Debating the spec work issue from a designer’s point of view. Is it an exploitative process that threatens the graphic design industry, or the future of design that embraces everybody? Let’s discuss..

Last week, I told you about Specdebate, a supposedly open forum where designers can duke it out over the design contest issue. While action on the forum is light, George Ryan, the owner of the site (and a design contest site known as elogocontest) posted a pro-contest puff piece that I found interesting. Not surprisingly, I don’t agree with most of what he says, but at least he’s strong enough in his convictions to mount a defense of his position. Thought I’d take the time to address some of his points on The Factor. George’s comments are in bold. Mine aren’t.

They Say: design contests are a waste of a designers time. Depends on the designer! If you have weeks or months of work lined up in front of you then yes, it probably a waste of time to spend valuable minutes working for spec. If, on the other hand, you are starting out as a designer or are having a dry spell design contests can be a readily available way to bring in some quick cash. Also, regardless of what the critics say the skill of the designer DOES make a HUGE difference in winning a contest. I can tell you right off the bat which designers on eLogoContest can win a contest if they choose, quality wins out 9 times out of 10. At the same time designers who DON’T ever win (it happens) can critique themselves and improve their work.

Design contests aren’t a waste of a designer’s time if the designer is simply honing their skills. Certainly, any time spent drawing, sketching or creating logos is never time wasted and is generally recommended as a way to keep skills sharp. Attempting to sell those efforts as finished artwork is another matter entirely. I’d also think that design contests are a waste of a designer’s time, if they want to earn a living, which, other than people just learning about the trade, is what professional design is all about. Which is kind of odd, because making money is how design contests are marketed to potential participants. And a professional design solution is how design contests are marketed to potential holders.

Dollars & sense.

The actual chances of bringing in ‘quick cash’ for any one individual is extremely minimal. Judging by the number of contests that are abandoned without any winner being accepted (roughly 9% – a figure determined by a quick perusal of two design contest sites) and the sheer volume of designers participating, the chance of an individual making any ‘quick cash’ is almost nil. Especially if they’re going to put any effort, and the required time, into their entries (which goes a long way to explaining why so many copied logos and purloined clip art designs make their way into submissions.)

The weirdness that is “guaranteed contests”.

Logo contest sites are trying to minimize abandoned contests by featuring what they refer to as ‘guaranteed prizes’ – an interesting concept where the contest holder pays the site owners the prize money up front, and even if they decide to abandon the contest in progress, the prize will still be awarded (though how the winner is selected is often a little foggy.) Trouble is, holding a ‘guaranteed prize’ contest is still optional (makes you wonder if the people opting out of holding ‘guaranteed prize contests’ have any intentions of making good on selecting a winner at all) and most contest holders opt out. The risk of entering a logo contest, only to see it abandoned at a later date, is so great that some entrants (especially the better ones) are refusing to submit work to any contest that isn’t guaranteed, something which the design contest sites aren’t too quick to admit up front. Easier to attract contest holders when these sites imply that they can walk at any time, without awarding the contest prize (still not sure if that’s even legal).

The best design wins?

In terms of the best design winning one of these contests, and judging by the winning designs themselves, the client is often unversed in what makes a good logo, how that logo will reproduce over a wide range of media, and even the difference between vector art and bitmap generated designs. Without any one-on-one interaction, they remain unversed throughout the logo design process, unaware of the technical and visual issues with the designs they’re viewing.

Bottom line, they pick crap logos.

Being the client and all, this is their right, and a normal day-to-day occurrence at any design studio where clearly superior work is tossed aside for designs that meet some requirement that has nothing to do with good design. In a design contest, this translates to the best design not always being selected, nor the work of the best designer. More often than not, designer skill, or the quality of the logos entered into the contest, has nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with the winning entry being selected. Which translates into the best designer NOT getting paid. Which is kind of the antithesis of what a design contest is supposed to be about. Don’t take my word for it – take a trip through one of these websites and see for yourself.

“In a normal studio environment, or a one-on-one freelance basis, the designer will get paid even if the client decides to direct the creation of a logo that isn’t, by any definition, a good logo.”

In a normal studio environment, or a one-on-one freelance basis, the designer will get paid even if the client decides to direct the creation of a logo that isn’t, by any definition, a good logo. A friend of mine once said “The client is always King. But they can’t be art director”. During any contest, the contest holder has no choice but to be an art director. That, by the way, is something that the contest holder brings to the ‘contest’, rather than any ‘worth‘ gained by holding one.

