Spam. Based on a simple, if flawed concept. Send enough ‘get yer Viagra here’ laced e-mails to unsuspecting recipients, you will eventually find that one person who is willing to purchase. Works for FAX spam too. A hall of famer in the “it’s incredible how much effort folks will go to in order to avoid an honest day’s labor” category, it is dopey and (with response rates in the 1/100000’s) pretty ineffectual. Targeted marketing is much more efficient, will net far greater results, and in the long run – a much higher payback. Spam’s only real appeal is that it’s cheap, if not free, for the so-called ‘advertiser’. How does this relate to a logo design article, you might ask (and you might). Well, in my humble opinion, design contests (and other types of ’spec’ – speculative – design ‘offerings’) are nothing more than visual Spam. With similar results and driven by similar motives. Here’s the usual pitch – somebody who wants a new brand created for their fledgling business offers a prize (I’ve seen everything between $50 to a few grand and some with nothing but the ‘glory’ of designing the job) as part of a design contest (recently repackaged as crowdsourcing) during which designers will submit their work, without any contract, payment or agreement (other than the ‘winner’), in the hopes of having their work selected. It uses the ‘visual Spam’ theory – if enough designers, throw enough ideas (for free, natch) at a project, one of these entries ’should’ be a winner. It’s also a variant of the ’something for nothing’ approach. And my mother has been lecturing me on that one since I was a wee lad… (above and right deer logo from our portfolio gets knocked off and entered into a logo design contest).
If I had a nickel for every time I heard this – “if you show me what you’re proposing for my business logo, and if I like it, I’ll pay for it”, I’d be a rich man. Or at least the proud owner of a lot of nickels. My answer is and has been always the same – “No thanks”. Firstly, a design studio is like any other business. Overhead. Salaries. Day-to-day expenses. It’s downright impractical and illogical to give our product away for free (that part should be obvious). Running The Logo Factory studio with ‘hope to get paid’ projects, while our designers are of the “definitely getting paid” variety is a formula that any first year business student would see as fundamentally flawed. And in-demand designers (the good ones) always get paid. Conversely, I never ask our clients for ‘free stuff’. Ain’t nice. Ain’t professional. I also wouldn’t think of asking my neighborhood accountants to submit final tax returns as a contest (I’d be begging for an audit), a bevy of dentists to work on my molars in ‘hope of getting paid (might as well sign up for those dentures now) or ask for mechanics to fix my brakes on ’spec’ (hope my insurance is paid up). Wouldn’t work for plumbing either. In other ‘professional’ fields, it’s accepted practice to select a service provider based on a myriad of factors. Your needs and budget. Their experience and expertise. And it is a generally accepted philosophy that “you get what you pay for”.
It could also be argued that ’spec’ or ‘speculative’ design work has further, less obvious, ramifications – for designer and buyers alike. Some examples? From a purely pragmatic point of view, whenever designers are performing spec work, they are not working ‘with’ paying clients – folks who are the lifeblood of TLF. It’s not fair to ‘real clients’ who ‘have’ formed a professional working relationship with our studio. These are the clients that deserve (and get) our undivided attention and effort. Spec work is also based on a basic misunderstanding of what a logo actually is – it is not a bunch of ’swirls’ created with illustration software. It’s not just the logo that ‘looks the best’ (as subjective a barometer as possible) – it should be gauged by a far more complicated litmus test including usability, application and market reach. It is the execution of an ‘idea’ – a concept. With a capital ‘C’. Generally, a successful logo is the percolation of the company’s personality into graphic form, created by detailed interaction and back-and-forth. It also involves the services of a designer who’s capable of executing the concept flawlessly and with technical proficiency. Not a random spray of overused, overdone squiggles and wiggles thrown ‘together’ in the ‘hope’ of winning this, or that, contest. Design is not a sporting event (and an amateur one at that). And at the risk of sounding snooty, I will guarantee you this – *if* I were to enter $100 spec logo contests, I would hold-back the best ideas (lest they get ‘lifted’ by someone who’s ethically challenged) and wouldn’t budget the time (and resultant effort) that a paid gig would get. After all, why should we release our ‘primo’ ideas into ‘the wild’ where they can be usurped by other folks (”I can use that idea, render it myself, and charge you less than they would”). Bottom line, while the logo we presented to you may be ‘better’ than the others, it would not contain the ‘blood and soul’ that our team usually pours into their work. It’s nothing personal. The ‘chance’ of winning $80 only buys so much time and effort. There’s only one way to design a logo in ten minutes flat. And unless we’ve run completely dry of paying gigs, we don’t have the time – a finite resource – to do anything more. Sorry, but it’s a dollars and cents equation. And while this is supposed to be the latest thing, that’s probably a result of as opposed to facts on the ground. Though, and just to give you swell feelings about design contest sites in general, did we tell you that some feature children designers as young as eleven? That alone should negate any designers’ participation.
