logo, mural, or something else. They should build a portfolio with work for organizations that need a hand rather than those who can afford to pay but are just being cheap. Otherwise, they're feeding into a race to the bottom where creative work is further devalued.
So, if you're a business owner, what's a better approach to soliciting art and design work? Instead of a contest, hold an open portfolio call. Don't ask for people to do the work ahead of time, not knowing if it will ever be used. Just ask for samples of previous work. That way, you can see who is a good fit for your vision. Select the best artist and negotiate a fair price based on the scope of the project, the timeline, and all those other things professionals use to determine their rates. This is more effort on the business owners' end, but it's worth it. Taking the time to work closely with an agency or freelancer who knows their value means they also know the best process for getting the job done right. That's the opposite of what you'll get sifting through work by young artists taking creative guesses for the chance at a hundred bucks.
I hope this post helps more people understand why design contests are a raw deal for everyone involved. To those friends who have sent me design contest links in the past, let me reiterate that I truly do appreciate you for thinking of me. But honestly, I want to work only with people who understand the value of creativity. This work has real value, and creatives deserve to be paid what they're worth.