Design Contests and Spec Work

Design competitions are a common grassroots tactic to encourage involvement from readers, volunteers or supporters. Asking for designs from the public involves them in the creation process. With the advent of the Internet, seeking out designs and allowing online voting is easy and further builds a connection to the product or movement. The side benefit is, of course, cost savings.

Professional design organizations like NoSpec and AIGA warn that design competitions are often a form of spec work. An attempt by a client to get design services without compensating fairly for the work provided. Spec work lessens the value of design because it treats it as a commodity instead of recognizing the time and effort that goes into providing design solutions for business.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of design contests and side with NoSpec and AIGA on the matter. But I also understand the PR side of the argument. Design contests are not going away. (In fact, with the growth of social networking, they are more popular than ever.) But professional organizations have a valid point. Contests are asking for designers to work with no guarantee of compensation and the quality that results from these contests is often subpar.

An Acceptable Framework?

I came across a competition the other day that provides a framework for what I think is an appropriate way to build a competition. When I posted my Polaroid/iPhone article last week, I linked to Save Polaroid, a site dedicated to ensuring that someone continues to manufacture film for Polaroid instant cameras. They have a t-shirt design contest that they have clearly thought through and that I think provides a fabulous structure for when a contest is appropriate.

Its goal is to provide issue awareness. Save Polaroid is a volunteer, grassroots organization. They are using the contest to raise awareness about the importance of instant photography and to advocate for companies to continue to support the industry. I think motivation matters here. Yes they are going to print shirts and yes, they hope that they will see some profit. But the main objective is obviously not profit; it’s engagement and promotion.

Contest is for a one-off design. This contest is for a t-shirt design. To me, in this case, a t-shirt design is a fairly simple thing. It does not require a massive understanding of the industry or strategy. And it will have a limited shelf life and a limited run of less than 100 shirts.

It’s not like a logo for a company. Or a license plate for a state. These things need to designed with a clear understanding of strategy and planning and would be inappropriate for a contest. But in the case of a one-off design, like a t-shirt, I think it can be appropriate.

They provide compensation for the winner(s). It’s not cash, but it is a prize.  The prizes - a Polaroid camera, film, limited edition posters - all reinforce the contest’s connection to the issue.

All rights remain with the creator. All rights to all designs, including the winning design, remain with the creators. Most competitions do not address this, but this is a key issue.

If an artist is going to design something for no or limited compensation, the artist should retain the rights. Many contests do not clearly spell this out. And some require the artist to turn over all rights as a condition of entering - even if they don’t win. In a contest like this, all rights should always remain with the artist. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

Moving Forward…

I think this provides a functional framework for an acceptable design contest - part of grassroots effort to promote an issue, one-off design, appropriate compensation and responsible treatment of artist rights.

And who knows… I may just submit a design or two.

To learn more about the problems with spec work, visit NoSpec and read the official AIGA statement on spec work.