October 20, 2014

Package Design Contests – Great Opportunity or Talent Exploitation

Package Design Contests – Great Opportunity or Talent Exploitation

We’ll spare you the suspense: The answer is shameless talent exploitation, period. Additionally, design contest don’t even to begin to approach the most important aspect of packaging design: In-depth consumer knowledge and market appeal. How does a kid working on a MacBook Pro in his parents’ basement gather quantitative research data? Can he engage in demographic isolation processes and initiate face-to-face consumer interviews? Shockingly, he can’t.

Package Design Contests — What They Don’t Provide

Here’s what crowdsourcing services and design contest administrators won’t tell you: They have no idea who the designers are or what their level of expertise is. Furthermore, you (the client) probably don’t know a whole lot — if anything — about the intricacies of logo or package design. So, you have an anonymous designer who delivers a spec that you think is cool, but who doesn’t know how to incorporate design strategies into your overarching brand profile, who can’t design graphic solutions tailored to your individual marketing and brand needs and who doesn’t know how his/her design will carry over into different media. He/she doesn’t know where your product will largely be sold and what the customers of those retailers largely want in a package.

What crowdsourcing services also don’t tell you is that a packaging design company or a graphic design company worth its salt isn’t about designing little aesthetically pleasing squiggles — that is only the visible component of what we do. Weeks and even months of consumer research go into each package design in order to assure maximum customer appeal. Designers design projects to nuanced specifications, and help guide clients throughout the whole branding process. The look of the logo, the look of the package and the look of the webpage is entirely the designer’s responsibility; the success or failure of a campaign is largely dictated by the level of expertise, style and originality of the designer.

Exploiting More Than Just Young Designers

We not only object to design contests for their dangerous oversimplification of the design and branding process, we object on moral principles. Hang on — let us get on this soap box…

Corporations are getting sneaky about how to not pay people who provide them with services. First, there was the unpaid intern that was ostensibly meant to be developing skills, learning the inner workings of an influential organization and gathering valuable connections (but who does the work of a professional on major projects, plus fetches coffee and answers phones). Then there came crowdsourcing, where struggling designers, whose talent is not yet appreciated, get the chance to submit a logo concept to a client who may commission it based upon its skill and relevance to his brand. If not, then the weeks of work will have been wasted.

Now, design contests are beginning to infest the big time. Oh, it was one thing to exploit kids right out of school with no contacts and no experience. (That’s what they’re there for, right?) It’s quite another to try to prey on established designers with prestigious portfolios. And yet, that is what seems to be happening. Big corporations are soliciting influential designers for “contests” where the “winner” receives next to nothing. In the case of Showtime Network’s solicitation of designer Dan Cassaro (who has designed for MTV and Nike, so he isn’t some young’un desperate for any kind of exposure) for a concept for its Mayweather Vs. Maidana boxing match, the winner receives — get this — a trip to Las Vegas. Seriously.

Once again, this isn’t a contest for high school students or people with zero experience — Showtime handpicked celebrated design artists with successful brands and tried to dangle a carrot of “exposure” in front of them. Hysterically, Dan Cassaro told Showtime what it could do with that carrot.

Exploiting the Farmhands

So, design contests — package design contests, logo design contests or whatever — are basically sneaky farms for free work. Let us repeat: Package design contests, logo design contests, Web design contests are farms for free work.

Of course, sometimes you just need a career springboard if you are starting out with nothing, and that’s fine. However, don’t think that design contests are in any way a career; they aren’t. They aren’t even quick cash options. They require weeks and sometimes even months of work, and there is absolutely no guarantee that your design will be picked, since there might literally be thousands of other entrants alongside you.

“But SmashBrand,” you might say. “The design contest model is so much cheaper than hiring a freelance artist or — heaven forbid — a design studio. I can get pretty great work for almost nothing, can’t I?”

You’re half right — you can get nothing for almost nothing. Not quite as attractive, is it?

Ultimately, there is nothing great about logo or packaging design contests. They devalue the entire design industry and they can even cost businesses money in the long run, since having the blind lead the blind through the rocky terrain of brand building benefits no one. Also, if anyone sends SmashBrand an email asking for professional services in exchange for exposure and a weekend trip, we’ll refer you to Mike Monteiro’s 2011 San Francisco CreativeMornings symposium.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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