Despite our umpteenth promise to leave this particular subject alone, the battle over design contests continues unabated, with another round of tit-for-tat discussions opening up at various points about the web this week. Site Point – an Australian web developer and ‘spec’ site – fired the opening salvo with a positively giddy ‘thumbs up’ interview with a design contest entrant titled (without a hint of irony) – Design Contests Made Me A Better Designer (uh-huh).

A quick skim finds the ‘interview’ to be brimming with pro-contest opinions and apologetics, most notably for an outfit called 99 Designs – the poster child for everything that’s wrong with design contests, and the subject of earlier criticsm and controversy. Should be noted that Site Point spawned 99 Designs earlier this year so the interview giving a glowing ‘review’ of design contests in general, and 99 Designs in specific, is hardly surprising. Apparently the lads from OZ have realized they’ve ruffled more than a few designer feathers, introducing the interview thusly –

“The topic of design contests is a polarizing one. Those who are against them are really against them, maintaining that they exploit designers and devalue the design industry. The NO!SPEC mantra has been adopted as a code of conduct by graphic design associations like AGDA and AIGA, and those who agree with this philosophy consider entering a design contest to be entirely unprofessional and just plain wrong.”

Considering that the piece is published by folks to whom logo design contests are a stock-in-trade, that’s an interesting use of the terms “against them” and “they exploit designers” when “against us” and “we exploit designers” could be considered a tad more accurate. But no mind. Similarly, while recognizing that two major graphic design organizations are opposed to design contests as part of their charter – ‘unethical, unprofessional, and just plain wrong’ – seems that these are quaint ‘mantras’, meaning nothing to a site offering, well, wholesale design contests at $39 a pop (see here for more on No-Spec and spec design work).

Probably like us to think they’re delightful rogues taking on the stifling antics of AIGA, AGDA, every design organization on the planet and 98% of the design community. Though it’s a little odd for a site that introduced themselves as a site ‘by designers for designers’. But I digress again. The quoted introduction prefaces an interview that’s so light in substance, self-serving and biased, it’s not really worth a point-by-point deconstruction (and if it were, design blog Positive Spaces has already beat us to the punch with their 99 Designs Stoops to New Low feature anyway).

While arguably a little shifty, nothing terribly surprising that the people behind 99 Designs (I mean Site Point) would use such a technique to tell us that design contests are just peachy-keen (thank you very much) are a great way for businesses to build a brand for their companies (well, of course they are) and that designers who enter contests are just trippingly happy about the ‘we’ll work for nothing pay us peanuts if you like my design‘ arrangement of the whole deal. But I’d expect that.

I understand why 99 Designs (and to be fair, other design contest sites) would defend their position – after all, it isn’t every industry that someone can pimp out supposedly skilled professionals, without paying a dime in product development, collecting their own fees up front and without risk. The term ‘pimp’ gives a hint of other industries were this might work. Not a bad deal either. It is a breathtaking advantage over their self-professed ‘competition’, legitimate design businesses saddled with the overhead of running a professional service – wages, hardware, software, staff training, client communication and support. Running a design contest site represents little investment, no risk and 100% gain (though I might quibble about some of the legal issues involved). In fact, I grudgingly salute these dudes for the unmitigated gall that’s required to pull the whole deal off. But to claim that entering design contests makes one a better designer – the very title of the ‘interview’ – is absurd.

The design contest model features an entirely artificial environment (actually – 99 Designs ‘contests’, by definition, aren’t even contests at all) and there’s so very little ‘real world’ experience to be gained that I’d argue that entering design contests would actually accomplish the exact opposite. At the risk of picking on the lovely chaps from Australia (though the Site Point interview did use them as the case study), let’s take a look at how a typical ‘contest’ works – as it’s sort of our bag, we’ll focus on a logo design contest – and compare it to how a more traditional approach would differ.

The Not-So-Exhaustive Design Brief.

When firing up a contest, ‘clients’ are directed to fill out a form that will be referenced by all the ‘entrants’. Pretty standard stuff. We kinda do the same, though the design contest version is mercifully short and consists of just 7 questions; The first three don’t count – Title (of the contest), Subtitle (displayed in the contest description), Short Summary (to get the designers attention) and the nub of the brief, four text fields – Brand Name, Description, What I Want, What I Don’t Want. I understand why this brief is so short – wouldn’t want to confuse the ‘client’ (often new to the design game in the first place) with a lot of unnecessary questions and techno-babble that they might not know the answers to. Planned usage. Market. Theme. Technical restrictions. Items that are critical to any successful design project but often outside a client’s area of experience or expertise. Generally speaking, it’s the designer’s job to educate the client about the design process, what works, what doesn’t and why this-or-that design solution is preferable over another. As designers, we’re supposed to know our stuff and be able to explain in simple terms, the crux of a decent logo. Why a pink fluffy kitten isn’t a good logo idea for a company that fixes tractors. On a logo design contest site, you get 100 different variations of a pink fluffy kitten.

