When a "contest" is not a contest

by Jeff Fisher, Engineer of Creative Identity, Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

It may bark like a dog and look like a dog but, is it really always a dog?

A similar query may arise with many “design contests,” especially those popping up all over the Internet on a daily basis. Business and organizations, with the ability to pay going rates for professional graphic design services, have found the lure of winning a “contest” will reel in large numbers of designers for the chance of a few minutes of fame, a little glory and perhaps cash or prizes not nearly worth the value of the design effort on the open market. In return, those conducting these design lotteries often get a virtual menu of design options, and the rights to use all entries as they please, with little need of valuable prize options or the outlay of much cash.

Some blame for the proliferation of “design contests” must fall on the design community itself. For a great many designers, such activities appear to be an opportunity to gain some quick income. In the excitement of the moment it is often forgotten that winning is not a sure thing and the “fine print’ of the competition rules may be even more detrimental to a designer. The only thing worse than a client, or potential client, who does not value the efforts of a professional graphic designer, is a designer who doesn’t appreciate the value of their own time and work. Participation in such “competitions” certainly devalues the efforts of the creative individual and encourages others in the business community to seek inexpensive design work in a similar manner.

In most cases the target of such “contests” is the somewhat naive, and not so business savvy, designer. For that reason many of the “competitions” are often posted on newsgroups, or venues like Yahoo Groups, frequented a great deal by “newbies” to the industry. Those conducting such competitive ventures are not always seeking to take advantage of designers not knowing better. Some simply need to be educated about the design profession and all designers need to take it upon themselves to aid in that education process.

Other businesses holding design competitions are very much aware of what they are doing. Recently, on a design-related Yahoo Group, a firm posted a letterhead “design contest.” This company, which sold document templates, was offering small cash prizes for the top three designs. No additional residuals were to be offered to the selected designs that would eventually be sold for use by others. In fact, the fine print of the competition noted that all submissions to the “contest” became the property of the company and could be used as they saw fit - meaning the firm could use and sell the designs of non-winners without any form of compensation. A few days following the posting of the names of “winners” the web site of the “contest,” and the company, no longer existed.

The similarity to speculative design work is blatant in many of these “competitions.” (Additional inormations about dealing with “spec” work situations can be found on NO!SPEC). Designers are being asked to create work for the chance that their work might be selected or used by the client. In these cases the carrot being dangled is often a prize of significantly less value than the designer could earn if contracted directly to produce the work. Instead of committing themselves and contracting with one design professional, the business or organization in question is setting up a veritable smorgasbord of creative possibilities for themselves, with little consideration for the individual designer or the value of their time and talents.

In March 2004, a “contest” for a logo, web site design and collateral materials was posted on the Internet forum at Designers-Network.com. Immediately, designers from all over the world pounced on the poster of the message and his offer of a $1000 prize for a great deal of speculative work. Those responding to the post invested a great deal thought in putting together their arguments against the practice of such competitions. Some provided information about the actual value of a designer’s work. Others posted messages outlining the evils of “spec” work. A few questioned the turning over of all rights on a project to a for-profit venture. The individual posting the message about the event was initially stunned by the reaction but then responded that he had decided to cancel the contest as a result.

Some producing and promoting similar “design contests” should simply know better than to solicit design work in such a manner. Naming names is not necessary, but recently a well-known writer, the writer’s publisher, a stock photo company and an online payment company began a competition to design the cover of the author’s book. The competition was then promoted by a variety of design industry and business web sites that supposedly support the efforts of the “little guy” in the design profession. The “prize” package for the winner included a camera (valued at approximately $1000), a signed copy of the book and a credit for the stock photo company. It was necessary to pay a $1.00 entry fee through the online payment firm in which the author has some financial interest.

