Logo design contests and their host sites are marketed to clients as presenting ‘lots of choice’ from their huge ‘communities’. Trouble is, many of the design ‘choices’ are toxic, and many of the ‘community’ members are unrepentant plagiarists. Sadly, sometimes they even win.
I’m so sick of this crap that I’m almost loathe to write this post, but yeah, it’s the damn boat logo again. No, not the last time. Or the time before that. These are new ones. In case you’re new to the blog, or missed our earlier screeds, let me sum things up. The ‘damn boat logo’ is an old design from our portfolio (added to our site about seven years ago) that’s been repeatedly cribbed and entered into dozens of logo design contests. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, it’s probably not the best boat logo in the world, but it is among the top searches on Google when someone searches for “boat + logo”. Happens so often, it’s become a running joke at the shop and around the blog. It has, around our studio anyway, become the poster child for everything that’s wrong with logo design contests, spec work and crowdsourcing. Even made a page entitled Again with the damn boat logo to illustrate some of the more blatant examples. Keep in mind that I never write about boat logo knock-offs that are merely similar (which are legion) but logos that are identical in some fashion, clearly traced from the original. If I can’t ‘reverse engineer’ the logo from the contest entry exactly, then I don’t carp about it. See, there’s more than enough carbon copies available, and I’m loathe to muddy the discussion with examples that are ‘close’ and might need some explanation. Take the entry above, entered into a logo contest on 99designs a couple of days ago. Of course, it looks ‘like’ the original. But that’s not all. It is, as the image below demonstrates, a blatant knock-off that’s been rotated a few degrees. To whit:
This time is different. The bloody thing went and won the contest (though I suppose it was only a matter of time). [Update: Shortly after this post was published, the winning entry notification notice was removed, and the contest is now awaiting announcement of a new winner. All the examples featured remain in the contest galleries]. Before anyone suggests that these are designers entering the boat logo as some form of ‘plant’, take a look at the winning designer’s profile. He’s entered 53 contests. This is his/her first win. What does that suggest? I’d offer that regardless of this “designer’s” (bunny quotes mine) original intentions, at some point, with only a slight chance of selection and payment, they decided that creating original work was too much time, hassle, or both. At some point they decided knocking off an image they found through Google was a more judicious use of their time. And now that they’ve won $200, for what probably amounted to a minute-and-a-half of Illustrator hackery, they’re onto a very profitable thing indeed. Ironically, with a contest win ratio of between 4 and 10 per cent, can’t say I blame them. Or their ‘community members’ than did the same thing before them. Often in the same contests. Like this cat
This “designer” didn’t even bother revectoring new artwork, but simply enlarged some bitmap version and flipped the bugger around, adding the most hideous, bevel-ridden ‘typography’ I’ve seen in some time. Bit of a stretch? Let’s take a look:
Keep in mind that this is a different “designer” in the same contest. What’s worse, is that this absolutely appalling rehash is ultimately counted in the tallies of “entries per contest” that crowdsourcing sites like to boast about. Here’s the thing folks – when a designer designs something, he or she becomes intimately familiar with the artwork. Spec designers and contest entrants can spin it, flip it and squish it all they like. It may past muster with contest holders (who’ve probably never seen the original before) but it ain’t going to cut it with the designer of the original. Same holds true with many of the creative fields (as a photographer in a previous life, I took hundreds of thousands of pictures but can still recognize my work when it turns up in magazines almost a decade after I stopped shooting professionally). Makes me think that there’s a lot of people on contest sites that aren’t designers of any level, simply charlatans out to make a quick buck, while spending the least amount of time possible. And yet this is the “game” that dedicated, and ethical designers have to “step up” for.
Ridiculous choice. Tens of thousands of designers
I understand that from a client’s perspective, these designer considerations are probably neither here nor there. But, here we have a situation where a contest holder, probably believing they’re getting a great deal (only $200 doncha know), and getting access to lots of designers (a community of 76,818 doncha know), has selected a logo that’s arguably been knocked off from somewhere else. And if I could pose a simple question to 99designs management, it would be this – with a community of 76,818 “designers”, why is it that almost every time a logo contest involves anything to do with boats, fishing, marinas or in this case, wrapping boats in vinyl, a version of our little boat logo invariably shows up? Highly unlikely that they’ll answer, so I’ll take a stab. Many of the so-called “designers’ in the “community” aren’t designers at all, but plagiarists of the highest order, lured to register with the promises of ‘earning cash’. In terms of the ‘ridiculous choice’ offered to contest holders, many of the choices presented are toxic.
