Every designer, no matter what specialty, is encouraged to participate in design competitions.  Well meaning people, usually government bodies or other large organizations, dream up these competitions to save themselves money, and to give designers “exposure”.  Because, you know, exposure pays bills.  The winner of the competition will get their work displayed publicly and will usually win a small fee, but every other participant just wasted a whole lot of time creating art they probably can’t ever use again.

Could you imagine asking your accountant or your lawyer to “donate” their time in order to possibly be paid for it?  Of course not, so why are artists still expected to do it?

I remember a number of years ago, the City of Victoria put out a competition for the design of their decorative flags.  They were going to award the winner $1000 and bestow them with the privilege of having their artwork displayed all around town. Being a young and inexperienced designer, I was dazzled by this prospect, and I had all the time in the world to apply.  So I did.  I must have spent ten hours coming up with a design that I believed was truly amazing.  I was then shell-shocked when I didn’t receive that golden-ticket phone call, or any phone call for that matter.

The reality is, my designs were terrible, and so were the ones that finally got put up on flagpoles.  The City had wasted ten hours of my time, and countless hours of other designers’ time so that they could spend $1000 displaying mediocre design.  If twelve designers submitted designs, and each of us had spent ten hours, the City of Victoria just spent $1000 on 120 hours of work.  That’s less than minimum wage!

Design competitions are bad for designers, because they undermine our industry, waste our time, and in my opinion, are an insult to us.  But design competitions are also bad for the organizations who use them.

A really successful designer has no interest participating in a competition.  They are either far too busy with real work, or they just know better than to do work on speculation.  Because of this, the competition holder rarely gets the calibre of design they require.  Instead they get a wide variety of poor to moderately adequate design.

What the City of Victoria should have done instead in the above scenario, is hired and paid a designer properly to create their flags.  This would have cost them more than $1000 though, so if that budget wasn’t negotiable, they could have also gone about it another way. They could have put out the word to local designers that they wanted a new flag design, and that they were willing to pay $1000.  They should have asked designers to submit a portfolio, chosen the winner based on that portfolio, and then guaranteed that person the job.  Many designers, myself included, are happy to design something now and then for a good cause at a reduced rate, especially if we’ll get some recognition for it (read recognition, not exposure) and we know it is being paid for by tax-payer dollars.  It’s called community service.  The City would have wasted far less of their own time choosing the winning design, far less of a multitude of designers’ time creating those wasted designs, and they would have gotten better design. A win-win!

So, fellow designers, the next time you feel inclined to enter a design competition, don’t.  Your time and skills are more valuable than that.  Instead, you should contact the competition organizer and let them know why you won’t be participating.  It’s time we get the word out there.

And if you’re a young designer with a lot of time on your hands hungry for some experience, donate that time to organizations who really need it, like an animal rescue.  You’ll have the benefit of working for someone who will really appreciate you, and you’ll be designing something that will actually get used.