On the surface, it’s easy to understand why design contests can seem like a good bargain for business owners. They offer a unique opportunity to receive designs from (potentially) dozens of different contestants, all motivated by a single cash prize. However, there’s a reason that ’99designs scam’ is something that people often Google before they launch a design contest. It’s not just the threat of tricks, ripoffs, or fraud involved that makes people hesitate when it comes to design contests. Many prospective clients I speak with want to know if a design contest is a good fit for their needs. Do they produce good results, or are they too good to be true?
Many people seeking design expect that for the right person, with the right expectations and skills, a design contest can work. But after I explain the pros and cons of running a design contest, the majority of people I speak with choose to go with a more traditional solution instead of a design contest.
The 99designs Scam
The 99designs scam isn’t limited to the threat of being robbed by an anonymous online stranger. There are many issues that prevent design contest websites from generating the ‘good design’ that they claim to produce. If you start a design contest with the expectation of getting a great design, prepare to be scammed. Poor communication between contest holders and contestants, language and cultural barriers, and low overall quality of work (at times even outright intellectual property theft) all play a role. Let’s dive in and paint a nice, clear picture of the 99designs scam in action, and why it’s better to work with a reputable design agency like (shameless plug) Ripley Studios.
I: Communication Issues
The hardest part of my job isn’t sketching logo comps, wire-framing out websites, or coding CSS. Most of the challenge in being a great designer lies in the expertise that it takes to translate a client’s needs into a well-positioned brand that will resonate with the right audience. To do that takes an exceptional understanding of the business in question, the market that business competes in, and the audience that business is trying to engage with. I ask a lot of questions throughout the design process. Great design takes great communication, and asking the right questions is a huge part of creating a great brand.
On design contest websites, options for communication are extremely limited. Usually, a contest holder will have space to give a brief overview of what they’re looking for, and that’s about it. There’s no medium for two-way communication to take place, so there’s no way for contestants to ask questions or collaborate with the contest holder. Any mutual understanding between designers and their clients is impossible in a design contest, so creating effective design work is impossible as well.
Language & Cultural Barriers
If a lack of proper communication tools isn’t enough, consider that design contest websites draw contestants from all over the world. While most business seek to target a local audience, contestants from places like India, Indonesia, and Pakistan do not have a good understanding of American or Western culture. Many speak only limited amounts of English, and turn to Google Translate to help, which can produce mixed results.
This leads to a multitude of issues, from smaller mistakes like misspelled content (I’ve even seen logos with misspelled brand names come out of design contests!) to a complete misinterpretation of the project (think asking for apples and getting bananas instead). To build a successful brand, a designer must understand the context that brand will be viewed in. Such an understanding is not possible without a deep knowledge of the culture that brand will be a part of.
II: Design Misconceptions & Missteps
Many of my clients are experts in highly specialized fields. When someone launches a design contest, they stray away from their area of expertise, and take on the roll of creative director in charge of the contest. Design contest websites assume that contest holders know exactly what they’re looking for, and exactly how to get it through highly effective creative direction. The problem here is, contest holders are experts in their highly specialized fields, but not in branding or design! I mentioned earlier that translating a client’s needs into a well-positioned brand is the hardest part of my job. It is my highly specialized field. On a design contest website, you’re the one in charge of that part of the job. I can speak from experience when I say that most of my clients aren’t ready to take on that role. They appreciate my guidance and expertise when it comes to branding for exactly that reason.
“All we need is X.”
Another common misconception that design contest websites spread is that a company’s needs can be filled by many different designers in piecemeal fashion. This is not only a 99designs scam, but is common outside design contest websites as well. Designers often hear “All we need is a logo,” or “All we need is a postcard design,” from their prospective clients. Sometimes, it really is true, and all a business needs is X. More often than not though, a company will need X, Y, Z, W, and V to connect with their target audience effectively. Great brands aren’t built on just a logo or just a postcard design, they’re the result of a great brand identity system. It isn’t always obvious, but a single element like a logo represents only one part of the way your brand is perceived by your audience. Design contest websites want you to believe otherwise. They know that creating a great brand takes great communication, expertise, and planning, and they know that isn’t something that they can provide.
III: Poor Quality, Legal Issues, and Fraud
The design contest business model is built on the premise of choice. And in some ways, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Design contests do get a lot of entries, it’s just that those entries aren’t always the most original, or even aesthetically pleasing, let alone effective.
While it’s true that there are a lot of people that enter design contests, I wouldn’t necessarily call those people designers. The word design means, “A process of creative customization that is driven by purpose, planning, and intention.” The fact that someone can operate Photoshop at a basic level does not make them a designer. But that won’t stop them from entering a design contest. Taking a ‘shotgun’ approach and submitting the same design to contest after contest does not make someone a designer. But, it does happen every day at design contest websites. Someone’s ability to rip off someone else’s work and pass it off as their own does not make that person a designer. That’s fraud, not to mention illegal. And, due to the way most design contest websites’ copyright agreements are written, your business will be the one on the hook for damages, not the ‘designer’ (read: thief). These are all too common examples of the low-quality piece of the 99designs scam in action. They are the clearest reasons why you should stay away design contest websites.
If design contests don’t work, what does?
The bottom line is, real, professional designers don’t participate in design contests. Professional designers know all about the 99designs scam, and they know that contests don’t work. If you’re looking for great design, a better solution is to hire an experienced, reputable design agency. Professional designers are experts who love what we do. We are ready to answer your questions, and we want to make your design project easy, rewarding, and successful. If that sounds good to you, skip the design contest, and give Ripley Studios a call. We can’t wait to hear from you, whether you just need some free advice, or a whole new brand.