How To Win A Design Contest
Max out your chances of winning that illusive contest prize!
Sure, graphic design used to be about jobs and stuff, but apparently, with logo design contests and so-called crowdsourcing sites, ‘hoping to get paid’ is the ‘new reality’ that we all have to deal with. Anything else is “defending the status quo”. And oh yeah, we have to ‘evolve’ too. See here’s the thing – talent and experience used to get you by. Not anymore, because when it comes to design contests, neither the best designs or the best designers are guaranteed to win. Most contests are a mess of contradictory direction from the ‘buyer’, a pile of disparate submissions and entries and sadly, being a good designer is seldom enough to win that vaunted prize.
Accordingly, we though we’d feature an article aimed at designers that will help them maximize their chances of winning some lovely loot on crowdsourcing and design contest sites. You know, in keeping with our theme of helping everyone out. Without further ado, here’s 18 things that you can do to maximize your chances of winning a logo contest.
1: Forget about clever or original ideas.
Logo design contests aren’t about presenting clever ideas that ‘work’. They’re about presenting pictures that the buyer ‘likes’. Accordingly, don’t try to come up with original ideas or clever concepts. Save them for paying customers (if you have any left.) You see, any really clever ideas that do fly, will only be poached by other designers, and the ‘buyer’ doesn’t really care who came up with the idea first. By being original and clever, you only run the risk off helping someone else win prize money that’s rightfully yours when they take your idea, throw in some new fonts and put the icon beside the typography, rather than above it. Bottom line – it’s much more profitable to be a ‘poacher’ than a ‘poachee’. Make sure you only copy the basic concept of a potentially winning logo, not the execution of the design itself (so that you don’t fall victim to Tip #7 – Totally Rat Out Your Contest Mates). And if there’s no ideas to poach, and you insist on entering your own clever idea, make sure you wait till the last minute before submitting it into the contest. Remember what I said about ‘poachee’ and ‘poacher’? There’s cash on the line – now’s not the time to start supplying others with your ideas. I’ll say it again…
2: Wait till the last minute.
People holding contests very rarely select a logo that squares with their original request. Once they’ve been presented with a whole bunch of logos, all of which illustrate why their first idea isn’t any good, they’ll change course dramatically after receiving about 20 – 30 entries. Don’t be one of those unpaid suckers that waste their time helping the ‘buyer’ realize that. Wait till later on, even up to the very last minute. Not only does this technique save you oodles of time over conceptualizing your own ideas – you’ll be able to poach ideas from other folks’ logos – but your designs will be at the top of the first page at contest close. Meanwhile, the poor saps who’ve been slogging it out all along will see their entries buried 4 pages deep. long erased from the buyer’s mind. You the know the way people bid-snipe on eBay. Same sort of idea.
Bonus tip – add a ton of micro-variations of your proposals right at the last minute. Simple color changes. Move text and icon portions around a bit. By entering a lot of variations of your design at the last minute, you’ll bury your competitors logos ‘below the fold’ (good) or even onto a ‘next’ page. (better). See Design Contest Necromancy for more details on this valuable technique.
3: Hurry up. No, REALLY hurry up!
If my figures are accurate at all, you run between a 7% and 9% chance of winning ANY logo design contest. Sorry, but that’s it – regardless of how much fun and riches you’re promised. While the tips we’ll discuss here will up your chances significantly, they’ll still be about 87% lower than a real paying gig. So, keep that in mind when you’re creating your new logo submission. This isn’t about design. It certainly isn’t about winning awards. And it isn’t about helping the ‘buyer’ brand their new company. Logo design contests are about winning. And making money. Accordingly, don’t spend too much time on any single submission – it’s just not worth it. The idea probably won’t win, it will be poached by other ‘creatives’, stolen by people trawling the internet looking for ideas to post into logo design contests they’re entering, pinched by logo template sites and it’s probably been right-clicked by the contest holder themselves the minute it was posted. Last but not least – you’ve given a non-exclusive, irrevocable license to the contest site itself (while these ‘licenses’ probably aren’t terribly enforceable, it’s difficult to get your work removed from the contest galleries once it’s up there) so if you’re going to give up a precious design, it’s probably better to give up one that didn’t take too much time.
Spend no longer than 30 minutes on each contest submission. 30 minutes isn’t too much time to give up for the chance of winning $300, and if you do win, you’re getting paid about $230 per hour (once you factor in file prep and what-not). That’s not too bad in the coinage department now, is it? Unfortunately, once you factor in ALL the design contests you have to enter in order to win one, that figure will drop to about $2.75 per hour. We’re still trying to figure out how to get around this one.
