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Robert Wurth is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Freshly Squeezed Design, a small ad agency located in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Robert has been working professionally as a designer for nearly 15 years.  During that time, he has had the opportunity to design a wide variety of projects, including official game coins for college national championship games, trade show booths, sports team web sites, national print campaigns and a number of identity projects. 

Of his company, Freshly Squeezed Design, Robert says, “we intend to be a different sort of agency, one where every client is made to feel like our only client.”

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Design Contests Are Dangerous For Your Business
By Robert Wurth, Creative Director, Freshly Squeezed Design

I recently wrote a blog entry on Freshly Squeezed Droplets about Powerball winners and the dangers that a sudden windfall of success can bring – whether it’s in the form of money from a lottery, or customers from the unwise practice of running “sale” ads.  I’d like to continue the lottery theme with some thoughts about a growing problem within the industry of design.

Right now, there exists a trend in the business world whereby companies get it in their heads that it would be a good idea to run a contest for their design work.  What they will do is announce that they need, say, a new logo.  The intent is for designers to individually spend the time to develop designs and then submit them.  The company then goes over the entries and selects a “winner.”  Only the winner receives any compensation for the work.

On the surface, and without applying any deeper thought to it, this might seem like a great idea.  Rather than trust one designer to come up with a solution, a company can solicit the creative talent of dozens, or even hundreds of talented creatives.

As with most things, however, the reality of the situation is rarely so simple.

Advertising is a business, and working with a designer is a business relationship.  Because of that, there are far more factors at work than just the final product.  People will switch doctors because they don’t get along.  They will refuse to shop at a certain store (despite really liking the products) because they can’t stand the employees.  Conversely, people will go out of their way to do business with someone they like, even if doing so might be inconvenient or even a little more expensive.  It is no different with a company’s relationship with its designer.

It isn’t only important to find someone talented and who can get your projects done on time.  The best relationships between companies and designers occur when they understand each other, when the designer “gets” what the company wants and needs to be successful.

This kind of relationship is almost never possible in a contest.

Design contests are obviously huge gambles for the designers.  They have to commit to doing a significant amount of work, and they have to do so essentially blind.  Without the benefit of meeting with those putting on the contest face-to-face and gaining some in-depth insight into the project, the designers have to guess at the tastes of those in charge and just hope they do something appealing.

The thing that contest originators don’t understand, however, is that the contest model is just as much a lottery for them, too.  Without meeting with the contest entrants, and seeing their past work and experiencing their personalities, the contest originators put themselves in the middle of a very risky gamble.  Based simply on a submitted image, it is impossible to determine whether or not the designer has the knowledge and background to guide the project to an efficient (or even successful) conclusion.

It really isn’t all that difficult for someone with some basic creative skills to put some shapes together into a pleasing arrangement.  However, making sure that those shapes have the technical foundation to meet the needs of a company is a different matter, as is having the knowledge and skill to follow up the project with changes, modifications, or even application to future projects.

Once the winner of the contest is chosen, the company has committed itself into a relationship with the designer.  Now, at least on some level, the company is going to have to deal with this person.  It’s not unlike choosing a mail-order bride based just on a picture.  It’s not going to matter how pretty she is in the picture if she’s a complete and total shrew in person, or if it’s discovered that she can’t speak your language and has no skills to speak of.  I’d venture to guess that very few of the companies running contests have the knowledge of the design industry to take over a project should they discover that their winner’s only skill is in making pleasing pictures.

What it boils down to is a loss of control.  By running a contest, the company gives up its power to choose a designer based on talent, skill, personality and all of the other factors that make it possible to conduct business with someone.  This is no more a sound business model than playing the lottery in the hopes of making a profit.

©2006 Robert Wurth

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