The Ethical Dilemma of Design Contests: Why They Should Be Avoided

Published on
August 25, 2023
a confused dog in glasses staring at an ipad
Adam Emmerich
Digital Designer

In the ever-evolving landscape of the design industry, one contentious topic that often sparks heated debates is the concept of design contests. On the surface, they might seem like an exciting opportunity for designers to showcase their skills, gain exposure, and potentially earn some recognition. However, a closer look reveals a host of ethical issues that make design contests a questionable practice at best. In this article, we'll delve into the reasons why design contests should be avoided.

1. Exploitation of Creativity:

One of the most compelling arguments against design contests is the exploitation of creative professionals. Designers invest time, effort, and skill into creating unique and impactful solutions. By participating in contests, they are essentially giving away their work for free, often with no guarantee of compensation or fair compensation. This undermines the value of design and undermines the livelihood of designers.

The [Graphic Artists Guild] points out that when designers submit their work to contests, they're essentially allowing organizations to crowdsource their creative needs without adequate compensation. This devalues the profession and perpetuates the misconception that design is a commodity rather than a specialized skill.

2. Undermining Quality and Originality:

Design contests promote a culture of quantity over quality. The pressure to submit designs quickly in hopes of winning often leads to rushed and subpar work. Additionally, the structure of design contests can encourage derivative and unoriginal ideas, as participants may feel compelled to play it safe rather than take creative risks.

The [International Council of Design] emphasizes that design should be a thoughtful and strategic process, centered around understanding the needs of the client or project. Design contests rarely allow for this depth of understanding, leading to superficial solutions that may not effectively address the actual design problem. This is one of the reasons why they encourage designers not to submit work to design contests.

3. Diminished Collaboration:

Design is inherently collaborative, involving a partnership between the designer and the client to achieve the best possible outcome. Design contests sever this essential collaboration by disconnecting designers from clients. Instead of fostering a dialogue and iterative process, contests isolate designers and often lead to miscommunication and misinterpretation of design needs.

The [AIGA Portland Chapter] argues that genuine design solutions emerge from a comprehensive understanding of the project, target audience, and business goals. Design contests disregard these critical aspects and promote a fragmented approach to problem-solving.

4. Copyright Issues & Legal Concerns:

Businesses have to trust designers that the work they are presenting is original and not derivative of other works. Professional designers provide protection from this through their contracts with clients and are therefore accountable for the work they deliver. Design contests can often have questionable results with a wide range of professionals and non-professionals submitting designs. Businesses must be more mindful of how the work was created and trust that the designer produced an original asset.

A local contest near me recently chose a winner and released their new logo to the world. T-shirts, buttons, etc. were all produced donning the fresh new logo. It was a scenic logo with various graphic elements combined to form a badge. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that all of the assets were pulled from Shutterstock, and combined/composed together to form the new logo. For a relatively small distribution area, and limited lifespan for the logo, I don't think they have to be concerned much. But, having a logo constructed of various stock assets limits your ability to trademark the asset and could put you into hot water with the stock image provider.

People don't often realize this, but you cannot use stock imagery to create logos, or anything that you would want to trademark.

From Shutterstock's Terms of Use:


  1. Use any Visual Content (in whole or in part) as a trademark, service mark, logo, or other indication of origin, or as part thereof."

5. Production Challenges Stemming from Design Contests:

While design contests might promise innovative and eye-catching solutions, they often overlook the practical considerations required for seamless production. Designers participating in contests are often disconnected from the production process, leading to designs that might look good on paper but prove challenging—or even impossible—to execute in reality.

Lack of Technical Feasibility:

Design contests tend to prioritize aesthetics and visual impact, sometimes at the expense of technical feasibility. Designers, working in isolation without a clear understanding of production processes, might create designs that are difficult to reproduce in various mediums. This can result in modifications needing to be made to the design during production, leading to delays, increased costs, and compromised quality.

Inadequate File Preparation:

Designers in contests often submit files in formats optimized for display rather than production. Design files might lack proper color profiles, resolution, or bleed settings necessary for printing or other production methods. This oversight can cause issues during the printing or manufacturing process, leading to subpar results or the need for additional file adjustments.

Misalignment with Branding Guidelines:

Companies that organize design contests often provide limited information about their brand guidelines, leaving designers to guess the specifics. As a result, winning designs might not align with the company's existing branding, leading to a disjointed visual identity. This inconsistency can confuse customers and dilute brand recognition, ultimately impacting the company's reputation.

Complexity and Reproducibility:

Elaborate and intricate designs that win contests may not be easily reproducible across various media or materials. A design that looks stunning on a screen might lose its impact when translated to a smaller size or embroidered onto fabric. Contest-winning designs need to be versatile and adaptable to different contexts, which requires a deep understanding of production methods.

Unforeseen Practical Constraints:

Contest designers are often unfamiliar with the practical constraints of different production processes. For instance, a design meant for a digital display might not account for the limitations of screen resolution or color reproduction. These oversights can lead to designs that fail to deliver the intended impact when implemented in the real world.

While design contests may encourage creativity and innovation, they often neglect the critical aspects of practicality and production feasibility. Designs conceived in isolation, without a thorough understanding of production methods and constraints, can lead to a host of challenges during the production phase. Designers, clients, and organizers alike must recognize the importance of aligning creative visions with production realities to ensure that the final result not only looks impressive on paper but also translates seamlessly into real-world applications.

In conclusion, while design contests might appear enticing, they raise serious ethical concerns within the design community. The exploitation of creativity, the compromise of quality, the erosion of collaboration, potential legal issues, and production concerns make a compelling case for avoiding these contests.

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