How hard could it be to design a flag?

It's always a good idea to have a design competition, right?

I love my city. Columbia, South Carolina is a great place to live and I’m excited about the future of the city and the direction of the community. In fact, I have another blog completely dedicated to what’s coming to Columbia. I’m always talking up Columbia to anyone who will listen.

Which is why I was really disheartened to read in the Free-Times that the City of Columbia, One Columbia and the Columbia Design League are holding a design contest for a new city flag.

I think we can all agree that the City of Columbia’s flag is utterly awful and needs to be replaced.

But why in the world would you opt for a design contest instead of hiring a talented local firm to work with you in a collaborative manner. 

My two cents:

This is pretty much spec work. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of spec work, you should check out AIGA’s Statement on Spec Work or an organization like No!Spec. Basically, Columbia is trying to get a bunch of people to design a range of concepts for free and then pick the best. Maybe you pay the winner an award, but everyone else contributed their services for free.

Is this really how you are going to get the best result? Absolutely not. Hire a quality firm that understands the city and work with them to evaluate options. Talk through the how the flag needs to be used. How does it fit into the city’s overall branding? If you are just trying to pick something pretty, an art contest is fine. But this can be so much more than a pretty rectangle.

Do design contests ever work for something like this? Seriously, I can’t think of a single time this has worked out. We’re just now getting rid of the Clemson orange and purple license plates that the DMV selected in a design competition in 2008. Across the world, the track record isn’t good for government-sponsored design competitions. It didn't work out for Columbia, Missouri, either.

Who retains the rights? You can make this less offensive by allowing the creators to retain the rights to their artwork, even for the winning design. (The submission site isn't up yet so we don't know what the guidelines are.) I'm actually not 100% against design competitions. In 2008, I wrote a post about a Save Polaroid contest and was really impressed with how they structured the contest to respect the creators. But a flag for a large city isn't a low volume t-shirt for a cash strapped not-for-profit.

Remember that article in the Free-Times from last week? The one that said that Columbia was a great place to live, but lags in workforce talent compared to other cities in the region. Just a thought… having your arts organizations host a spec work design competition isn’t exactly the best way to show talent that they are valued in this town.

The flag expert handout is awesome. In the article, they mention using a Good Flag, Bad Flag handout and a guide. I saw it a few years ago and it’s awesome. But I missed the part where it advocates using a design competition as the way to generate a good design. In fact, I’ll bet some of those bad flags were developed as part of design competitions.

I really respect all the organizations involved. The Columbia Design League (which is an affiliate of the amazing Columbia Museum of Art), One Columbia, the City of Columbia all do great things for this city. I know and respect many of these people. And I think that’s why I’m so taken aback. I’m so surprised that no one involved suggested another approach.

I’m going to voice my concerns, but I’ll be honest, I don’t expect them to reverse course. I’m sure they will find something that their committee will be happy with. Let's be honest, anything is an improvement over the current flag. The process is basically free for them. City council will have the winning sixth grader come to a council meeting and will present a flag to them. They’ll get a few seconds of coverage on WIS and an article in The State. And some positive PR is really all they want, anyway.

But it’s a missed opportunity. A chance to partner with a local firm and do something awesome and appropriate for our city. A chance to show the community and the region our commitment to creative excellence.

It also serves as a reminder to all of us in the design community that we still need to stand up against spec work and advocate within our organizations and institutions that collaborative partnerships generate the best solutions.

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 defends the design industry. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.