The Real Truth About Design Contests, What You Need to Know

And you just won…nothing.

That, right there, is the first truth that you need to know about design contests. Not everyone who enters a design contest will win.

Yet, it seems like contests are everywhere.

It’s easy to be enticed to enter contests with the shiny offers of exciting prizes and in some cases, cash. But if you do enter a design contest, don’t count on winning. Most entrants never place high enough to win a prize. And some contests are outright scams.

Is it worth it to enter a design contest? It depends. If you’re thinking about entering a contest, you should consider all the risks before you put serious effort into a contest entry.

In this post, I share four vital questions you should ask yourself before entering a design contest. If you liked this post, you’ll probably also like 7 Practical Ways to Gain Exposure as a Designer.

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Question #1. Is It for School?

If you are in school and your design instructor approaches you about entering a contest, don’t be surprised. Professors seem to love contests.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • If a student wins a prestigious design contest, both the school and the student look good.
  • Many contests target students directly, sometimes offering scholarships for the winners.
  • Students have more time to work on contests during school breaks.
  • Contests provide students with extra practice on critical skills.
  • A student’s contest entry may become the first piece in their design portfolio.

Often, academically-oriented contests are more reputable. Plus, if it is allowed, your professor may be willing to provide advice on your entry. You may also get the chance to work closely with other design students.

Question #2. Is It for Fun?

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Design contests can be fun and challenging. There’s nothing wrong with that if the contest is reputable.

If the design contest gets your creative juices going, participation in a contest may be a good thing. Just make sure that you have enough time to devote to your entry and don’t shortchange your regular work.

But if you are entering a contest mainly for the fun of it, be honest with yourself about your motives. Understand that any time that you devote to your contest entry is time that you most likely won’t be paid for.

If you go into a contest with the right expectations and attitude, entering a design contest can be an enjoyable experience.

Question #3. Is It for Profit?

Some designers who enter design contests are depending on winning the prize. This is especially true of new designers or designers who may be struggling to stay afloat. This makes me sad, because these are precisely the freelancers who really can’t afford to spend a lot of time on contests.

Sadly, planning to win a design competition to launch or save your business is just not a good business strategy.

Remember, many other designers will be competing and most of them will not win. Even if you are very good, the odds are against you winning. If the design contest is disreputable (more on that later), there may not even be a contest winner.

And some contests are really spec work in disguise. The AIGA Position on Spec Work makes it clear that doing design work on spec is risky.

If you desperately need the prize money from a contest, you’d be better off spending the time you would have spent on a design contest entry on marketing your business instead.

The best way to profit from your design is still to get a paying client to sign a contract. Make sure that contract details the design requirements and includes your terms of payment. Design contests are not a shortcut or a replacement for that.

Question #4. Is It Reputable?

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Be sure to research a design contest thoroughly before you actually enter.

Unfortunately, while there are some valid competitions out there, other design competitions are nothing more than scams. No one actually wins the contest and the contest organizer may wind up with dozens of free designs.

To find out whether a contest is reputable, consider the following:

  • Who is the contest sponsor? If the contest is coming from an organization you know about and trust, the contest is probably legitimate. If the sponsor is unknown, be cautious.
  • Does it cost money to enter? While not all contests that charge an entry fee are scams, some contests are organized solely to make the organizer money by charging a fee.
  • Is the organizer accountable? How will you know whether the prizes are awarded? Will there be a public announcement of the winner? Steer clear of any contests that don’t publicly announce the results.
  • Has the competition been held before? If it has, is it held at regular intervals? An annual competition is more reputable than a company that simply holds a contest every time it wants free design.
  • Did the last winner actually get their prize? This information may not be obvious at first, but it’s worth digging a little to find out, even if you have to contact past winners yourself.
  • Will the contest promote the winners? Will the winning entries and runners-up be on public display (possibly giving you exposure), or will the information be kept between the contestants and the sponsor?

For more information about common scams designers face, review the post Know How to Recognize Scam Jobs as a Freelancer here on the Vandelay Design blog.

Other Contest Tips

Always, always, always read the fine print for any contest you enter. Make sure that you understand not only what the rules are, but also what will be done with the entries when the contest is over.

Pay particular attention to your intellectual rights. Be careful about contests that require you to assign the intellectual rights of your design entry over to the contest sponsor.

Finally, if you do decide a design contest is worth your time and effort, do submit your best work. This is especially true if the contest submissions will be displayed publicly.

In my own opinion, many design contests are a waste of time for experienced designers. However, students and new designers may benefit from them if they are careful about which contests they enter.

Your Turn

What is your opinion on design contests? Do you participate, or do you consider them to be too risky?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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