The school of unintended consequences
Am I claiming that 99designs and their ilk are doing this on purpose? Quite the contrary. I’d imagine that the last thing they want to hear about is the damn boat logo again. Or from that grumpy bastard at The Logo Factory. But that’s the point. Despite this logo being knocked off dozens of times, and despite me writing about it time after after time, and despite their claims that there’s less risk of plagiarized logos on their sites (due to ‘self-policing’ by other entrants) it still continues to happen. At regular intervals and an ever increasing rate. Obviously, 99designs don’t want copied logos entered into their contests, but with their largely anonymous ‘community’, and lack of project management, there’s not a thing they can do about it. Knocked off work is part-and-parcel with logo design contests, recently repackaged as crowdsourcing. It is to be expected when you open up the design of your company logo to anonymous would-be designers, from all over the world, who only have a slight chance of earning a few ducats for their efforts. The logic of that basic premise is quite sound, despite the protestations of the pro spec work crowd. But if logic ain’t convincing enough for you, we’ve got example, after example, after example of this happening. Not just limited to 99designs either.
Only looks similar you say? Well, let’s perform the reverse engineering exercise again. The bend, spindle and mutilate school of graphic design.
Not the only time either.
These examples were sent to me a few weeks ago (and are from contests that were held over a year ago) but I didn’t publish them because I’ve generally had it with the issue. Too, I had a private discussion with one of the founders of Crowdspring, and the images were removed (unlike 99designs, who I notified via Twitter before their contest closed). Ironically, but in fairness to 99designs, I had no choice but to add the Crowdspring examples to this post and oddly, feel like I’m somehow betraying Ross Kimbarovsky (who I quite like personally) because he did remove the logos at my request. But getting images removed from this or that contest isn’t the point is it? Crowdsourcing and design contests are constantly marketed as a superior alternative to working one-on-one with a reputable designer. And designers are constantly being told to “step up their game” in order to compete. Tough advice to follow. These sites claim that the amount of choice buyers are presented with dwarfs the options made available in the typical designer/client design process. And while their claims are technically true, they’re only made possible by loads of designers, working on spec (without pay unless their design is selected). I’d argue that this very business model is what generates the rampant copying. Though in some case, crowdsourcing advocates suggest that the copying is “great for clients”.
The pro spec work perspective
Yep, copying is actually being recommended by people who are decidedly on the pro-spec work side of the fence. In an article entitled “9 practical steps to getting great outsourced design on 99designs” here’s what one pro spec work author suggests (Tip #6)
Take advantage of designers riffing off each other. The best entries will emerge from general comments you offer and specific feedback on each entry, allowing designers to see clearly what you are looking for. These suggestions and ideas to designers are followed by other designers. Designers might not like this, but it is great for a client who can see multiple designers.
I’m going to let you read that again and let it sink in. ‘Riffing’ refers to copying. And while the writer realizes designers ‘might not like’ others copying their work (a major issue with crowdsourcing sites right across the board) he still suggests that contest holders “take advantage” of it. That’s what the pro crowdsourcing crowd think of designers and their work. For what it’s worth, those tips were also published on a site called Getting results from Crowdsourcing, in an article entitled 10 Recommendations on How to use Graphic Design Competition Sites. Any designer who supports this kind of dooshbaggery needs their head examined.
The inevitable result
And that’s the real message to those pushing logo design contests isn’t it? As more and more ethical designers realize the futility of entering these contests (trying to remain true to their principles), and more wannabe designers are enticed by the ‘make quick cash’ come on, I’d imagine this hackery is only going to get worse. In fact, if our boat logo is any indication, it already has. And if “stepping up our game” involves knocking off other people’s work, in order to win a few bucks in some logo design contest, then maybe it’s time I hung up my sketchbook. To be honest, I’ve thought about it a few times recently. I’m tired. I’m fed up. And I’m saddened at what a few unethical bastards are attempting to do to the graphic design profession. A profession that’s been quite good to me, and should be quite good to a ton of upcoming designers now trying to perfect their craft. For opposing this, I been called everything from a snooty designer, an elitest, a Luddite opposing change to a ‘whiny baby’, afraid of competition. To all of which, I call bullshit. I’m not some arty tarty, waxing philosophical through a haze of bong smoke (hat tip to John Travolta in Swordfish). I’m a business man. Fairly pragmatic one too. But I’m also a designer.
And If opposing this nonsense makes me a Luddite, then fuck it. I’m a Luddite too.