Who’s Winning? Graphic Design Competitions

3 years ago by

Written by Cameron Ralston

Supported by Creative New Zealand

Cameron Ralston is a contributor to Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the second in a four part series which looks internally at this concept of ‘Design Thinking’ and what on earth that actually means. Is there really a designer-ly way of thinking? And what is relationship between thinking and designing? This series will attempt to clarify where we find ourselves in the current field of design.

Part One: What is Design Thinking?

For this essay graphic design competitions will be seen as those in which a finished piece of graphic design is submitted for judgement and then rewarded with a prize, recognition or implementation. Changes to, or creation of new, graphic identities is something we’re all familiar with—graphic design is seen here as a service to increased visibility, branding and identity.

Whether public, such as for the New Zealand Coat of Arms in 1908 and the New Zealand flag in 2015/16, or private, design competitions present an alternative to the established client and designer/studio relationship. Furthermore, with the advancement of technologies, particularly in the sharing and creation of images, the ability to source material has become much more open. This means that now anyone can host and enter such contests.

Like any process design competitions come with a long list of pros and cons, some of which can be removed given thoughtful set up. Immediate cons could be seen as having the development of ideas with the client reduced to a one-shot process. Meaning there is a transaction without overlap—the graphic designer produces material which is then exchanged to the company. Should it then be chosen, the company controls the rest of the process which usually includes implementing said material without the input of the designer.

Pentagram graphic designer Paula Scher in Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design argues that much of her interaction with a client is about coercing. Suggesting that the design is complete, but the struggle is in getting the sign off. While I would argue that the back and forth adds to the design, it’s apparent where Scher is coming from. Graphic design expertise is constantly being diminished and competitions could be seen as a way of parties trying to have their fingers in many pies. It would be too harsh to say that they are used due to distrust of graphic designers when the reality is that most of these kinds of decisions come down to cost and eking out the most of a businesses’ dollars.

Still from Abstract: The Art of Design, with Paula Scher describing the progression of a client meeting.

Design as a public process: democracy, community and decision-making

Public competition processes are those in which a public institution or representative body calls for design from the people it represents. This includes councils, governments, universities, local and national groups and so on. It is thought that having an open invitation to a public will provide a more democratic result. The idea being that the people in turn will feel more accepting of the design. However, the public reaction is often based more on how much of a role they played in decision making rather than design submitting.

Christchurch feels particularly rife with such examples of competitions being used to source ideas and graphic design. Projects along the Avon river have become a hot bed of public contests the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, the Avon river footbridge, the Ōtākaro Avon River trail logo, and the Margret Mahy Family Playground. It could be seen that the river is a public icon of the city and the people should have a role in the design of its banks.

Winning logo design for the Avon Trail by Woody Lee

The public can also become involved in the results of private design decisions. Such things show that the public wants a say in how publically accessible design looks and how decisions are made. On the public criticism of the Big Ten logo design another Pentagram designer Michael Beirut wrote the following:

Clearly, part of the anger this change aroused was based on the idea that it was being imposed on them by remote, detached “experts” with no concern for the feelings of loyal fans, fans who have their own unique histories with their brands, histories that had abruptly been rendered null and void.

It’s easy to see similarities between this and the likes of Auckland city’s rebranding from 2008 to 2011 and public sculpture such as Christchurch’s Anthony Gormley works STAY. It could be argued that such reactions are due to a natural conservatism amongst the public to something they’re attached to (identity and place). Yet again, much of the response comes down to money and how graphic design and the arts are valued in the public sphere.

In these cases, the public felt they didn’t have involvement in the process. When given a vote however the results are often criticised as bland or lacking in fundamental design features. Or given over to a committee for decision-making a ‘play it safe’ mentality often emerges. Decisions often end up playing to what people will feel comfortable with and least offended by as apposed to risk taking. For example Kyle Lockwood’s flag designs which played a featuring role in the 2015/16 New Zealand flag referendum. His design were a very safe choice from the Flag Consideration Panel, it incorporates the fern (a ubiquitous piece of ‘kiwiana’) whilst retaining the Southern Cross. It would be very at home in visitor centre souvenir racks and feels like something you’ve seen before without being particularly interesting.

However it’s important to recognise for all those warm vibes that these contests can be used as soft sales for prior agendas. Is it any surprise that John Key’s favourite Kyle Lockwood design made it to the final four from a field of 10,292 publically submitted designs?

Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) by Kyle Lockwood

As a client based process

Client based graphic design competitions do not have to deal with some of the large hang-ups of public competitions. Noteworthy, however is the scale of business or client play in this.

Private contests are usually found online, and with a quick Google search it’s possible to find websites dedicated to facilitating contests. Sites such as 99designs.com where users can sign up either as a ‘Customer’ or as a ‘Designer’. As a customer one uploads a brief and launched the contest, designers can then submit designs, a winner is picked by you from these and the winning designer receives your prize amount of money and you receive the full design copyright. This site is particularly interesting because it seems to create levels of graphic designers — the more you pay as a customer the more access you have to ‘expert’ designers. The benefit of using such processes is that the customer can obtain a large range of graphic design ideas and with little effort.

Screenshot from 99designs.com


Opening up the submission process means that one doesn’t need to have design education and have gone through the battlegrounds of getting a design. It levels the playing field somewhat, but there is always the feeling that if an established studio enters a proposal it will more likely take the prize over an unknown entrant, due to perceived professionalism.

