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You should probably read this contest primer first

A definitive look at the mechanics of design contests – why they work, some reasons why they don’t and some very real issues you should be aware of, but probably aren’t.

We can start this decision tree with one simple question.

“Do I need a logo?”

If you’re reading this, your answer is probably yes. Ask this one too:

“Do I believe my logo is important enough to require the services of an experienced design professional?”

If the answer to that is “yes,” you probably don’t want a logo design contest. If you don’t really care one way or another – you just want a decent logo – ask yourself this:

“Do I need to see a lot of design options, many of which are completely unusable, just for the sake of seeing a lot of options?”

If that seems silly, you probably don’t need a logo design contest either. A cacophony of proposals, especially if a lot of them aren’t great, can be visual noise that actually hinders the development process and burns up time. If viewing a ton of options is still your thing, or a barometer that you use to gauge “design value,” then a design contest might be up your alley. There are two ways to go about this.
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The first is pretty straightforward – ask people to submit logos to you. Pick one. Award a prize. This is your typical, organic logo design contest. It will require you to have some base – fans let’s say – to draw from. The other is how things take place on commercialized design contest sites – platforms like 99designs, Design Crowd, Zillion Designs, Crowdspring and a host of others. They often refer to design contests as “Crowdsourcing,” part of the so-called “Shared economy,” also known as the “Collaborative economy” or whatever people are calling it today.

“[The design contest] model short-circuits the promise of CS [crowdsourcing.]”

Jeff Howe
Author who coined the phrase Crowdsourcing.

Well, that’s awkward.

The ‘ethics’ of commercial design contests

Many professional designers and organizations are opposed to design contests and the sites that host them – they refer to the entire shebang as spec work. A variety of reasons for that really, but the main one revolves around ethics, unpaid designers and “exploitation.” How’s that? Truth be told, a logo design “contest” on a commercial platform isn’t actually a contest at all.not-really-a-contestIt’s a group of people submitting logos and revisions based on your feedback – usually a professional activity – hoping to get paid if you pick their logo as your “winner.” One person in your “contest” will receive payment. The rest won’t, regardless of how much time or effort they spend at your request. Is that “exploitative?” Some think so:

“Exploitation is seen as the failure to pay labor its marginal product…”

Source: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/exploitation/

It’s also worthwhile to point out that most design contest platforms are owned by profitable Western companies. These businesses, and your logo “contest,” are only possible due to unpaid labor.
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All this boils down to one simple, binary equation. You’re either okay with it. Or you’re not.

If you are, let’s continue.

Is design any different than any other profession?

Ask yourself this fairly logical question:.

“Do I believe that people who aren’t assured a paycheck would take short-cuts in their job?”

That’s any job by the way. Be it janitor. Cook. Doctor. Lawyer. Of course, the answer would almost always be “yes.” Why would you think design is any different?

“Would someone hoping to win a contest focus on one, or enter many to maximize to their chances of getting paid?”

Again, the answer is pretty straightforward. It would be much more conducive for someone to enter a lot of unpaid contests – hoping to win something, anything – rather than focus entirely on one. Yours for example. Remember, these designers aren’t getting paid for their work in a majority of contests they enter – but they ARE participating in HOPES of getting paid and would prefer to be – a fact that you should keep in mind throughout this treatise.

The mechanics of design contests.

It doesn’t matter what platform you use, or which package you purchase. The formula is basically the same. You pay 100%. The platform takes around 40% in “fees” for standard “packages,” the remaining 60% supposed to be doled out to the “winner” of your contest.
logo-design-contest-pricingThis is at odds with design contests selling point – “pay only for the design you keep” – but it is what it is. Originally marketed as “pay what you like” – contest holders were originally allowed to “set their own price” within certain parameters – most design contest platforms now offer several packages at varying cost. Naturally, their websites will try and up-sell you to the more premium packages, claiming that by paying more prize money, you’ll “attract” better designers. While this may be true in a sense, you’ll attract more designers of ALL levels. Of course, as the platform “fees” are a fixed percentage, not on a sliding scale, they’ll actually end up taking more of a cut. In some instances, even the percentage is higher.

