“I set up a design contest”
I don’t know if I understood correctly but in this story you probably started off wrong…
How Flaky Freelancers Destroy Golden Opportunities
You start by building a website, and showcasing your work. But you don’t have any traffic, so you make your way over to the online freelance boards like eLance, oDesk and 99Designs.
And finding work for decent pay is a lot harder than the online job boards make it out to be.
Sure, you’re really good at what you do, but you don’t have much of a portfolio to show, and in the online world, most prospects don’t know you from Adam.
Not to mention the enormous amount of online competition, and that most business owners are very hesitant about trying a new freelancer on for size.
But eventually, you get a gig. The key is not to blow it…
My Flaky Freelancer Story
I was inspired to write this post by a recent “flaky freelancer” experience.
I wrote a book called Engagement from Scratch!, about how super-community builders create a loyal audience. I got 30 big-name community-builders to write chapters.
Since I’m self-publishing, I needed a cover design.
I set up a design contest, and received a bunch of design submissions–some good, and some not so good. There was one design in particular that I thought had potential. I asked for revisions, and the designer agreed to make them, so I awarded the project.
That’s when things started going off the rails. The freelancer wasn’t responsive, and would take days to reply to my emails. Every round of revision, that was supposed to take days, ended up taking weeks.
After a few rounds, when we were 95% of the way there, the freelancer flaked out, and disappeared. She didn’t give me the latest design, so I was stuck with an early-stage concept, and I had to recreate all the work that she had already done (and I’m not much of a designer!).
I was able to salvage the project (as you can see), but I’d never work with her again. And unfortunately, I’m a lot less inclined to give new designers a chance, because I’m afraid of the risk to my budget and timelines.
What lessons can freelancers learn from my experience?
It’s Not About the Designs!
The biggest mistake that freelancers make is thinking of themselves as artists, instead of service providers. They believe that what matters most is the quality of their work, and the creative process that makes their work as good as it possibly can be.
Well, unfortunately, that just isn’t the truth.
Sure, design matters–but there are a lot of designers out there, and while some are exceptionally good and some are exceptionally bad, most of them are more or less the same in terms of design skills.
What differs, though, is their communication, work ethic and reliability–that’s what the client experiences on a day-to-day basis, and that’s what creates the vast majority of frustration that clients experience with freelancers.
The biggest risk of hiring a freelancer isn’t that the design won’t look good–the freelancer won’t be responsive, will be difficult to work with, and the process will drag way past the deadline.
So… how can you make sure you don’t fit the stereotype, don’t flake out on your client, and do wind up with a lot of repeat business?
It starts with attitude…
It’s Business, Not an Art Project
The first ingredient to creating a positive experience for your customers is to treat your work as a business, rather than as an art project.
This is particularly difficult for freelancers who are just starting out, because for them it really is a side project, that they do after work, and on weekends. And of course, life happens–you always have to deal with friends, family drama, the kids, etc.
But if your freelance project is at the bottom of your list of priorities, then your client will know it, and won’t be happy. They’re paying you to do a job, and they expect the job to be done–professionally, and in a timely manner. They expect you to be responsive, and communicative.
So make a mental shift–this isn’t a project, it’s a business.
And in a service business, if you want to keep your clients happy, you need to remember the 3 Cs…
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
In real-estate it’s location, and in services it’s communication–that’s what it’s all about.
You see, the tricky thing about services is that while you’re off working hard, the client sees… nothing. They don’t see you working, and they don’t see all the steps of the process that aren’t ready for client consumption.
Which is fine. They shouldn’t see any of that–all they need to see is a finished product, right?
But along the way, they need to know that progress is being made, and that their project is in good hands. The way to give them that confidence is through communication–both responsive, and proactive.
Responsive communication is about answering your clients’ emails and phone calls promptly (meaning definitely within 24 hours, and ideally faster than that), and thoroughly (answering all of their questions, addressing all of their concerns, and going the extra mile to make sure that they are 100% comfortable, and know exactly what is going on).
Proactive communication is the same, except that you don’t wait for the client to email you and ask what’s going on for you to get in touch. Email them on a regular basis (one to two times per week) to keep them in the loop, tell them how things are progressing, and what they can expect to happen next.
Assuming you do all of that, all that remains is to deliver (you can’t just communicate excuses all the time). Deadlines have to be met, and revisions have to be made graciously, and quickly.
Remember, I’m the Customer…
Some of what I’ve written here may seem a little unfair to freelancers.
After all, many freelancers do see themselves as artists, and life is happening all around them–they have jobs, and families, and all of those things are more important than the random freelancing gig that they got on some website.
But the fact of the matter is that I’m the customer, and I get to decide what my expectations and priorities are when I’m hiring a freelancer.
So if you’re serious about your work, and about your freelancing business, then I hope to have the opportunity to work with you.
And if you’re some flake whose freelancing hobby is making real freelancers look bad, then get out of the market already.
What Do You Think?
Am I being unfair? Are my expectations unreasonable? Does it matter, if I’m the customer and I decide who I want to be working with?
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November 17th, 2011 at 8:43 am
“I set up a design contest”
November 17th, 2011 at 9:42 am
I agree with Milo, if I see “Design Contest” I walk the other way. I’m in this to do business not to play a game in hopes of winning a prize. You told people to treat projects like a business but you don’t portray it as a business when you start by doing a “design contest”, that makes it seem more like an art show. It could be that the freelancer you accuse of flaking on you could have been busy doing paying work instead and didn’t take your project as seriously because it was a “contest”.
