The ethics of design competitions are up for debate | By Saundra Marcel

Competition Conundrum

Competition. It is a natural sorter; you would think that after jury, those remaining at the top of the heap are undoubtedly the best of the best. It is a discoverer of talent; you would think that with a democratic playing field, a youthful entrant has as equal a chance as an experienced one. And it applies pressure; going head-to-head brings out a Darwinian desire to win, more effort is applied, and the outcome can often be even more progressive, more innovative, than it would have been without that competitive function.

However, when administered to subjective and sometimes intangible creative fields, these tenets become muddled. Ask a professional designer what they think about design competitions, and you're just as likely to see them enumerate their own lengthy list of awards as to spout smoke and sound off.

The varying shades of gray and disagreement amongst design professionals--particularly architects and graphic designers--doesn't lay forth crystal clear criteria for "good" versus "bad" competitions. Where contests are weighted on the scales of fairness depend a lot on additional modifiers: youth opposed to experience, the desire for accolades and portfolio-building, and of course, motivation and money. We're not talking prize dollars, but motivation for profit. When you expose the inner workings of these contests, who are the real winners?

Architects tend to find design competitions to be integrally linked to opportunity. Debate amongst building-makers on the topic are about equal chances, transparency, and fair judging. The amount of hours and creative output required for the contest is typically "worth it" for a possible commission of momentous, often career-changing potential. Design competitions are held to select architects for very important projects like national memorials, cultural institutions, and for big-money buildings. Upon conclusion, the real hard work begins, as major parties come together to transform a concept into a physical reality. The initial investment is relatively small. The reward is very high.

Graphic designers, on the other hand, tend to find design competitions to be insulting. Cries from visual communicators on the topic are about ethics, value, and worth. Nearly 100% of the time, the hours and creative output required for the contest must be invested up front in order for the judges to judge, and in most cases, the contest is the commission. Design competitions are held to select work for any number of assignments from small to big, and for sponsors from never-before-heard-of to high-profile, but in every case, the project has little life past the point in which the winner is deemed. Upon conclusion, the real hard work has already been done. A dollar value is bestowed upon one of droves of fully fleshed-out concepts, and everyone walks away, some happy, many not. The initial investment is everything. The reward is debatable.

Michael Arad, Architect
Winner -- 9/11 Memorial Design Competition

The emotionally-charged 9/11 Memorial was left to imagination until a competition was held in 2003 to select one extraordinary designer who could translate such rawness into a physicality. There is no question that a memorial was absolutely necessary; for the hearts and minds of every American, for loved ones and survivors, and for a record of posterity equal to the magnanimity of the event which will survive into future generations. It was the brave decision of a committee to design a competition to select such a person. Any one part of the process in such high profile could undoubtedly have had dissenters, but it was painstakingly crafted to be fair and democratic. It would be open to all. The entrants would be anonymous. The jury would be meticulously chosen. They would spend hundreds of hours reviewing submissions. The road to final selection was arduous, heated, long, and incredibly difficult. It was the largest global design competition in history.

Michael Arad's concept called Reflecting Absence was chosen as the winning design. Arad's design was carefully selected out of 5,201 entries submitted from six continents, 63 nations, and 49 states. The esteemed jury selected eight finalists, and the eight became three, the three became one. That one became two great voids in the ground of Lower Manhattan, a memorial of symbolic cascades of water into perpetuity, which have thus far generated resounding praise.

It's difficult to make a contest like this fair, while at the same time protecting its integrity by keeping it from the prying eyes of press and outside critics. "Even as a finalist, we didn't know we were the final eight," says Arad. "They brought us to the site in groups of four, so you could speculate how many groups there might be." All eight finalists got a month and a budget to further develop their ideas, and at this time began a phase of demanding questioning which lasted even longer. There was constant communication--a barrage of e-mails, presentations, and meetings between inquiring jury members and the finalists. Arad did not mind. "I've sat on juries where you had to make a decision that day, in the next few hours. This one was judged with integrity."

