How should designers respond to design contests?

Be respectful, but be direct.

The third post in my ongoing series on spec work and design contests.

So when faced with a design contest, how should designers respond. I’ve been thinking about this recently as I watch the slow unveiling of the horribly misguided Columbia Flag Design Competition. So here’s what I think...

Be an advocate. When you see a design competition, speak up. Every design competition is an opportunity to educate the community about how powerful the design process can be when it’s done properly. Share the AIGA position on spec work. Remind the organizers that a contest very rarely results in a successful design. Use our voices on social media to let the organizers know design has value. Be respectful, but be direct: Design competitions are never a good idea.

It’s not about the money. Remember that the primary objection to design contests is about respecting the creative process. That doesn’t always involve spending big bucks on a design firm. Designers and agencies will often donate services or discount their rate for something they believe in. But even if these firms work for free, they will still follow a creative process that involves identifying — and solving — creative problems.

Talk to young designers. Design competitions often prey on young designers (and students) who don’t understand that they aren’t being fairly compensated for their work. They’ll be told that it will be great for their portfolios. Or it will open doors for them. It’s up to us to teach young designers about their creative rights and educate them about spec work.

Don’t participate. This seems pretty straightforward, but one way to stop design competitions is not to participate. And encourage other designers to avoid competitions, too. A design competition relies on participation. And sadly, many designers don’t realize that they are being manipulated to work for free.

Respect other creative professions. One way designers can fight spec work is to support the rights of creatives in other professions. Designers need to support the rights of photographers, illustrators and writers whenever they can. Design competitions aren’t the only place that businesses and organizations are undermining the value of creative work.

Don’t be counter productive. As tempting as it is to flood the contest with joke entries, don’t. Don’t harass people on social media or in person. No need to boycott anything. Remember that you can stand for something without putting other people down. A design competition is an opportunity to educate the community on what design can be. It's our job to take advantage of that opportunity.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he is writing more blog posts. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

What I love about Draplin...

This man loves to create.

I saw Aaron Draplin for the fourth time on Thursday night when he came to the Half and Half in Columbia. Over the last years 15 years or so, between CCAS, AIGA South Carolina and Converge SE, we’ve had a bunch of awesome designers come through Columbia… DJ Stout, David Carson, Chip Kidd, James Victore, Seymour Chwast, Michael Beirut, Sean Adams, Sagmeister… and that’s a really incomplete, partial list. 

But Draplin is one of my favorites. 

What I love about Draplin is how much he loves to make things. Other designers are passionate about solving business problems. Or challenging convention. Or tackling large international clients. But Draplin loves to create things. Sure, he solves problems for clients, he challenges conventional thinking, he has some large international clients. But the thing that really seems to drive Draplin is putting things out into the world, which I really do feel makes him unique among the big names in design.

(It's also the reason why Draplin's work is known beyond the design world. Field Notes is loved by people all over the world and they love Draplin, too.)

If he comes to a town near you, see him. You won't be disappointed.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he attends lectures. (Because he is so much fun.) Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

Martin Luther, content strategist

95 reasons to reform the church!
(#15 changes everything!)

Almost 500 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg in Germany. This act, intended to provoke discussion and debate, sparked the Reformation and fragmented the Christian church.

Over the next few decades, Luther spread his message through a variety of methods, taking advantage of the latest technology, the printing press. He wrote letters, books and sermons. He translated the bible into German to better reach his target audience. He created devotional materials for families. He composed hymns to reach the masses. He gathered his followers together to have discussions which they then shared with other Protestant reformers. His message of reform spread though Europe, inspired followers and provoked discussion.

Martin Luther was the first content strategist.

It’s not hard to imagine Luther using today’s technology to spread his carefully crafted content. Tweeting to his followers.* Retweeting fellow reformers. People live tweeting his sermons. Blogging on the latest topics. Sharing posts on Facebook — “95 reasons to reform the church! #15 changes everything!” Putting music and videos on YouTube. Authoring free ebooks. Sending email newsletters. Podcasting.

Martin Luther used content to change the world — almost five centuries before the creation of the internet. And his lasting impact, 499 years later, is a testament to the power and longevity of powerful and effective messaging.

* I can imagine Martin Luther complaining about how hard it is to get verified on Twitter. 


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he geeks out about all things historical. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

How to get quality images and logos from clients

Just copy, paste and send.

I constantly struggle with getting high quality images from clients to use in printed materials. Typically, my struggles fall into one of two issues:

  1. Poor image quality. Images that are too small, edited or color corrected poorly.
  2. Vector files. Clients don't understand what a vector file is and why you need it.

I was tired of explaining it repeatedly so I started writing some standard text that I can copy and paste when I need to explain these concepts to clients and partners. As I worked on them, I realized that other designers could benefit to having a copy of these explanations.

