Design Contests: The Ugly Truth

March 8, 2010 / Updated: March 8, 2010 / Lena Shore

Will Work for Cash

Let’s say you have a successful company and want to do a little updating. You’ve decided that old logo is looking dated, and head to a design agency you know and trust for something new. They quote you $1,000 for a design, tell you that they’ll be researching your business and market for the next couple of days, and that the art director and designers will come up with some choices for you to look through by next Tuesday. You’re happy because you know you’re getting a quality job, and they’re happy for having you as a customer.

Now let’s say that instead of agreeing to their terms, you tell the agency that you’re only going to pay them $90 for their efforts. What kind of job are you expecting to get for your 9% price? Next you tell them that after they give you their work, there’s only a one in two hundred chance that you’ll even pay them the $90… it’ll probably go to someone else. What kind of effort are you expecting now?

This is the deal being offered by a new wave of design and music contest sites springing up all over the internet. An end client puts up a “prize” typically valued at pennies on the dollar of what the work is worth to a professional, and hundreds of contestants the world over compete for it by sending in finished designs. While this sounds like a windfall for the business owner at the expense of the designers, the truth, as ever, is much more caveat emptor than carpe diem. In English; if it looks like it’s too good to be true, you’re probably getting screwed.

The Dangers to You

Contest sites operate outside as well as in the United States, opening their net to anyone in the world willing to do work for the chance at American dollars. Most of the entrants are from third-world nations and are working with very little idea of your needs, business, or culture. To overcome their lack of expertise, education, and skill, they do what people in this position have always done… they steal.

An enormous proportion of entrants to these contests are providing work stolen from other companies, websites, or contest entrants. As soon as one entrant has an original idea dozens of other entrants will post the same thing in different colors, or slightly misshapen, or even exactly the same.

The contest sites themselves, often based outside the U.S., do not care. Many of them charge the entrants to participate, (illegal) randomly extend deadlines to scoop up more entrants, (illegal) or advise the patsy, uh… sponsor, to withdraw completely and cancel the contest if they don’t see anything they like. (Very, very illegal.)

Unfortunately this situation puts you in the legal crosshairs. The designer is penniless, the website is vaporized, and you have a successful business. (That means target.) At best you’ve simply paid for a design that you now have to replace both online and on anything you’ve already printed. Which brings up another point…

I Bought What Again…?

Despite your misgivings, you have plunged ahead and set up a contest for your logo. Sweeping aside the dreck, you find one entry that catches your fancy. Hoping it isn’t really the logo for a Vietnamese-only type of green tea Coca-Cola, you authorize the $90 payment. In return you get a 150 x 150 pixel image of your new logo.

What are you gonna do now?

When you take a job to a qualified designer, getting back a pleasing image is, at best, half the battle. Many, many other considerations go into creating an image that will be successful and easy to use for you. Considerations you pay for when using a real designer, but which a person working for a tiny chance at a paltry sum would have no idea of.

Is the design derivative of the competition? Will it look good big? Will it look good small? What about in two colors? One color? Black and white? Will it be immediately recognizable? What does it say about the business itself? These questions and many more are things that will never be considered in a contest environment. Because a real designer, one that would think about such things, could never depend on such an avenue for their livelihood.

Once you get your new logo from the contest, the likelihood is great that you will then have to take it to an actual designer in order to transform it into something useful to you. It’s simply not an efficient use of your time and money.


Yes, these contests do devalue the work of legitimate designers, myself included, across the country and even the world. And yes, for this reason I do not like them. But more than that, I see this as one more kind of internet scam that is bad for everyone, and has a chance of catching the people I know and care about. The people who purchase design work… and who I depend on for my own livelihood.

I don’t like scammers. I dislike the fact that they prey on the ignorant and those least able to defend themselves, so I’m shining my small light on them. Typically these places fold up whenever the law in one of the hundreds of countries their operations are illegal in takes an interest… only to pop up again under a new name elsewhere. The only truly effective defense is knowing how they operate and the reasons why not to use them. I hope this helps you.


Lena Shore

Lena is a full-time freelancer and nerd that specializes in web development, graphic design, and illustration. She enjoys building things, learning new things, pursuing creative endeavors, and giving free advice.

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