It’s a growing debate among designers: Spec Work & Design Contests (also known as crowdsourcing); good or bad? The setup: Businesses can have designers from all over the world ‘complete’ for their design business. The business owner creates a ‘contest’ and receives dozens (maybe hundreds?) of designs from several designers, one health pick the one he/she likes best and award the prize to the winner. Sounds awesome, rx right? Well, not so much…for the sake keeping this post relatively short, I will use a logo design contest as an example:
Let’s look at it from a numbers standpoint.
Have you ever heard the saying you get what you pay for? Its true in design too. These so-called ‘designers’ who participate in Spec Work (offering services in hopes of receiving compensation but without any guarantees) aren’t professionals. They are often students, foreigners, or regular people with a copy of Photoshop (which isn’t even the right software for creating logos, btw). Would you let a student or guy-off-the-street balance your books, do your taxes, or perform a dental check? I think not. And yet, this is exactly what businesses do when they choose to participate in these ‘contests’ in the hopes of saving some money. So, these part-time, untrained ‘designers’ really want that extra $200 but know that what they submit will have to compete with dozens of other designs so they work extra hard to make sure their design is the best and gets chosen by the client, right? Not likely. They may spend fifteen minutes, an hour, maybe even two…heck, you might get lucky and get yourself a newbie who doesn’t know the software yet or its their first time taking a shot at design contest so maybe they really give it a good try (then you’re really getting a bang for your buck!). But all-in-all, these ‘designers’ aren’t going to spend the necessary time it takes to create a good logo. (see my logo design process here). No, they are more likely to invest as little time as possible since they know they’ve only got a 1-in-X chance of getting paid. Of course, if they don’t win, they could always try to sell that design to another sucker in another contest. Plus, the less time they spend per contest, the more contests they can enter so they might try to churn out as many designs as they can in a day without much thought as to who they are designing for, the nature of the business, or the effectiveness and reproducibility of the design. It’s about the numbers, man.
Now let’s look at it from a design standpoint.
Choosing to use one of these contests to set the visual tone for your company is really just a terrible idea. You’ve worked hard to create a business plan, choose inventory, secure the right retail space, hire all the friendliest and most qualified employees, and now you’re going to risk all that by using a Spec Contest to create your brandmark? Why don’t you just get one of those employees to whip you up a logo in Word and use that? “Oh, no, no, no, that would be a bad idea”. Of course it is, but that’s exactly what the kind of work you are likely to get when using crowdsourcing or contest sites. Again, professional designers do not engage in crowdsourcing contests so you are not likely to get professional designs in return. Many times, these are novice designers who are pumping out designs that require the least amount of time, effort, creativity, skill, and thought because they know that there is a good chance they wont get paid for it. These sites are chock full of bad design, many of them ripped off from actual designers and yet, you want that to be the face of your company? Professional Designers spend time creating the right brandmark for you, utilizing years of experience. You know they’re good because you’ve seen their portfolio before you hired them, you’ve read testimonials from actual clients, you’ve met them face-to-face. Professional Designers work closely with you creating a design brief and brand guide, they ask questions and research. They take the time to really understand you, your company and your goals and they do this with a firm understanding of design. Do the ‘designers’ on these crowdsourcing sites do that? Maybe. But is maybe good enough for you?
What you get for the money.
Now, I’ve never personally used one of these sites but several of my clients had before they found me. I have seen (and had the unfortunate and frustrating experience of trying to work with) the amateur designs that come from these sites. First, they are almost never the right file type (believe me when I tell you that having the right file type is essential), they are only sometimes created in the right software, and they are rarely the proper resolution and colorspace. These are the basics of the profession, people….if the ‘designers’ who participate in this practice don’t know the difference between 72dpi and 300dpi, they have absolutely no business collecting any amount of money for their ‘designs’. In all the cases that I have been given one of these crowsourced files to attempt to work with, it has been a nightmare.
What you DON’T get for the money.
You’ve chosen to use a contest allowing all but one lucky designer to work for free, trying to create the face of your business without so much as knowing who was actually creating it. Perhaps you’ve ended up with a design that you are happy with. Here’s the most terrifying part, after you’ve spent a fair amount of money getting that logo printed on business cards, banners, letterhead, signage, and product packaging, you’ve been served with a Cease and Desist letter from the rightful owner of the Copyright your ‘new’ logo infringes upon. These crowdsorcing and contest sites have long lists of Cease and Desist complaints against them for violating copyright as some of the ‘designers’ who participate don’t follow the rules and ethics of Design and simply do a google search to find a nice design to copy . The crowsourcing site owners clearly state in their terms and conditions that they make no claims as to the originality of the work submitted (check it out for yourself). So who are you going to blame? The Website who legally hides behind an ‘it’s not our fault, you agreed to the terms and conditions’ standpoint? The Designer you’ve never met or even spoken to? It will be up to you to hire an attorney to fight or settle. It will be up to you to now hire a professional to design a new brandmark. It will be up to you to re-print everything with your new logo and pay the web designer to update the website. Does crowdsourcing sound as good now?
The Moral of the Story
The above are only a few reasons why participating in these ‘contests’ is a very bad idea, both for the participants and the business owner who solicits free design. I didn’t even scratch the surface of how it devalues Design, promotes Design as a commodity and as inessential to your business, or how it stifles any real creativity or logical thought when creating visual solutions. While I can understand the cost of doing business is high (I know, I own and run a business too) and the temptation to save money and cut corners can almost be considered a necessity for some, I beg of you, contact some local Designers first. Most of us will collect the vital information and create a personalized quote for free, without obligation. At the very least, you can get a good idea of what Professional Design actually cost (it’s likely a LOT less than you think) and establish a real relationship with a professional right there in your town. The differences between using a Professional Designer and a’contest’ designer are vast to say the least but I think Red Adair said it best when he said: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire and amateur”. It’s true for most professions, and it is true for Graphic Design, too.