Good design takes time. Your contest may take a lot of yours.

time-on-contestIt’s certainly true that you’ll be deluged with options throughout your contest but are you willing to spend the time it takes to give feedback on all the submissions? Sure, it’s easy to critique the logos you like, but are you going to spend hours giving feedback on logos you may have some interest in using, but aren’t sure? How about the designs you have absolutely no interest in selecting as your winner? It’s good “contest holder” form to give feedback to everything, and while certainly not mandatory, it’s expected on some level. Designers on contest sites are said to “thrive” on feedback and as they’re generally not getting paid, a little tip-of-the-hat goes a long way towards motivation. It’s also the least you can do for people who are working for you, the majority of which are doing so without any remuneration.

As cynical as it may seem, clicking on stars allows designers to believe you’re giving them feedback on their work. Some sites even have a selection of “canned” comments that you can pick from using a pulldown menu.

There’s another, less altruistic, reason to be as active as you can too. As it’s the currency of contest sites, and also indicates your level of engagement, people tend to avoid “contests” with little or no feedback. Trouble is, you may get overwhelmed with the hundreds of logo options tossed at you, and find giving feedback to everyone simply unmanageable. Platforms have come up with an ad hoc solution to this dilemma – rating stars. As cynical as it may seem, clicking on stars allows designers to believe you’re giving them feedback on their work. Some sites even have a selection of “canned” comments that you can pick from using a pulldown menu.

The money-back guarantee.

Most design contest platforms advertise a money-back guarantee of some sort. It’s 100% on some, on others they don’t refund any up-sells or add-ons (private contests, NDAs, Twitter mentions, bolded text in their contest listings are a few examples.) In either case, it’s a simple matter for these platforms to offer such things – they’re not paying designers for their time to enter your contest. And while this:

“A logo you love or your money back”

looks great in a starburst on a webpage, when it comes to launching a contest, they’ll recommend that you make it “Guaranteed” – in other words, waive the right to a refund – to attract more or better designers. That’s actually true by the way. Many people won’t enter contests unless they are “guaranteed,” having been stung many times before in contests that weren’t. At some point this is academic anyway. Contests are no longer “refundable” once they’ve crossed a certain threshold, usually past some type of initial “qualifying round.” It’s also why most design contest sites will let you extend your contest past the original deadline, often many times, and often over the protestations of participating designers. This gets you over the timed refund hump and into non-refund territory. If you still don’t like anything after that point, your “prize” money will be distributed piecemeal to “qualified” designers (if it’s guaranteed) or just pocketed by the site (if it’s not .) As one designer wasn’t selected, or paid the total in prize money, that means no logo for you.

Let’s talk about the (optional) Non-Disclosure Agreement.

In order to get more money out of the “prize” portion of your contest, and into their “fees” section – where they don’t have to “share” it with designers – most contest platforms will also offer you additional options above and beyond their “package” fees. Whether these are a worthwhile investment – they’re usually offered at a minimal surcharge – is anyone’s guess.

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One of these “up-sells” is the addition of an NDA and private contest. What’s an NDA? That’s a Non-Disclosure Agreement where the “receiver” agrees not to disclose any “trade secrets” that the “discloser” reveals during a relationship. How an NDA works on contest platforms is this: for around $40, they’ll host your “contest” behind one. Designers entering your contest will click on an “I agree” button, promising not to tell anyone about your contest or information you supply them with. They also promise not to use submitted logos in their portfolios.

Are you willing to hire lawyers in two countries, one in yours and the other in theirs, to sue some kid from Pakistan or Burma for using a logo in their portfolio?

Not worth the pixels they’re printed with?