In terms of designers having their work critiqued, most contest holders don’t even bother. The time required, and the volume of entries makes this impractical for most (if they were able to explain why they didn’t ‘like’ a logo in the first place), and many contests go on without any feedback at all, save the selection of the winner.

The cynicism of rating stars.

Many logo contest sites have realized that this is an issue and have instituted simple rating systems – usually stars or numbers out of five – so that they can still claim the designers’ work is being critiqued, while minimizing the amount of time the holder has to spend. Funny thing – even that very basic ‘click here to rate’ requirement is still being avoided, and without any criteria at all often ends with designers wondering why their design – which rated a 4 out of 5 stars – lost to a design that was rated 3 out of five. Bottom line – the idea that a designer receives any valuable feedback, ostensibly to enhance their skills, is like most contest site claims, a stretch at best.

They Say: Design contests are not a valid source of regular income. I agree! It can be an awesome source of supplementary income but I would never encourage a designer to rely on design contests as their main source of income, even if they could, simply because it is not guaranteed income. Design contests can be part of a powerful approach to freelancing, including freelance job sites, local work and networking, but stand on them alone and you are asking to fall.

Okay. A guy who owns a logo design contest site admits that entering contests is not a valid source of regular income. No comment necessary I guess. In terms of being ‘part of a powerful approach to freelance’ I supose I’d have to ask “how so?” if entering contests is not a ‘valid source of regular income’. Most freelance designers view their practice as a career, not some hobby where they might make some ‘quick cash’.

Some design contest sites (including George’s) will claim that entering contests is a great way to build up a client list, as contest holders engage the designer to create collateral design work – brochures, stationery, websites, etc. If this were true, then it’s only winning entries are likely to gain this advantage. As a designer’s chances of winning a contest are slim to begin with (if a winner gets selected at all) this so-called benefit is negligible to begin with. Ironically, most design contest sites also hold contests for brochures, websites and stationery, claiming that the contest model is a great way to get these items developed, NOT working one-on-one with a designer or design firm.

Bottom line – you can’t have it both ways, though as we’ll see, design contest advocates attempt quite often to do just that.

Should also take this opportunity to point out that design contest sites charge holders a fee (above and beyond the prize amount) to run contests, and some even claw back prize money by charging a percentage of the entrant’s winnings. In other words, the logo contest sites’ income is guaranteed, while the designers who are creating their ‘product’ shoulder all the ‘risk’ and invest all the time. While we’re talking about having it both ways and all.

They Say: Clients get the short end of the stick when running a design contest. Nothing personal against the proponents of this theory but this is without a doubt one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. Even if all the client gets out of it is a bunch of ideas I fail to see how that is the “short end of the stick”. I DO encourage contest holders to get the most out of their contest by using the actual contest as a brainstorming process and then working with the winning designer to finetune the design if needed (paying the designer their regular rates of course), but even if they just use the winning design as it is they still more than get their moneys worth out of the contest. It’s also worth pointing out that I have never heard this complaint from a client, only from designers.

The abundance of “choice”.

Well, if the sheer number of designs presented ever turns out to be a factor in what makes a good logo, or a factor in ascertaining the worth of a logo, then perhaps contests might have a leg-up. However, the idea that 100 bad designs is somehow better than two or three good ones is a concept that still eludes me. This is the graphic design version of spam e-mail – throw enough designs at a client and hope that something ‘sticks’. In terms of the designs themselves, the vast majority of logos entered into design contests aren’t any good (and that’s being charitable.) They’re cobbled together by folks who are (as George points out) looking to make some ‘quick cash’ and ‘developing their skills’. Often by so-called designers who have no idea about design, and figure slapping together some rudimentary shapes in a bootleg copy of Illustrator is a perfectly valid way to produce a logo. The designs are often ripped off other entrants work, often in the very same contest, in order to win favor with the client. There’s very little concept. Execution is often shoddy. Often, contest entrants will submit the same design, rejected from a previous contest, over and over again, hoping that someone will eventually select their logo for something. Anything. I’ve even seen designs that were selected as the winner for one contest, being entered by the same designer, into another.

“I’ve even seen designs that were selected as the winner for one contest, being entered by the same designer, into another.”

