Logo Design Contests and Crowdsourcing

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Logo design has become a huge business world wide, with a professionally designed logo and visual identity necessary for just about any business anywhere to succeed. However, many less experienced business owners wonder if they are best served by working with a logo design agency. Because they are not familiar with the cost of a professional logo design, they don’t really know what a reasonable cost for their logo is. While working with a professional designer is a foreign and somewhat frightening territory,  there are other options that are presented as cheaper, easier ways to get the logo a business needs.

A newly popular ‘alternative’ way to get a logo design is to go through one of the many logo design contest or crowdsourcing websites that are popping up all over the internet. However, are these a good idea? Can business owners really get a logo design of equal quality for a far smaller price? This is the issue we are examining here.

The terms “crowdsourcing” and “logo design contest” are often used interchangeably, although there are a few subtle differences between the two. While the word crowd-sourcing in the world of logo design refers almost exclusively to logo contests, the term is also used for more legitimate business pursuits. When you are using crowdsourcing, for example, to gain organizational insight or to get in touch with your customer base, then it can be a viable and valuable activity. In this context, you are asking a select group of consumers to be creators, with payment agreed upon in advance or no payment at all. They are not asked to perform highly specialized work, merely to offer a real world perspective.

However, in logo design the term refers almost exclusively to asking a group of amateur designers to submit logos with the expectation that a winner will be chosen and paid—in other words, a contest.

Who Benefits from Crowdsourcing?

Logo design, like any skilled service, can be expensive. Many business owners, bogged down with start up expenses, are looking to save pennies at every turn. If you can get an adequate logo for just a little less money, why not?

Further, crowd sourcing at first glance seems to offer an even better product than traditional logo design agencies. It’s easy to see how a huge group of talented people can produce a better pool of ideas than a single designer or even four or five designers, however talented and trained. Crowd sourcing usually takes slightly less time upfront for business owners than traditional logo design—no meetings with designers or offering feedback on a constantly evolving work until it is just perfect. Instead, you simply commission a ton of logos and pay for the one you want. No contract, no emails, no phone calls, no problem.

Crowdsourcing is also attractive to potential logo designers. If you are looking to break into the field, these websites may seem like a great way to build up your portfolio and begin to gain professional respect. Having several successfully completed projects is a huge bonus for a new logo designer looking to go into freelancing or get a job with a larger agency.

However, there is one clear winner in crowd-sourcing and logo design contests: the companies who run the websites offering these services! As we shall see, these companies take little responsibility for policing their contributors or their customers. They are taking a huge cut of every logo price simply to provide a web site on which the contests can take place.

The Price of Creativity

When you go to a professional agency to have a logo designed, you will be giving input  and answer questions designed to find out what the design company needs to know about your company and your ‘brand’, then uses this information (combined with years of experience and education) to create a logo that is uniquely yours, perfect for your business, your community, and your customer base. It is highly unlikely that a logo found on an impersonal contest or crowd sourcing site would receive the same amount of attention as you will see a little later in this article.

Why can’t crowd sourcing and contests create the same results?

First, there is no personalization. The logo designers in question are often from other countries and have no understanding of how certain images, colors, and fonts are viewed in your nation. Second, you may not end up with a legally viable logo design. A nameless, faceless designer from across the globe has no way of knowing whether a similar logo is already being used for a business similar to yours in your very town or worse yet may in fact plagiarize an existing logo.

Many business owners find that logo design contests are a complete waste of time. In one case, a person held a contest for a logo design, paying money to list the contest and then offering a $350 prize to the best winner.  After 54 entries, nothing worked. For this amount of money and time, this customer could have worked with a professional logo designer and ended up with the logo that they needed.

If you believe that the right logo can help your business find success, why trust the process to someone who has no investment in the process? If, on the other hand, you don’t believe this, why even bother? You can find an image to slap on your letterhead in Microsoft clip-art just as easily (and far more cheaply) than a logo contest entrant.

The fact that many people have no understanding of graphic design only makes it easier for anyone with Photoshop and an online contest site account to take advantage. Many business owners simply don’t realize that they are getting a substandard product. When their business seems to be lagging, they will never consider that their brand is to blame, a brand that is represented by their logo. And some times they might even get into copyright infringement issues.