For Arad, winning the competition had an unintended consequence--notoriety. He was an unknown architect who emerged almost abruptly from obscurity to become nationally and historically recognized. Unintended because, living in New York City at the time, Arad's design was actually born out of catharsis in the days immediately following 9/11, before there was even a competition to consider.

Interboro Partners
Winner -- MoMA PS1 2011 Young Architects Program

The MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program is an annual design competition held as an outlet for emerging architects to explore innovative ideas and new techniques. The assignment is to re-imagine a courtyard space at the Queens, New York branch of the Museum of Modern Art. The reward is international recognition and resources to execute their concept--four months and a $90,000 budget, inclusive of a fee.

Michael Arad's concept called Reflecting Absence was chosen as the winning design. Arad's design was carefully selected out of 5,201 entries submitted from six continents, 63 nations, and 49 states. The esteemed jury selected eight finalists, and the eight became three, the three became one. That one became two great voids in the ground of Lower Manhattan, a memorial of symbolic cascades of water into perpetuity, which have thus far generated resounding praise.

Last year's winning installation called Holding Pattern was created by Interboro Partners, an experimental architecture and urban design firm led by Tobias Armborst, Daniel D'Oca, and Georgeen Theodore. A canopy of ropes was strung across the courtyard area, below which were an eclectic array of seemingly unconnected objects--mirrors, ping-pong tables, lights, benches and chairs--all to be later donated to local business and institutions in the community who had asked for such items. To win, and even just to be nominated, is a big deal. The honor signifies something of a step-up into the big leagues. "It's just about the most important competition for young architects now, worldwide. When we got the call we were absolutely thrilled, it's a tremendous honor," says Theodore.

However, this is not an open competition for anyone to enter. The selection process is actually a bit mysterious, where firms have to be invited to participate. The "call" that Theodore refers to is the phone call in which they were informed that they could submit a portfolio for consideration, along with 24 other candidates who were pre-judged to be worthy of attention. When pressed, Interboro Partners conceded that it wasn't completely out-of-the-blue--given other notable competitions they had won, they had an inkling that this prestigious invite was likely in their trajectory. From 25 portfolios, a jury then casts five finalists to generate concepts. From the five, one winner is chosen. Armchair critics--who perhaps consider themselves to be worthy--are bothered by this lack of transparency. Others find it fair--you can't just be a nobody from nowhere to get in.

"We're very pro competitions, we don't think of them as being exploitive," says Theodore. "We've done big ones but we've also done small ones that weren't on everyone's radar. But they were on our radar because it gave us a chance to investigate and research--that's what we use competitions for." Interboro isn't unique to the competition circuit, for architects it's common, it's accepted, and it's often the way for young firms to build their portfolios. And there are other benefits. "A lot of competitions result in commissioned work. For example, we did the Shrinking Cities competition and that ended up yielding lots and lots of projects," adds D'Oca.

Another intended consequence of competitions, in this case, is also undoubtedly about reputation-building. "It has definitely raised our profile. More people know about us. We get a lot more resumes. We get a lot more invitations to talk. And these days we've been on the jury for other competitions, which is a whole new perspective." For architects, getting actual commissions is almost impossible without first getting noticed. And winning competitions is how to do it.

Lauren Romano, Graphic Designer
Finalist -- Art Works: Obama for America

College senior Lauren Romano just wanted a good grade on her school project, and maybe even to win a little something. But after entering her submission in the Art Works: Obama for America poster competition, something she thought to be fairly benign, she witnessed a monumental backlash erupting from the design community. "Free work," shouted a massive swell of professionals. "It's pro bono," another group shouted back. Romano, selected as one of twelve finalists, stayed out of it.

