Spec work & design contest pyramid

Design contest sites market themselves as better value than working with traditional designers, due in part to the raw number of designs contest holders will receive. But is a more for less mentality an effective way to get a logo designed?

Gotta admit, when you read ‘300 submissions’ to this or that logo design contest, it represents a pretty hefty number. For a client it seems like great value – a couple of hundred submissions for a couple of hundred bucks.

Choice, choice, choice. The audaciousness of choice.

For designers who have opted out of participating in design contests it represents a fairly daunting statistic. How can the freelance designer or small design firm possibly compete with the sheer volume that design buyers are likely to receive if they run a contest on a so-called design crowdsourcing site?

Truth is, we don’t have to.

The numbers advertised (ie: 99designs were originally named after the number of designs, on average, that are submitted to their contests. Crowdspring claims 110+ concepts) are a hodge-podge of design, of various levels of usability (or salvageability if you will) that we’ll break down using our handy-dandy pyramid infographic above. Granted, the chart is completely unscientific and arbitrary, but does represent some casual observations we’ve made over the years.

Unusable concepts

To be charitable, and at the risk of being called a snooty designer, the vast majority of logo concepts submitted to design contests are absolute crap. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – most contest sites have absolutely no vetting process and advertise membership to their sites in the same way as those ‘Make Money Online’ spam e-mails we get every couple of hours. As in “design for our clients and make money online”.
Design Contest Value Pyramid DetailWhile crowdsourcing sites like to tell us anyone can design logos – grannies and janitors has actually been used in the press – that’s not entirely true. On top of some talent and design sensibilities, there’s also technical know-how that’s necessary to pull off a successful logo and most people in this category simply don’t have it. When the only requirement to ‘have a go’ at a design contest is an e-mail account, you can rest assured that the majority of people signing up have no idea what they’re doing. It is the nature of the internet. It is the nature of people.

Sub-par concepts.

Having said that, there’s lots of people with working knowledge of Illustrator and.or Photoshop who also pitch their wares into contests. The contest holder stands a better chance of obtaining something of worth from this category – these enthusiastic folks can probably cobble together what looks like a logo. But are these logos any good? Are they worth the couple of hundred the contest holder has plucked down to get things rolling? I’m not entirely convinced. One of the pro-contest talking points is that they’re a great way for inexperienced designers to learn how to design.

“What ‘value’ is there in paying for dozens of designers, who may or may not have a clue what they’re doing, to learn how to design, while designing your new company logo?”

That’s cool and all, but these would-be designers are learning in live gigs, and technically on the contest holder’s dime. That’s not bagging on the designers who are trying – my hat goes off to them – but are they able to create decent logos at every contest, sometimes dozens at a time, they enter? Even an experienced logo designer would be foolish to make that claim. And as the theme of this blog post is the ‘value’ of logo design contests, what ‘value’ is there in paying for dozens of designers, who may or may not have a clue what they’re doing, to learn how to design, while designing your new company logo?

Stock art, clip art and ideas from somewhere else

The amount of clip art, stock art and ideas pinched from other sources that get entered into logo design contests is staggering. What do you expect? When people only have a slight chance of getting paid (if their design is selected) many put in the effort that is commensurate with working for free.

That’s human nature.

When you combine this with the anonymous aspect of most design contest sites, it’s practically guaranteed that stock art (usually not licensed for logos), clip art (ditto) and pinched artwork will end up in most logo design contests. No big deal (as long as you catch the infringing designs) but does (at best) eliminating copied logos from your contest or (at worst) selecting a knocked-off logo, have any bearing on the value of same? I’d think not. The boasted ‘drenched in design’ ain’t looking so hot now is it? But wait, we ain’t finished yet…

Recycled concepts from previous contests

This one is becoming more and more prevalent as designers who have entered hundreds of contests (often without winning any) begin to stock-pile unused design concepts. When working on spec (ie: getting paid only when your design is selected) what would you prefer to do – spend an awful lot of time coming up with unique concepts each and every time, or dip into the reservoir of unloved concepts that are collecting digital dust on your hard drive?

I know which one I’d pick.

Maybe, after entering the same logo in 1, 5 or 10 contests, someone might actually pick it, huh? Nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s one step away from picking a stock logo, and doesn’t lend itself to the supposed ‘value’ of running a logo design contest.

Quality, original ideas,

Sure, there are some decent designers on crowdsourcing sites, and as much as it pains me to admit, you’ll probably find some quality, original ideas pitched during the duration of most design contests. However, the number will be a small fraction of the overall tally. And there’s where the true value lies of running a logo design contest – denoted in our pyramid infographic by a small yellow triangle. But does obtaining such a small sample of quality original ideas equate to the ‘more for less’ value as boasted by contest sites? From where I sit, and using my admittedly old-fashioned financial filters, it certainly doesn’t. Wading through an immense sea of unusable concepts to (hopefully) find a pearl seems like a terrible waste of a lot of people’s time, including that of the contest holder.

You’d be better of working one-on-one with a freelance or design firm and see that itty-bitty yellow triangle get a lot bigger.