Competing for a Design Job

Client 1:

About a year and a half ago, a friend contacted me about designing a logo for a new organization he was setting up. He was an old friend, but a new client. He went into great detail about what he was looking for. I quoted a price, which he accepted. I asked many questions and began sketching ideas, which I conveyed to him and about which I got feedback. And sent more designs.

Here’s what he didn’t tell me:

  • It wasn’t just him involved in shaping this project, but a committee whose members I didn’t know and wouldn’t be communicating with.
  • There was another designer who was competing against me.

Here’s what bothered me:

  1. He had me working on it without telling me my design was competing with someone else’s.
  2. He intended to pay only the winner.
  3. It wasn’t just my friend who was deciding the winner, but a committee.
  4. I felt like I was shooting in the dark.
  5. I felt misled.

I have to tell you that my friend ended up paying me half the price we originally agreed on–which is what would have happened if he’d been a stranger hiring me–and I withdrew from the competition. I wish now I’d told him more of my business philosophy and why I didn’t do these kinds of competitions. He might not have agreed, but at least he’d have been educated to the issues involved.

Client 2:

About the same time an old friend–and long-time client–contacted me about a multi-page brochure. My friend and I had produced a lot of really good work together, over many years, when I worked for a previous employer. I loved working for this guy. I hadn’t just gotten to know him, but had become increasingly familiar with his business, his jargon, and his target audience. I had been able to do less and less creative for him, though, as the production side of my job grew and eventually overwhelmed the creative side.


He told me up front I’d be competing with another designer. This was a designer whose work I respected and who had become my friend’s go-to guy when I wasn’t available. Only now I was available.

And he told me he was partnering with one of his direct reports on this project.

Let me tell you now that everything would’ve been cool if I’d won. I didn’t, though, and the experience helped clarify a few things about my strengths and vulnerabilities as a designer.

Here’s what bothered me:

  1. I had a long track record of working well with this client and had produced killer work with him.
  2. The strength of our work has always been collaboration. Give and take. Hashing it all out, from concept to details. Not just with the visuals, but with phrases, verbal concepts, and structure.
  3. On this project, I was working with my friend rather than with the person he had delegated to actually make the decision.
  4. I felt like I was shooting in the dark.

Competing for a design job by putting my design up against someone else’s does not play to my strengths. My strong suit is working in close collaboration with my client. My best work is for clients with whom I have a bond, for whom I have both respect and affection, and with whose businesses—and audience—I have a growing familiarity. I am at my best when working with the person who makes the decisions because we literally shape the project together.

I will compete with my portfolio, with conversations, and with client testimonials. But unless there are extremely compelling reasons to compete with spec work (low risk, high reward) and I am working directly with the person/persons making the decision—and we work together—I will pass on the opportunity.

Image Credit: Roller Derby (10) by 4nitsirk, on Flickr


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