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The mistake Figma made and the problem with ‘design competitions’

(and why you should avoid starting one as a company).

alt tag This article was originally published at UX Collective on October 08, 2018.

Last week Figma’s API Challenge made huge waves among designers, not necessarily positive ones. The challenge was about creating the best possible Figma to Sketch converter to make it easier to export their design files straight to the competitors platform. Bold and brave move, we could’t thank them enough. Figma made this contest with the best intention, no question, but they made a wrong decision on having a competition.

First time I went vocal about ‘design competitions’ was about five years ago, when an authentic wine store posted a competition about their full corporate identity. Candidates were to create a whole new branding for the store, new logo and visuals that would appear online and offline as well, on the storefront, on their paper bags, etc.

The funny part was the price, the amount was way below the average fee this wine store would pay for a designer or agency if they get contracted. So the overall flow was like this: The competition starts, competitors send in their work, store owners and the management decide which work is the best, the best participant gets the price, and this is the end of the competition.

Needless to say how many issues we can find about this kind of process, but let’s try to highlight the main problems:

1. The lack of honest and competent feedback.
At these competitions, you do not get any kind of constructive feedback about your work. You win or, most of the cases you don’t. No feedback, or explanation on your work, and why it was ignored.

2. The ‘winner takes it all’ attitude.
No second places at these kinds of competitions. It is like winning the lottery you either have it or you don’t. But what about the other great candidates like the second, or third one? If you name a price valuable enough, I’m sure that there could be at least 10 or more very strong incoming work, but as I mentioned above, no second places here.

3. Design is subjective.
What are the key aspects of the competition review and evaluation (if any) and what are the key criterias? You know nothing about it, no one does. As design is subjective, people value different designs and solutions for a problem. Needless to say the other issue here, that these kinds of solutions are not validated by the target users in any way. 

4. The client is the art director and the jury.
Everyone can judge a design, but not everyone has an eye for the design. Choosing the right version from different visuals in not as easy as it seems. Doing it without any testing and the advisory of an expert who knows the rules of visuals can go horribly wrong.

5. To design and to create something should not be a competition.
I never considered design as a competition, as it is not really anything like a sport. Design is a wonderful mix of conscious work and passion, but not something that should compete against another work and passion. It creates the kind of bad taste and rivalry, the design community needs the least.

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6. It is not good for practice.
Usually these companies are trying to highlight, how good their competition is for the scene as they intend to discover young talents through the competition, and it is a great possibility for emerging talents also to come up with a really solid work and impress the competition owners, also get some fame. It is not.

  7. Being cheap as a company is not a good marketing message.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea about holding these kinds of competitions came from a marketing department with best intention. It’s not hard to imagine the meeting where they summarise how good this will be for the company, they get the attention of the community as well, when the competition spreads across social media as it goes viral, they will also have the chance to choose their desired version from the incoming works, win-win, 2 in 1. The truth is, having a competition like this might only make a company look puzzled and cheap. Puzzled, because your organisation is not sure of its needs- that is why you are having a competition and cheap, because you only pay for the work of one person, but keep busy dozens or hundreds of others for free.

You have to pay the price, if you want to get real value. 

What we, as designers sell is our creativity and our precious time, none of these come for free. I wonder how come these competitions touched the design community only. Or are there any other fields? I could mention copywriting probably but it is something that is near to the design field. 

What we, as designers sell is our creativity and our precious time, none of these come for free.

Entering a design competition is basically free work 

Getting numerous work for the price of one, and picking your favourite. I wonder, how having a competition for something that needs to be designed is different of hiring several construction companies to build you houses and telling them, you will move into the one you like. Of course you will pay for the one- but just for the one you like the best, you will abandon and reject the rest. If you think about it, technically, there is no difference, we are talking about the same thing.

Do some charity work instead.

My advice to a young talent, who tries to find new ways to show some outstanding skills is to find some charity organisation and start to work for them pro bono, creating design materials. I’m sure there are dozens of organisations out there looking for this kind of help. Not to mention the numerous advantages this step would make. Working for a charity is always good, you might actually really make the world a better place. Your work being as good as it is, will not be rejected and you can get feedback as well. You can also decide how many effort would you like to invest as charity is always voluntary.

2 days after announcing it’s API Challenge Figma made a wise and great decision and pressed pause. Hopefully many other companies will see this as a warning sign and will avoid creating these kind of design competitions in the future.

This article was originally published at UX Collective on October 08, 2018.

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