Why you should stop entering design competitions

This is the general reaction of designers and artists to another attempt to get them to work for free dressed up as a competition. Image: iStock

Many design 'competitions' are just ways for brands to get you to work for free – and we need to put a stop to them.

The design and illustration industries are becoming infected with attempts to exploit creatives by getting them to work for big brands for nothing. Dressed up as 'competitions', these campaigns ask you to create marketing or advertising content for big brands in exchange for the often-empty promise of possible prize money.

As with the actually-quite-correctly-maligned 99designs, there is usually only one prize. Everyone else who's put the time, effort and skill into fashioning pieces for the campaign gets nothing. And, worse than with 99designs, sometimes by submitting you give the agency or brand the rights to use your work even if you haven't 'won'.

These 'exploititions' aren't new: they've been around for years. But the number we've seen – and been contacted about helping promote – has grown exponentially recently, with larger brands becoming involved, and I've an increasing feeling from how these things play out on social media and are covered in the non-creative press that exploititions are becoming seen as normal, indeed quite positive.

Over the past six months, I've been hit up by requests to provide coverage to exploititions on behalf of organisations and brands from the Royal Albert Hall to Dan Brown. Possibly worst of all, it's not been too long since I was sent a press release from Writtle School of Art & Design to 'highlight' that one of their students came second in a exploitition by Talenthouse – on behalf of faded pop singer Mark Owen. I'm sure whoever wrote that wasn't aware that the real message their release was conveying was 'we teach creative students to devalue their skills ' – but that's exactly what it means. We've also been contacted by a new firm, Scoopshot, which is attempting to adapt the 99 Designs model to getting photographers to work for free.

I've chosen to politely decline or ignore all of these rather than give them the flattery of even negative coverage. But it's now got too much, and too often.

So brands and agencies, from now on, if you're thinking of asking us to ask our readers to work for you for free – on the possibility that they might get paid if they're a 'winner" – you can expect to get told to fuck off. Seriously. And then pointed at this column (which is essentially also telling you to fuck off).

Respect yourself – and what you're worth

The same arguments against these expolititions apply as with 99 designs. They're disrespectful to your talent – you wouldn't get three plumbers to fix a leak and pay only the person who did what you thought was the best job, or get three accountants to do you books for free, paying only the one who got you the most tax back. Claims of 'you'll get exposure' are, as Jessica Hische so rightly puts in her bang-on infographic Should I work for free?, "the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you". You won't. You'll get nothing – except the reputation that you're cheap, that you're willing to work for nothing, that you're easy to exploit.

For the sake of balance I should say here that not everything Talenthouse does is an exploitition. Like everyone else in the industry, we celebrated its crowdsourcing efforts for the Secret 7" campaign for Record Store Day and the Art Against Knives charity. That's exactly what crowdsourced creative campaigns should be about – bringing together artists and designers in support of a cause they believe in to boost exposure and/or fundraising efforts – not ripping off people who are trying to make a living from their talents.

However, I am singling out Talenthouse here as a most pernicious offender – and as a commercial company that, just like the obvious target of 99 Designs, has built its business out of getting talented creatives to devalue themselves. The problem bigger than one company though: it's industry-wide – and we need to put a stop to it.

If creatives continue to take part in these exploititions and the brands and agencies behind them see them as a success, then they will become even more pervasive – even the norm. We need to educate brands that running these competitions doesn't make them appear creative or 'edgy', but like Gordon Gecko exploiting the talents of the little guy. Most of all though, we need to stop talented creatives from taking part in these exploititions – as if the brands don't get good work out of them, they'll soon stop.

And as an industry, a community – or just a bunch of right-minded individuals – we need to tell the likes of Talenthouse, 99 Designs and Scoopshot to fuck right off. Seriously.

Neil Bennett is editor of Digital Arts.

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