Romano, a student at Miami University of Ohio, was encouraged by a professor to enter. "It's complicated," says Romano. The assignment was to create a poster in support of Obama's jobs plan and the Obama for America campaign. Three winners receive a poster signed by the President. "I know there's a lot of controversy over this competition. For me, I got a grade on this for my class, so I don't see it as unfair. While it wasn't really rewarding anyone, you have to judge for yourself. Especially for students, it's an opportunity to get your name out there. It's a talking point in an interview, and something to put on a resume." But beyond talking a point Romano got little else. Since her full name was not displayed with her design, nobody really knew who was behind it. Even with the heated debate and people speaking on her behalf, there was not one e-mail or phone call (until now) to inquire about her or her future prospects. And since she didn't win, no autograph from the President, either.

Ric Grefé is among the group that strongly criticized this competition. Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. "It's the classic public good problem. This is a point at which an individual decides whether they're going to look out for themselves, or to be a part of a community to help them achieve their aspirations," he says. "If all her colleagues acted the way she did, the opportunity for designers to gain greater ground in terms of respect and understanding would be hurt." While Grefé does acknowledge that there should be special considerations for students, he does not budge from the principle--this is just not the path to success that it is perceived to be. "I think she is naive, yes. I also think she is totally sincere. I understand the value for students, that's no question. But I still think it's a mistake."

But what, exactly, is the problem? In a nutshell, it is a matter of who it was for. "If the poster had been for America-for-something, then fine. But this is a case in which it's for commercial use--for the Obama campaign," says Grefé. In this case, the commercial usage of the poster was for a revenue-generating organization poised to raise $1 billion for the next election. As Grefé pointed out in a poignant letter to Jim Messina, campaign manager for Obama for America, it is hard to imagine that political consultants, lawyers, telecommunications, and advertising agencies are asked to donate services without compensation. In his opinion, design is being singled out as a "creative indulgence" that should be given away for free, rather than as a potential, ahem, job.

Nick Misani, Graphic Designer
Winner -- Brooklyn Industries T-Shirt Competition

On the other hand, Nick Misani would probably tell you that his work is, indeed, a creative indulgence. Misani is a graduate student at Pratt Institute, and the recent winner of a t-shirt design contest for the clothing store Brooklyn Industries. He received a $500 gift card to the store and a party in his honor. Misani entered this competition, and actually a few others as well, on impulse, on the thought that it would be fun, and on the fact that he had a little bit of free time.

They were all during a two-week period," reports Misani. "I had a burst of energy after school ended, and I thought 'Hey, why not.' The fact that it was Brooklyn Industries didn't make any difference, I just wanted to try this whole contest thing out. I could have walked into American Apparel that day instead and gone for that one." Misani is untroubled by the fact that it was a shirt design for a clothing company, or that the product retails for $35. He reiterates that it was fun, and that the assignment was easy. In fact, the talented Misani had scooped a number of the contests he entered in those two weeks. No harm, no foul.

Brooklyn Industries sells nice clothing and is undoubtedly not lacking for designers who want to work for them. So why forsake the traditional work-for-hire mechanism and turn to a competition? It's likely that it was conceived of as a marketing campaign, for the company to be perceived of as innovative and connected to their audience. Why should we care? Grefé explains. "It takes creative property, and to the detriment of the design community, it creates an auction mechanism, and drives the price down, not up." No matter what the example, Grefé remains firm. "A competition for the commercial benefit of a single stakeholder is unfair, unprincipled, and immoral. Even if someone offered a lot of prize money, that's not enough. And the dilemma here is that people will do it. As long as there are designers that engage in it, and companies get enough decent responses, they often think that what they're doing is encouraging co-creation and co-participation, and so they just won't listen. They think they're being progressive, when they're actually being manipulative."

There's a name for this kind of competition, and it's called speculative work--dubbed "spec work" by the design community. It is also called crowdsourcing. Put the assignment forth to an indiscriminate crowd to tackle. Let the crowd develop their designs to the point of completion. Pick a winner at leisure from hundreds of entries.