The People behind the Websites

A qualified designer with talent, verifiable references, and adequate training will not work under the conditions offered by crowd sourcing and logo design contests. They can easily get a job, even with a work-from-home or other flexible arrangement if necessary, from a reputable logo design company. They don’t need to toil for hours with no promise of pay. So who are the people toiling away to flood logo contests and crowd sourcing websites with logos?

We are not saying that these people are dishonest or bad—not in the beginning, at least and not in all cases. Many of these “designers” (quotes intended) begin with the same passion for graphic design that a professional logo designer would share. However, they are not, for whatever reason, qualified to work in an established business and lack the credentials needed to attract freelance clients. The logo contest websites that are so attractive to many business owners use the same type of ‘sweet talk’ to win over prospective workers. They present optimistic and even dishonestly high chances of being selected while downplaying the amount of work involved in designing a logo. This is an attractive proposition for someone looking for their big chance.

However, the designer soon finds that their efforts are not rewarded. Even if they win one out of every one hundred contests (which is statistically improbable when competing against tens of thousands of people with varying degrees of skill), there is still a lot of unpaid work going into their logos. Considering that a decent logo can take hours to create and perfect, these designers may put in several weeks of work for a single prize of maybe one hundred dollars. Even if the award is higher, their time has not been rewarded at the rate they would receive from a minimum wage job.

Their choice is then to quit the business altogether or to put less effort into each logo. In fact, in order to make the same hourly wage as your average fast food employee, this hypothetical designer would have to create a logo in just a few minutes. This is likely the reason for the high rate of plagiarism and outright intellectual theft in online contests and crowdsourcing websites. Here we see a logo contest entry that borrows heavily–perhaps a little too heavily—from this similar logo. And this is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of examples. While the problem of plagiarism and intellectual theft is often discussed in the graphic design world, logo design contests seem to be set up to create these situations.

Even if the designer in question takes a financially harmful stand against plagiarism, they will likely find themselves taking shortcuts to keep their efforts as profitable as possible. This is why many would-be logo designers simply use clip art and other free images to build their crowd sourcing logos. While this is less legally compromising than stealing a copyrighted image, it nonetheless can cripple the business that buys the image. There is no way to copyright an image that is already in the public domain, which means that your company can never really own the logo. In this logo crowd-sourcing contest, a company paid for a logo that is a blatant copy of free clip-art available on every computer. Although the ‘designer’ swears it was an honest mistake, you can see similar work all over the internet.

Several of the most prominent websites offering crowd-sourcing, logo contests, and other low cost logo solutions boast a membership in the five or six figures. Are there really this many people willing to work for only the minutest chance of any reward? If so, how much effort do you think went into their work? If you wonder whether plagiarism is really a problem, consider this: many legitimate sites have set up sections of their websites and have even dedicated employees to detecting it and having it removed from these contests. That’s a huge investment for a problem that many logo contest sites claim is nonexistent.

The Websites behind the People

Most websites offering cheap logo design through crowd sourcing or contests aren’t entirely bad either. In fact, they likely began with the best of intentions, hoping they could be an award winning logo design company. As small business people, we can all understand the concept of trying to earn an honest living from an ingenious idea. After all, we are all in this business in some form or another.

Until you consider the caliber of work that will result from these competitions, they sound like a good idea. Unfortunately, policing the work is a real headache for the websites involved. Even if they have a plan in place for preventing plagiarism and theft (and only a handful of these sites do), these plans are rarely practicable in real life design. Consider that these websites are also fighting the law of numbers, with hundreds of contests paying just a few dollars each in commission. This means that one person is likely overseeing the entire operation, perhaps with a laundry list of duties from other departments as well. Can this person even glance at each of these thousands of entries? Not likely.

Other communities claim to address the problem through ‘self-policing’. This means that they rely on contestants to tattle tale on each other. Can a designer who is for all practical purposes being paid nothing for their work afford to sit and review the other entries for plagiarism? How are false accusations handled? Is the person tattling experienced enough to identify possible instances of theft? Are you willing to bet your company’s future that they are?

Power to the Plagiarizers

It’s easy to sum up the benefits of plagiarism in logo design contests—mainly, money. However, it is much more difficult to list the drawbacks. That’s because there are very few. The offender might get their account closed, but it is incredibly easy to open a new one. Because most crowd sourcing and logo design contest websites don’t require much verification to join, a plagiarizer may have just lost 15 minutes of time—that’s if they get caught. This is small potatoes compared to the many hours it can take to develop a professional logo design.

