The Dangers of Illustration Competitions

April 17, 2015

If you surfed on in at random hoping for a slew of 2015 illustration competitions to enter, you’ll find a link below which will take you to a whole host of them.

… but don’t scroll to the bottom just yet. First, a few words of caution.

the dangers of illustration competitions

An increasing amount of debate is being held as to whether illustration competitions are worth entering in the first place, with many professionals going so far as to saying they actively damage the industry. On the face of it, they seem like a great way to promote new and established talent; on the other side of the coin, they can be seen to take advantage of – and exploit – the eagerness of new illustrators.

Today, we’ll take an impartial look at both sides of the debate, starting with:

The Case For Illustration Competitions

You’re a student at illustration school, working hard to master all facets of the craft and get ahead of the competition. You may even be at the level that you’re consistently producing excellent work with the skills that you’ve learned and feel that you’re ready to take on paying illustration work.

Question is, how best to get your name out there?

Obviously a website to act as a one-stop shop for your services is important (check out our guide to creating a photography website, since most of the advice is transferable). But drawing attention to it, as well as having some accolades to put on the site in the first place, can be an uphill struggle.

That’s where illustration competitions come in. With only a few hours of your time, you can submit your work to numerous applicable competitions and – fingers crossed – win some, or at least get yourself some recognition on the short list.

2015 illustration competitions

In a nutshell, you stand to gain some useful recognition and whatever prize is up for grabs in exchange for just a little of your time. What could be wrong with that? Isn’t it nice of whoever is curating the illustration competition to give up their own resources to create this opportunity?

The Case Against Illustration Competitions

Detractors of such contests are quick to point out one solid point: your time and work as an illustrator should not be considered valueless, and you’re potentially giving both up – for free – with nothing to gain.

Of course, a freelancer of any profession needs to put in a little bit of unpaid time to get their career rolling, but that’s for their own benefit. It’s ill-advised to devalue yourself in order to further someone else’s agenda. And therein lies the crux: what is the competition actually for?

Before entering any illustration competitions, ask what the ultimate aim is. One of the biggest sticking points is what is known as ‘on-spec work‘ – i.e. carrying out artwork for a company with the hope that you get selected for payment, all under the guise of an ‘illustration competition’.

The Problem With On-Spec Work

Particularly prevalent in logo illustration, a contest holder – usually a business – will run a competition asking illustrators to submit branding designs. Fifty illustrators will make a bespoke logo, and the best one will be chosen (and hopefully paid for). The upshot? Forty-nine people worked for nothing – the company took advantage of fifty people’s expertise, and only paid for one.

on spec work

Even worse, some illustration competitions go on to use all of the work submitted despite only giving ‘prizes’ to a select few.  But there’s a practice that is even worse still, and something you should avoid like a plague:

Big Red Flag: NEVER Pay to Enter Illustration Competitions

Just don’t do it. Plain and simple.

Whereas it’s argued that some companies are unaware of the devaluing nature of on-spec competitions (like the example above) and should be educated by those of us in the field wherever possible, those who charge entry fees are simply out to profit off your unpaid work. Look out for any unspecified ‘admin fees’ associated with entering the competition, and go the other way.

competition fee to enter

$20 might not sound much to you, but five hundred illustrators all paying the same amount represents a lot of cash to the competition runner who nearly always offers nebulous promises of recognition and prizes in return. Even if the entry fees are used to fund a monetary prize pot, this is tantamount to a pyramid scheme.

Further Reading

The organization No!Spec explores all of the ideas touched upon here in greater detail, and offers resources to help keep yourself from being exploited (and as mentioned, a lot of parties offering on-spec work are genuinely unaware of the harm such illustration competitions cause, so feel free to point them in the right direction too.)

The Logo Factory also has further information on contest and crowdsourcing related work, and the pitfalls associated with it.

And finally…

2015 Illustration Competitions

A concise and comprehensive aggregator of 2015 illustration competitions can be found over at Contest Watchers, but you’ll have to comb through them with a skeptical eye now that you’re armed with the above information.

on spec work