Design contests - the buyer's perspective

Get over it hater – went the e-mails – design contests are here to stay. Evolve or die. Are we missing the point about spec work & crowdsourcing and is it the future of design?

Shouldn’t be surprised really. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a fairly in-depth article addressing one of my pet peeves – are logo design contest sites legal – which garnered quite a lot of attention via Facebook, blog and forum links. The majority of comments on the feature agreed with my basic (though admittedly non-lawyer) premise, that some logo design contest sites may be skirting applicable contest laws when it comes to the way they conduct their ‘business.’ Others took offense, and I received quite a few e-mails informing me why my opinion was woefully out-to-lunch, and into which orifice I could insert it. Somehow I had missed the market-forces supply and demand angle of the phenomenon – disruption they call it – and was being a ‘cry-baby’ (among other things,) whining about a natural development of the internet, the capitalist system, and the graphic design industry itself. Like the dope that I am, I just wasn’t ‘getting it’ and like many outdated sages before me, should ‘evolve or die’ (one memorable quote.)

The benefits to contest holders?

It was if I had taken on a sacred cow, and the very freedom of the Western World (and a good chunk of the Eastern) were at stake. Many e-mails claimed that I was missing the point – that design contests allowed small ‘mom and pop’ enterprises to get a great logo, selected from dozens of choices, while paying far less than the going rate. Fair enough I suppose. Could it be that I’m simply shortsighted? The eyes are going a little bit – the new bifocals will attest to that. At the end of the day, are there benefits to the ‘client’ of logo contest sites, and am I simply missing the entire point of the exercise? Some folks think so –

“It’s true that 90 out of 100 logo entries are poor, but the client can eliminate the really bad ones. This is simply supply and demand working at its best. Not every business owner can afford to work with a professional designer and by holding a logo contest, the client can have hundreds of designs to choose from while staying on a small budget.”

Wasn’t really up for a spec work debate, but not much else going on, so what the hey. Okay, so let’s take a look at this issue from a client’s point-of-view, keeping in mind the end goal of all logo design contests – a decent mark that’s worthy of representing this or that company. A unique piece of graphic real estate that stands out in the crowd. Notice the emphasis on unique. On two contests running right now (on a high-profile design contest site,) there’s an identical design (from the same designer) entered into both. Trouble is, that logo is a blatant knock-off of yet another design that won a different contest last week. Happens so often that designers are advised (in the Terms of Service) not to discuss these kind of issues ‘in the open’ – as it might make the site look ‘bad’ – but often ignore this ‘suggestion’ and get into very public skirmishes about who ‘copied’ whom in the comment threads. This is frowned upon by site owners, for obvious reasons (and more often than not, the comments are quickly redacted by admins,) but the process isn’t exactly as transparent as the site owners would have us believe.

Keep in mind that I found the examples I refer to within a few minutes of knocking around, and personal experience has shown me this happens all the time, on every contest site there is. We’ve even had loads of unauthorized knock-offs of our work  entered into logo contests (they even win from time-to-time) before other particpants, and then the contest holder, discovered the origins of the design. Alas, when a design project is driven down to the Darwinesque ‘suppply and demand’ model that pro-contest folks seem so fond of – this stuff is bound to happen.

Entering the same design, in as many contests as possible (until it does win) is the only way that the system can work for designers – from a financial point-of-view anyway. People like to carp about “market forces” and what-not. Well here they are, working to the designer’s benefit. Not so much for the ‘client’ who is being told that a design contest is a professional alternative – in some cases a superior one – to working with a designer or design firm one-on-one.

The problem is that it isn’t.

Lots of chaff. Little wheat.

People who are pro-contests talk about the number of designs made available – like some Bulk Barn of Logos – as if that is somehow germane to whether the system works or not. Or if it’s any factor in deciding what a good logo is worth. It isn’t – a large percentage of the logos presented are poor, rudimentary and some even include photographs pinched from other sources (the stuff of copyright and reproduction nightmares). Not that this should be any surprise – these are the kind of mistakes that one would expect of ‘newbie designers and hobbyists‘ (as designers are described by a contest site owner in the comment section of a related Graphic Push post). Boasting that someone can get 99 or so designs – when 95 of those designs are demonstrably poor – may be a great way to market to people’s greed, but it is NOT an effective way to develop a company logo. In simple terms, selecting the best of a bad batch is certainly not a sensible approach to anything that I’m aware of.

Releasing a developing logo on internet.

Regarding the contest model, there’s one very big problem that no-one’s seen fit to mention – the framework of the model itself – splattering design concepts all over a publicly available forum. Logo design projects generally happen behind closed doors, with only the final version being made public. There’s a very pragmatic reason for that – during any logo project, there’s a ton of preliminary designs, concepts, variants and derivative works, all of which are close to the final, but just different enough to be confusing in the copyright and/or trademark department. These ‘close but no cigar’ designs are socked safely away to avoid potential feuds about who owns what, and who had what first.