Many designers and clients wonder “are logo design contests really that bad?” I’d argue yes. From a end-user point of view, design contests & spec work develops an artificial sliding scale in a completely artificial environment. Best to worst. Logos are arranged from most favorite to least favorite. The most favorite wins. That doesn’t mean its the ‘best’ solution for you. Or the ‘best’ solution possible. It also doesn’t meant that the logo is applicable from a technical point of view. It does not meant that the designer who created it gave it their all. It only means that it’s the best ‘option’ from the entries you received. Nothing more. Nothing less. And if more than a few of the ‘entrants’ have our attitude (which most professionals do), the selection of work will be less than stellar. And received from ‘designers’ (background, skills and ethics unknown) who a) have the time to donate and b) don’t perceive themselves as professionals (as no designer worth their sand will participate anyway). It’s the difference between custom and selecting from ‘off-the-rack’.
I know what kind of suit my wife insisted I wear to my wedding…
Now, if we had run out of work (we’re bored), or were struggling to make ends meet (collection notices on the door, that kind of thing) we ‘might’ consider entering a contest in the hope of making some fast cash (note – only for the sake of this discussion. In real life, we’d spend the time marketing those skills – a much higher payoff). But if that were the case, you’d now have designers who are entering your contest because they are desperate, want a graphic design portfolio puff piece, or are bored out of their skulls. Motivators that are diametrically opposite to the accepted norm for successfully executed design work. When I’m hiring professional designers to work at TLF, ‘desperate, bored and inexperienced’ are not featured in the job postings’ as a list of required attributes. But why should I bother hiring professionals at all? According to the design contest and crowdsourcing ‘everyone can design’ paradigm, I should simply tape a notice on the studio door: “Please come on in. There’s an available work station upstairs. Design some logos and stuff for our clients. Help yourself to the coffee. We don’t need to know who you are“. That, in nutshell, is how design contests work. I know I wouldn’t be terribly confident of the results of such a setup.
Here’s another thing too. Many of our projects do not reach sign-off on the first round of concepts (and nobody that works at our studio can be described as ‘junior designers’). Logo design is a process. Sometimes a grinding process. It often takes several (or more) rounds of back-and-forth between our designers and the client before we come close to a ‘great concept’. The first round of concepts are usually rough ‘ideas’ that can be discarded or fine-tuned depending on their reception. Often, they are w-a-a-a-y off the mark. But in later rounds ‘tighten up’ into a killer custom logo design. In a ’spec’ logo contest, the buyer is presented with all sorts of ‘first round’ concepts. There’s no idea what’s possible with the follow-up revisions, edits and tweaks that go into developing a great logo. It’s like a movie trailer without the payoff of the full flick. Tantalizing. Interesting. But by no means the Full Monty…
There’s also the real risk of copyright infringement (or worse), should you decide to host a so-called ‘logo design contest’. Hell, we’ve even seen our copyrighted work, the property of someone else, turning up as entries on a fairly regular basis. You see, there are some folks who like the idea of receiving the prize, but their chances are so low, they aren’t willing to put in the time to create original artwork. Solution? Pinch logos and artwork from other design companies like ours, stock art companies, photo galleries, logo gallery blogs and search engine image searches. Anywhere that images are hosted. This copied artwork not only gets entered, but runs a very real risk of winning. Here’s one example (right) from the Site Point logo design contest forums (later to become 99designs) where one of their ‘designers’ had been helping themselves to a load of artwork from our old design galleries.