November 17th, 2011 at 9:45 am
Sorry Danny, I’m with Milo on this one. You know the old adage ‘Past successes does not determine future results.’ Although it’s not your ‘fault’ that the participants in your contest can’t do The Math of working on spec. There are plenty of very competent designers with online portfolios that demonstrate reliability, consistency & professionalism. All of which is part of the value of hiring a professional graphic designer. The difference between a ‘Professional’ and a ‘Contestant’ is they know the value of their professionalism. The Freelancer you ‘awarded’ with the work simply discovered the reality of working on spec. Not your fault, but you both should learn from the experience.
November 17th, 2011 at 9:59 am
Hola! Very nice article. I agreed from the very first word to the last one. I care a lot about the customer and I try to put myself in its place everytime. I have had excellent results creating a relationship, keeping the contact fresh and clean, and solving out every possible doubt. I found out that if you give good feedback in first place and provide a nice and good quality work, you’re done. The customer will recommend you to his colleagues, familiars, friends or neighbors, and of course, he will be making business with you again.
Nice post, way to go! http://twitter.com/widodemarco
November 17th, 2011 at 10:02 am
Yeah sorry Danny, your point is still valid but honestly… The only people who would respond to such a contest are people too inexperienced and/or too stupid to know better. So it’s absolutely no surprise you didn’t have a good experience with them.
Pretty much any designer with their salt isn’t going to spend their time doing work for nothing more than the slim chance of maybe possibly, they can hope, if they’re really lucky, if the stars are all in alignment, being paid for it by winning the contest.
If you scrape the bottom of the barrel, don’t complain if you get sludge in return.
November 17th, 2011 at 10:26 am
What happened to the looser of these contests? Were they what you call successful?
November 17th, 2011 at 11:55 am
Fail. Good freelancers are too busy working to enter contests.
November 17th, 2011 at 12:08 pm
I think the problem is the word ‘contest’ – it’s actually an RFP – request for proposal – that is common in business. I’m not familiar with the design industry, or the freelancing niche within that industry, but an RFP request seems reasonable. I might respond to something like that, but probably not a ‘contest’.
November 17th, 2011 at 12:23 pm
I very much agree that you set yourself up for failure with your “design contest.” You’re demanding a high level of professional service from a freelancer, which is perfectly legitimate, but you also appear to be asking those same freelancers do a large amount of work for you on spec.
While you might have had some success with this approach in the past, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It devalues the professional contribution of a designer. It’s saying “please work for me for free until I decide whether I like your stuff.” Successful design work is a collaborative process between the designer and the client. Engaging a designer should be no different than any other job; you interview them, you look at the past work, and they provide you with a proposal and pricing based on your brief.
AIGA, the professional association for design, specifically advises against engaging in spec work for those reasons.
November 17th, 2011 at 1:53 pm
The entire experience described in the post yes, but what about the experience not described in the post? The experience of all the other entrants of your contest that were basically told “Thanks for your time, thanks for your work, now go away I haven’t got a thing for you.”
They worked without a penny’s compensation. That’s what we’re upset about, and that’s why the AIGA opposes it, and that’s why you (at least most of the time) won’t find professional freelancers participating in it.
November 17th, 2011 at 2:18 pm
Actually when participating in a design contest, ALL designers must provide a design to be considered so it IS considered ‘spec’ work to design something in advance in order to be selected for a project.
To be up front, I’m an award-winning designer with high profile clients but I have in-fact participated in some design contests just because I was bored.
Here are pitfalls of design contest that many clients do not understand:
1. Many of the designers may not be capable of giving changes that are requested. They designed a piece on ‘spec’ and gave you the quickest and nicest design they could.
2. No designer on a contest is in it for the sake of being an ‘artist’. As I said above, they produce the quickest and nicest design as possible so chances are, the designer you chose just did not know how to do what you were asking.
3. The majority of designers in contests use design contests to build their portfolios or gain experience or in my case, are bored.
4. Designers who enter contests on a regular basis are also so busy having fun entering contests that when a project pays more than yours, your project just isn’t important anymore. Afterall, it’s a contest and the designer has nothing to lose.
5. You stated that you asked for several revisions: “Every round of revision, that was supposed to take days, ended up taking weeks.” For a book cover?! Really?
In the design world (especially in a contest) several revisions for what should be an easy project to you, might not be an easy project in the scheme of things. If it is so easy, why didn’t you do it yourself in the first place? So many revisions for an ‘easy’ project says “RUN” all over it. So the designer probably cut his losses and in this case, the communication problem is yours and not the designers. Been there done that.
6. Did the designer get paid anything at all? If not, that would be a problem.
7. Low pay for way too much work is bad. Hence the word ‘revisions’. No one goes into these contests with the thought that there will be several rounds of revisions. I would say that 80% of these contests, the client chooses the winner, pays the designer and is off on their merry way. That’s why it’s cheap to get design work in a contest.
8. Not all designers are created equal. Just because someone gives you a design online, is it print-worthy? Does the designer even know how to design for print? As the internet becomes more and more developed, designers do not learn to set up projects for print so they come out wrong. That’s why contests for print projects are best to avoid.
9. Hiring a designer is like a marriage, communication goes both directions. If you didn’t communicate your requests up-front, then revisions will spook any designer, especially in a contest.
