Why Design Contests are Wrong

Published: November 8, 2023

by CurlyRed president and principal designer M. Kendall Ludwig

Imagine you are a surgeon. A patient comes to you and says: “I need to have this heart procedure done, but I want to make sure I'm choosing the best surgeon. I'll tell you what, I'm going to have you and two of your fellow surgeons perform minor procedures on me (for free), and then whomever does the best job, I'll hire that person to do the heart procedure.”

Now imagine you are an accountant. A potential client comes to you and says: “I need a new accountant for my business. I'm going to have you and two of your fellow accountants prepare my tax return this year (for free), and then whomever saves me the most on my taxes can be my accountant moving forward.”

Do these two scenarios seem ridiculous to you? Yeah, me too.

However, as a designer with over 20 years of professional experience, I am still asked to participate in logo, t-shirt, poster and other design contests. I constantly see postings for contests for other artists as well—particularly photographers and illustrators. The contest goes like this: they ask folks (often professionals and amateurs alike) to submit design concepts to win a contest, then they may pay or otherwise reward the winning designer with a gift card, free tickets to an event, etc. If you submit a design and it isn't chosen, there's no compensation for your time, effort or ideas.

I don't believe that contests like these are created with malicious intent. I think many non-profits or small businesses see this as a way to save money and maybe generate exposure. However, contests of this nature encourage Spec Work (work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid), which CurlyRed strongly opposes, as does the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA). You can read more on this here. I believe contests like these (unless it's done on a student level, for portfolio work only) undervalues our entire industry, and is frankly insulting to professional designers.

If budget is a concern, then reach out to a designer or firm that you would like to work with, and ask if they are currently accepting pro-bono clients. Many firms (CurlyRed included), take on a small number of pro-bono clients every year, and we love to help worthy organizations when we're able. But please don't ask us to participate in a contest, because the answer will always be no.

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