Critics view this is as a “Rights Grab.” In essence, you’re telling people what they can, and can’t do with their own artwork – their property – even though you haven’t paid anything for it. People entering your contest don’t get any portfolio pieces, benefits or perks because of this NDA (the platform does by charging a premium.) Do you think an NDA will stop participants in your “contest” from revealing details of your contest? That’s the question to ask, because they are NOT between you and the contest platform.

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They are between you and the people entering your contest. Further, would the information you’re revealing qualify as “trade secrets?” Are they available elsewhere? There are countries – India, where many participants hail from, is one example – where an NDA usually has to be stamped by a court to be enforceable. There’s the ethical question too – do you think that people, who didn’t get paid anything for submitting their logo ideas into your contest, should never use those designs to showcase their skills to anyone else? After all, building a portfolio was part of the recruitment spiel that got them to work for free in the first place. Here’s another, more pragmatic question – are you willing to hire lawyers in two countries, one in yours and the other in theirs, to sue some kid from Pakistan or Burma for using a logo in their portfolio? If not, those NDAs are unenforceable and for all intents and purposes, worthless.

A Quick Q & A.

Q: “Are design contests crowdsourced collaborations between different designers?”

A: “No. They’re the exact opposite. Designers will even copy each other’s ideas and concepts to win your attention and your contest.”

Q: “Really?”

A: “Yes, but there is a solution. You can always host a “blind” or “hidden” contest where only you and each entrant can see their submissions. Some designers will only enter contests that are blind or hidden. Trouble is, designers are also supposed to report copied logos to the host site and in ‘blind’ contests, don’t see the entries until contest end.”

Q: “Do design contest platforms vet, or pre-qualify, the designers on their platforms?”

A: “Most don’t and anyone can join anonymously. Some platforms have “premium” or “platinum” designers that are supposedly pre-qualified – either by automated point “system” or some undefined internal criteria – but it costs much more for a contest that’s restricted to these designers. Ironically, you’ll also have access to far fewer people from the “pool,” at odds with the entire premise of “crowdsourcing” in the first place. The vast majority of contests however, are of a “anyone can enter” variety.”

Q: “Doesn’t that mean that unless I pay a premium, some people with little design, technical or communication skills, might be entering my contest?”

A: “Yeah. It kinda does.”

Say hello to your contestants.

It’s hard to know what to call people who enter contests. Participants? Competitors? Entrants? Submitters? Just designers? It doesn’t matter really, but there are several types of participants that we do have names for. Here’s who you’re likely to bump into during your contest:

Honest Designers.


Many designers on contest sites ARE talented, honest, hard-working and ethical – presenting original concepts & design – and it’s safe to say that the majority of participants start off with only the purest of intentions. That is to provide contest holders with decent artwork, while hopefully picking up some pay here and there. They initially believe that the “best” design will win, that contests are above board and the process just another method of marketing design services in the digital age. Whether they stay that way depends entirely on how successful they are. How many contests they win. And how many they have to enter before they do.

Here for the cash.

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Design contest “communities” recruit new designer sign-ups by advertising that “anyone” can design logos & make money on their platforms. It was part of their “democracy of design” spiel used originally to sell contests as a viable enterprise way back when. They don’t boast about this anymore to contest holders, but it’s still true and very much part of their DNA. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that many people with nothing more than internet access sign up. Alas, they have little appreciable design talent and marginal technical expertise. While there may be an occasional gem from this group, most submissions, being charitable, will be underdeveloped. They also qualify often as plagiarists too – they don’t know how to design and knocking off a logo from something they found on the internet is the next best thing. That this startles anyone remains a mystery.

Repurposers & Design Necromancers.

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Becoming disenchanted at not winning, and more importantly not getting paid for hundreds of hours in effort, participants often enter rejected logos from other contests in order to spread their probability of winning around. They may change them up a bit to customize them for your contest. They may not. This isn’t actually taboo – as long as the contests aren’t running at the same time – and while design contest platforms don’t exactly want this fact advertised, there’s not much they can do about it anyway. While it defeats the purpose of writing an effective creative brief at the onset of your contest, as long as you end up with a logo you “like,” no harm, no foul.