4: Chatty ‘contest holder’ will tell you what they want. Wait until they do
Once ‘contest holders’ have posted a ‘creative brief’ for their project, they can’t re-write it, even though they WILL completely change their mind by the time the contest closes. Because the ‘creative brief’ is static, changes to the direction take place in the comment section of any design contest. Only idiots start designing after reading the brief rather than waiting until the ‘buyer’ figures out what they want. Not you. You’re going to wait and see what direction the contest is going, read the buyer’s comments carefully to see how their direction has morphed, and then poach ideas from the high-rated entries at the last minute. Careful though – many designers STILL submit designs long after the contest has begun, without realizing that the direction of the project has changed profoundly in the comment section. Don’t be influenced by their ideas. Pay particular attention to the criticism of other designers’ work. If you wait long enough, the ‘buyer’, in dismissing other competitor’s designs, will tell you what they like, what they don’t, the colors that they like and even their font preference. A mid-contest name change isn’t out of the question either. Let others flesh this out through their unpaid efforts and time. You can spend that valuable time looking for a real job.
Exercise extreme caution if the ‘buyer’ isn’t very active, or not commenting on your competitors’ designs at all. Chances are they have no idea what they want or even what a good design is. They’re the “I’ll know it when I see it” types and winning their contest comes down to blind luck and performing an endless dog-and-pony show with their dozens of revision requests and tweaks. Not very profitable at all. The other possibility is that they’re subbing your work to THEIR clients (usually at a hefty markup, explaining to THEIR clients that they “get what they pay for”). Trouble is, this type can be vague in their comments and are only interested in the designs THEIR client is interested in, NOT interested in helping designers improve their craft.
Bonus tip – look at the comment section real carefully to see if a contest holder is favoring a design early in the festivities. Even though they’ve already picked that design as a winner, they’ll let the contest run out, in the off-chance that they’ll get a better design – I’ve always referred to this as ‘purse shopping’. Don’t waste your time entering designs after it’s become clear that a ‘buyer’ has selected a winner because you won’t change their mind, regardless of how hard you try. Let the other suckers run out the clock, as the ‘buyer’ wants to squeeze every last entry out of every designer participating, just so the ‘buyer’ feels he’s got his money’s worth. Best move on to another competition that you can win. Be careful though. Apparently, ‘buyers’ sometimes pick winning designs very early in the contest and ‘private message’ instructions to the winning designer, as not to ‘tip off’ other ‘creatives’ who’d then stop supplying more designs that have absolutely no chance of winning. The ‘buyer’ wants to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ and aren’t opposed to wasting a lot of people’s time to do so. No way to defend against that I’m afraid (though you can use it to your advantage by talking to the ‘buyer’ off-the-grid). Another trick ‘buyers’ like to do is submit their own designs at contest close (usually under a buddy’s e-mail and Paypal combo) so that they can scoop the ideas presented to them, without paying a dime (other than the percentage that the contest site charges them to run the contest in the first place). Not much you can do about that, but keep it in mind when someone criticizes you for something called ‘ethics’.
5: Design contest necromancy.
If, for some completely irrational reason, you’ve ignored the advice in Tip #2, have entered a logo during the opening hours of a logo contest, and it’s scrolled back 4 pages, we still have a chance of winning that illusive prize money. “How so?” you ask. By performing design contest necromancy. Simply take your earlier entry, perform a few perfunctionary changes and enter it again. Just before the contest ends. As you’ve already entered an earlier design that’s very close to this one, it wouldn’t hurt if you added a nice little note in the comments section to explain it’s re-appearance. Always start off the note with a personal touch
“Mr/Ms [Contest Holder,] I was thinking more about your [subject of logo] business and how you had mentioned [take some contest holder quote from the brief or other comments.] Well, I thought this revision of my earlier attempt was better because [add some rationale for the minute changes].“
That will boost your design to the top of the contest page, and your comment will be at the top of the comments section. Keep this in mind too – contest holders are usually given a week or so after the contest to choose a winner. Shouldn’t your design and comments be the first thing they see when they log in? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
6: Use lots of colors. Bright ones too. Lots of blends help
I realize that using lots of colors in a logo is problematic. As is using blends, gradients and even the Illustrator transparency feature. Trouble is, logos with PANTONE or CMYK colors don’t ‘pop’ on a webpage, and you submissions tend to look washed-out compared to other entries. So go ahead – color ‘em up. Use the RGB palette. Preferably web safe colors too. They’re much brighter and translates into a more vibrant image on a design contest gallery. And while gradients are hell in many applications, this isn’t your problem. ‘Buyers’ love gradients – has that 3D look – and as they’ve not been coached on what is, or isn’t, a decent logo setup, your protests about RGB colors not printing will be ignored. Or deleted (we’ll use that to our advantage in a minute). This is all about what the buyer ‘likes’ to look at, not what’s important for future use. If you’re feeling particularly competitive toss in drop shadows, bevels, lens flares. They like that. Let the other designers gripe about how your logos won’t print. If they bad-mouth you publicly in the comments section, PM the site owners. They don’t like quarrels going on in the open – looks bad on the ‘community’ – and they’ll remove the pest’s comment forthwith. Maybe even ban them completely. And you know what that means – less competition for you. One down. 14,357 to go.