One might also see this in other fields. Contemporary art galleries for example often run a ‘call for proposals’, whereby artists usually offer a written idea (with accompanying images) and artist CV. And although the idea is that it’s doors are open, there is a culture that seeks experience and a history of practice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but rather speaks to an invisible ladder.

With many architectural competitions, as they are often plan or concept based, you’re looking to win the contract but with graphic design it’s different, you’re expecting to receive the finished image or idea. From that point it can be taken to a printer or uploaded without the graphic designer around. They’re both however what one might classify as ‘spec work’.

Contests as spec work

Spec work is defined by website No!Spec as:

“… any kind of creative work, either partial or completed, submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees. Under these conditions, designers will often be asked to submit work in the guise of a contest or an entry exam on existing jobs as a “test” of their skill. In addition, designers normally lose all rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients often use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.”

Many design studios are against graphic design competitions entirely, seeing them as another form of spec work — where one provides work for free in the hopes of winning a contract or being reimbursed later. AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) publically discourages spec work, noting that it creates risks for both client and designers. Clients risk lower quality work and designers risk being taken advantage of and it ‘diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client’s objectives’. Our own representative agency The Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) even has a stance that reflects a wariness of spec work.

This is reinforced by the fact that if Kyle Lockwood’s flag design had of won the 2016 referendum he still wouldn’t have been paid a cent. Who did get paid in the process? It seems just about everyone else… Kyle would have assigned rights to his design to the Crown without payment. Highlighting that what was valued in the process is the decision-makers, not the design.

Studio Alexander ended up being the highest paid designers in the process after winning Gareth Morgan’s ‘$20K Flag Competition’. This process was somewhat better than the national referendum in that designers were on the panel, however it still solidly falls into the realm of speculative work.

Winner of Gareth Morgan’s flag design competition “Wā kāinga / Home”, designed by Auckland based Studio Alexander.

As Jono Aidney so eloquently puts it when writing on the New Zealand flag referendum:

“The beauty of crowdsourcing is you don’t have to pay anyone for the idea. You can sidestep the boring stuff like months of research and strategic vision, and get straight to the Photoshop screen with all the checkered squares (read: infinite possibilities).”

This all compounds on the point AIGA was making that contests and spec work hurt the viability of graphic design as an income earning profession. The ideas aren’t worth paying for until decided on by someone.

American graphic designer and writer Jessica Helfand in an article on Dan Brown’s book cover design competition writes:

“In an age in which design is shared, made transparent, and increasingly framed by the democracy of technology and increased access, designers—myself included—are happy to share our skills when it makes sense to do so. We do it with our friends, perhaps with our neighbors, our colleagues, our families. I, for one, rather like the consultation over a glass of wine model. But I deplore the public competition model —particularly when a multi-millionaire author is brazenly asking any of us to work for free.”

Landing page for Dan Brown’s Origin cover contest

However, despite all this I can’t see design contests going away, especially given the endless run of graphic design graduates, the rising costs of small business and notions of crowdsourcing as democratic process. The people who use sites like 99designs usually aren’t doing so to take advantage of designers. It’s more the larger profit driven companies who have the power in these exchanges. Addressing this would be create more awareness around the value of graphic design and developed creative thinking — for both graphic designers and potential clients. As well as making available structures through which designers can seek representation and advice on contracts. DINZ does this to some extent but requires a membership fee, immediately pushing out the lower budget designers (the ones most susceptible to being taken advantage of).

What does a well-designed graphic design competition look like?

I’m afraid that there is no ideal real word design contest; someone (if not many people) is usually getting the rough end of the stick. I’d go so far as to suggest that the only way a graphic design competition can be seen as useful and valid is as a critique of things outside itself.

LA architect John Bertram from 2009 to 2015 ran yearly graphic design competitions on his blog Venus febriculosa to redesign book and album covers. Looking closer at the 2012 competition to redesign Brian Eno’s Music for Films album cover we can see a slightly more developed framework. Immediately what is striking about his competitions is that these are things that have had considerable thought put into them already and understood from a critical standpoint. Therefore, the competitions are about generating a community of design criticism.

Design competitions have been used as a type of critical political gesture and also as a way of gathering the graphic design community together. Following Brexit architecture and design magazine Dezeen held a passport design competition. The competition was non-governmental (unlike Norway’s passport competition) and thus speculative. Projects such as these are often talked about as presenting different ways of thinking about certain situations — a kind of researching through graphic design.

Speculative design as a practice (often otherwise referred to as design fiction, not to be confused with spec design) has been in the critical design zeitgeist for some time now. Especially through the efforts of graphic design studio Metahaven. Projects by the studio have been set up as proposals where, as writer Rick Poyner puts it, ‘graphic design can transcend its usual roles to become a medium of inquiry realised through visual form.’ Projects such as the above-mentioned UK passport design competition fall into a fascinating spot of being both spec and speculative (fictional/critical) work.

To draw this all to a conclusion it’s worth reiterating that in graphic design competitions there’s always winners and losers. In an ideal situation clients would all be aware of design sensibilities and respectful of making a living from a design profession. This requires wider knowledge around ethical business conduct in relation to graphic design as well as more willingness and openness around making design processes understood. Perhaps the onus is back on us, the community, graphic design needs to advocate for its value to the wider public.


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