Cloners & Recyclers.

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When repurposing old rejected logos doesn’t work either, some participants eventually get impatient and enter the same logos into many contests at the same time. Sometimes on multiple sites. While this increases their odds of getting some traction with contest holders, there’s a very good reason why platforms view this as a fairly serious “offense.” The same logo may win multiple contests. That usually isn’t discovered until much later – long after the prize money has been awarded – and with multiple parties happily using the same logo to market themselves. Blissfully unaware of each other until someone notifies one or the other. This does happen and sometimes it’s even more than just two contests that have ended with the same winning logo.

Toolers & Frankensteiners.

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These guys are a particular nuisance. While out-and-out copied logos are relatively easy to detect – either visually or via automated algorithm – these participants cobble together logos using bits and pieces copied from other designs, stock art & portfolio sites and are almost impossible to catch. Whether these “frankensteined” logos would pass a copyright challenge by the various parties being infringed upon is anyone’s guess, and their logos may be ticking time bombs in the intellectual property department. Toolers and Frankensteiners enter, and win, a lot of contests.

Plagiarists & Copycats.

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There’s no other name for this category. Plagiarists copy logos wherever they can. Google Image Search, stock image sites and even winning logos from old contests. While they will eventually get caught out and banned from the platform, they’ll enter many contests before that happens. Once banned, they’ll simply move onto another site – they’re not exactly hard to come by. Contest sites will tell you that this type of participant is “rare.” They aren’t. They’ll also tell you that it’s rare these copied logos win contests. It isn’t.

Gig Snipers.

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This is a relatively new phenomenon, and while the previous categories are well established, the impact of Gig Snipers on design contest sites is yet to be determined. Problem is, this “technique” is almost impossible to detect, so it may never be, and not technically against any “rules,” so it may not matter anyway. This all started with the advent of “gig” platforms – websites were people can purchase tasks or “gigs” for a minimal amount of money – Fiverr is the most well-known example – including logo design “services” for $5. The way gig sniping is supposed to work is this – someone grabs a brief from a design contest platform, hires a seller on Fiverr, then submits those designs into your contest. Trouble is, there’s nothing actually wrong with this, it’s known as arbitrage and is a perfectly legit way of doing business, merely exploiting a vulnerability in a system for low-risk, high profit. It is, ironically, the very concept that design contest sites utilized in their own business models. Trouble is, low-cost gig platforms that offer design services are also rife with copyright infringement issues too, so this could turn into a major headache for everyone concerned. And you, if you’re running a logo contest. As this is a recent development, how widespread it might be is anyone’s guess but there are several articles on “Get Rich on the Internet” websites that outline, step-by-step, exactly how to participate in this scheme. Again, if you end up with a logo you “like” there shouldn’t be a concern, outside the “value” of running a design contest, and the chance of selecting a copied logo with questionable, or unknown lineage.

Plagiarism & logo design contests.

Sure you’ll get a lot of logos to sift through, but do you care if design work submitted to your contest is original? You should. And while not completely exclusive to design contests, knocked-off logos are certainly an inherent risk of the model.

submissions-logo-design-contest-receivesDo you believe that the platform you’re running your contest on will monitor your contest for plagiarized logos? They won’t. They expect other entrants to your contest to do it for them and then report the knocked-off art. Fine and dandy, but remember the “blind” or “hidden” contest proviso we talked about earlier? Nobody will even see the plagiarized work till your contest is closed.

One major site has a ratio of 1 staff member for every 9,580 designers. Most design platforms are so over-scaled and deluged with support tickets, and responses to copied logo reports so delayed, if some designs in your contest ARE reported by another participant, you may pick one before support even gets to it.