Plagiarism happens in the professional design community… So say the people advocating the use of crowd-sourcing. However, there are very real consequences for plagiarizing in the real, off line world. The logo designer would be fired and possibly blacklisted from the profession—heavy stuff when you consider that most have acquired years of education and experience in order to make a decent living in their field. Further, they and the company that they work for would be sued and most likely have to pay damages. A small settlement in copyright infringement runs in the five figures, so you can bet that you’ll be compensated for your efforts if a professional has the poor sense to try this.

What about the crowdsourcing company? Surely you can go after them, right? Wrong.

Read the fine print in the contests. These companies take absolutely no responsibility for the work of their designers. They are merely offering a contest—you’re the one trusting your corporate identity to faceless strangers. You’ll be lucky if you even get a refund of the price you paid for this logo… even though it is a crime to actually use it. In short, these contests claim to offer screened and original logos, but they don’t believe it enough to stand behind the guarantee

Will You Be the Next Victim?

When you are dealing with logo design contests offering high rewards and no accountability, you are attracting a very specific type of person, and not usually an honest one. This means that you run a high chance of running into problems like plagiarism.

As statisticians like to point out, correlation and causation are not the same thing. In other words, crowd sourcing a logo design does not necessarily cause plagiarism, although there is certainly a much higher rate on these websites than seen with legitimate companies. While no business model can force people to commit crimes, it can be argued that certain ones definitely seem to encourage it. Logo design contests seem to be one of these models. It is difficult to find a single contest that does not contain at least some plagiarism, clip art, or otherwise not legally viable work. In fact, some people seem determined to pass off blatantly stolen work as their own, even in highly publicized contests where the chances of being caught are almost 100%. In a recent and relatively famous example of design contest-related intellectual property theft, Cadbury held a contest allowing fans to submit artwork for a limited edition candy wrapper. The result, which had received over 25,000 votes from fans, was announced, but some immediately saw a problem. Not that the design was ugly (although it really is), but that it was partially stolen from a fantasy picture entitled “Water Transforming into White Hooded Monks,” seen here. The company immediately had to backtrack.

Certainly there was a happy ending this time—the would-be crook was caught and the award given to a worthier applicant. This was due to the high profile of both the company and the contest. Unless your business and your crowd sourcing website are as famous as Cadbury, you may not find out before you pay for a logo that you can’t legally use. You’ll find out afterward and have to go back to the drawing board, eating your financial losses.

Even worse, you may find yourself feeling uncertain about your logo for a very long time. Was it borrowed? Was it outright stolen? These are good things to know before having stationary printed. As we see here, a contest owner can easily be tricked. In this case, a business owner almost paid a hefty sum for a logo that was taken from Shutterstock. She noticed that other contestants were discussing the viability of the image and went with her second choice—after paying for the first. We can only hope her money was refunded, but the fact remains that there is nothing keeping business owners such as this from being scammed.

The designer of the plagiarized logo has entered more than 300 contests at this site alone and is still active despite being caught in this illegal activity.

A Matter of Materials

When you hire any sort of professional, you are hiring not just the person, but their education, background, and most of all, their tools. Think of your plumber… how much good could they do for their clients if they had only a hammer and a few nails? There are specialized tools for every profession, from plumbing to logo design, and a professional in the industry both possesses these tools and knows how to use them.

There are a variety of logo software programs used in logo design, and having legal copies is expensive. An experienced designer owns the programs, knows how to use them, and knows the little drawbacks that must be overcome. For instance, a logo saved as a bitmap at 72 dpi can not be printed in a medium or large format. Similarly, printed materials are printed in a color system known as CMYK, while most computers show them in one called RGB. This can have a huge impact on your ability to actually use your logo. A professional designer is aware of these issues and makes it easy, even effortless, for business owners to work with them. A random person on a logo design site has neither the materials nor the knowledge needed to complete the job at a professional level.

Current State

If more people saw crowd sourcing and logo design contests for what they are, few business owners would be willing to patronize them. However, few people understand how they operate or why they might be a really bad idea. In fact, these websites are becoming the latest internet website trend, popping up all over the internet. There are a few happy customers, often well publicized, but the majority of clients are likely not pleased with their logo design. At this point, there are hundreds of crowd sourcing and logo design contest websites, many with thousands or even tens of thousands of would-be designers. While this model is flawed, it is reaching its tentacles into every nook and cranny of graphic design, leaving no professional unaffected by the problem.

