Words for Winners: 6 contest winning strategies

Peter Vukovic

We want everyone to find success on 99designs. That’s why we started putting together our Words for Winners series. For this segment, we’ll be talking about 5 proven contest winning strategies for designers that should get you to the top.

This article will discuss how to best familiarize yourself with the contest, capture the contest holder’s attention, better understand the contest holder’s needs, and know when to cut your losses.

1. Start with the basics

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Photo by Nathanael Coyne (Flickr)

The basic strategies are pretty straightforward but 50% of designers miss their chance to win by not following these basic rules.

Read the brief… again

The brief is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of any design contest. It’s crucial to read the brief before you start designing and whenever you’re stuck. Why? Because it’s a blueprint for what the client needs or wants.

Be a good detective

Some clients don’t incorporate a lot of information into their briefs. It’s your job to research their industry and competition by using resources like Google. This will give you insight beyond what the brief provided, so use it to your advantage.

Read public comments

Public comments are pure gold – this is where clients comment on the design submissions they like or dislike. Read them immediately after studying the brief.

Explain your submissions

Never submit a design without a solid description of your main idea and design decisions. Although good design should be self-explanatory, sometimes clients need a mental push. Being an effective communicator will also tell the client he/she is dealing with someone professional and approachable.

Be polite

No explanation necessary.

2. Claim the territory

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Being first is sometimes more important than being better. That’s why you need to enter contests early. Photo by Sippanont Samchai (via Flickr)

This technique works the best in open design contests, but works in blind contests too.

The objective is to be the first designer to enter the contest and get a high rating for one of your designs (4 or 5 stars). Since you are first and you are good, the client gets psychologically attached to your design and uses it as a measuring instrument for all designs in the contest. This dramatically increases your chances of winning.

If the contest is open, other designers will inevitably try to copy your work or give it a new spin, in hopes of getting good ratings too. This works in your favor — seeing copycats of your design only reinforces the client’s decision to stick with the original design you’ve created. After all, if they’re copying you, they’re confirming the quality of your work.

Claim the territory and never worry about copycats — report them to 99designs.

3. Differentiate

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Differentiation is about making yourself seen. You have to be bold, daring and positive. Photo by stereotyp-0815 (via Flickr)

Break the trend of similar or copycat designs with a completely fresh approach. It works only in open (non-blind) design contests because you have to see what other designers are doing.

The idea is to enter the contest after the first 10-15 entries, so you get a clear picture of how designers think and what the client prefers. In most cases, you will see one or two original designs rated well and a bunch of copycats with lower ratings.

Your next step is somewhat challenging, but often very rewarding – you need to be bold and deliberately ignore certain parts of the brief in order to produce designs which truly stand out.

For example, if everybody is doing a letter-based logo, try making one which looks like an emblem. If everybody is sticking to cold colors, try combining them with with warm ones, even though the brief doesn’t say so. If everybody is being very serious, try throwing in some fun.

The client needs a fresh take on his project so it’s important to be original and add value to the contest. However, be careful that you don’t ignore the brief entirely so that you aren’t rated low or eliminated. Walk on the edge of the brief but don’t fall outside of it.

4. Rapid prototyping

These designs are all different and took less than hour to develop. They won’t win a perfectionist award but they will show which style the client prefers.

Have you spent hours designing an entry for a contest, only to understand you were completely off-target and that you have no idea what the client is actually looking for?

This is where rapid prototyping comes in. Basically, it’s a product-design philosophy which says you shouldn’t spend too much time on product details at the beginning, but instead focus on building a quick test version, or several test versions. You use these test versions to get initial feedback from clients, then improve based on the feedback you get.

The key benefit of this approach is increased effectiveness – you quickly see what works and what doesn’t, instead of spending a lot of time polishing something which might not work at all.

Here is how to apply this in practice:

  • Create three to four “test” designs for a contest, each being very different in style. Remember, you shouldn’t polish too much because you’re doing this to “test” the client’s taste
  • Submit all designs at once and see which one gets most favorable feedback
  • Polish and improve based on what you hear

If you are a medium-level designer, this strategy should result in one or two of your designs being rated very well. After that, you know exactly what you need to do and you just saved yourself hours of work.

5. Resist perfection

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“Done is better than perfect” is a popular adage among top performers. We agree. Photo: Hometown Beauty (via Flickr)

Being able to design something solid and get it in front of client’s eyes quickly is much better than being able to design something fantastic which takes days. Unfortunately, most clients won’t notice subtle gradients, elegant bevels, drop shadows and delicate transparencies – instead, they look at the design from the bird’s eye view, deliberating whether it’s something which works for them or not.

For example, how many times have you seen a design of poor technical and aesthetic quality get a pretty good rating? I see it every day and though this never ceases to surprise me, I completely understand why it happens. Simply put, clients do not have designer’s eyes; what we find important and crucial, they often find trivial and irrelevant. Compare this to books – while styling and grammar are important, they are just a decoration to the story. If the story isn’t working for us, there is no amount of decoration that is going to fix it.

You should be aware of this in your designs. Most clients do not care about decoration, nor should you. Submit your designs early, get feedback early, win. You can always polish later.

6. Quit when you need to

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Quitting doesn’t mean losing – you’re just taking a different route to victory. Photo by Life of Pix

This is one of the most important winning techniques and the hardest to learn.

For our entire lives, we hear that quitting is for losers. If we were superheroes, this would be totally right. But we’re not – we need to quit certain situations and actions in order to survive.

But why is quitting so important for design contests?

Imagine this scenario: you’re in a contest that started out poorly for you. You decide to fight it and manage to get three or four star ratings after hours and hours of work. There are other designers who are doing better than you but you don’t want to quit, especially now that you have good ratings. So you focus all of your energy on this contest trying to win it, only to end up disappointed, seeing somebody else got the prize with half the effort.

Total time invested: 20 hours. Total wins: 0

Now imagine a different story. You’re in a contest that started out poorly for you but you decided to quit it immediately and enter two new contests. One of these contests went poorly for you but you won the other one with virtually no effort.

Total time invested: 20 hours. Total wins: 1

I hope I’m getting my point across – if the contest isn’t working out in your favor, quit it immediately. There’s nothing to gain by trying to prove yourself to clients or other designers out there because design contests are not about being persistent, they are about being capable to deliver what the client wants to see.

Quit often, and without regrets. You’ll be happy you did.

Next up: Marketing tips to boost your design business

Cover photo: miridi

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