Design insights & tutorials.

Blank Canvas: Design Contests

There seems to be quite a growing number of websites such as 99 Designs offering design services by way of “contests”, where the client will submit specs for the project, and the designers will then submit actual designs in order to “win” the payment.

While I can see the appeal of these types of services for the client (get designs for free, only pay for the ones you like), I feel this devalues the worth of a designer’s skills. You don’t get to have 5 mechanics work on your car and then only pay the one you felt did the best job. You can’t eat a meal at 5 restaurants and then only pay for the food you found the most delicious.

I’ve read articles and blog comments in defense of these types of services, but none of the arguments was very compelling to me. It reeks of spec work, and the team over at No Spec agree.

Student designers looking to bolster their portfolio, “hobbyist” designers doing it for fun, and the like are the typical arguments in favor of these services.

I suppose it’s the choice of those who participate if they wish to work for the chance of getting paid, but in general I think it sends a message that logo design work is so “easy” that people are willing to do so for even just a chance of compensation.

I much prefer the eBay-style approach of sites like iFreelance where projects are posted and the illustrators and designers bid on the job. No work is done for free.

Go Media wants to hear from our reader, especially as we know many of you out there are students: what is your take on these “design contest” types of sites? Have you participated? Sound off in the comments section below.


About the Author, George Coghill

George Coghill isa freelance humorous illustrator/cartoonist specializing in mascot cartoon character design & cartoon logos. His cartooning & illustration work can be seen at and at his cartooning and illustration blog. Be sure to follow me on Twitter here!
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We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Luis S. Hernandez

    I completely agree, this time of contest completely devalues the skills, ingenuity, knowledge and hard work of individuals that design for a living.

  • Jayson

    I did one once. It was a for a 7″ for the band Murder by Death. I did it because I love the band and thought it'd be fun, but those were the only reasons. did this with the industrial design of their first car. Cory Doctorow praised their approach. I feels like we're moving into an era where the efforts of creative professionals have no value.

    Still, I understand the allure of wanting exposure. I'm not a student, but I'm out of work. I've done some free projects in the hope of greater exposure.

  • George Garrastegui

    This definitely Hurts us ALL as designers. I can see where the exposure make us really want to do it. But this is just like when you look on craigslist for a job. and it says quick logo for $50.. WTF!

    Even i was caught up in the opportunity in creating an idea for a company and even promoted… then i was kindly reminded by a friend that I was promoting SPEC work… I was like oh S**T.. what am i doing….

    We designers need to stick up for each other and stick together…

  • TomFaraci

    I disagree. Sometimes when business is slow, I'll participate in a contest just to keep at it in my down time, and if I get paid for it, then that's great, too. I hardly ever approach it as a serious gig, because without being able to work directly with the client, it's impossible to get them exactly what they want. So if I can spend an hour or 2 in illustrator and it ends up making myself a couple hundred bucks, no harm in that.

    I understand the argument against, and while a lot of great work comes out of that site, I still feel the client gets what they pay for.

  • Stephanie Rexroth

    Hear, hear… check out a growing movement to combat these type of practices. It more often than not comes down to client education… most just get online (not knowing where else to turn to find a designer) and these type of spec work sites come up at the top of the search results.

    Graphic Design Certification is working to become the go-to source for non-design business people who are looking for design services… think of it as a form of Design Advocacy for us:

    Follow on Twitter, LinkedIn & Facebook, too:

  • Matthew Martin

    I totally agree with you but I cant believe you are only just writing about this! The quality of your articles is normally pretty good and they're generally quite interesting… but this isnt news… these ridiculous spec-work forums/contests have been devaluing not only good design but professional branding for years.


  • Mobe13

    I totally agree. It's hard to sit back and just watch as our profession gets more and more under-valued. Design is already a profession in which many don't see much value. A lot of people think that anyone can be a designer and that it doesn't take much knowledge. So we are in the constant battle of trying to convince people of the value that's in good design while also defending what we charge.

    Sites like this and spec work make it harder and harder for designers out there. Some would say you get what you pay for. I agree with that to a certain extent, but it still brings the value of everything down – the quality of design and the value of our profession. As creatives, we need to think more of ourselves and the work we produce so that we do not contribute to the perpetuation of this growing problem.

