Design contests don’t add up

roulette wheel

Design contest and other speculative design work websites try and wow potential participants with attractive numbers and golden opportunities. If you whittle these figures down to what they mean for the individual though, the numbers are far from attractive, and the opportunities are few and not nearly as golden.

At some point you’ve probably already heard the regular “pros” and cons of design contests which have been discussed at length elsewhere, so instead of repeating reasons why I believe contests are a waste of time for designers, lets have a look at something more quantifiable. Some average figures for design contests and some cold, hard math.

To quote some numbers from one of the more prominent design contest websites, at the time of writing this article the site currently had 1,564 design contests with a total of $472,907 on offer.

Plenty of projects to choose from and nearly half a million dollars on offer. Sounds good, right? Well, no. We all know the general gist of any contest, you submit your entry(s) and a winner is (usually…) picked. It’s a gamble. Lets crunch a few numbers and see what your chances really are.

Divide those 1,564 contest by the available $472,907 prize pool, and you come out with an average of just over $302 per design contest. That’s hardly a fortune, but if you could get a few wins without spending too long on each that could still be a living perhaps? Lets continue and find out.

The site goes on to state (in order to attract contest holders) that there are an average of 120 designs per contest. With an average of 120 design entries per contest, each individual design has just 0.83% of winning. Not even a 1% chance per entry for it to win, in fact you would have over 3 times as much chance of picking the winning number on a roulette wheel.

“But wait!”, say the contest websites, you can submit multiple entries to improve your chances. You can, but these come at the expense of your time. Submitting 10 entries increases your chances of winning, but also means 10x as much time wasted for every lost contest. More numbers…

Keeping with the average 120 entries per contest, if 12 participants made 10 submissions each they would have an 8.3% chance of winning. If you were to spend just 10 minutes on each design that’s still 1 hour and 40 minutes of your time.

With that chance of winning you’d need to be entering 12 contests in order to win 1. That’s 20 hours of work for 1 win. And this is based on a measly 10 minutes work per design…

The reality is that no original work can be done well in just 10 minutes. The realistic alternatives are pumping out poor quality work that isn’t likely to win, or risk much, much more of your time to create something decent. Either way you’re still burning time and odds of winning are stacked against you. Not to mention the obvious that if you’re spending the required time to create quality work that clients will constantly pay for, why not just sell your services on a professional basis like every other business out there?

Looking at the flip side of coin for a minute… At a glance, the benefit of getting multiple designers for the price of one might seem like a no-brainer for clients thinking about holding a design contest. But knowing the above, what kind of work can you really expect to get? 3 possibilities come to mind for me.

  • Cheap and nasty work churned out in the hope of winning by volume, not quality.
  • At best, you could receive recycled ideas that have previously been given and will continue to be presented to any number of other businesses. At worst, you could (and many have) receive work that was blatantly stolen, which can lead to copyright and legal issues down the road when you receive a call from someone who has discovered you’ve copied their intellectual property.
  • Or, you could receive work from a designer who is happy to spend days researching and developing creative and original work that will help your business stand out, all in the hope that maybe they’ll be paid something for their time, but are happy to accept nothing if the contests goes that way.

Only 2 of those seem at all likely to me.

This is also assuming that there actually is a winner. On the majority of design contest sites the contest holders are under no obligation to pick a winner at all and can simply withdraw their offer with no penalty once they’ve been presented with all the ideas.

You can fiddle with the figures all you like, and some will probably shine a more positive light on your chances of winning a design contest, but over a longer timeline the figures just don’t lie, and I’m yet to see an example or hear an argument which demonstrates a consistent benefit for graphic designers.

All opinions aside, taking part in design contests just doesn’t add up to time well spent.