Wading through several hundred extremely bad designs, in order to find a decent logo, is overwhelming to even the most experienced design client, let alone someone who may be new to the process. And designing an effective logo is always about the end product, not the number of preliminary designs it took to get there. There’s many a design project at the shop that only required one pass – that logo is every bit as valuable as one that required multiple steps.

I’d go as far to say that the sheer volume of entries can be overwhelming to the first-time design buyer. Take a look at any contest where there are a lot of entries. On most contest sites, the contest holder is supposed to critique every design (a ‘pro’ that is boasted by contest advocates – they claim that having one’s work critiqued is is one of the main benefits of entering a design contest in the first place.) The comment sections often degenerate into skirmishes between the holder and the entrants when the volume of designs makes it impossible for the holder to comment on every single one. Do a search for ‘feedback please’ on any contest site to see how often this happens.

Critiquing work that is of no interest?

Many contest holders end up resenting the time they’re expected to spend telling designers what they like, and don’t like, usually skipping over this expectation as the volume of entries increases. The ‘client’ is supposed to critique artwork that they have absolutely no interest in using, which they see as a waste of their time and as they’re paying for ‘services’ not necessarily part of their obligation. Let’s be honest here – most people who hold logo contests have been convinced that they get more design options for a greatly reduced cost, not spending additional time trying to explain why they don’t like this or that design, nor educating designers on what makes a great logo, when they probably don’t have any idea past “I like that” and “I don’t like that”.

There’s also the idea that a logo development takes place in a very public venue, where designs are likely to get ripped off by other unscrupulous folks trolling the internet looking for images, either to add to their so-called portfolios, adapt for their own projects, or add to their own template logo collections. During a one-on-one project with a freelancer or design studio, concepts and preliminary designs (which may be very similar to the final work) are not published, and the final logo won’t be revealed until there are a minimum of copyright protections in place. That doesn’t happen in logo contests, where the artwork is publicly available from step one. This was an earlier criticism of mine, to which some logo contest sites have reacted, creating ‘private contests’ that are only accessible to logged in members and contest holders. Here’s the funny thing though – the fact that these contest are ‘hidden’ only increases the chance that plagiarized logos will get entered as ‘designers’ out for a ‘quick buck’ figure their ripped off entries won’t be seen by folks who will recognize the designs. The simple truth is this – by their very nature, logo contests attract folks who aren’t opposed to cutting corners to make a ‘quick buck’. This isn’t unique to the design industry. It is, in fact, human nature.

Astonishingly, George makes this suggestion –

I encourage contest holders to get the most out of their contest by using the actual contest as a brainstorming process and then working with the winning designer to fine tune the design if needed (paying the designer their regular rates of course).

Unless I’m missing something (which is always possible) a guy that owns a logo design contest site advocates using his ‘services’ to brainstorm for a logo, then hire a designer (at regular rates) to ‘fine tune’ the design. So, what’s the point of holding a logo contest again?

In terms of having never heard complaints about ‘getting the short end of the stick’ (I actually think George is quoting yours truly) from what George refers to as ‘clients’, that’s not terribly surprising. Many folks, new to the design process, may think that ‘the more, the merrier’ is a valid barometer of the quality of design. It isn’t. It’s applying grocery store mentality to a logo design, and at the risk of mangling a metaphor is comparing ‘apples and oranges’. Also, as the rate of abandoned contests is almost 10%, it would appear that at least some ‘clients’ ended up deciding that holding a logo contest wasn’t the way to develop their logo, the number of presented designs be damned.

They Say: Design contests encourage plagiarism and clip art. The creative industry itself encourages plagiarism and unoriginal designs, not directly of course, but any industry that relies on creativity will have the lazy trying to take advantage of it. This is NOT something that is unique to design contests, it happens every day all over the globe. The fact that it is much more obvious in the design contest format because of the public display of all entries does not mean that it is a direct result of the “contest format”. In fact I think that design contests provide much MORE transparancy and contest holders can be much more confident that they are getting original work than they would working with an unknown designer. We regularly have “designers” attempting to pass off ripped work as their own, thanks to our viligant community of designers these “designers” are usually reported and banned within minutes of posting the work, let’s see that happen with a conventional studio!

No offense to George, but this wanders into bullshit territory. Owners of logo contest sites – every single one – know that this is an ongoing issue and have disclaimers within their terms and conditions that state, very specifically, that they are not responsible for originality of any logo presented. George’s site, elogocontest, for example, has this to say –

eLogoContest is a independent ‘middle-man’ and makes no claims whatsoever as to the originality of any user-submitted content.