  • Dave

    Crowd sourcing is slavery. It destroys the first rule of a design professional “Time = Money”. If you are a newbie and need to build your portfolio, do some freebees for a non profit charity(Your Local SPCA or Chamber of Commerce) or local band/club that could really use your help and show appreciation. Think local and you will survive, let the 3rd world slaves give away their art…

  • greenfunk

    I have to admit, I agree with everyone's comments above. I think it does devalue design as a profession as a whole. That said, I have “competed” a little bit when work was slow. I was actively submitting designs for about a month. After awhile seeing the same approaches to every brief by hundreds of “designers” depressed me, and the submissions that won the contests were usually uninspiring. It was however an interesting experience in what I would call a “design workout”. I got to read a ton of interesting briefs, for businesses I would not normally cross paths with, and I got to flex my design muscles a whole lot in a short period of time. It spurred my creativity which was kind of stalled and was an outlet to play in Illustrator. I haven't submitted in quite awhile because I am busy again (thankfully) but it was useful to keep the fire lit, so to speak.

    • Tekno Loji


  • Burleson

    This type of contest or submitting proofs in order to “win” a project not only devalue design in general, but also make it hard to turn a profit. If we had to create proofs in order to win each client, I don't know how we could be profitable.

    If a client asks for proofs to compare our perspective verses another studio, we respectfully ask them to review our portfolio, and state that it is against our company's policy to create proofs for free. We will quote them for rough proofs if they so wish.

    More often than not we do win the client this way, and are told they felt we were more of a “real” business.

  • ADHDam

    Although this has been going on for a while now and isnt something new, it still bothers the hell out of me. You hit it right on about getting 5 mechanics working on a car and only paying the best one. WORK IS WORK, you should be paid for your creative mind. If the client was creative or had the skills they would design the logo personally. It just seems that Logo design, in the clients mind, has now become something 'easy' or 'a project you just whip up' (I have been told this and wanted to ring their necks) and something that should only cost them a few bucks. Its true you get what you pay for, but all this spec work is just making the creative person look like a dime a dozen. Is that what we have become? A dime a dozen?

  • Jeff Deibel

    I don't participate in the sites. Overall, I think it's a sad truth that so many young designer are taken advantage of by these Contest sites. Unfortunately, these sites aren't going to go away. The good news is there are a ton of pros that people might be over looking.

    The pros:
    - I do think they weed out some bad clients who don't value the profession anyways.
    - Competitive advantage for you and your clients. You pay for what you get and in this case your well thought out designs will cut through the clutter of all the uninspired, clip-art designs that win most of the contests.
    - Most of the small businesses that start out with a contest design will eventually have to redesign there look as they grow. My guess is they won't go back to the contest site for the upgrade.
    - A lot of the people using the sites were never going to hire a real designer anyways. They probably would have found a friend who took an art class once to make a logo with Microsoft Word Art.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm no advocate for these sites. I'm just not that threatened by their mediocre results. Competition is a part of business you must embrace to keep yourself on top of your game. Learn new skills, read, work hard and these type of sites will never be an issue.

  • Aaron Heinen

    I participated in one, and quickly realized I may as well be designing logos for myself to add to my portfolio rather than give some random company a freebie idea. For all I know they have someone in the same company building a crappy logo that they choose, just so they don't have to actually pay for any real logo.

  • Chris

    I have competed in 99designs contests and also held some contests of my own for various projects.

    The reason for competing is usually personal – I see an interesting project posted (for example, the website of an athlete/band that I'm a fan of…) and submit something in order to make a connection with the contest holder and possibly work on future projects in a more traditional manner.

    I figure if there are those with a reason for posting a contest and willing to pay a prize, and there are also those with a reason for submitting, and willing to work for (most likely) no pay, but at their own discretion… then there is absolutely nothing wrong with these types of sites. If others disagree, they should work to educate those submitting and those holding contests on their views, so they withdraw from the practice on their own.

    On that note, I'm all for doing spec work for clients. Most of those that I work for and do spec stuff for are really middle-men, making the contacts, getting the jobs, etc… Doing the things I don't have time to do. If I can create something for them that better helps them sell our services, why wouldn't I do that?