Another thing I notice you mention. “…so I was stuck with an early-stage concept, and I had to recreate all the work that she had already done (and I’m not much of a designer!).” Don’t ever assume you know how much time a designer should take to complete a project. If you’re not a designer, you wouldn’t know and all designers work at different paces.
Last but not least, that concept that you recreated from the designer, unless you were given derivative rights in writing to their work, it’s considered illegal to change a designer’s work. Most designers won’t go after a client but we do. Designers keep derivative rights automatically because if someone comes along like you have and changes something they’ve done, the designer can no longer say that they designed it. It’s like stealing. Also if there are photos involved in your design, are they copyright to the designer or does the designer even have permission to use them in your design? Contests also produce lots of copyright problems like this and you could be sued for using something that a designer may have used illegally.
My suggestion is to hire a designer outside of a contest by doing research on them and their work. This allows you to have more control and the designer to know what they’re getting.
November 17th, 2011 at 2:33 pm
David- pls consult AIGA or the Graphics Artists Guild to understand how your design contest is considered unethical and devalues the design industry as a whole.the gig.” Requesting designers to work for free so you can choose a winner is akin to asking a slew of carpenters to make a specific piece of furnitre for you so you can decide who gets the job. I don’t think you would ask that of a carpenter’s time, skill orresources, so why is it justified to ask this of a designer. Those of us who are working in the field know that the client is king, but so is fair practice. If you elevate the standards by which you hire designers, you will get the good designers and freelancers that demonstrate good business practice. I hope this helps, at the end of all this you needed a cover for your book, but I also hope you compensated your winner for her time spent working on your project.
November 17th, 2011 at 3:16 pm
“Robin, that’s nonsense. The entire experience described in the post occurred after the designer had been chosen as the winner, so this wasn’t work “on spec”, or anything like that.
And frankly, while I understand the interests of the AIGA, in an age where freelancers have to compete with low-cost and high-quality providers from around the world, the only way that they can really stand out is by virtue of the relationship.
The contest is just a way for designers and customers to find each other, nothing more.”
Danny, I sincerely appreciate your candor and honesty, and most of all posting your experience and the results of your contest. I can’t thank you enough. What I believe is most enlightening for myself and the other design professionals replying to your post is your position on design contests. I trust that such a position only affirms our commitment as designers to ethical and professional standards, contractual agreements and industry standard business practices that both protect and respect the rights and skills of this industry’s professionals. And above all a deeper appreciation for working other professionals who – although they may not understand your industry – respect that fact that YOU do and respond accordingly.
To my fellow designers, I would hope that you take the opportunity to spread the word to those up-and-coming artists who simply don’t know why they should avoid working on spec. So – at the very least – they do so with full knowledge of the reaming to follow.
November 17th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
Seems as if Danny is just defending his article. Well off Experienced Freelancers who are doing well do not enter “contests” for [Edited: language] and giggles. Danny clearly could have paid a designer and got exactly what he wanted but did not want to.
TristanNovember 17th, 2011 at 4:32 pm
Note to authors: writing a blog post about a bad experience with a designer you hired from a “competition site” + putting it on a freelancing blog that is read by professional designers who hate spec work = bad idea. Lol
November 17th, 2011 at 4:34 pm
I think the biggest fault of this article is that it seems to support something that target audience (designers), for the most part, find insulting and detrimental to their profession. I think it will be hard to find much honest and positive feedback because of this. Kinda like telling a small local shop owner that they should be more like Walmart. As I designer I don’t engage in such business practices because I think it is important for both the designer and the client to have an understanding of the expectations from both ends before anything is set in motion. A truly great solution requires much more planning and consideration from both ends, client and designer/artist.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Wait, I’m confused. Someone who won a *design contest* flaked out on you? Chances are, I’m guessing, it was probably a younger girl, not an actual professional designer who is freelancing. Those of us who do freelance work are too busy doing that to enter a contest, offering up our time and skills for potentially nothing.
I am definitely agreeing that you set yourself up for failure with your contest. You should’ve looked up notable designers in your area… this way you would get the level of service you were looking for from a professional.
Real freelancers should not, and I’m guessing most of them do not, do spec work.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:12 pm
I don’t have experience in the graphics design industry, but roughly half of my freelance work comes via an RFP process where I often submit prototypes or rough ideas – I don’t consider this ‘free work’, just part of the cost of doing business (the other half of my work comes from repeat business, so I think the strategy works).
I’d be interested in seeing an article on design freelancing customer->vendor relationships and how they work.
Though I don’t like contests, this has been a good discussion. Hats of to Danny for the article.
AndresNovember 17th, 2011 at 5:13 pm
Believing that you can get quality work at design contest sites is like believing you can get trendy clothes at Wal-mart and fine cuisine at McDonalds. No professionals designers enter those contest, you got what you deserved. I’m curious to see how the final cover came up, I can assure is most likely crap.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:23 pm
Here’s what I put on Facebook:
I agree with most commenters that working for free is unfair and bidding and contests are generally a negative thing for freelancers.
One thing that I thought about after I saw the comments was this: I wonder how many first-time users of freelancers turn to contest sites simply because they really don’t know of any other way to find a good freelancer?
How can we better educate clients about the proper way to go about finding a freelancer so that they don’t turn to these methods to hire?
In addition to what I put on Facebook, there’s a lot we simply don’t know here.