George also seems to think that the ‘creative industry’ encourages unoriginal designs (an oxymoronic statement if there ever was one) because ‘lazy’ people are always tempted to take advantage. Shouldn’t have to point this out, but when people’s jobs and careers are on the line, they are less likely to risk whatever security they have by ripping off another designer. Studios and graphic design firms are liable for some very real, and costly, damages. No designer, or firm, who values their reputation is going to risk it all by presenting stolen work as their own – it’s only with the relative anonymity of the internet (the very model of logo contest sites) does this become an issue. There are some very high risks for established designers or graphic design firms foisting off purloined work as their own. In logo design contests, the anonymity of the entrants, as well as the ‘not necessarily original’ disclaimer illustrates quite clearly that logo contest sites are aware of this inherent flaw, and try to avoid this liability that everyone else assumes (though whether these disclaimers are legally sound is anyone’s guess.)

Again, in his defence of logo contests, George makes another astonishing admission –

We regularly have “designers” attempting to pass off ripped work as their own.

Regularly? That’s nice. He then goes on to defiantly state that these ‘designers’ are banned and demands ‘let’s see that happen in a conventional studio’. Ahm, if this were to happen at any ‘conventional studio’ the designer would be fired instantly. Might even find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit if they’re under contract. Ask yourself this – who’s more likely to pinch a logo they found on the internet – a designer working for a decent wage with benefits who’d risk that job and suffer an insurmountable blemish on their resume, or a designer entering a logo contest without any payment, in order to earn the chance of winning $100 or so, while hiding behind a screen name like logodsgr151? While the site itself attempts to absolve itself from any ‘originality’ liability. It’s at this juncture, that I should point out that I found two examples of our client’s work being submitted to two of George’s contests, and that it was only after we wrote about them were the designs yanked.

See, here’s the thing. On any logo design contest site, that’s ANY site that uses the contest model, I can guarantee that copied logos will eventually find their way into the submissions. To say that this happens ‘regularly’ at conventional studios, or with fairly established freelancers is, to be charitable, nonsense.

It doesn’t.

They Say: Design contests are ruining the industry. If the industry that you mean is the “3 logo concepts for a hundred and fifty bucks” industry then yes, you might be right. I do not, however, think that design contests are a replacement for an experienced design firm coming up with a full fledged brand, nor are they the same as working one on one with a designer, but they certainly do have their place in the industry, and for the small startup that has a few hundred dollars to spend on a brand they can be the most powerful way to go.

Ruining the industry?

Not logo design contests per se, but the attitude that a designers work is only worth remuneration if it meets some undefined criteria, that a designers time isn’t worth anything and that the education, experience, skill and reputation of a designer amounts to squat, is certainly a little disconcerting for folks who are IN the industry. Especially when folks like George market logo design contests as being a better alternative than more conventional avenues (he compares his contest site to other companies using the volume of designs as the only barometer), when clearly, they’re not. And while I certainly understand George’s efforts – trying to make money off other people’s efforts without paying for those efforts – it’s certainly not a position that’s going to be supported by the denizens of any ‘industry’ be it design or not. Does his model work out to better design? No.

While theoretically, not paying for your ‘staff’ could be argued as a sound business position, a quick calculation of George’s income from the site ($19.95 per contest, plus 10% of any winnings) will show that the logo design contest model isn’t exactly a boon to his bank account either. George would be better served opening a traditional graphic design studio. Cause here’s the thing. As more and more of these things pop up on the interwebs, with the resultant competition, site owners are going to have to figure out how to attract designers, while charging contest holders less and ‘relaxing’ the terms they have to agree to.

A downward spiral of design integrity checks and balances.

At the end of the day, logo design contest sites are not about developing value, better design, better client interaction or better working conditions for designers.

Far from it.

Every single design contest site – without exception – were created by folks trying to make a buck from the design industry while not having to pay their ‘workforce’ – the very developers of their ‘product’. Off-shoring was the big challenge of the design industry a few years ago, as globalization introduced western companies to international wage rates. Contest sites have figured out a way to reduce those wage rates to zero. In a weird sense, my hat’s off to them for having the cojones to pull it off.

But it certainly isn’t a road to better design, nor the road to a career for up-and-coming designers. Which is what this particular industry has always been about to me.