    For whatever reason, we seem to value the process of “art” and “design” more than any actual outcome. But when you're doing “art” for a living, in a corporate environment, then you're going to have to make sacrifices to your idealistic inclinations.

    Ultimately, I think both contest sites and spec work comes down to being confident in the work you submit, knowing that you'll get the job because of the quality of your work. To that point, being picky about what type of spec work you do or contests you enter is important.

    Anyway – just my thoughts.

  • Unik Ink Specialty Printing

    I entered a few 99designs contest when they first started. I didn't win any of the 3 contest that I entered, but I did sell the designs outside of the contest to the contest holders. Even getting paid on 2/3 of my work, I still felt underpaid. I have since kept up with the on goings at 99designs. The designers with the most wins still only have ~10% win percentage. There are a few in the 20% but they are mostly website designers. The average designer has 2% or less win percentage. I don't know anyone that can live while only being paid 2% of the hours that they work. Sites like these are havens for hobbyist and people that live in countries that have a very small average annual income and can afford to win a very small % of the contest that they enter. Sites like these really do cheapen design. They even have a “off the shelf” logo section where the logos can be bought more than once, and the designer makes roughly $19 per logo sale. Talk about disgusting!

  • Phil

    I agree with this most and it shows how many designers do not have work and are trying to get work………..i think quality designers should not do that and keep a thin line in between all these

  • Rohit Mehta

    Hey George i completely agree with u.. Will see to take it as far as i can..

  • Simon H.

    I think that these contest can be great for your first portfolio jobs and/or to get some exposure. But I'm afraid that some clients that are not “design educated” understand them as a way to get free design services.

  • George Coghill

    Some great comments here, thanks for the feedback everyone.

  • TJD

    Not a regular here. But the hypocrisy is quite obvious. Time = Money is broken by not winning a contest (but with a chance of the equation being fulfilled), or broken by agreeing to do it for free (with no chance of getting paid)…

  • Rey Hauksson

    Personally I think that companies/individuals that look for spec-designers, should really start to think if they would do the same, going to the hair salon.

    Only because you are able to go to the store, buy a computer and a software package (or just work with an illegal copy of the design software), does not make you a designer. Go to the store and buy scissors – that does not make you a hair stylist.

    We know this is a very common practice on sites like and other similar places. The one thing I can think of that makes this even easier for the “spec-buyer” is the horrible situation we live with now – economic standards have plunged, and everyone is trying to find the next thing to do. Graphic/Web design seems just so accessible to the average person.

    I wish there was a magic word to make this all go away – there simply isn't – unfortunately!

  • Dave

    No need to over analyze my comments. If you want to give your time and ideas away, more power to you. I just prefer to help folks that are in need and will use it for good.

  • irving

    I think contests are for exposure, experience and a sort-of good way to get your name out as a designer.
    Its similar to reality contest shows like American Idol, etc. All the singers aren't bad, but its who can chose the right song, sing in pitch, etc. that wins. (having said that, there are some pretty bad singers, but they get voted out!)
    Same concept applies here. You are to design a logo/whatever for a certain company. So its who can follow instructions, be creative, think outside the box and produce a logo that stands out and win!
    These are mainly for fresh designers who are looking to build their portfolio and learn from their mistakes.
    Keep in mind that a few top brands, have gotten their logo through competitions, e.g Nike
    Not many people have the network, necessary skills, knowledge and a degree to know how to start their own business.

  • Diana Hernández

    Never work for free (ok, maybe for a non profit charity) it doesn´t matter if you are a student, that doesn´t mean that you´ll do it for free!

  • Greatlance In

    Hai designers, Contests are oppertunity for prove our selves to world, Yo can find no. of design as well as other part time jobs find out in:, useful for you like guru, getafreelancer…

  • Archivetr

    nice Thanks.

  • Tekno Loji


  • Tekno Loji


  • Tim

    I don’t participate in these types of sites. Unfortunately it’s a sad truth that so many young designers are taken advantage of by these Contest sites.

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    very goood site. thank u.

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  • Tütüne Son

    I understand the argument against, and while a lot of great work comes
    out of that site, I still feel the client gets what they pay for.