Finding the Con in Contests

Apr 26, 2006

Mr. FuriousFame and fortune await thee! BBC would like someone to help reboot the site design and focus. For your efforts, you would receive an Apple laptop. Slashdot is wanting a new look as well. If you win that redesign contest, a new laptop is your prize. Possibly the instigator of this design contest fever, The Big Noob held a t-shirt design contest, offering $150 to designers that get chosen.
Is something in the water? Are there some cosmic rays or sunspots appearing that make websites do design contests in late April?

The Con

I think these contests are a total joke. They irk me and make my chin get all aquiver. At first glance, no big deal, right? Get a bunch of eager fans of your site all worked up and give away a cool prize. This is what is called spec work, and the problems are numerous once you get below the surface.

If you ask someone to do a design project for you, ideally you sit down with them and get a dialog going about the goals you have and the sort of style for which you are aiming. As a designer, if I can’t sit down and chat with a client about a project, then I’m a grumpy designer. Not only that, the less input a designer has, the less likely he or she is to help meet your goals. Designers help solve problems, they aren’t there just to make stuff look good.

Contests pay only one person, and usually below market value. A laptop for an entire site redesign is cheap. If you get 100 submissions, collectively, that’s thousands of hours of work done by those 100 people, and only one person gets compensated for some of their time. One could argue that the submitters knew what they were getting into. Indeed. I still don’t like it. You’re still using your influence as the promoter of this contest to give these people hope and waste most of their time and do your work for you.

Raffling publicity for cheap design work isn’t fair or respectful to the design community. You’re telling designers that their work isn’t valuable to you and that they need you more than you need them. The best plan is to hire a designer and let them do their jobs. That way you build a relationship, pay an honest wage, and get better results.

For the Designers

If you’re a designer tempted by a “free” laptop, think twice. No, don’t think, run. If you enter these contests, you’re telling companies and your peers that your work is worth a laptop or just $150. That’s if you win. If you lose, well, I guess your work is worth nothing, right? Wrong. Stay away. If you really want to work for free, consider offering your services pro bono to a company that can’t afford to pay a designer. There are tons of non-profit companies out there who need your help. Be a part of a cause, do something you believe in. Also, make sure they know how much you would charge if it were not pro bono. It’s helpful for them to know the value of your work.


It’s all about respect. I realize that sounds a bit cheezy. However, if you respect yourself, you’ll choose not to do spec work. And if you, as a company, respect designers, you wont condone or invite it.

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