Design Contests For Small Businesses

Nov 10, 2014


Design contests are a great – and affordable – way for small companies to get excellent design work.


Last week I met with a friend to talk about some new artwork for her business. An employee that had been able to do some basic graphic design work for her in the past had gone back to school and she needed help.

When we set the meeting up it seemed very much like an Elance situation. She was interested primarily having a graphic designer “on call” that could make minor changes to their existing artwork – replacing images, prices and descriptions, keeping things seasonally relevant, etc.

When it came time to speak things that changed a little bit. My friend was now interested in some bigger changes to the artwork. What she really wanted was a revised and freshened look and template that she could use as a foundation for the next several years.

This was a great decision. Like a lot of small businesses that use a talented non-professional designer to do this kind of work they had artwork that was usable, but not great. Having a professional do a refresh would really help improve the image of the business.

It would be used in a lot of places. In print there would be postcards, statement stuffers and brochures. There would also be email, and variations on the theme would be used on Facebook and other social media. This started to seem less like an Elance job and more like something that called for a design competition.

Some designers hate competitions and that is completely understandable. 25 years ago I can remember working directly with artists on new logo designs and it was a very different process. You generally picked one person on the basis of their portfolio and then gave them a significant deposit. You worked closely with them over a number of meetings and, hopefully at the end of it you have a design that you loved. The cost of the projects that I was involved with was usually between five and $10,000. It was always a great experience and I was always very happy with the resulting artwork.

I tried a design contest for the first time a few years ago. It was really more of an experiment than anything else, something to try on a minor project. I really didn’t expect much.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how well it went. We really work that contest hard – proving lost of feedback very quickly and reviewing many, many good designs. Near the end of the initial round the concern was how we would choose – there were dozens of excellent designs, any one of which we would have been happy with.

Then, right at the last minute, just before the contest closed, there came a design concept that the truly surprised us. It was completely different than anything else we had seen and absolutely perfect. Suddenly it seemed like we had been looking at a couple of dozen “B” designs in this one was absolutely and “A+”.

That was when I fell in love with design contests. As much as I had loved the traditional approach of working with a single designer I had never been surprised in that way before. The contest format, with all of the designers trying to outdo each other, seemed more likely to produce that kind of genuine surprise.

I’ve been involved in several design contest since. All have gone well and I have always been very pleased with the result. None were quite as magical as that first one though. That is probably largely the fault of raised expectations – there is no way every contest could up with a design as perfect as the first one.

So this is now the plan for my friend – she run a contest to design the template, and then user either the artist that creates it or a freelancer to do the ongoing work.

Talking to her about it made me think of some of the things I learned about design contests along the way.


  • Give lots of feedback and give it quickly. Designers are serious about the feedback you provide and the sooner they have it the sooner they can get to work. Make sure you check for new designs every two hours or less and provide feedback.
  • Be courteous, but don’t waste a designers time by letting them think they have a chance when they don’t. If you don’t like a design dismiss it immediately, along with a quick thank you note for the submission. It only takes a second.
  • If you leave something in the contest there must be something you like about it so explain it. It will help keep all the designers on track. It’s ok to keep a design you don’t like because there is a particular element about it that you do, but you need to understand what it is you like and share that information.
  • It’s not a 9-5 proposition. Some designers will be in very different time zones and you don’t want to keep them waiting a day at a time. You need to check as soon as you wake up in the morning, last thing before you go to bed at night, and at least every two hours in between.
  • Don’t get discouraged. The entries may be slow coming in at first, and the ones you do get may not be that great. Keep providing feedback as though you were almost at the end – the best designers are sitting and watching and making decisions based on your feedback. Help them make a great design by giving them lots of information to work with.
  • The company I like best is 99designs. The service has been excellent and the designers have been very talented.

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