Request high quality Images

Most designers try to explain image size with resolution, file type or file size. This goes completely over the head of most users. Now that most digital cameras — including phone cameras — generate appropriately large images, we can just ask for the original, unedited image. We also need to make sure they understand that they can't just grab the files off of Facebook or Instagram.

Next time you need an image from someone, try this explanation:

In order to make sure your image looks its best, please provide us with the highest quality image you have. This should be the file that comes directly off your camera or phone. Do not edit or crop the image. Images downloaded from Facebook or Instagram will not reproduce well. The file will likely be a JPG or PNG file.

Getting Vector files

Vector files are tougher. The concept is foreign to most users who don't understand the difference between vector and bitmap. Here, I think the best bet is to educate them that a vector file is a special file format and try to steer them to the designer or communications department.

Most of the time, when I need a vector file, it's a logo. So I wrote several versions of my vector explanation. The first version is specifically for logos:

In order to ensure your logo will look great, we require a vector version of your logo. A vector file is a special type of image file typically created with Adobe Illustrator that can scale to various sizes while maintaining quality. A vector logo is typically saved as an EPS file. Note that JPG or PNG files are bitmap files and cannot be vector files. Vector files are typically provided by the designer or company that created your logo.

A second version of this copy can be used when you are working with a non-designer in a larger company that has a dedicated communications team:

In order to ensure your logo will look great, we require a vector version of your logo. A vector file is a special type of image file typically created with Adobe Illustrator that can scale to various sizes while maintaining quality. A vector logo is typically saved as an EPS file. Note that JPG or PNG files are bitmap files and cannot be vector files. You can typically get a vector version of your logo from your communications department.

Sometimes, I need vector artwork for other projects. So I wrote a third version that is a little more generic.

In order to ensure your artwork will look great, we require a vector version of your design. A vector file is a special type of image file that can scale to various sizes while maintaining quality. Vector artwork is typically saved as an EPS file or a PDF. Note that JPG or PNG files cannot be vector files.

Copy and paste!

Feel free to use these descriptions next time you are requesting artwork. Hopefully they will help you get the files you need and save you time. 

I've started a page in the resources section for these (and possibly future) copy and paste snippets. I'm already thinking about snippets to explain font issues and IMDL files.

Please let me know how they work for you. Based on feedback, I may refine and update them. Reach out on Twitter (@sketchbookb) and let me know what you think.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he looks for ways to be more efficient. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

Early to rise

Maybe the most effective way to get work done at night is to go to bed early.

The other night, I had a bunch of projects I needed to work on after I got home. This is always challenging for me, because I need — and want — to spend quality time with the kids and my wife. 

The college version of me would just stay up all night.* The 40+ year old version of me isn’t as good at that anymore.

So when I have a bunch of work to do, I go to sleep early.

The sun isn't up yet.

When our first child, Norah, was born over a decade ago, I would often wake up when my wife woke up to feed her. Our oldest did not sleep very well. It was helpful for me to be awake to get my wife a glass of water or, honestly, just provide emotional support. It was seriously a rough couple of months.**

For several months, in the wee hours of the morning, I would work in my office, next door to the nursery while my wife fed our infant daughter. Surprisingly, I got a lot of work done in the middle of the night and early morning.

Thankfully, after six months or so, Norah started to sleep through the night and we went back to our normal sleeping habits. But I never forgot that I could be really productive in the early morning.

So I developed a new procedure for working on significant projects at home. When I really need to dedicate a couple of hours to a project, I go to sleep right after the kids do. I’m in bed by 9 p.m. 

Then, I wake up at 3 a.m.*** After 6 hours of sleep, I’m not mentally exhausted from the day I just had. And I find that the two and a half hours before the family wakes up is some of the most creative time I have during a day.

I’m more productive, too. If I stay up late, I often stay up until 1 a.m. working, but then often can’t go to sleep right away. My brain is in overdrive and I stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours. I end up getting less done and only get 3-4 hours of sleep. 

I blame the industrial revolution

As a quick aside, research suggests that this early morning creative period is something that humans developed with the advent of electric powered lights and that the continuous 8-hour night of sleep is a modern invention. So maybe there is a scientific reason for my insanely early morning productivity. Or maybe not...

Set your alarm

I don’t do this every night. But when I’ve got personal projects that I really want to work on, it’s better for me than staying up all night. 

There are drawbacks to my early morning approach. Sometimes, the alarm doesn’t go off. Or you need a larger chunk of time than you planned for. Sometimes you finish quickly and try to go back to sleep, which doesn’t always work so well. And trust me, if you send a bunch of emails at 3 a.m., people will think you are crazy.

But next time you’ve got a chunk of design work to do and you need uninterrupted time, go to bed and give waking up early a shot. 


