Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Designers over Contests

Lately in the design community there has been a lot of discussion on the ethics of using and participating in a contest to create a logo or other design work. The argument from seasoned designers basically says you wouldn’t have a couple lawyers write up contracts for you and than you choose the one you like best and pay that lawyer for their time. The other lawyers wouldn’t stand for it and you would end up having to pay them all for their work. I think as designers the argument goes deeper than that. It goes to what we can provide the customer beyond just an image or icon. It goes to how we can help the client develop their brand and present a consistent unified body of work for a company.

I understand many start up companies don’t have big budgets to spend on their logos and creating a brand for themselves but that doesn’t mean they can’t start off on the right foot. As a small company or large company you don’t have to use the biggest design firm or the most renowned designer, you can find someone locally that will fit your budget and do a great job. Talk to other business owners who have logos or marketing materials you like to find out who did them. Talk to local printers to find out if they know of any designers.

If money is an issue, tell your designer your budget. Many designers can work with in a budget. If it is too low the designer should be able to let you know and hopefully you can talk about ways you work it so you can get the job done. Maybe it’s a payment plan, or cash and a trade in services. Remember you wouldn’t give your services away for free so don’t expect a designer to either.

The biggest difference in a design contest and using a designer is and should be the level of service you get with your project. Many times people use the word brand and logo interchangeably and that is a mistake. The logo is not the brand and the brand is not the logo. When I talk about a logo here it is an icon or avatar that represents the company, and when I talk about brand it is the idea of the company. They are separate things but intertwined. With a design contest you will get a logo/icon for your company but will not necessarily get help with the branding.

A logo is an image or typographic treatment that represents you or your company. It is the visible element that people associate with a company. When you say Apple, Nike, McDonald’s, a particular image comes to mind. When you see the logo of a company it evokes a feeling of some kind – that is the brand.

When a designer creates a logo they try to take into account the brand the company wants; who the audience is, how it will be used, what feeling the company is trying to convey. If the designer is good they will try to fit the logo into the brand and work with you to create the feeling you want your clients to have when they see your logo.

Design contest, to me, is design in a vacuum. You don’t have real client contact and interaction to get a true idea of who they are as a company and what they are aiming for. As a designer part of creating the logo is also doing brand consultation. Working with the client to help them create what others will think of their company. A brand is not what you think of your company if is what others think of it. When the designer gives the client the final art work for the logo they should also include a usage chart that explains how to use the logo correctly over various media so the client can get a consistent look and feel to build brand equity. From a designers perspective if you give the client this type of service they will ask you back to help create other collateral material or if you don’t do brochures etc. you can recommend a designer who does. This ensures the strength of the logo and the brand going forward.

Designing a logo is not just about creating an icon or avatar, it is about creating a solution that fits the company and will last. Without the client/designer interaction, through design briefs and surveys, you can miss out on that. Without these briefs and back and forth a designer gains understanding of the clients business and the competition so they can create a solution that fits the client.

Another area of danger from a contest is the possibility of a design being a rip off of another logo. Yes, some designers will do the same thing but are generally more careful of what they pass off as their own. It may not be a problem initially but in the long run it could cost more than you realize due to lawsuits or other legal actions from the company who originally had the logo done.

As designers we need to offer that extra that separates us from contests. We need to work with the client to fit their needs. As clients you need to realize that you will get a better, well rounded logo when working with a designer. A logo, which is yours and only yours, that has had thought put into it and a process behind it to make it such. A logo, which is just not an icon of your company, but also an extension of your brand, your mission.

More related blog posts concerning this story:

David Airey: Forbes calls designers snooty
Jeff Andrews: Forbes Magazine: Graphic Design is a Snooty Business
Steph Doyle: Forbes Promotes Graphic Design Kitsch
Swiss Miss: Forbes calls designers snooty
Brian Yerkes: Why CrowdSpring Owners Should Be Ashamed of Their Business
AIGA: Position on spec work What is Spec Work?


Jeff Fisher LogoMotives said...

Great article - with good explanations of the issues "contests" bring about and the advantages of clients working directly with a professional identity designer!

David Airey said...

"Another area of danger from a contest is the possibility of a design being a rip off of another logo."

Very true, and it relates to accountability. The logo contest websites are very clear that they take no responsibility for the designs submitted to contests, and the person submitting can simply disappear once the project is complete.

rob said...

I really don't get why everyone is so "steamed up" about this. Surely any client who thinks a logo can be knocked up in a couple of hours is never going to approach a traditional design company and pay for days of thinking and research.

I design on cS and I pick and choose projects that interest me and that I feel I can have an impact on. I spend time looking into the business and the competition and I feel I do a thorough job for the fee. If a brief has one sentence I personally don't get involved if someone does then good for them, the client will get back what they have put in. All of this is done at my risk.

I don't think the design community, which even us renegades are a part of, is giving clients enough credit. I don't see it as being a threat to the industry as a whole. It's a way for freelancers to have another outlet and for people starting out to get some good experience.

There were some quite nasty posts on Forbes regarding some of the work of designers on cS. I have spent some time looking at the work of many of the 'professional' people posting on various blogs and the How website and they haven't got that much to shout about. Maybe that's the reason for the panic.

Grafixgibbs said...


I understand what you're saying. My point is to try to educate the client that when using a designer they are getting more than just an image. Hopefully the designer can help them with their brand also.

My second point is to help the designer understand they have more responsibility to the client then just giving them a nice icon.

I have thought about doing design contests myself but decided against it as the work and effort I would put into it wouldn't be worth it in the long run for the client or me. The more I looked at them the more I thought of what the client is loosing out on.

As long as there are designers and wanabes' that are willing to do them and clients that are willing to host them there will be design contests but I believe both sides need to be aware of the dangers and pit falls of them.

I personally would choose a designer over a contest as what I get is a known quantity.

rob said...

Don't get me wrong I certainly know it's limitations. I also understand what you're saying about responsibility of the designer. If you take a look at the site most of the awarded designs are of a high standard. Sure if you look in the gallery you will see amateurish work, but I heard a number thrown around that 80% of the work is awarded to 10% of the designers, which would make me believe that not as much rubbish work is being done as what people would like to believe. I have been in this business a long time and have a design education and know that for the most part good designers are doing a good job on that site (by the way I haven't been brainwashed by them as suggested elsewhere!!). I would suggest that just as much crap work is being done outside of these sites which harm the industry just as much.

I have found it a place where I can do some work that challenges me and brings me into contact with new clients, something I have struggled in the past to find. I have definitely had periods of frustration with it and times when I have struggled with it's concept, but I keep going back to it as I haven't found a better way to find work.

I love design and have seen massive changes in it over the last 15 years, I have always tried to embrace change and maybe this is another big one. I still believe the cream of the industry will always rise to the top.

I would suggest that a bunch of designers from the NoSpec crowd should do an experiment and all enter a different contest. They could all then report on the experience and maybe the debate would be more constructive after that.