1) Was this Danny’s first time to hire a freelancer? Maybe he didn’t know of another way to make a connection. His guest post really doesn’t say.
2) How much did he pay those who worked on his project (winners and losers)? It’s easy to assume the worst, but that might not be the case. I didn’t enter a contest, but not too long ago I had a client who paid me and several other writers to create samples for a very long-term project. He wasn’t going to use all the writers–but he did pay ALL of us for our samples.
3) Was a contract used? A contract can take care of issues like how many revisions a freelancer can expect and many other potential problems. I always try to at least get an agreement in writing if not an actual contract.
I could be wrong (and I’m sure Danny will correct me if I am wrong), but I honestly don’t think Danny intended to defend working on spec or design contests here. This comes across to me as a hiring tactic that was a mistake on his part–but he still makes a few good points about customer service.
For me: the bottom line is that there are lessons to be learned on both sides here. Yes, customer service is very important, but you also can’t expect “steak level” service if you only paid for a “hamburger level” service.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:35 pm
Epic fail on your ethical part Danny. Sorry, but true.
I guess my other favorite part was “I wrote a book called Engagement from Scratch!, about how super-community builders create a loyal audience. I got 30 big-name community-builders to write chapters.”
Did you pay these writers or did you hold a “contest” to see whose ideas you thought fit your narrative?
November 17th, 2011 at 5:36 pm
Your mistake was not in hiring a freelancer. It was in not doing your own homework. When you take the time to seek out reputable designers by getting referrals from colleagues and friends or by looking around on the web, short-listing those that suit your needs, and then presenting those prospective designers with a detailed brief that they can respond to in a business-like way (i.e. with a quote or proposal), then you won’t have these problems. Approach designers with respect and they’ll (usually) respond in the professional manner you expect. And, by the way, designers are not necessarily artists, nor are they strictly “service providers”. The good ones are trained professionals and strategic PARTNERS in your business venture.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:38 pm
“No professionals designers enter those contest.”
Taking note that this is not a true statement. Anyone can go through my portfolio and see that I have been designing since the mid-80s, and I will still enter some contests ‘just because’ and for ‘[Edited: language] and giggles’.
I am also aware of many other fabulous designers who enter online contests and that’s how they make their living.
Does that mean I’m in favor of them? Not all the time. The conditions have to be specific for me to enter or I won’t.
Unfortunately ‘spec’ work was created by large ad agencies who condone it at their level but would rather not compete with freelancers so they try hard to cover up the fact that they still do it. On the other hand, spec work and contests can go hand-in-hand but they are very different at times.
In a couple of the contests I’ve won, I researched the client beforehand, asked questions and only submitted 1 design for review. And as luck would have it, I also got some new clients who have been with me for years and pay me very well.
Although I do feel that clients need to be educated more in the contest realm as much as the designers do.
I personally educate all my clients on just about everything I do. This allows them to go out into the world and hire another designer who will lie to them and they come back to me.
All-in-all Danny, I do believe your article opens up a lot of discussion so it is great that you wrote it. I hope that you don’t utilize the bad experience you had on a contest to keep you from hiring someone outside of a contest. We’re not all bad.
November 17th, 2011 at 5:38 pm
Good point Martyn. They are partners in the venture and should be treated accordingly.
TristanNovember 17th, 2011 at 6:13 pm
1) Apparently he is a “…an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on how to build an engaged audience from scratch.” This article is posted on Freelance folder, and he doesn’t know how to find a good freelance designer? I find that hard to believe.
2) While I’m just speculating, he posted the competition on 99designs so I’m doubtful anyone got paid except the “winner”. Danny correct me if I’m wrong.
3) I would like to know this aswell. Did he agree to pay the designer more for the revisions he wanted? Was there an arrangement made for how long revisions would take? I dare say no to both (again, correct me if i’m wrong Danny).
Or did he simpy pay the “winner” then keep asking for revision after revision until the designer just couldn’t be bothered anymore?
Just to clarify on the RFP front, yes RFPs are a regular occurrence in the design industry. But in no way, shape or form are they to be compared to design competitions. RFPs are usually a rough concept, wifeframe, or even just a written idea ,accompanied by a quote from the designer (or firm). They are essentially “this is what we’ll do, and this is how much it will cost”. Sometimes they are even paid to submit them. VERY different from competitions.
I believe competitions have their place. They are good way for beginners to get some design experience, and for bootstrapping businesses to get some design done on the cheap if they can’t afford a professional.
Just don’t whinge that what you got wasn’t good enough ;)
And please don’t generalise freelancers based of your experience with a budget low-end beginner.
I don’t go to McDonalds and whinge that I didn’t get table service, and that the food was crap. I go there to get something fast & cheap. I know that if I want great service and great food I’m going to have to go to a nice restaurant, and that it will cost more.
Also, what was the “Golden Opportunity” this freelancer missed out on?
If I had a $1 for every time I heard “this is a great opportunity”, “this will make us all rich” etc etc, I could retire right now :)
November 17th, 2011 at 6:26 pm
I have to agree with the other comments, when I read design contest, I stopped reading.
Your crediblity was lost.