* In college, I didn’t sleep that much.
** Thankfully, our other two were much more consistent in their sleep patterns.

*** And as an FYI, television at 3 am is really bad. Procrastination is that much harder…


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he writes wakes up at weird hours of the morning and works on personal projects. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

ASAP: The lowest priority

Real jobs have deadlines.

As a designer, I hear "As Soon As Possible" an awful lot. Most people are shocked to learn that ASAP is actually my lowest priority. Jobs with concrete deadlines are always in line ahead of jobs with no real deadline.

Understanding why the client needs something ASAP is the first step in understanding whether you are dealing with a crisis or a "crisis." There are a couple of reasons why clients avoid giving you a real deadline:

When can you get it to me? If the client is asking you to set a deadline, the project probably doesn't have a firm due date. It likely needs to be done quickly, but they don't want to look stupid and throw out a date that is impossible. Or they are hesitant to suggest a date that is too far out in the future. So they throw it back to you. In that case, sit down and start developing a schedule that works for everyone. If they need it faster, they'll let you know in the process of setting the timeline.

Everything is a rush! For some clients, everything is a rush. Every email is marked high priority. So don't overreact and rush into the project. Ask for a specific timeline. This is client's normal operating procedure so stick to yours. If it's a real rush, they will tell you.

It's going to take forever! Some clients have no idea how long a project is going to take. So they are anxious to get started. Asking for a deadline will diagnose that immediately. I once had a client call in a panic and rushed over to meet them only to find out that we had four months to complete a simple poster series. Crisis averted.

My boss wants it now! Sometimes, the client is panicked because their boss is on their back. They may not even know when the project is really needed. Work with them to set a schedule to share with their manager. Have them confirm the schedule will meet the manager's needs and get back to you. 99% of the time, the manager will be fine with the schedule.

I need it yesterday! Some clients ask for the world. And the ability to travel back in time. Setting a timeline is important here, but so are problem solving skills. I've seen clients ask for 50,000 brochures on a very short turn, only to find out it was because they needed 1,000 for a trade show. (We ran the 1,000. Then ran the larger print run later.) The clients are typically panicked and aren't thinking straight. By focusing on the timeline, you can help them figure out what they really need and give them the best solution for their problem.

Sometimes, the client really is asking for the impossible. Tell them. But here's the key, after you tell them that you can't meet their deadline, tell them what you can do for them.

Oops! Sometimes the client makes a mistake and forgets to make a request or communicate a deadline. And this is where you can play the hero. Set a timeline for how to get them what they need and do your best to help them out. 

Designers drop the ball sometimes, too. If it's your fault, apologize and own the mistake. Then, move heaven and earth to make it right.

In every single one of these scenarios, communication is key. Be up front about the schedule, challenges and costs. Remember that the client is often under a lot of pressure and may not be thinking straight. Most importantly, don't take the ASAP request personally. Just view it as what it is... an opportunity to save the day and build a better relationship with your client.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he writes blog posts and then refines them for over three years before publishing them. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

Using an iPad again

In December, I pondered my mobile computing options. Do I move toward the iPad or MacBook for my mobile option? A couple of months after I posted that article, my wife mentioned that her iPad Air 2 wasn't working for her. We foolishly got her 16 GB of storage and she really wanted to use her iPad in her classroom for video. Plus, she really preferred the iPad Mini form factor over the iPad Air. So we bought her a new iPad Mini and I took her iPad Air 2.

I love the iPad as my mobile option.

My iPad is pretty much exclusively for writing. I won't be taking videos or storing pictures on my iPad so the 16 GB limitation isn't really a problem for how I'm using it. (That said, don't ever buy an iPad with only 16 GB of storage. It's massively limiting.)

I really like the 9.7-inch form factor. Much better for me than the Mini I had previously used. It weighs less than my laptop and I can use the same lightning charger that I use for my iPhone. (Not that I really ever need the charger on the road... The battery lasts for an insanely long time.)

But the real reason I love my iPad? Ulysses. My favorite writing app for the Mac is also on iPad and it's perfect. The syncing between my Macs, my iPhone and my iPad means that I can write or edit anywhere, on any device. It's amazing how a single great app can completely change the way I use my iPad.

I don't see going back to a Mac for my mobile device.* While this iPad will work for the foreseeable future, the new 9.7 inch iPad Pro looks like a perfect machine for me. I'm intrigued by the Apple Pencil and the keyboard cover. I don't mind typing on the screen, but I'm much faster and more accurate on a physical keyboard. 

Hopefully, Apple will continue to improve the hardware and developers will create pro caliber apps that take advantage of iOS ecosystem.


* Although, let's be realistic. I'm probably going to want one of the rumored MacBook Pros when they are finally released.