7: Totally rat out your contest mates.
While poaching ideas will certainly work in your favor, there’s absolutely no reason why you should let people competing against you have a similar advantage. Accordingly, the minute you see a copied design – rat out your contest mate. This serves two functions. 1) It removes unnecessary competition and 2) it keeps the owners of the design contest site too busy trying to figure out which logo was first to notice the other prize-winning tactics you’re employing. Don’t overdo it though – you’ll get a reputation as a ‘rabble rouser’ – about a one complaint per four contest ratio is pretty cool. Don’t complain openly in the contest comment thread (these get deleted very quickly and are often not acted upon) but through the website private messaging system (unless you’re going to be passive-aggressive, something we’ll cover in a minute). Course, if you have friends on the system, or sock-puppet accounts, it’s better if complaints come from them. Complaints are a lot more credible if they come from someone NOT involved in the design contest you’re complaining about. Looks like they’re looking after ‘the community’ rather than for personal gain. Even if it’s close call, go ahead. Rat away. This is all about winning cash – and you don’t win any cash if you play nice. Get your competitor’s submissions withdrawn any way you can.
Yet another bonus tip. If a logo looks like it’s a stock art illustration, it probably is. Don’t wait for the client to realize this (they won’t). Don’t wait for the site owners to find out (they won’t). Only by searching for these images yourself will you be able to find out if the artwork’s been pinched from someone else. Use Google image search and key words that are related to the artwork you think’s been nicked. Drill down in the results too. People using Google image search to find related artwork to borrow, usually don’t pinch stuff from the first few pages of search engine results (though you might be surprised). They figure lifting something from page 5 is deep enough in search engine listings to keep them from being found out. Use the built in search engines on stock artwork sites. If you find the artwork came from istock, DON’T rat out your competitor directly. FInd out who created the artwork originally and contact them with an e-mail. Something like this “I noticed that your great artwork was being entered into a contest here [supply link]. I found you through istock and love your work”. They’ll tear off a ‘take my artwork off your site’ e-mail faster than snot, and you won’t be looked upon by the contest site as a ‘rabble-rouser’. Best use a sock-puppet lest the original designer tells the contest site that you told them. End result – one competitor down and you’re not even connected to the complaint.
8: Make sure your entry has fluorescent frame or border.
This simple technique will help grab the ‘buyer’s’ attention. The dozens of designs entered into their contests are all previewed in 2″ thumbnails. This is so that the ‘buyer’ thinks they’re getting lots of stuff. Which is cool and all, but it doesn’t help you get noticed. Truth to tell, all those hundreds of entries start to look the same after a while, and unless the ‘buyer’ zooms in on the image, you run the very real risk of being lost in the design cacophony. Here’s a trick – place a colored border around your submission. Make it small enough that it doesn’t interfere with the design submission itself, but just thick enough to make your submissions stand out when presented with 24 others. Almost like a ‘look at me’ border. Make it bright. Hot pink. Fluorescent green. Bonus tip, the thumbnail previews are square, so make sure your submission image is square too (helps avoid your lovely day-glow border being cut off when reduced in size). Use the contest site submission template if you can – images placed inside those crop marks scale perfectly.
9: Make sure your web address is on every entry.
You’ll be able to do this for a while, at least until the design contest owners tell you to stop. Put your web address on every single submission you make. Don’t just slap in on, make it look nice. Not too big or overbearing. Simple font too. You can work it into the frame we just talked about. You’ve been told not to worry about getting paid, and that contest sites are all about exposure. Get. The. Exposure. What’s also cool is that contest holders will try and contact you ‘off the grid’ – ie: directly and through your website (some may try to contact you through private messaging on the contest site itself. Trouble is, many won’t, fearing their private conversations aren’t so private, which by the way, they probably aren’t). They’ll probably ask you to design their logo cheaper than what the contest site is asking. Go for it. Sure, you may take a little cut in the overall price, but this way you’re positively guaranteed to win. In order to look legit, the ‘buyer’ will pick one of your submissions at contest close and you can do a little extra work – say stationery design – to make up the difference. Or, they’ll have a pal set up a ‘creative’ account, submit some bogus logos, and the ‘buyer’ will pick that design while they work with you “off the grid”. Always keep this in mind – design contests are NOT about design. It’s about winning stuff if you’re a designer. And getting “more stuff for less” if you’re a buyer. Any tactic that meets that basic philosophy is fair game.
