How to win more contests

That top prize is up for grabs. And you want it. Learn how to pick the right contests and work better with your clients so you take home the gold.

1. Find the right contests for you

Don’t pick a contest for the prize

Like most things in life, you’ll be more successful with Design Contests when you lean on your strengths. Don’t waste your time chasing prize money. Instead, evaluate your skills to decide the right type of contests to enter. 
 
If you’re not inspired by a brief right off the bat, the contest probably isn’t right for you. A good contest should feel like a challenge you’re excited to work through—not something that leaves you bored.

Determine your strengths

Do you have a specific style? Consider which industries champion your look. Are you a top-notch web designer? Focus your efforts there instead of spreading yourself thin across categories you’re not skilled at. 
 
If you’re still figuring out where your strengths are, test your skills out in a variety of Design Contests and see how you perform. Just don’t let the prize money distract you from what truly suits you.  

Don’t let invitations dictate your contests

Clients can use invitations to recruit better designers to their contest, but they’re never a winning guarantee. While an invite may be flattering, make sure it’s the right type of work for you. If it’s not (or if it isn’t inspiring), just say “thank you” and move along. 
 
You’ll be happier working on something that you believe in—especially if the contest leads to follow-up work.

2. Pick fresh contests with fewer entries

 
As a general rule, you should enter fresh, new Design Contests with low entry numbers. Clients will be more receptive to your ideas, and you’ll have more time to build a relationship with them.  
 
Contests with tons of entries are usually well underway. Typically, the “idea” stage is finished and clients are revising their favorites. Jumping in late means you have a lower chance of being noticed, let alone winning the contest.
 
Of course, there are always exceptions. Maybe you’re the breath of fresh air that client has been waiting for. It never hurts to do a little investigating! Check a contest’s recent entries to see whether any high-rated designers are submitting multiple iterations of their design. If so, they’re most likely refining their work and it will be hard to attract the client’s attention. If it doesn’t look like a client has found a preference yet, you’ll have a better shot.    

3. Read the brief… and then read it again

Found a Design Contest you like? The brief will be your blueprint for what the client wants. Pay close attention to the client’s industry, target audience and style preference. Nothing impresses a client more than proving you’ve done your research—and a quick Google search can go a long way.  
 
Don’t be afraid to ask questions before jumping in. If important specifications (e.g. color preference, style or final design location) aren’t specifically stated in the brief, ask and clarify. These prompts can both build your relationship with the client and set you up for success.

4. Differentiate your designs

 
If a client favors a contest submission early on, it’s tempting for other designers to create something similar. We see it all the time. What these copycat designers don’t realize is that they’re reinforcing that first design for the client (and will most likely score a lower rating because of it). 
 
If you’re seeing a lot of similar designs come through, it can be a good strategy to differentiate yourself from the masses. Wait for the first 10-15 entries to come through, analyze the client’s preferences and take a risk by going bolder. This can mean trying a new direction other designers haven’t tackled yet or ignoring a part of the brief to create something that truly stands out.  
 
For example, if everyone’s creating wordmarks, try an emblem instead. If all the logos are in hues of blue, make yours warm. If all the entries are very corporate and traditional, try something more playful.

5. Explain your work

Effective and clear communication is always a winning strategy. While certain choices may seem obvious to you, make sure the client understands the full context of your design.  
 
Including a solid description of your concept and an explanation of your design choices can elevate your work immensely—especially if there’s some subtlety or nuance that might be missed at first glance.

6. Do rapid prototyping

How many times have you seen a low quality design earn a high rating or take the prize? The reality is that most clients don’t have a critical eye for design. While your focus may be on subtle gradients and delicate linework, the client’s looking for a strong concept. That’s why speed is often better than perfection—at least in the early stages of a contest.  
 
That’s where rapid prototyping comes into play. When you first join a contest, try building a series of quick test concepts to get feedback from clients early on. See which design is most favorable and improve upon it based on the client’s feedback. 
 
There’s nothing worse than spending hours on a design and then realizing you completely missed the mark. Prototype first and polish last!

7. Know when to quit

This is one of the most important lessons—and the hardest to learn. We’re all taught to persevere and that quitting is for losers. But to win Design Contests, you need to know when to cut your losses.  
 
Imagine participating in a contest that isn’t going well for you. You persist and eventually get a three or four star rating. There are other designers doing better than you, but now that you have good ratings you really don’t want to give up. You put all your time and energy into the contest only to be disappointed when a different designer wins the prize. That’s hours of time invested and no wins. 
 
Now, imagine that you’re doing poorly in a contest and quit immediately to enter two new contests. One goes poorly, but the other one you win with limited effort. You’ve put in the same amount of time, but you now have a win under your belt.  
 
See the difference? Don’t feel bad about quitting. In fact, you’ll be happy you did!