November 17th, 2011 at 7:29 pm
Christina, with respect, I don’t think that “designing since the mid-80s” in itself, makes one a professional designer. Nor does simply knowing other “fabulous designers” who enter contests prove your point. Professionalism is an approach, a standard, a set of principles. Truly professional designers, among other things, work hard to gain and maintain respect by consistently demonstrating to their clients (and other designers) the true value of design thinking (not picture-making) and by insisting that we are properly compensated for the unique value we bring to the table. Every time. One other point that often seems to get missed in these discussions: being a professional, in my opinion, means having a wider view that the immediate now – that is, we should be conducting our business (including our responses to calls for design) in ways that protect the future of this profession for the next generation of world-shapers.
November 17th, 2011 at 8:24 pm
Martyn, You are correct in saying that designing since the mid-80s doesn’t make anyone a professional designer, but that was not my point. Nor was knowing fabulous designers. So I’m not certain where your point is even headed.
I simply stated that I DO in fact know fabulous designers who work for large agencies and clients (including myself) and they participate in these contests from time to time. Considering my clientele list, I don’t have anything to prove to anyone but I am a professional designer and have been since the 80s.
November 17th, 2011 at 8:41 pm
You get what you pay for.
Expecting someone who has time to enter a low-ball design competition at a site that preys on the uneducated (or desperate) to act in a professional manner is either ignorant, delusional, or predatory.
I hope it’s the first one because that can be forgiven and corrected through education.
Design is a undertaking which requires time, skill, and in-depth knowledge of the problem that needs to be solved. An outstanding solution is not something that can be achieved with the constraints a contest normally places on the project.
Catena CreationsNovember 17th, 2011 at 9:43 pm
Contest controversy aside, I agree with the points about service. I have experienced this problem with other freelancers, especially programmers. If you can’t communicate and you can’t provide good service, it doesn’t matter how good the final product is.
I also agree with the points about working for free. I used to give a detailed proposal to everyone who asked for one. This year I have been ripped off by more than one person who took my ideas and implemented them on their own, or used my proposal as a template for their RFP, and my competition was easily able to underbid me. So now I am very selective about who gets a full-fledged proposal, and who gets an estimate. I also put a 30-day deadline on the timeline and pricing, becauseno one can hold open time for six months while waiting for someone to make up their mind.
DpNovember 17th, 2011 at 10:36 pm
Design contest? Very unethical. No experienced designer would even consider it. You get what you pay for and if you pay nothing you get crap. However, I agreed with your point about design not being art.
So it goes…
eciNovember 18th, 2011 at 2:12 am
Based upon a sample of one, I’d never run a design contest again. It was an act of desperation on my part because a designer with whom I’ve collaborated on various projects in the past, someone who considers himself an artist and as such need not be constrained by minor details like accommodating the needs of my clients, flaked out on the project in question.(*)
I set up a contest on 99designs and it was nothing short of an ordeal. I was inundated with designs, 99% of which were at best amateurish and at worst, laughable. I’m not a designer and I could have done a better job than most of the submissions. I had a sneaking suspicion that the whole format of the design contest would attract wannabes and also rans and my low expectations were fulfilled. Managing that contest and the endless delays in getting even the most minor of changes (E.g. can you darken this colour a bit, please?) negated any illusory cost savings.
I then hired a local guy who turned out to be a bust. The cycle time for darkening the logo would be a week to 10 days. I asked for and received the PSDs from him and those minor changes, I made myself in a matter of minutes. Where the client wanted three different options, I could give him that and more without any difficulty. When I saw the layer naming in Photoshop, I knew why the cycle time was so long. He was outsourcing the work to someone in Latin America. Sigh…
My current strategy is to hire local both for designers and developers. I can tell you horror story after horror story about developers from the Third World. No thanks. I’ve had my fill of them.
(*) That designer is talented but unfortunately, he suffers from the artist syndrome where he gets married to a design and will not accept any criticism whatsoever of it. You can’t imagine how much effort I’ve put into coaching him to get him to understand that great design is one that meets his standards of aesthetic, which are unquestionably high and refined AND the needs of the client. He takes any criticism, real or imagined, of the design as a personal insult and that’s a tragedy because he really does come up with some really great designs but falls apart when the client asks for reasonable changes. He’ll blow the budget on the logo and banner graphics and the rest of the web site will turn into a hand-waving exercise where the developers are expected to make up the design on-the-fly. He has never actually finished a project when I think about it.
Martyn SchmollNovember 18th, 2011 at 3:14 am
Just a couple of things about RFPs in response to Tristan’s post above. To clarify, designers don’t provide the RFP (Request For Proposal). Clients do. Designers answer RFPs with proposals. And proposals should not include “rough concepts”, “wireframes”, or “ideas” of any kind. That’s the bit clients pay for. Proposals typically include only a few things: a letter of introduction, the designer’s understanding of the client’s/project’s objectives, the designer’s credentials, an outline of the scope of work, team member bios and profiles, a preliminary schedule, cost estimates, terms of engagement, and perhaps some case studies of similar or otherwise relevant projects done by the designer/firm. That’s it. No brainwork. No intellectual capital. It goes without saying that such a proposal can only be written in response to a properly prepared RFP.
RyanNovember 18th, 2011 at 7:38 am
I think the point is that you wouldn’t ask professionals in other industries to compete for work. If I needed a room added onto my house I wouldn’t ask several builders to construct mockup rooms, with the “winner” getting paid and the rest being out of luck. I understand entering contest for “******’s and giggles”, I’ve done it before too, but to consider that a fair way to find freelancers is ridiculous. Real success as a designer comes from going out and making connections and getting jobs from interested clients. I just don’t like that Danny got burned by a freelancer in a contest and then decided to write an article talking about the “Flaky Freelancer”. The freelancer could just as well write an article about the client who had a design contest and then wanted more revisions than the money warranted…
November 18th, 2011 at 7:51 am
So you have a logo design contest and the winner gets $500, and 100 participants spend 2 hours each working on the project.