If any of this is against the contract you clicked before joining the community worry not, the chances of any of these contracts standing up in court are pretty close to zero. While I’m not a lawyer (that’s known as a legal disclaimer) I’d think that anti-competitive clauses and unfair labor practices will trump every time. Besides, there isn’t a contest site on the planet who’s going to spend $1000s of dollars to chase you half way around the world to recoup a few hundred dollars. They also don’t want to see their contracts – and business model itself – challenged in a real court so they’ll just leave you alone. They might ban you from their website, but if you’ve got other user names and proxy IP#s ready to go, you’ll be submitting more logos in no time at all. It’s all good.
10: The minute a logo isn’t doing very well, withdraw it.
This is very important. If the contest ‘buyer’ has ignored your logo design submission, while commenting and ranking the entries all around yours, get it out of there. Fast. If it’s any good at all, someone will ‘refine’ your entry and submit it later on (using these tips perhaps). If it’s a pretty specific design – a horse ranch lets say – you need to store that design until another horse-themed design contest comes along, and you can enter it into that one. If it’s a pretty generic icon or symbol, it’s of particular value – it can be entered into whatever the hell contest you want. If it’s a letter based logo – the letter A let’s suppose – it can be added into any contest for a company that’s name begins with the letter ‘A’. No point in leaving your spiffy unloved logo in the contest where more eyes will see it (and rat you out if you try to submit to multiple contests) or to give ideas to other ‘creatives’ looking to build their library of pre-fab logos. The faster you withdraw unselected or low-ranked logos the better.
11: The contracts you’ve clicked on mean nothing. Click on them often.
Most of these sites will tell you that by uploading an image tor their forum, you’ve given them some sort of license to your copyright. Nonsense. Almost zero chance that any of these ‘contracts’ will stand up in court. See, while I’m not a lawyer (legal disclaimer and all that), you’re not getting any ‘consideration’ (entering your logo into their contest probably doesn’t mean squat) and as you’re from a different jurisdiction, it won’t matter even if they did. Accordingly, when you get a decent design, swap out the text and enter it into as many contests as you can. Probably not on the same site (though that is possible if you ’sake and bake’ a little) but across different ones. If you design a logo (with poached concept, natch) for an accounting firm, find a whole bunch of accounting company logo contests and enter them too. You might think about changing the colors or layout slightly so that the casual observer won’t notice. If you win multiple contests with the same logo, don’t fret. Most of the companies using the winning design will be out of business (if they ever get off the launch pad at all) and the chances that you get found out are almost nil. Also, the contracts that these contest sites use are probably unenforceable, and it’s highly unlikely the pissed off buyer will go after you. They’ll go after the contest site instead – they’re the ones that took the money originally, in order to perform a service (most clients don’t realize that the contest site claims they have no legal responsibility) and it’s the site owner’s name that’s on their credit card bill, not yours. The credit card companies are having a real hard time figuring out if their business model is even legit, so they’ll rule on the side of their customer and charge back the card. Any money you won is safe. Though it might help if you…
12: Clean out your Pay Pal account.
When you win a design contest, clear out your Pay Pal account as soon as you can. No explanation needed really.
13: Create several accounts.
When you’ve created an account on any logo design contest site, go ahead and create a few more. You’re going to need some sock-puppet accounts – to rabble rouse – and a few ’sleeper’ usernames – in case you get booted off the system for being naughty. If you don’t know what a Proxy IP is, now’s the time to learn, because most contest sites also ban IP#s as well. If one of your active accounts gets banned, you’re going to need another Paypal account too (or at least one that allows you to use multiple e-mail addresses to login under).
14: Be passive aggressive.
If you have to contact the site owners about anything, be ‘passive aggressive’. Don’t appear too knowledgeable (they get hundreds of daft questions a day and a rational e-mail will get their attention – remember, we don’t want their attention). If you’re going to rat someone out about copied designs, always start with “I don’t know if it’s me but [entry] looks exactly like [link to original work]. I could be wrong as I’m new to this”. Always say you’re “new to this”.
