Notes from an Oakland designer


Working for peanuts – on design contests and speculative work

As an enthusiastic proponent for giving back to my community through volunteer work, I’ve designed a number of pro-bono websites and brochures for a variety of local non-profits, both through Taproot Foundation service grant projects and as a freelancer. It’s safe to say I’ve done my fair share of working for free. However, I do draw the line at speculative work and, with rare exceptions, design contests.

Speculative work asks that designers work for free upfront, with no contract assuring pay for their efforts. A client may use speculative work to fish around for a designer they like, asking numerous designers to try out for the job, and awarding a contract to the favorite. The others walk away unpaid.

Design contests take speculative work to the extreme, crowdsourcing designs like a cheap commodity.

These contests have become quite popular as an inexpensive way for small businesses to get a quick logo, business card or other marketing collateral designed, and one can understand the perceived benefits: a dirt cheap design that looks more professional than what they could do by themselves.

There’s been a lot of debate on the subject, with some designers finding the practice unethical, while others counter with something to the effect of, “well, if you’re not a good enough designer to win one of these contests, then stop whining just stay out of it.” Fair enough. But first let’s break down the real cost of one of these contests.

One local organization recently held a contest for a new logo on 99 Designs that caught my eye, as they were a former client for an agency I once worked for as an Art Director some years back, and their contest had been retweeted by a few Twitter accounts I follow. I was interested to see how the contest would unfold.

The real math from one design contest

A total of thirteen designers submitted a total of 59 designs to the client, who paid $299 to 99 Designs to host the contest. $200 was to be awarded to the designer of the winning logo, while 99 Designs would keep a fee of $99, or about a 33% cut. The entire process took seven days, from launching the contest to providing feedback and narrowing down finalists, to selecting a winning design.

Designs came in from as far as Indonesia, and included at least one local designer. As the client narrowed the field, they posted an amendment to their design brief, asking finalists to scramble to create an entirely new design in a couple days based on a new idea they had, using typefaces that had never been mentioned in the previous design brief (they never mentioned the specific font).

After seven days, the client chose a winning design. According to the winning designer’s profile, they’ve been pretty successful on 99 Designs, having earned $17,121 from winning 60 contests, with an average of $285.35 per design. But here’s where the math gets a little more depressing.

The winning designer has entered 360 contests overall, which means when you average it out, they are earning $47.56 per contest entered. Breaking it down some more, let’s guess that a designer might spend 6 hours working on a contest. If that’s accurate, then this designer is pulling in a snappy $7.93 an hour for their work. Minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour. Even if we were to halve that, and say the designer is working an average of 3 hours per design contest entered, we get $15.86, or slightly more than the going rate for a babysitter for two kids in my neck of the woods.

Of the remaining 12 designers, 5 had entered a total of 51 contests and never won. That’s zero dollars paid for at least 51 hours worth of work—and quite likely that is a profound underestimation of time spent. Here’s a tally of the earnings of the others listed on their profiles:

  • $200 total won for 1 contest / 95 contests entered = $2.11 per contest earned
  • $400 total won for 1 contest / 125 contests entered = $3.20 per contest earned
  • $400 total won for 2 contests / 270 contests entered = $1.48 per contest earned
  • $400 total won for 2 contests / 59 contests entered = $6.78 per contest earned
  • $2,200 total won for 11 contests / 203 contests entered = $10.84 per contest earned
  • $3,372 total won / 425 contests entered = $7.93 per contest earned
  • ~$15,250 total won (note: this is an estimate based on $200 per contest, based on the amounts declared won for numerous individual contests, since the grand total wasn’t listed on the profile) / 1,999 contests entered = $7.63 per contest earned

If we are conservative and say the designers only spent a hour working on each contest they entered, the highlighted numbers above represent an hourly rate for their time spent competing on 99 Designs. $10.84/hr… $6.48/hr… $3.20/hr…  $1.48/hr… Are you horrified yet?

The cons for clients

The downside of this process is that there is no opportunity for the client and designer to discuss pros and cons of a particular design or concept, nor is there any opportunity for the designer to collect assets such as fonts and existing Pantone colors with which to work. It’s hardly an ideal client-designer relationship, and unfortunately the logical consequence is the design suffering.

As I watched the designs come in, I was struck by how many took liberties in selecting colors that were off-brand (contrary to the design brief), and whose sense of typography was mid- to beginner level, and quite illegible at a small size. But then, when you’re working fast, mistakes happen. As AIGA points out in its position on spec work,

Little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs.

The value of good design

Graphic design is a profession that requires intelligence, thoughtfulness, skill, experience and training. Our work helps businesses to look professional, attract the attention of the right audience, communicate their message and create trust and loyalty through branding and advertising. I do believe we should make a tad more as a rule than some kid flipping burgers.

While this contest attracted only 13 contestants, others have dozens of participants vying for a winning entry for a paltry sum. Unless you are a design student trying to add to your portfolio, or perhaps are competing as a one-off to attract the attention of a known local client who has real potential to become an ongoing client, I can’t really see how it makes any fiscal sense for accomplished designers to participate in a 99 Designs contest.

Topic Simple, who make fun animated videos that explain things simply, explains their take on spec work in a nutshell in this terrific video.


What’s your take on design contests? Have you found them to be profitable, or opportunistic? Let me know in the comments.