On Fridays, my parents take my kids to the local pizza place. In the lobby there’s one of those “claw” toy vending machines that my dad can’t help but let my kids waste his quarters on. It never fails: fifty cents goes down the slot, a kid pulls the lever and pushes the button, down comes the claw, and with great anticipation… nothing, nada, zilch. Every single time! It’s a G-rated slot machine for kids and they always go home empty handed.

The “claw” is a picture of how we feel about spec work and graphic design contest websites.

If you’re just tuning in, there are many online graphic designvending-machine-type websites that offer clients the opportunity to submit a design brief—typically for a logo design—to a pool of designers. This pool of designers then competes for the job. Interested designers pick up the request, create and submit their designs to the “contest” and the client gets to choose the winner. 

For example, you may pay $200 to have 10 designers review your brief (aka project request) and create a design for you. Then you have ten choices to choose from. The designer who created your logo choice gets paid, while the other nine designers go home empty handed. On the surface, this is an attractive model for startups, small businesses and nonprofits with small budgets. You need a logo, you don’t have much to spend on it, so why not pay one price and get 10 options to choose from? Surely one will hit the mark and you go home with a shiny new logo — right? Maybe…

Unfortunately, this is more often the reality of what we see people experience.

The result of approaching design from a crowdsourced approach is that a year later, we end up getting a lot of you asking for a redesign on your logo because the one you had the crowdsourced designer do “doesn’t reflect your brand.”

We have several concerns about outsourced, crowdsourced, winner-takes-all approach to graphic design. We understand that budgets are tight and you need a logo quickly for your business card and website.

What we hope to convey in this blog post is that your brand is never “just a logo” and deserves more than the luck of the draw to represent your company or nonprofit the right way.

Here are five reasons why crowdsourced contest design misses the mark:

1. Relationships

Good design begins with relationships. Without an enduring understanding of the brand—forged in the heat of enduring customer/designer relationships—a designer will not be adequately equipped to give a full visual representation of your brand promise.

The right designer gets to know you, becomes immersed in your culture, and secures a firm understanding of your vision, mission, and goals. This ensures that the designs will hit the mark quickly and efficiently. At Cross and Crown, our process is fueled by what we learn from you about your brand. We take time to ask questions and explore every possibility before the first color palette is suggested. We do the hard discovery work of talking with your customers, we explore your brand via marketplace research, and we have expertise in a variety of verticals. We bring all of that to our first (and every subsequent) interaction with you. We never design in a vacuum. 

Without this level of understanding, it is nearly impossible to create a unique, stand-out design that differentiates you from the competition.

2. Strategy

We want you to understand the WHY behind the design. Steve Jobs famously said that…

design is not “just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Whoever you choose to create design for your brand must have an understanding of how you work; otherwise, you risk a logo with a nice veneer with no substance. All of your marketing content—be it artwork, photography, web design, film production, or copy—should fit within the framework of an all encompassing strategy. To launch out with a specific marketing element without a strategy is what we like to call spaghetti marketing. Who has time to toss ideas to the wall and see if they’ll stick?

3. Voice

When you entrust a writer to create content for your brand, you seek out an author who can accurately speak in your brand’s voice. The same is true for design work. Content creators write words that tell stories and graphic designers create art and images that tell stories and often are designed to reinforce existing, on-brand content.

Your designer is your visual storyteller.

Our concern with the design competition sites is that the products lack the brand’s voice. This is important because your voice is a key element that makes you stand out in a crowded marketplace. It’s what makes what you do unique to you. An invested designer will fully capture that voice from a visual perspective. Furthermore, using design competition sites for multiple projects often do not produce a cohesive and strategic visual voice because they are a smattering of different interpretations of your voice in a variety of formats. This is not what you want.

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4. Context

When you sign up with a design-contest site, you get to choose the winning design but you do not get to choose the designer. For many small businesses and nonprofits, proximity to context expertise matters. Cross and Crown is a locally owned and operated small business and we are well acquainted with the dynamic variables of contextualized design. If your designer is not familiar with your context, the designs they create run the risk of feeling disjointed. It’s not so much the proximity of the actual designer that matters, it’s their level of first hand experience with the context in which your brand operates. Without this knowledge, your design will likely look canned as quality declines.

5. Quality

This post is not meant to offend designers who rely on crowdsourced contest sites to earn money. For learners and beginners, it can be an effective way to build a portfolio and hone your skills. But for the business owners and nonprofit directors who are considering this route, please realize that level of expertise you receive with the smaller price tags will likely yield amateur or canned results. We discussed logo design trends in a recent post and these design contest sites rely heavily on templates and trends to churn out work they may or may not get paid for. Our gut tells us that the designs you get from the factory—void of strategy—will fall flat in differentiating your brand from the pack.

The bottom line is this: Don’t let “the claw” decide the fate of your brand’s visual representation.

Investing quality time in a designer for your brand is much more likely to produce quality results the first time than what you may (or may not) get for fifty cents from the design vending machine. Let strategy and experience underscore the design process and enjoy the accuracy and quality of getting it right the first time.

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