It’s been showing up in my Twitter feeds for some time now. Design contests are destroying the market for design! Contest sites like are watering down the market price for design to almost nothing!  And the current culprit: a design competition sponsored by the Canadian Government.

I think it might be time to toss my $0.02 into the debate.

The Current Situation.

Designers tend to get pretty nervous around spec work. Basically, it all boils down to lots and lots of design work with very little, if any, payoff. Design contests tend to fall into this category.

I’ve been a designer for a long, long time. Long before crowdsourced contest sites like 99designs were around. And it was the same then as it is now. People do not like paying for creative work. The reasons for that is another blog post entirely. And I’ve already blogged about what I think contest sites could do to make things more reasonable. And while I have certainly been burned by regular design contests in the past (*cough* Pan Am Games *cough*), I feel they happen too infrequently to be the big bad everyone says they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with this stance on no spec work in theory, I just have a problem with how leaders in the design community seem to want to implement it in practice. Especially when it comes to contests.

Organizations such as the GDC here in Canada go to great lengths to make their ideas about spec work known to both designers in the industry and the public at large. If you don’t believe me, see their latest petition to shut down a national contest for a logo design. And it is here where my beef begins.

Waving your hands and telling people “NO!” doesn’t work, even if you have strong evidence to support your position. It doesn’t work with my two year old son, and it doesn’t work with the public at large. Besides, for non-designers, designing is fun. I find that non-designers (especially those with very boring or mundane jobs) get pretty excited when they are suddenly thrown into the thick of a design project. Even projects that aren’t going very well. Telling lay-people they can’t participate directly in the design process makes us seem snobbish. Even if we are probably right.

There has to be a better way.

What Can We Do About It?

In attacking this new design contest, a post by Stuart Ash, AGI, FGDC, talks about a previous design contest run by the Canadian Government way back in the 1960s
. I think the writer of the article gives us the answer. This excerpt talks about the creative brief that was made after the contest failed to produce results:

The very first step in the process of design development was the creation of the strategic brief, written by us and approved by the Centennial Commission (the “client”). This document proved invaluable as it identified in detail the strategic requirements, the elements that would be appropriate and epitomized Canada, and that the symbol could include a maple leaf and 11 elements representing the ten provinces and the Northwest Territories or other elements such as beavers or Mounties. The brief specified that the symbol was to be celebratory, easily applied, and for it to be appropriate for school children to easily construct it. This brief formed the basis of the creative design explorations conducted by the creative staff of the two offices — the resident designers at Paul Arthur & Associates at the time being Gerhard Doerrie, Fritz Gottschalk with Anthony Mann and myself from Cooper & Beatty.

Had the contest from the 1960s put forth a proper brief explaining the goals and constraints for the logo, would they have gotten better results from the contest? Maybe. It never happened that way so we will never know for sure. But I have worked on projects where proper briefs were made, and ones where they were not. Usually, where briefs were not made, projects tend to languish and take a very long time to get proper results. When briefs are made, things tend to run a lot smoother.

Helping guide your clients at the beginning of a project where you sort out the creative brief is where you want to be as a designer. The closer you get upstream in the decision making process, the better. This is also the best place for non-designers and designers to interact (hint, hint).

That’s Great for General Design Work But What About Contests?

I have never run a design contest, but I would imagine organizations run them to get the general public interested in taking part in some sort of public work in a fun way. And to get lots of design ideas for little cost. That last one is tough, but the first one is easy to tackle.

In the case of a government wanting a fun logo for a public event, perhaps open a contest to the public where people write a short essay or story on a related topic. The content of the essay winners would help define the Creative Brief. The brief would then be used to create the new logo. That way everybody wins. The public is involved and the designers still get to do their job.

There could even be another contest in this. It isn’t all that unusual for designers to present more than one fleshed out concept of a logo for final selection. You could have the public vote on the final design. Having a process where people cannot take a little bit of design A and little bit of design B to create a Frankendesign would be a big bonus. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen good logo designs get destroyed by these Frankendesigns. Forcing people to choose one or the other sounds kind of refreshing. See, contests can be our friend.

Final Thoughts.

Croudsourcing may be troubling in its current form, but I do not think it is the demon we’ve made it out to be. And trying to stop contests with petitions just makes us out to be killjoys, or worse. The more we can educate the general public about the need for great design and how to properly use designers, the better off we will be. But it has to be done the right way. Crowdsourcing, contests, and human behaviour are not going to disappear. Rather than fight it, designers should be trying to encourage behaviours that benefits both designers and buyers of design while embracing new (or not so new) realities.

And Why None of This Matters.

Even if the Government of Canada backed down from this contest and hired an agency where all the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, you know what the design community would do instead? Bitch about the logo. Enjoy. Or not.

Edit: The contest written about in this blog post has now finished and a winner selected. You can read about it here. While not a huge fan of the logo, some of the bile and vitriol I have read from the design community regarding this logo is underserving. Remember folks, this was open to students. And while I can understand the emotions over this issue, I know my early logos wouldn’t survive much criticism. And I would imagine the same could be said of my peers. Lets keep the “designer attitude” in check if we ever want a mutually beneficial resolution.