Effects on the Design Community

Professional logo designers are the real casualty of the crowd-sourcing trend. To stay competitive, they must offer their skills and tools at a rate similar to people with no experience working from home with no investment in training or materials. Because they are working at a rate not reflective of their time and education, they cannot give jobs the time and creativity that each deserves.

Many claim that designers should step up to the challenge of low cost logo design. However, it simply is not possible to offer a professional quality product at an amateur rate. Something has to give.

A Great Deal? Or a Great Deal of Trouble?

Having a logo design and brand identity created by a nameless, faceless nobody with zero accountability is like saying that your business’s success isn’t worth the investment of a minimal amount of time and money. But you know that this is not the case. Does your business deserve a logo that will attract customers from your area? Do you want a logo that is as original as your company? Of course you do. Can you afford to deal with litigation should a company that owns the logo you crowd sourced decide to come after you for trademark violation? Of course not. Don’t sell yourself short when there are a variety of designers at a wide range of prices. It is not difficult to find a talented, professional designer willing to work with you for similar prices to those charged by crowd-sourcing websites. Give your business the best chance you can; hire a real logo designer today.

Are Design Contest Websites Bad?

The idea of having 100s of designers presenting you with logo design ideas and the ability to pick one winner and pay just that designer might seem quite appealing. In fact it is like a fairy tale. If you do not think of the realities of such a model, you could have a rude awakening one day when you realize that you have been the victim of one of the pitfalls of such an operation.

The fact that the designers who compete on such design contest websites have to participate in literally hundreds or even thousands of contests to have a decent chance of winning a few contests and being able to pay their bills leads to a multitude of scenarios. These include throwing together poor quality designs that are just graphics (and some of them quite ugly) and not “logos” that do not work for your company or your target market, plagiarising and copying existing designs to cut out the time it would take to properly research, brainstorm and come up with creative ideas and more.

With more and more crowdsourcing or logo design contest websites on the internet, many business people are wondering if this is the right way to get the logo design that they need. After all, it sounds like a win-win situation: you get logos from a variety of designers and pay for the one that is best for you. There are certainly pros and cons to crowdsourcing.

Here are just a few pros and cons:

  • Crowdsourcing gives unknown and less experienced designers a chance to hone their skills and ‘break in’ to professional design work.
  • Business owners can choose from a variety of designs.
  • Less time is involved.
  • Upfront costs often seem lower.

However, many logo designers would disagree about whether these advantages are as substantial as they might seem at first. While crowdsourcing definitely attracts less experienced designers without the education and/or experience to get a legitimate design job, it’s hard to see how this is an advantage for business owners. Further, while you certainly can choose from a variety of designs, many of these designs are sub-par and none of them were developed through the more brand-oriented process that a legitimate logo design agency will go through.

This brings us to the time consideration. Having a logo designed will certainly take some time, as you will have to explain what you need and what aspects of your company should be represented in your logo design. However, most logo design agencies have streamlined this process and now can determine your needs in a few short questions. While some crowdsourcing sites cost less, many actually cost more after listing fees and other costs are added in. Plus, you often will not be receiving the same calibre of logo.

Which brings us to the drawbacks of crowdsourcing and logo design contests:

  • Less experienced and less professional designers.
  • In many cases, blatant plagiarism and unoriginal work.
  • Designers must work with no guarantee of pay.
  • Not much cheaper than cheaper than professional logo design.

If you want a logo design from someone without the training and experience needed to do the job professionally, you can probably find a friend to do it for free. The plagiarism found in crowdsourcing has proven to be a real issue, as many businesses end up having to start all over in the logo design process after their crowdsourced logo turns out to be copyrighted by someone else. All this trouble comes at very little savings, as most crowdsourcing sites cost almost as much or even more than a design from a professional design house.

Is a crowdsourced logo design right for your business?

For the most part, the designs that come from these contests simply aren’t equal to those from a traditional design business. If you are looking for more than just a pretty picture, but instead a design that will represent your business, attract your target market, and increase sales, you should turn to a professional designer.