That means you’ve paid $500 for 200 hours of work.
So it goes…
BruceNovember 18th, 2011 at 8:33 am
“I get to decide what my expectations and priorities are when I’m hiring a freelancer.”
True, but be sure to communicate those expectations to the freelancers whom you hire. I have found that clients don’t always do that.
November 18th, 2011 at 10:07 am
Wow. You’ve certainly generated some heat with this topic! First, I totally agree with what you intended to be the main topic of your article. Freelancers should absolutely communicate realistic deadline expectations, and if anything delays them from meeting a deadline they should be in touch with you. But this isn’t true just with designers … Just because designers do create commercial art doesn’t give us all the ‘flaky artist syndrome’. If the artist you are hiring is not self-taught they have likely been trained to receive critical feedback and to supply multiple revisions when necessary. This is also true of someone who has been practicing design services for a long time. By now, they should be able to not take it personally and do the changes requested.
However, I do agree with many of the people commenting above me that the likelihood of getting a ‘flaky’ freelancer is MUCH, MUCH higher if you find one via a contest. Freelancer designers who are worth their salt and who have the years of experience you need for great quality are far less likely to enter your type of competition. I’ve been practicing design for over 15 years now, the last 2.5 as a freelancer, and the only contests I enter are for local organizations I would like to show support of. If I don’t win those I consider it time donated. In a situation like yours I would indeed consider it spec work and time wasted/money lost.
And this isn’t unique to design. I made the mistake early in my freelance writing career (yes, I do both) not to use a contract when working on a larger web site writing project. I got burned by the client after 7 hours of working on their text. Somehow they thought it would be perfect on first draft and refused to pay or to do revisions when it wasn’t. I wouldn’t treat the guy who mows my lawn that way when he doesn’t quite get the yard right first try, but somehow writers/artists time aren’t valued the same way?
I would absolutely encourage you to seek quotes from graphic artists and choose them by their existing reputations and portfolios rather than a contest that expects a lot of free work ahead of any expected return. You’ll have a much higher success rate!
November 18th, 2011 at 10:59 am
@Danny Please educate yourself:
MikeNovember 18th, 2011 at 11:40 am
Got to love those self claimed “expert marketers” just because they know how to use twitter. I real marker expert knows the value of professional design and it’s aware of the importance of a professional book cover will play in the success of the book. After all, the book cover is the first thing potential customers will see and will play a big role on the decision of buying or not buying the book.
Real experts marketers take their time to research and hire a professional designer. They don’t open a contest to attract the lowest common denominator of grade-school dropouts.
I’m surprise freelance folder let fools like this guy post…
P.S. I looked at the site book and cover… thanks for the laugh :) Easily one of the worst designs I’ve ever seen.
November 18th, 2011 at 12:03 pm
“P.S. I looked at the site book and cover… thanks for the laugh :) Easily one of the worst designs I’ve ever seen.”
This made me actually go look at the book cover……………. Can’t believe someone paid (or would pay) for that. =/
November 18th, 2011 at 2:21 pm
The lesson to be learned in this case is primarily for the writer,
not the freelancer.
Not that i’m sympathetic with flaky freelancers who don’t make
good on their commitments, but those design “contests” and places
like e-lance are the Walmarts of the design world. E-lance and
O-desk are slightly better because you can select a designer more
specifically based on their previous work history and ask for
resumes and references. If you “hire” cold without a contract and
without any real money down, what do you expect to receive? You’re
gonna get what you pay for, esp. if it’s NOT a “third-world”
designer you’re working with, because Americans and Western
Europeans, Aussies and Kiwi’s can’t compete or “live” off of those
wages, so aren’t going to be taking those contests seriously – but
are more likely working in that space primarily as a hobby or for
“trophies” and fun, experimental challenges.
On the other hand, there’s a possibility the freelancer is a
full-time student who only submitted something on a whim. Or, they
could be a shady, outsourcing sweat shop that really isn’t using
one designer, but are using whatever help they can get and with
hurricanes and spotty internet connections in third-world
countries, there’s a ton of risk and unreliability that comes with
When the writer says:
“Sure, design matters? but there are a lot of designers out there,
and while some are exceptionally good and some are exceptionally
bad, most of them are more or less the same in terms of design
I think he’s confusing “design” with “creativity” and at the end
perhaps “design skills” with “computer-aided-design (technical)
skill”. There’s a lot of education that clients need to have
before they hire a “designer”. He’s treating people like a
commodity (we’re all the same??) instead of a unique asset, and
that’s exactly what sites like 99 designs have done. When you
become familiar with the uniqueness of your creative asset, then
you can use that person more fully to your aims and have a
rewarding outcome. When you go into a project and are restricted
by the rules set up by the unfair economies of scale inherent in
an environment like 99 designs, then you are buying
and trading commodities and room for the creative process is
completely perverted and restrictive to the client and the
To the writer’s credit, the rest of his article about attitude,
commitment and communication is spot on, but he’s being
unreasonable and unrealistic in thinking he’s going to get that
from the big-box design centers of the world.