As designers, we’re supposed to know our stuff and be able to explain in simple terms, the crux of a decent logo. Why a pink fluffy kitten isn’t a good logo idea for a company that fixes tractors. On a logo design contest site, you get 100 different variations of a pink fluffy kitten.

Ah, but hitting the client with so many confusing questions up-front may intimidate them. Lead to a whole bunch of questions (in traditional scenarios answered by an experienced designer) or worse, send them Googling about the various concepts involved and onto, heaven forbid, another design site. Rather than effectively gathering information, the submission forms are designed for one thing only – to quickly move the client to the next phase – submitting credit card information with as little headache as possible. All fine and dandy in the ROI department, but not so good in getting a sense of what the client needs in their project. Unfortunately, the sparse design brief is where project information collection ends.

In a more traditional design process, it’s very rare that a designer will begin designing a logo on first blush – there’s usually a more in-depth one-on-one interaction with the client. A meet-and-greet (even if by phone or e-mail) where more detailed parameters can be hashed out. Often a client is advised that ‘what they want’ is impractical, at odds with their goals, or technically unwise. One assumes that’s one of the main reasons a client would approach a designer in the first place, rather than picking up a demo version of Adobe Illustrator and doing it themselves. A designer’s job is not just drawing a pretty picture, but sharing experience and advice on how the client can obtain their design goals. Often what a client ‘needs‘ dovetails with what they ‘want‘. Sometimes it doesn’t. At the risk of sounding elitest, ‘what I want’ is often not what is possible or advisable for the client, especially if we’re keeping their best interests at heart. If I approach an accountant and tell him that I don’t ‘want’ to pay any taxes, I’ll (hopefully) be advised that while I can maximize my write-offs, I’ll still be ponying up to the IRS whether I want to or not. I’m paying for his advice and expertise, not telling him which deductions I ‘want‘ to be legit. The same concept should apply to design and designers.

As there’s no real follow-up, any logo contest begins without designer interaction at the concept level – the very essence of a design project. The project starts sans information that’s critical for a designer to evaluate the client’s needs, rather than simply what the client ‘wants’. We’ve had clients who ‘want’ War & Peace in their logo, but we’ve had to convince them that they ‘need’ a simple icon. Someone once said that the client is king, but they shouldn’t be art director. And that’s true enough. While ‘the customer is always right’ may work for Wal-Mart, there are times in design when the client is flat out wrong. It takes an experienced designer, with some fairly decent communication skills to tell a client this, at least without offending them or losing the account. Hopefully the client respects the designers gravitas enough to heed the advice or at least factor it into design decisions and direction. Simply taking ‘what I want’ and ‘what I don’t want’ and distilling it into a pretty picture that may not even represent a client’s best interests does not make one a ‘better designer’. It makes one a pixel pusher – a pair of hands for rent (since we’re talking design contests, a pair of hands for free) – not a capable designer able to help your clients make effective design choices.

I understand why the back-and-forth can’t happen with design contests – not enough time, too many disparate designers, contest holder isn’t paying enough money. All of them valid arguments from the contest site owner point-of-view, but as we’re talking about entering contests making someone a better designer, they have little to do with the equation.

The Pitch.

Ah yes. The logo contest pitch – were entrants upload their work (often after taking hours of effort) onto the site for viewing by the client. Fair enough – waiting breathlessly for the client’s thumbs up, thumbs down is an unfortunate part of any design process. There’s a difference with design contests though, and it is this – most of the times entrants don’t get to explain the whys-and-wherefores of their design. The thought process behind it. The pros and cons. If I wanted to be a wag, I’d argue that this isn’t a factor in design contests as there’s very little back-story to be told. Cranking out icons and submitting them to various contests is the only way to earn any money, but as we’re being highbrow, we’ll assume that every project, on every design contest, is approached with only the purist of intentions.

Is a designer explaining the worth of a logo important? I’d argue yes. Judging logos on first sight (designs are eliminated, often without comment) can miss some design gems. Take a look at the FedEx logo, arguably one of the most famous logos on the planet. The concept, designed by Lindon Leader and now accepted globally, was originally nixed by the Federal Express board of directors. It was only Ceo Fred Smith who recognized the simple elegance of the design, after being told about the logo back-story (and hidden arrow) by the logo creators. Under a design contest scenario, that logo would have been eliminated. And if FedEx wanted pink kittens, well dammit, they’d get pink kittens.