Here’s another problem. Contest platforms like to boast about the size of their communities. Often in the high hundreds of thousands. Some near a million. A few over that. The sites themselves are staffed by a handful of support personnel, representing a wildly disproportionate ratio between staff and online designers. One major site has a ratio of 1 staff member for every 9,580 designers. Most design platforms are so over-scaled and deluged with support tickets, their responses to copied logo reports so delayed, if some designs in your contest ARE reported by another participant, you may pick one before support even gets to it. Then they have to make a judgment call on whether to inform you or not.

A helpful hint to find logo knock-offs yourself.

There’s a solution to all this that you can provide yourself, but it’s not without some caveats. Can you use Google reverse image search? You can check submitted entries to see if Google knows about them. The downside to that is many of the logos entered into your contest are presented on mock-ups – business cards, on walls, the side of vehicles and the like – which while looking pretty and all, also bypass Google Image Search’s algorithm.

The contest platform you’re using is responsible should you pick a winning logo that’s been copied anyway, right? No. Their Terms of Service state specifically that they’re not. Any legality and liability rests between you and the winner of your contest. Quite often some kid in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Generic concepts & logos.

Did you know that even if reported, most design contest platforms won’t remove “commonly used” “common ideas” or “generic concepts” from your contest? Sadly, that’s true too. Sites can’t ban someone from their platforms when they submit logos for which there’s no clear lineage of ownership, so they’ll stay in your options. What if a design is deemed as a copy before your contests closes? They’ll eliminate it from your options and probably ban the designer, closing their account. An odd twist to that? If a designer whose logos you like, gets banned for submitting copied designs into other contests, they’ll get banned from your contest too. They’ll disappear. As will their submitted logos and all the time you’ve spent “art directing” them. Good luck trying to find them again.

If you pick a bootleg logo as your winner?

If the platform finds out your “winning” logo is copied, they might “let” you keep it – though this is knowingly facilitating copyright infringement and not really their position to do so – but they’ll tell you that you’re “fully responsible” and ask you to “waive them” from future liability. All fine and dandy, but are you prepared to redesign and reprint all the material you created after your contest was long since over? Once the owner of the intellectual property in your logo, tells you to stop? Exercise this option, if made available, with extreme caution.

Most stock art sites don’t license their art for use in logos. If they do, you could buy the same stock art yourself for a few dollars, not the hundreds, or thousands, you spent running your contest.

There’s also a very high probability that some of the logos submitted to your contest will be from stock art libraries – commercial outfits like iStock, Shutterstock and some lesser known free vector sites. The problem with this? Most stock art sites don’t license their art for use in logos. If they do, you could buy the same stock art yourself for a few dollars, not the hundreds, or thousands, you spent running your contest. Or all the time you invested giving feedback on logos you weren’t interested in.

In a more bizarre twist, and it does happen, you may pick a logo that won another contest on the same site, or another contest site, but resubmitted into yours by the same designer or someone else. What’s the official position on plagiarism in commercial logo design contests? They can’t deny it because there’s so much evidence of it happening, so the party line is that it’s “rare, but does happen.” That’s only half true. It DOES happen. But it ISN’T rare. In fact, it happens all the time.

One last thing.

How your logo “looks” is one thing. How it “works” is another. The file setup of your brand assets is actually very important, becoming more of an issue the more complex your logo is. Here are some common file types:

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As this is supposed to be a DIY enterprise, with you playing art director and all, it should come as no surprise you’re on your own there too. Can you check these files to see if they’re set up correctly yourself? Before you send them off to the printer? This may require Adobe Illustrator or similar software and some technical knowledge of how these files are supposed to be, otherwise, it’s a matter of blind trust.

But if you’ve made it this far, and are okay with this too:
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Here’s wishing you the best.

Footnote: This article is a companion piece to, and pinches some images from this logo design contest infographic. We wanted to take a look at commercialized design “crowdsourcing” and “contests” in general, so didn’t mention any platform specifically, but ALL the scenarios mentioned are not hypothetical, but based on REAL incidents from recent, and actual contests on them. If you’d prefer to read this at your leisure, you can download this free ebook version. No registration required.