So, this is my first reaction to Danny’s post, even before I read
any comments – and it’s no wonder this really caught the ire of so
many designers, but kudos to Danny for putting his honest thoughts
out there. It shows how uneducated MOST people are about “design”
and the creative process, but it’s not really their fault
(ignorance or apathy). It’s the inherent conflict that arises due
to unrealistic expectations brought about by the new dehumanized
and commodified design process the big-box e-tailers of the
outsourcing industry have wrought. And I’m sure it happens with
programmers also – not just graphic designers.
An effective outcome starts and ends with respect and honest
communication and human interaction with reciprocation. There’s
also the chance the freelancer was feeling dis-appreciated,
disrespected or de-valued by the process, so bailed for any of
those reasons. You know how it is to work with clients who only
care about price, but don’t consider revisions an added cost
(scope creep). Not cool.
November 18th, 2011 at 6:32 pm
I knew something rang a bell when I read your blurb. Guy Kawasaki, one of the guys who co-authored the book with you, Danny, set off a similar shit-storm in the design community just last year with a contest to design the cover for his book Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. Interesting that you’d pursue the same strategy knowing what you know about the way that went…
November 18th, 2011 at 7:09 pm
Sorry Danny, but you didn’t present a “golden opportunity” because contests aren’t golden opportunities for freelance designers at all. It’s only a golden opportunity for the client setting up the contest, in the hope of getting a suitable designer for cheap.
I’ll bet the freelancer you chose was a newbie. It’s out of order to chew out “flaky freelancers” when your approach was unethical at the very least.
It seems you fail to understand that while the winner gets compensated, the losers didn’t, and they still worked on spec AKA for nothing. It’s not cool to set up a contest where naive freelancers will produce a piece of work for a high chance of getting nothing in return i.e. cash. No pro will do this. Simple as that. It’s poor business and financial sense to do work on spec knowing that there’s a high chance of walking away with nothing to show for the time and effort put into it.
I would never do business with anyone who condones and encourages this approach for their own benefit (it sure as hell didn’t benefit most of the freelancers who entered your contest!).
Danny, you need to realise that the kind of professionalism you talked about comes with a price tag. Most of the time, you won’t find an experienced professional designer through contests, because that’s where many newbie freelance designers go. You can’t expect them to know off the bat how to be the kind of pro you want.
Go and support the real pros. Most of them are hardworking and trustworthy, they know how to treat a client and you’ll more than likely get your money’s worth from them.
BrianNovember 18th, 2011 at 7:35 pm
Danny Great post, almost as great as your smile! It gave me lots of ideas on contests. I was thinking first I am going to hold a contest for my lawn. I’m thinking I could probably get it mowed once a week for free by a different person on the hopes of awarding them a contract after a year of free lawn care service by all these people thinking they will win.
Then I was thinking why stop there. Maybe I should go around to some chefs and see if they want to cook me dinner every night for free by holding a cooking contest.
The possibilities are endless here!
So can anybody be a guest writer? I lost all respect for your blog today and will be unsubscribing. Thanks again Danny!
November 19th, 2011 at 9:07 am
I enjoyed reading the comments more than the article and reaffirmed my belief in No! Spec work and contests. Thanks
Carlos FernandezNovember 19th, 2011 at 4:23 pm
If you search cheap, cheap is what you’re going to get.
If you’re serious about finding Professional Design Service, than your first step is to educate yourself. I highly recommend using Catherine’s links as a starting place.
The source of all your bad experiences is 1) where you’re looking for talent and 2) you are seeking the wrong kind of relationship.
Regarding 1: Professional Designers do not participate in design contests. If you think they do, then you’ve never worked with a Professional. Participants of design contests are aspiring or struggling designers. They’re struggling for a reason (inexperience, lack of talent, unprofessional, etc.). This is the pool that you are currently employing.
Regarding 2: If you’re seeking a Kinkos type of relationship, then you are going to seek and attract subpar service and talent. This isn’t fast food dude.
You scoffed at the word “Partnership”, but truly successful Client/Designer relationships are built as such: a mutually beneficial relationship. Not Partner as in 50% company ownership, but Partner as in valued Business Consultant, Brand Strategist.
A respectful “Partnership” is the type of relationship a true Professional (whose service is in high demand) will take on. Until you change your approach, you are not offering any Golden Opportunities, nor are you reaping the benefits of Professional Design Services.
eciNovember 19th, 2011 at 8:04 pm
Perhaps the joke is on everyone who commented on this post. Danny managed to fluff up his search engine ranking and “engaged” everyone by deliberately posting something that he knew would be controversial all the while feigning innocence and naivete. If his book is full of such “gems”, no thanks. I certainly won’t be buying it or reading it.
November 20th, 2011 at 12:54 pm
So if it is not about the designs why try and hire a designer at all. Get a waitress at a coffee shop to do it so you can insure that you get good service.
Maybe your “flaky freelancer” woke up to the fact that with the numerous revisions and such (judging by how contests work and how much money is usually involved) that they would end up making two or three bucks an hour.
JasonNovember 20th, 2011 at 11:37 pm
Wow Danny (Danny @ Firepole Marketing)!
I’m a developer and the way you handled the whole hiring process of a designer was incorrect if you were looking for a professional, plain and simple. Own up to the fact you are wrong about this point. The main point of your article is correct however your experience was destined to fail due to how it started – with a dodgy competition.