If you’re ratting out someone for pinching ideas, and the site owners have been less than responsive, take it to the comment section. This requires a great deal of care, but becoming passive-aggressive should get your comment to the ‘buyer’s’ eyes before its nuked by moderators. Rather than ranting “you totally ripped off my design asshole” (not good), try the passive aggressive approach “I liked the way you incorporated my idea into yours, though I wonder if it’s not a little close” (better) or “your logo [link] is a nice homage to [established company logo] – I think the ‘buyer’ should end the contest now and award you the prize” (best). The purpose here is to establish lack of trust in everyone BUT you in the originality department. Don’t overdo it – two or three passive agressive comments per contest is about right.
15: Beg, borrow, steal.
The internet is awash in logos, clip art and illustrations. Nuff said? Nuff said.
16: Claim ignorance. On everything.
Years ago I became a certified diver. Eager to learn more, I then became a Divemaster. Used to flash my Divemaster before boarding a boat, so proud I was of my new credentials. Big mistake. If people think you’re qualified, they hold you to to a higher standard. You’re expected to know your shit. In my diving example, I was expected to help out the dive charter and any beginner divers. Being a Divemaster actually ruined my dive. I quickly learned to flash my basic certification card and act stupid, people left me alone, and I could get back to my original goal – enjoying a leisurely hour underwater. Acting like a novice actually helps me enjoy scuba diving. People expect less. The same principle holds true for logo design contests. The fact that people who aren’t really designers, and don’t have any real professional experience make up the majority of people participating in design contests works to your favor. Nobody expects someone who’s submitting logos as part of a design contest to actually know anything about design, logos or the intracies of intellectual property. Whatever you do, don’t boast how you’re a professional in your profile. It’s better if you write something about your dog, or your cat. Buyer’s like that sort of stuff – it humanizes you. Buyers are already a little squishy about the vibe of exploiting unpaid labor, but they won’t mind exploiting you if they think you’re a ’snooty’ design professional bragging about their qualifications. Buyer’s positively hate professional designers – and why shouldn’t they? People who own design contest sites spend all day twittering and blogging about how pro designers are ‘elitests’ and ‘gatekeepers’ trying to keep the ‘little guy’ down. So be one of the ‘little guys’. Design contest sites also claim that design experience and qualifications no longer matter (level playing field and all that) so boasting about your design degrees and years of studio work will only be frowned upon by ‘buyers’ who’ll view you as a ’snooty’ interloper who deserves to be put in your place for not “adapting to the new reality”. On the other hand, you might get a ‘buyer’ in the guilt department if your profile paints a sympathetic character who’s struggling to get by, and who also happened to own a couple of puppies. Puppies with epilepsy is even better. Shilling as a design dork also allows you to claim ignorance on everything you do. “I’m a housewife with 3 epileptic puppies, but I’m really sorry that I messed up your logo” goes a lot further than bragging “I have a BA in graphic arts, 30 years agency level and I set your damn files up the right way!”. Speaking of setting up files…
17: Don’t worry about proper file setup. Nobody cares anyway.
If entering logo design contests is going to be profitable at all, you’ll have to cut the amount of time spent to the quick. That includes time spent after your win (oddly, you’re expected to perform revisions to your logo after it’s won a contest – how co-operative you want to be is a personal call). But let’s think technical set-up. When inexperienced designers create logos in illustrator, they tend to go vector happy (see Bad Designer – No Donut for more). Designers who know what they’re doing spend a lot of time cleaning up messy vectors and closing shapes and polygons. Why bother? If you win a contest send the ‘buyer’ what you have. Don’t worry – nobody actually checks files at these logo contest sites (most of the people behind the scenes wouldn’t have a clue if they did). Chances are the ‘buyer’ doesn’t have illustrator, and can only view .JPGs and other bitmap based graphics. They’ll have to take your word that the files are set up correctly and it won’t be until the artwork hits print that they’ll find out if there’s any problem. There’s about a 50/50 chance that everything will work out (a lot higher than your chances of actually winning a contest) and even if there are problems, you can always revert to Tip #12 and claim complete ignorance. Remember, people are marketing these sites as ‘leveling of the playing field’ – how much technical knowledge can a housewife from Peoria be expected to have? And don’t forget to mention the puppies…
18: Send me a cut.
Accordingly to people who are pro design contests, design firms and designers have to learn “how to evolve”, “adapt” and stop “defending the status quo” about getting paid and stuff. Apparently that translates to professional designers doing something other than designing professionally. With these helpful suggestions in mind, this is my new “evolving” position. Send me a cut of your contest winnings.
Or I’m going to tell your competitors how they can beat you.