Design contests and competitions are bad for designers

14 April 2023

design contests and competitions

Picture this: My design studio gets a paid client project and rather than working on it with our design team, we launch a competition with a prize for the winner. All the designers will get the opportunity to work on a project they wouldn’t have probably had the opportunity to get themselves.

This would be considered unethical, and very wrong. So why aren’t other businesses not taking the flak for it?

Unfortunately, design contests or competitions are still very common. It is also very common for designers to be tempted to take part in these competitions. The pros for designers is that they have another portfolio piece and practice their skill on (sometimes) a large project. But the list of cons is much bigger than that.

1. The process is flawed

You can never, ever, solve a client’s problem without being able to speak to them. No matter how detailed the brief is, you need to ask questions your way from your own point of view. Your curiousity, intrigue and experience are what produce work that is different from other designers. But the contest organiser won’t have the time to answer questions or take calls from all the applicants, leaving the designers with unanswered questions and a weak foundation.

These contests are usually not managed by the decision-makers themselves and as such you can’t really get to the bottom of the problem that you are trying to solve.

2. Room for abuse

Due to a large number of applicants, no proper research or due diligence is done by the contest organiser. This leaves room for abuse. The abuse may be unintentional at times. If the contest is open for anyone to take part, then this is a gateway for non-designers or inexperienced designers who might not be fully aware of copyright laws for example. I had seen a case where one of Hangar’s artworks for a client project was used in a contest submission. You can argue that this might happen anyway. But the risk of using stolen work in a direct client project is much lower since designers tend to proceed with more caution.

3. They are mostly unpaid

By mostly I would say more than 99% of the time. If the contest is open to the public and hundreds of applicants take part, you can understand why this wouldn’t be paid. No organisation would be able to afford this.

Do you really want to give your work for free? If the answer is yes, I suggest that you give your pro-bono time to organisations that really need it, like a non-profit. At least you get the opportunity to speak to the stakeholders and carry out a proper design process. In the end you’ll have a portfolio piece that you can be proud of with the support of a detailed case study explaining the thought process while you also learn about the monetary value of your work.

Just like the organisation won’t have time to answer all the participants’ question, rest assured that they won’t have the time to let participants present their work.

4. You may not be allowed to present the work

Your work doesn’t sell itself. Also because your work is not just the fonts and colours in a visual identity, for example, but the process of how you got there. If you are not allowed to present the work, you are denied from your right to rationalise your thoughts, which is what makes you a designer. Problems are solved through thinking first, and execution second.

In return, the superficial is judged. Ideas that look great on the surface are usually the winners, but ideas that have depth and take into consideration a long-term approach may suffer.

Just like the organisation won’t have time to answer all the participants’ question, rest assured that they won’t have the time to let participants present their work.

5. You are not given any feedback

The symptom of organising a contest for mass participation affects feedback too. There isn’t enough time to give feedback or critique to every submission and that means there won’t be much to learn from this experience that can help you improve your work or avoid repeating mistakes. In the end, you are better off working for a non-profit organisation that gives you the opportunity to have access to the decision-makers rather than parting ways with your work to never hear about it again.

6. It’s a game of odds

Since none of the participants are allowed to carry out a proper research or present their work, this boils down to odds. The more participants take part, the less is your chance of being the winner. There can only be 1 winner, but being 1 of 3 is much easier than being 1 of 3,000.

7. It‘s an unlevelled playing field

In a standard paid project, a client would normally start researching design studios. Their choice would normally be based on similar projects done by the studio, recommendations, and of course budget. The budget normally positions studios of similar calibre within the same range. If the client’s budget doesn’t fit the studio’s requested fee, they are naturally eliminated. This leaves the client with studios of a similar level to choose from. Not in a contest though.

8. It hurts the industry in general

Imagine a world where this really picks up and becomes the industry standard. The more this becomes accepted, the worse off designers are. If this becomes accepted, clients will use this as their preferred option and thousands of hours of work will go to waste. This can only mean that design work loses its value.

9. It’s practically spec work

Spec work doesn’t happen only with contests, but contests can only promise spec work. Spec work is the act of getting designers to submit a “pitch” before they are even selected to work on the job, let alone paid for it. You can probably see why this is wrong and there are voluntary groups rooting for this cause as well as a great book that I strongly recommend.

10. This is not the kind of exposure you need

These kind of contests usually promise that your work will receive exposure. Which is partly true. But do you think that the audience in particular could ever become your clients? Do you think that being listed in a list of hundreds of applicants can get you noticed? Do you think that without a proper case study to support your project, a prospective client can decide to work with you?


In some cases the intent of a contest is good, but the process and structure may have a negative impact on the design community. A few tweaks where the structure puts the design at the centre could be beneficial for both the client and the participants.