Intellectual property basics really.

To keep ownership hassles down to a minimum, only the final version hits the public eye and only after certain protections – prior use, trademark registration and/or copyright ownership are in place (we don’t feature any of our client’s work in our logo design gallery until it’s protected for that very reason.)  Steal that final design and it’s pretty cut-and-dry in the legal department. In a contest, people are free to steal preliminary designs, derivatives, slight variations – a virtual grab bag of logo concepts that would be ever-so-appealing to ethically challenged folks who’re not above partaking in the first place. These preliminary designs (as well as the final logo itself) are available on a public forum from the get-to, released into the ‘wild’ before any protections are in place, and before ‘prior use’ can be established.

“What’s to stop me stealing a derivative design, changing it slightly, establishing first use and then demanding that the contest holder not use their own design because it’s too close to my newly registered logo? Ethics aside, nothing at all.”

What’s to stop me stealing a derivative design, changing it slightly, establishing first use and then demanding that the contest holder not use their design because it’s too close to my newly registered logo? Ethics aside, nothing at all. This just can’t happen when a client works with an experienced designer or graphic design firm.

The source for template logos.

Often, many logos that are featured on logo design contest sites find their way into collections of “ready-made” template logos, either pinched outright, or sold by the designers themselves for a few bucks (ever wonder where logo template sites get a lot of their offerings? Shouldn’t surprise you to find out that it’s from logo design contests.) Take a stroll through any of these contest – ‘designers’ aren’t terribly sure about what constitutes conflicting ownership in the first place. There’s tons of examples where designers – often at the request of ‘contest holders – pinch various design elements from other designers (often resulting in wails of protest in the comment threads – quickly nuked by site administrators, ever mindful of ‘looking bad’.) As a result, who actually owns the various derivative designs becomes extremely muddy. As most of the designers (except for the ‘winner’) aren’t paid. they’d argue – with some validity – that as no-one actually paid them for their work, it’s theirs to do with what they see fit. And that’s exactly what the designer ‘guidelines’ say. Accordingly, no one has any idea where these derivative designs – (sometimes strikingly similar to the selected final version) will end up.

Same logos. Different contests.

As I mentioned earlier, duplicate designs have a habit of showing up in multiple contests. Who’s held responsible when ownership goes awry? That’s not clear – the site owner’s TOS states that they’re not responsible for the behavior of their ‘designers’ – though as they’re also collecting a contest fee, I’d expect that “those guys are” isn’t worth the HTML it’s written in. They might not ‘want ‘ to be responsible, but if my experience in business is any measure, the minute you take a fee, you’re legally culpable to some degree. It’s like the nightclub coat check that insists they’re not responsible for your leather jacket after taking five bucks to look after it. They are. The ‘we’re not responsible’ sign stops 95% of people who’ve found their coats missing, from suing. Same goes for the car wash that just tore your windshield wipers off.

They’ll pay to fix it, despite their claims to the contrary.

Logo contest sites could avoid all of this – if they cared one iota about their ‘clients’ or their ‘designers’ – by ‘locking out’ contests from public view and more importantly, search engines. They don’t, as the logo design search engine ‘hits’ they get from a mass of listings in Google are far more important than protecting their ‘clients’ or ‘designers’ properties. They hope that by finding the contest in a search engine, and seeing the myriad of designs offered up, more business owners can be convinced to host their own contest. It’s a never-ending spiral of limiting protections for ‘clients’, the ‘designers’ and the end product itself. These sites are designed for one thing, and one thing only. To collect the percentage contest ‘fee’ while actually doing as little as possible for it.

Zero labor overhead makes for profitable business.

I understand why these ‘design crowdsourcing‘ entrepreneurs would set up these sites. What I don’t understand is why ‘designers’ play along, or why ‘clients’ – often completely overwhelmed by the process itself – would think that this is a good way to develop one of the most important investments their fledgling company will make in the branding and marketing department.

Their logo.

Not that I’m entirely sympathetic – the number of ‘closed’ contests – without a winner being chosen, or the ‘client’ being ‘disappointed’ – is staggering. Seems many take these sites’ advice about abandoning contests quite literally. One contest holder decided to close his/her contest (for a web interface) after receiving dozens of entries, because – and I’m not making this up – ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Here’s one comment that I snagged just before a recent contest had closed. Apparently the contest holder had made some PM requests that a contest entrant had found to be ethically challenged, and the designer had subsequently withdrew his entries. –

“If it’s gonna be like that, fine. I’ll tweak your idea, and not pay you since you have withdrawn it. Do me a favor and don’t submit anymore designs, I don’t want to waste your time.”

That’s right – the designer withdrew his entry but the contest holder was going to use it anyway. Without paying. You don’t have to take my word for it – root around these sites yourself. Read the comments. Check out the designs. Search for various keywords.

It’s all there out in the open. It just takes a little work to connect the dots.