Contests – Don’t get me started! by Ron Stacy

I am constantly amazed that time after time, businesses and institutions expect artists to happily respond to their calls for entry for design contests. It makes no sense! There are two main problems with this method of doing business.

The first problem concerns the quality of the finished product. The questionable process works like this. The contest initiators advertise the contest with a list of specifications and a reward they have decided is sufficient to provide incentive. Then they sit back and wait for the eager artists’ offerings; let’s say fifty of them. They choose what they think is the best design, hand out the reward and ask the other forty nine artists to pick up their rejected designs. You might ask, “What’s wrong with this? Every one knew what they were getting into, didn’t they?”

The best way to see what’s wrong with this procedure is to compare it with a considered and business-like method of achieving a design or illustration. The company requiring the creative service sets up appointments with three (or more) design agencies. Each agency in turn presents their portfolio of previous work and the two parties discuss specifications, the target audience, philosophy, the weather and what have you. The company decides which, if any of the agencies best meet their requirements and hires it. Agency and company meet several times, going over design elements, new ideas that surface and eventually hone the original concept into a polished and effective design. The business has its interests represented and the agency has the opportunity to make suggestions and can offer its expertise based on experience and knowledge of their business. The agency gets its financial reward and the satisfaction of a job well done, the client gets a vastly superior product and the rejected agencies haven’t wasted a lot of time and money in the process.

The second problem is perhaps a matter of education. Is it arrogance, lack of respect or just thoughtlessness that makes the contest initiator think that a whole gaggle of competent artists are going to leap to the fore in response to their call for entries? I stress the competent aspect. The artists know they are going to have to spend maybe forty hours to create their perception of the perfect design and all but one (of let’s say fifty again) will be rejected. And rejected why? Rejected because the chooser doesn’t care for orange or, “Those two triangles just don’t feel right.”. How can the artist know anything about the client’s preferences? They haven’t even met! How desperate for exposure or recognition or work must the artists be who will subject themselves to this cavalier treatment?

Would anyone expect restaurants to submit steak dinners in such a contest? “Hi there. I would like a steak dinner, so I’m asking all the restaurants in town to prepare me one. It should have an 8 ounce steak, with onions and mushrooms, cooked medium rare and on my table Wednesday, the 3rd of March. Be creative with the vegetables and sauces. I’m prepared to offer a prize of $12.50 for the one I like best. You know, the one that somehow matches my taste buds the best. Thank you very much.” What an attractive invitation! I’m sure that any restauranteur would jump on an opportunity like that, right? I don’t think so. I took note of a company logo design contest where one of the design requirements was the use of a maximum of four colours. Over a hundred contestants adhered to the rules. One artist, however, used seven colours and won the contest. Fair? I don’t think so.

As I see it, there are three motivations for these contests.

  1. First…

Is where a non-profit society acts on behalf of needy, deserving or needed groups such as the Carmanah Forestry Society or Aids research. When they seek donations, the motive is to make a better society for us all and is deserving of our involvement, if possible, in the form of volunteer time, donations of professional designs for advertising and promotion, artwork and goods to sell for fund raising, printing of raffle tickets etc.

  1. Second…

A public institution like the local Community Center, needful of funds, seeking involvement of these same volunteers and goods, or working on a float for the community parade, organizing flea markets, bake sales etc. within the community so we can enjoy the fruits of our common desire for improving the quality of our environment.

  1. Third…(and least)

Is the commercial venture that expects support from members of the artistic community to help with the promotion and visibility of itself, while returning a minimum of consideration or reward to the participants. This is evidenced in logo design contests and the like. A case in point is where a local storage rental business initiates a storage unit door painting contest, requiring an entry fee from the artists so that, if the expected number of entrants show up, it more than covers the value of the prizes. On the final day, when many of the artists will have spent several days painting, there will be a barbecue where they can buy food and drink and the prizes will be handed out. The business winds up as the clear winner here. Three artists get something for their effort, many others will have paid money to be allowed to donate their work and the business winds up with a collection of door art as an attraction, as well as some decent profits from being the host of the windup party.

If a business wants to make a fun event with art as the feature, it would be much better to open the contest to a particular art school or high school art students, give out a bunch of smaller ‘category’ prizes, donate a computer or some worthwhile item to the participating school and supply their own paint. That would be far less abusive and would perhaps create goodwill in the community.

Artists are members of a group with wide and diverse skills and talents. Logo designing, copy writing, book illustration and other commercial art skills are specialties. One shouldn’t expect fine art painters, sculptors and the like to have the understanding of professionals involved with motivational psychology or the print business, or any of the other aspects involved with the production of commercial design. In the same vein, you wouldn’t ask a plumber to wire your new house just because he works in the construction industry. You would ask the electrician, wouldn’t you? How about then, a commercial artist to design a logo or banner?


If you are a public institution and want a fun contest, limit it to school kids and other amateurs and expect amateur results. If you are a commercial enterprise and want a contest, have a ‘Guess How Many Beans in the Jar’ contest. If, however, you want a logo or something designed, hire a professional; you’ll get a better job and you won’t be disrespectful of the artistic community.

If artists consider a project is of no personal consequence, but will afford some valuable exposure or has promotional value, it becomes a business decision whether or not to become involved. Artists are in fact business people, not hobbyists or non-profit organizations. They have no reason to spend their time providing their services on the whim of someone who merely wants a cheap design.


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