What’s worse is that in most logo contests, holders aren’t obliged to tell designers why their work is eliminated. In many cases designs are uploaded, eliminated from the contest without so much as a how-you-do. In their favor, 99 Designs recommends that ‘feedback’ is left for every project, but a quick trip through any contest shows that this simply isn’t the case. Many comment threads under the designs feature one word postings – usually along the lines of ‘feedback?!!” as designers wait patiently to be told why their efforts didn’t make the cut. We’ve already established that there’s no financial reward for entering (other than the winner) and whatever critiques we’re told might be helpful are generally not forthcoming. Whatever feedback that is offered is usually along the lines of “I don’t like it” or “not what I’m looking for”. All fine and dandy if the designer is getting paid, but as the vast majority of designers aren’t, then the stated benefit is supposed to be ‘valuable feedback’ that one can utilize to hone his/her craft. “I don’t like it” isn’t much help. If the rationale for entering design contests is to have work critiqued, almost every design forum features a show-and-tell section where people will be glad to tell you what they think of your work. Often with brutal honesty. And that’s much more valuable. At least if we’re talking about becoming a better designer. Which, if you’ll recall, is the theme of this piece.

The Dog and Pony Show.

This is where design contests wander off the territory of actually being a contest at all. Generally speaking, a contest involves submitting an entry and then waiting for results from a presumably qualified judging panel. At least, that’s how contests are supposed to work (if they’re all nice and legal and stuff). Design contests are completely different – holders actually request that designers change their entries, often at odds with the original project brief (after the contest holder had begun to understand a little about how these things work) and without any sense that they’re demanding unreasonable efforts from designers, the majority of whom are marginalized in the first place.

While I might understand why a designer would spend a few minutes cobbling together a logo and entering it into a contest in the hopes of winning a few bucks, it is beyond me why a designer would engage in a full-blown design project, with virtually unlimited revisions, at a contest holders whim and without any form of renumeration (or even helpful feedback). And oh, what a dog and pony show these ‘revision rounds’ invariably turn into.

With the contest holder lording over the proceedings, and very little that entrants won’t do to win a contest, the ‘revision’ round of the contest often turns into a free-for-all. Designers are requested to encapsulate other designers’ work into their versions. Use font treatments featured on others. Some designers don’t even have to be asked, freely borrowing from other entries to create a hybrid Frankenstein logo that hopefully grabs the holder’s attention. Not that this isn’t unexpected – the contest holder hasn’t really been informed that this is a no-no, and anyone who speaks up about such practices is often branded as uncooperative by the holder, the other entrants, and comments pointing out the shenanigans are often deleted, lest the overall site ‘look bad’.

Read some of the comments before they’re nuked – sometimes it ain’t pretty. Accusations of plagiarism fly quite often, with one entrant claiming that another has stole his/her ideas. All of which continues until, hopefully, the contest holder declares a winner, or abandons the contest completely, which if recent observations are any indication, happens an awful lot. Once again, in their favor, 99 Designs has now offered a prepaid contest option – where contest holders prepay their prizes – but if the home page this morning is any indication, not a lot of contest holders avail themselves of the option. Meaning there’s no guarantee anyone will get paid a red cent. Accordingly, many designers enter the same designs in multiple contests, which explains why you’ll see so many shiny, chromed generic logos without any real purpose other than serving as a bookend or a mantelpiece for a line of type.

While this may make you a faster designer (a necessity if you’re going to enter a load of contests at once) but as far as honing one’s craft (and developing a career) design contests are certainly not the deal. You may make a few bucks here and there, but you will eventually move on to greener pastures, no doubt regretting the time you wasted jumping through hoops like a trained seal. If, in the meantime, that’s your bag, all fair enough but don’t claim that it makes you a better designer (bitter more like). Decent designers (like the guy in the Site Point interview) on these sites were decent to begin with (and could probably earn a reasonable living elsewhere). The designers who are piss poor will remain piss poor. There’s nothing to be learned on contest sites other than some sort of design Darwinism and how low people will stoop to make, or save, a few bucks.

Speaking of which, looks like 99 Designs has got themselves some stiff competition. New outfit in town, E Logo Contest, who love this contest site deal so much they lifted the idea. And they’re twenty bucks cheaper. And waddya know – they have even more gall than the cats from down under – not only does a contest holder not have to pick a winner if they don’t feel like it, E Logo Contest also want a 10% cut from the poor bastards who do win. They’ve actually figured out a way to get designers to pay to enter, pushing the sliding scale of scumbaggery a little bit further. Now, poor old 99 Designs will probably have to argue that they’re a better design contest choice because their prize money is higher, they don’t want a cut, and this higher payout attracts a better level of designer.

Which will be the definitive version of irony meet schadenfreude.

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