“The awarding of the prize was contingent on some revisions being made, and this was made clear to the winner, who agreed to the terms”
I’m surprised you had any entries with that sort of dodgy businessman clause.
“Regarding payment for the partial work, the designer suggested a settlement which I agreed to, but she never sent me the bill.”
Anyone else heard this claim from non-paying clients? “I didn’t get the invoice”, ahuh.
And Danny when most of the comments on a post say you have failed, mate that generally means you… you know… failed.
Good luck with the future, part of being a good businessman is about seeing your flaws and fixing them to service clients better.
November 21st, 2011 at 6:17 am
OMG. This blog is really helpful and I agree 101%.
The quality of work is nothing even the designer thinks the design is pretty perfect but he doesn’t have communication skills – it would be a so called “FAIL”.
Designers and Clients should always have communication. That’s what makes things go round in the business.
Thank you so much :)
I’ve learned alot.
TheTruthNovember 21st, 2011 at 12:55 pm
Danny I’m sure this young freelancer is off doing work for pay and hasn’t thought twice about walking away from you. Yet here you are bitter and writing articles on the internet because you’re upset. I hope you learned something but its time to move on.
November 30th, 2011 at 4:37 pm
Hey Danny, if you give me a copy of your book, I’ll read it and then if I decide I like it, I’ll even pay you for it — consider it a prize!
Oh, wait. That’s not how the real world works is it?
That’s not how the real design world works either. Sites like 99designs exploit designers and devalue the overall design industry.
How much did you pay for the design? If you were serious about working with a professional designer, you wouldn’t have set up a spec contest. Every single professional organization that is remotely related to the design industry is strictly against it for well documented reasons.
I realize it’s popularly promoted among some Internet Marketing circles, and if you still decide to go this route, it’s your choice. But please don’t confuse this with hiring professional designers.
And Freelance Folder, I’m very surprised you ran this article. One would think you would promote higher standards than this being that your audience is design and creative professionals.
December 1st, 2011 at 12:23 am
Actually, I did mean to be sarcastic, yes. The other, well, I didn’t resort to calling you names so I would appreciate it if you would do the same.
My point was that applying the same logic as the crowdsourcing model would seem ridiculous if applied to other situations.
• Having a bunch of architects to draw up house plans just for you and selecting one “winner”
• Having a bunch of lawyers draft contracts just for you and choosing the one you like best
• Having a bunch of photographers all shoot your wedding and choosing which photographer you thought took the best shots
This “only-buy-it-if-you-like-it” mentality is something I was trying to make a point of in comparing giving your book away and allowing the customer to decide whether it’s worth paying for after they’ve read it.
And I only viewed your pre-launch page link in your author’s bio, which honestly, I didn’t couldn’t tell exactly what you were offering, free or paid.
Even in viewing the main page now, I do see the Download The Book button but with the dozen or so other buttons and scrolling text, it doesn’t exactly jump out to me.
So apologies for missing that the first time around.
If you want to use crowdsourcing sites, it’s certainly your prerogative. But I wouldn’t exactly call dozens of designers putting in hours of work, on spec, for a chance of winning a contest “a golden opportunity.”
And the fact that the freelancer “flaked out” on you in this situation probably comes at little surprise to many professional designers reading this article.
JasonDecember 1st, 2011 at 7:04 am
Danny @ Firepole Marketing still can’t accept that his article is terrible… learn from your mistake and move on dude… I mean wow…
DpDecember 1st, 2011 at 7:38 am
Yes, it’s a terrible, insulting article. I agree with ALL the other comments.
So it goes…
Martyn SchmollDecember 1st, 2011 at 4:42 pm
Now that so much has been written here, I think it’s worth remembering that the worst culprits are not guys like the author of this blog. The ones doing the real damage are the designers who participate in or defend these contests, those who proclaim that crowdsourcing is simply “the (new) way of the world”, who insist that designers are primarily artists (i.e. not capable of understanding the needs of commerce), or those who do it “just for fun”.
Actually, if you want to back up a bit, it’s the design schools who are most to blame. Many design programs focus on teaching the mastery of software instead of providing a well-rounded liberal arts education. Instead of encouraging a wider view of the world with all its issues, teaching problem-solving, and providing a real-world foundation that also includes running an actual business, they produce skilled but short-sighted computer-jockeys that are only too happy to jump on these kinds of projects. It’s a lowest-common-denominator proposition – the schools get their enrollment numbers and the world gets what it (mostly) already expects of designers: window dressers, decorators, and dare I say, service providers.
In the end, the truth is that most of those “designers” really DON’T warrant the kind of regard (or relationships, or compensation) so many here are arguing for. But clients shouldn’t be surprised when their experiences with them are lacking – one could expect the same service let-down from an under-educated or inexperienced architect, engineer, lawyer, doctor, or electrician.
December 1st, 2011 at 5:21 pm
well said Martyn. What you say is true about the schools. SVA in New York is trying to break out a bit by offering a course in designing your own products to then sell and market yourself. But one course in one school is definitely not enough. Best comment so far Martyn. :)
November 2nd, 2012 at 3:57 pm
Yes, I agree that anybody who wants to succeed as a freelancer must communicate. But I don’t agree with staging contest for freelancers, Danny. No top quality freelancer will take a second look at any “contest”. They are too busy with “serious” clients to waste their precious time on contests: There’s NO guarantee that yours will be taken.
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