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.