This competition model is considered downright contemptible by organizations like No!Spec, and AIGA, as well as most professionals. Web sites like, are blasted again and again for being unethical and harmful to the industry. And since these sites are not representative of legitimate designers, they mislead "clients" who don't know any better. Misani, however, sees a difference between this contest and "those" contests. "There's more stuff involved if you win. You get recognition, and you get other things that give them a little more ethical wiggle room." So, has it advanced his career? "Well, it happened just a few months ago, but I can't say I've really noticed any advancement. Despite the party, it was a pretty low-profile contest," he says. And the party? It was held in the store with merchandise available for purchase, so Misani could get a head start on spending that gift card. "Had it been $300 cash, that would have been nicer," he admits. "But that's fine. It's okay. I was satisfied with the result."


So, why do architects subject themselves to what seems to be a competition "gauntlet," yet when applied to graphics, it causes such a squabble? There are even architects who's entire careers are built solely on awards, with not a single built building in their repertoire. The answer is lies in the arc of the design process, and at what point the competition comes into play. An architect invests relatively little up front for a potential reward that is big: opportunities to work on national memorials, cultural institutions, and big-money buildings. But for graphic design, all the creative investment has to happen first, with the competition and judging at the end. Plus, for architects, the pay is so much more lucrative, and the pool of competitors is so much smaller. For graphic designers, promising potential can very quickly turn let-down--leaving numerous empty-handed who didn't win.

Like graphic designers, architects also know what crowdsourcing is, and they don't like it either. Even Michael Arad, a glowing example of the best of what design competitions can accomplish, referenced it with clear disdain. "If you think this is some cheap crowdsourcing thing, it's not." It is certainly not. Arad participated in a competition of ideas in which his entry was just the beginning of an eight-year journey, where he turned a drawing into a real thing. He was paid for those years of hard work. It was his job, how could he not be?

And like graphic designers, they also also understand the difference between client-driven work and public service work. The partners at Interboro do both, but not as competitions. "We would never, for example, engage in a competition for Mary Smith or whoever who wants to build a house," says Theodore. It seems obvious, and yet Ric Grefé of AIGA finds himself enumerating these distinctions repeatedly. "It's better if the cause is something which the public is the beneficiary and there is no commercial stakeholder," he outlines. "It's better if the designer retains ownership [of their submissions]. That's an onerous thing, when the rules say there's a transfer of copyright, and you no longer own your own design. It's even better if two other conditions occur. One is where it's based on a good brief. The other is if they get paid. If those cumulative attributes aren't there, then it's worse, borderlining on evil."

Award Competitions

Award competitions allow people to get excited about design, to provide inspiration, and to capture a panorama of current trends. Many designers enter them as a resume-builder. They judge based on past, completed projects, they do not commission new work. Typically these kinds of competitions require a fee for entry. "For are some organizations--not ours--it's a cash cow. They do it to generate revenue," says Ric Grefé of AIGA. In this kind of transparent scenario, the debate is less heated. "If you want to do it, do it." Easy.

Not so easy. Grefé challenges the role of award competitions when we can find inspiration easily in other ways. "There is a value in celebrating great design, and for people to see what judges consider great design to be. Those are the inherent capabilities of award competitions. But they are being challenged by social media and accessibility--we are getting inspiration now 24/7. And also, who are these people that say what is good design? There is also this questioning of authority, and whether the authority could come from the crowd itself."

Designers still want to win awards though, which Grefé suspects is just as much for psychological reinforcement. It is a challenge to reconcile these forces: to utilize the self-determining capabilities of social media, and at the same time give designers the adjudication they ask for. That's why AIGA will continue to hold award competitions, but with a modified model: less focus on the finished product, and more on the process leading up to it. Meanwhile, he encourages designers to upload their work to curated design blogs and to self-publish. Get out there. It makes you wonder though. How much longer until awards go away?

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