They had swiped a couple of logos from our site, performed some cursory modifications, and entered them into several Site Point contests. One of these contest ‘rips’ was even selected by the end-user, until it was revealed (by a ‘rival’ designer, also taking part in the ‘contest’) that the work had been nicked. From us. And here’s the squishy part – the design contest had been posted by a ‘marketing consultant ’ who had been contracted by the original client to create their ‘corporate identity’.
After the bogus ‘entries’ had been revealed, the ‘small business marketing firm’ had to ‘fess up to their client and advise them that the logo they now loved (and had all sorts of plans for) was no longer available without the very real possibility of a lawsuit (and by the way, if they could select one of the other contest designs, that would be just great). To this day, I wonder how they explained this rather nasty situation to everyone involved. Alas, this wasn’t an isolated event (left and above). Our blog and Copycats section is full of other examples. In fact, we’ve found knocked off logos entered into almost every single contest site there is. For the few that we haven’t, it’s only a matter of time. Design contest sites like to keep this dirty little secret ‘hush-hush’, so they delete comment threads in which contestants accuse each other of “ripping stuff off” as soon as they’re posted. But it does happen. An awful lot. And what happens if you select a ripped off design? According to their terms of service, absolutely nothing. Cause, well, they don’t have to. Every design contest website tells you, up front (in their 15 monitor deep terms of service), that they’re not responsible for the originality of their work, because when it comes right down to it, they’re just a lowly ‘middle man’ for ‘creative services’. None (that’s zero) of the designers pitching logos at you actually work for them. That’s why all these sites boast about 50,000 designers working ON their site (a very important legal distinction). And it’s not small companies like us wo get stung. Witness this crowdsourcing contest for Cadbury where the winning wrapper design was discovered to resemble somebody else’ work.
Alas, when things you awry, it’s you that’s left holding the bag. And don’t be surprised if the designer you met on the crowdsourcing site stops answering your e-mail when you tell him that someone’s claiming he ripped off their logo to win your contest. You know, the winning logo that’s now featured on your letterheads, business cards, your website and the side of your funky new van. Speaking of legalities, it’s been asked, with their loosey-goosey rules, and the ability of a client not to award a winner, if organized design contests are even legal according to various gaming rules. Still haven’t got the definitive answer on that. But I digress.
In the interest of fair play, and lest I get accused of ‘sour grapes’, we’re going to give people who still insist on holding a logo contest a few tips on how to avoid getting stuck with someone else’s logo (which I think we can all admit, is never a good idea). Here’s how it works.
Whenever less than ethical (bunny quotes on) ‘designers’ (bunny quotes off) enter contests, they immediately use Google Image Search (Yahoo & MSN have them too) to search for designs that suit your project using keyword combinations that would describe it. They look for an image they like and it you’re lucky, they’ll change it a little so that it won’t be recognized by anyone but the owner and/or the original designer. There’s about a 50/50 chance one of them will find out. If they do, whether these design changes will be enough to pass a legal challenge is anyone’s guess. If you’re not so lucky, they’ll pass someone else’s logo, unchanged very little (or not at all) as their own (see our logo contest Copycats for more). Then, a lot of people will notice, raising the threat level of getting into hot water to almost 100%.
If you hold a logo design contest, you should perform the same searches using the resources just mentioned. Search through Google Images using the various keyword combinations and descriptions that describe the logo your contest is supposed to be about. If you’re lucky, you’ll find any potentially infringing designs before things get too out of hand. Before you’re stuck with thousands of business cards and letterheads that you can’t use, because you’ve plastered them with a design that belongs to someone else. And before the nasty e-mails start arriving.
Or, you could avoid logo design contests altogether. Probably a much wiser idea.