Why Design Competitions are Bad News for Everyone

Last week after hearing a few comments fit for clientcopia.com from one particular client, I decided that I should start working out the 20% of my clients who bring in 80% of my revenue and focus on giving them a brilliant service, rather than having to justify why I have to charge for my services (yes, I really had to have that conversation with someone). Dropping your problem clients might make you happier but even the low yielding clients are bringing in income, and this income needs to be replaced. 

I decided to ask a few internet friends their thoughts on job boards and whether the calibre of client on the boards are the type we’d all love to have. The good news is, apparently there are some lurking in there. 

Out of the really helpful links that were sent to me by various people one that came up was 99designs.com. I clicked, looked at it and it immediately got my goat (not the fault of the person who sent it to me I hasten to add). A design contest, and not a small one a “thriving community of 15,689 talented designers” at that.

These 15,689 people are committing designers sin as far as I’m concerned. If a client said to you “Right, design me a logo, I want you to spend around 10 hours of your time on it, I want you to be at my beck and call day and night when I submit revisions and I want those revisions the next day….oh and I’ve got 10 other people doing the same thing BUT if I like your design, you’ll get paid a mediocre fee at the end.” – What would you say? I fear my response would be a little less than lady like and start with an “f”, however a simple “no” would suffice.

I have more experience than most when it comes to design contests. I used to share an office with a guy who used to do these as his main source of work. I’d watch him tear his hair out and bust a gut doing revisions and new logos, stay up late into the night to watch for other submissions and revision sets from clients in the USA and only to find more often than not, he wouldn’t win or if he did it was around £80. The upshot of this was he couldn’t afford his rent and he moved out – and, he was a good designer! By doing this he essentially hindered his own success, judging by his website 4 years later, he still hasn’t learnt. 

When you are in the creative field your actions can directly affect another designer, you have programmed a client to think that the above is acceptable for a tiny fee, you have also introduced them to the world of spec work. 

I recently lost out on a project due to the client wanting to see the entire website built before he decided whether he would pay for it, oh and he found someone who would do it for £150 – probably someone from 99designs.com. I’m not sad to have lost this client however the designer that did take him on should know better. Why is it deemed acceptable to do spec work at all? Even when we go to a restaurant and have a meal that we don’t like, we’ll complain, we’ll moan that we’ll never go back there and what dreadful service we had but 9/10 we pay for it! 

The biggest question we face as designers when submitting proposals is “Ok, but what if I don’t like what you’ve done?” – your response will never be “Then don’t pay for it”. Design is a skill, a skill that many people do not have, you deserve to be recompensed for that skill the same a plumber or electrician would. If you have a design brief that can be sent out via email, send it and then go through the brief with the client over the phone. Ensure the client has filled out or discussed the design brief in full and not with one word answers, then you should have no problem and can tell the client this. A design brief will be your bible for each client and also gives you a benchmark of which to refer to when the client says “It’s too red” and they’ve written “Must be red”.

I’d like to refer to a paragraph from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) published article Design Business and Ethics – “The AIGA Standards of Professional Practise”.

“A designer shall not undertake any speculative projects, either alone or in competition with other designers, for which compensation will only be received if a design is accepted or used. This applies not only to entire projects but also to preliminary schematic proposals.” 

It’s in there for a reason – stick to it! 

In short, design competitions breed a bad client. This client will know he can push you around, expect work at a similar or lower price in the future, probably expect work to be free at some stage with promises of ongoing future work, or exploit your “spec” work to someone who will charge them less than you, and remember, there will always be someone who charges less than you. Educate your clients as to why you are worth the fee you are asking, set a benchmark price that you are not willing to go under, ever, and stick to it.

Oh and find the 15,689 designers on 99designs.com and tell them too… it’ll do us all a favour.

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  • Saz, you’ve hit the nail on the head with that post. Speculative work is something I have never considered. You are right, it does breed a very bad and ugly monster, usually called a 13 year old in a bed room who hasn’t seen daylight for 6 months and working 12 straight hours for less than the cost of a pint.

    I have been asked to do speculative work before and my simple answer was no.

    Gav to Client – “If you want to have a look at my portfolio then you are quite welcome and then you pay a deposit and then you sign off every single piece of artwork and pay a fee at every single milestone.”

    It’s about protecting yourself and any designer worth their jammy dodgers would do the same.

    In a nutshell. I am in full agreement.

  • I have taken part in one of these competitions and I found the client to be even more indecisive than my normal clients. You’re right about them expecting revisions quickly, using the incentive of “or else I’ll give it to this guy”. I’ll definitely never even consider that kind of work again!

  • john drewman

    funny then that most designers I have come across lately have utilised the skills of a programmer of some description on a similar site – double standards perhaps.

    at the end of the day no one is forced into it.

  • Sarah

    I don’t think other designers ask 10 programmers to do their work and then choose who did it the best and pay them though? That’s the argument, not the site themselves just the fact it promotes spec work.

  • matt

    Hi saz,

    I was REALLY tempted to write a VERY similar article during the week (but decided I needed to finish my site first)…

    Here is a set of “tweets” from such a site…

    crowdSPRING: @simplrdesign Matt, check out the design projects at http://crowdspring.com. It’s more productive than eating small children! (RE: your bio) 04:57 PM July 16, 2008 from web in reply to simplrdesign

    simplrdesign: @crowdSPRING if im honest, I hate sites like that… imagine going into a building with 3 restaurants, and you say “best dish gets my money” 10:26 PM July 16, 2008 from twhirl in reply to crowdSPRING

    simplrdesign: @crowdSPRING they wouldn’t do it… so I dont see why designers should compete in this way… its a waste of time, and effectively money. 10:26 PM July 16, 2008 from twhirl in reply to crowdSPRING

    crowdSPRING @simplrdesign I see yr point. I know that it’s not for everyone but we have 1000s of creatives in our community who like having this choice 10:09 AM July 17, 2008 from web in reply to simplrdesign

    I think only 1 word can describe the “creatives” using these methods to find work…. MUGS.


  • Great article!

    I’ve looked at these sorts of sites before and looked at the expectations from the clients -every time I just walk away. It’s not worth the hassle.

    Clients should expect to pay for the standard of work they want to receive, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys!

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