As Creative Latitude’s own Neil Tortorella noted, in one of the Internet discussions of this specific competitive event, The Graphic Artist Guild Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines (10th Ed.) estimates a typical fee for One/First Concept of a mass market hardcover book to be $2,000 - $3,500 US, with licensed rights for first edition only.”

The rules for the “contest” were clearly posted for all to read, and agree to, before submitting a design. And there it was: “All entries become the property of Sponsors. By entering the Contest, the winner agrees to assign all of his or her rights, title and interest in the entry (including all copyrights, trademarks, design rights, moral rights and all other intellectual property rights) to the Sponsors or their designee(s).” A designer would be submitting a speculative design to an established publisher - and giving up all rights to the work. It makes it tough for all designers when those supposedly “in the know” about the industry, and aware of the value of a designer’s creative efforts, are working against them in the guise of a “contest.”

Various online forums presented lively interaction between posters on this particular book cover situation, with mixed reactions from those joining the discussions. In general, the more established the design professional the more likely they had a negative reaction to the “contest.” Designers with less experience in the industry seemed to look at it as a great opportunity for exposure; rather than a situation that would be taking advantage of their talents and wasting their limited valuable time. The biggest disappointment was the attitude of the author in question. He basically blew off all criticisms with a response of suggesting designers not enter the “contest” if they didn’t like the event or did not want to abide by the rules.

Over two decades ago the Graphic Artists Guild established “Suggested Guidelines for Art Competitions and Contests” through their Graphic Artists Guild Foundation, with a supporting grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The organization conducted a nationwide survey of art and design competition holders, as well as jurors and competition entrants, in determining recommendations for competitions and contests conducted by art-related organizations/associations, for-profit companies desiring work for commercial purposes; and nonprofit organizations. Serious consideration of such recommendations is now more important than ever to those in the design profession attempting to wade through the competitive offerings promoted via the Internet.

In all cases, the Graphic Artists Guild (GAG) suggests that those conducting competitions initially review existing work of designers or artists, rather than requiring the execution of newly created, speculative work. Through a process of elimination, finalists are then asked to possibly submit rough sketches prior to being named the finalist for the project contract. A number of guideline recommendations then help the event sponsor select a final art piece or design. The organization also stresses that any prize awarded should be commensurate with the fair market value of the work being done. GAG also recommends that the individual creating the work should retain a variety of rights for the work done.

The most legitimate design contests are often those conducted by nonprofit organizations. Still, such organizations may benefit from knowledge of the GAG established “Suggested Guidelines for Art Competitions and Contests.” While smaller, budget-challenged, nonprofits seldom seem to be intentionally taking advantage of designers, there is still room for some improvement when it comes to establishing specific contest rules and conducting the competitions. It is the prerogative of many in the design profession to make some concessions about these issues when dealing with project opportunities for nonprofit causes in which they have strong personal interests.

It should be noted that the “contests” covered in this article are not the industry awards designers either love, or love to hate. (Those competitions have already been examined in another Creative Latitude article) The “design contests” that are not always what they seem are most often requests for newly designed work to be used in the marketing and promotion of a business, service or product - to the financial gain of the entity presenting the opportunity.

In considering possible participation in such events, designers should review suggested competition guidelines - such as those recommended by GAG - and do a little online research of the business or organization conducting the activity. Carefully read all of the rules presented by the sponsor and give consideration to the actual market value of the work being requested. By doing so, a design professional can make an informed decision about possible participation in what someone else is referring to as a “contest.” The investment in time in learning about such issues will also make a designer better informed when finding it necessary to educate those promoting so-called “contests” about the errors of their ways.

Designers beware! The beast known as a “contest” may look like a dog and bark like a dog. However, be careful when you go to pet, or play with, this animal. Its bite could be much worse than its bark.

This article originally appeared on CreativeLatitude.com in April 2004. It was also published on Pixelgirlpresents.com, GDC.net - Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, TheCreativeForum.com, Commpiled.com, Singapore.net and NO-SPEC.com

© 2007 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives