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There's been an uproar in the Canadian design scene lately. The government of Canada is holding a logo competition, inviting post secondary students across Canada, especially those studying graphic design, to submit logo concepts for Canada's 150th birthday. The winning logo would be selected by a committee (or "jury") of individuals from a range of positions in the arts, social and public service sectors. Incidentally, none of these individuals are designers. While the winner of the competition would receive $5000 for their entry, the other contestants would have nothing in return for their efforts. This is what we call "spec work", and it is, at least in the design world, a major faux pas. Organizations that procure spec work are frowned upon, and designers, and especially design students, are strongly discouraged from taking on any such work.
Organizations and individuals, particularly the GDC (Graphic Designers of Canada), the RGD (Registered Graphic Designers) and blogs such as The Canadian Design Resource are up in arms about the competition. The GDC in particular has gone so far as creating a microsite with an online petition form that gets sent straight to Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, who is responsible for the competition. The words "unfair" and "exploitative" have cropped up on Twitter so far, and these pretty much sum up the typical view of spec work by the design community. "Let's save vulnerable designers from this kind of unfair exploitation." Or so.
I don't disagree that spec work can be unfair and exploitative. And I am glad that there are people and organizations out there watching our backs (as designers) and helping to raise the bar for our profession. I'm not a member of any of these industry organizations, but I directly benefit from their efforts, and for that I am grateful. But here comes the "but". I'm afraid the real and most evil problem with this competition has been completely overlooked. Yes, the government should not be devaluing the intellectual property of so many who might enter the competition. And they should not expect to receive a potentially valuable service for free. But the most disconcerting thing about such a competition is in the complete ignorance by the Ministry in question about the design process altogether.
“The real problem in any design project is political.”
As any professional designer can tell you, where it comes to branding projects, we spend most of our time educating. Educating ourselves (or being educated) of the client's needs. Educating ourselves of the design problem. Educating the client about the design process. Educating the client about how we intend on approaching their design problem. Being educated on why our first concepts completely miss the mark. And so going back and re-educating ourselves of the root design problem and so on. We might also say we spend most of our time persuading or being persuaded. There is no such thing as a client who says "you solve our problem and we will pay you", as only Paul Rand could have ever expected or enjoyed. We are constantly in a dialogue of back and forth persuasion. "Please look at it this way." Even more importantly, all of this requires a relationship. How can we learn about each other, persuade each other, unless we know each other, trust each other?
Instead, there are a thousand anonymous submissions and an isolated group of individuals who are judging the work solely by what they see, and of course, through their own particular set of preferences and sensibilities—and let's not forget—their own political needs to please their superiors. And let's not forget, it goes both ways. Isolated design contestants don't have the opportunity to see the real design problem from the client's point of view.
The real design problem in any design project is political. The client is not always the client — sometimes, it is the client's boss, or their husband, or their ego. And the design problem is not always "design a website that will help change a behaviour" or "create an identity for a national birthday celebration." Sometimes it is (to be crass) "help a group of people look like they've been busy." How could anyone designing from their dorm room, thousands of kilometres away, without a phone call or even an email briefing, have any sense of this landscape? How would they even begin to know how to fine-tune the conversation around these needs? The design process is mostly relational. The better the relationship between designer and client, the more likely both will be satisfied with the end result, and the more likely the designed thing itself will be successful. And to reiterate, there is very little relationship in a logo design competition.
Finally, let me touch a bit on design for government. Anyone who's tried to design for any level of government has surely encountered the frustrating landscape of bureaucracy.* There is no logic — only committees, only "nice" ideas, only the mandate for "inclusiveness" and "diversity", only vague, abstract "objectives". Lots of meetings. Deep pockets. Free lunches. Cross-country flights. Spending quotas. Timelines that drag on. In my experience, even the most seasoned and fully-equipped agencies struggle to produce good work for government clients. One only has to look back in recent history to see that, as a rule, government does not champion nor produce good design.
Take for example the recent rebrand for the Royal Canadian Mint. Or the rebrand for the Government of Saskatchewan. Or these botched predecessors of the very Canada 150 logo in discussion here. I'm afraid that Canada has a poor track record of logo design — unless you go back before the desktop publishing revolution. Which is a whole other blog post.
My point here is this: if even professional design agencies, who are being paid lots of dollars, with all their resources and prowess (who through no fault of their own) have trouble producing satisfactory work for government clients, what chances do the scattered, independent, resourceless, and anonymous student designers have?
In sum, I do want to thank those in the design community who have spoken out about this most recent transgression by the Ministry of Heritage vis a vis the Honourable Shelly Glover. In fact, as of this morning, it appears the Canada 150 logo competition web site has been taken offline. So good work everyone. But I do want all those who see this only as a chance to decry the woes of spec work to consider this: how can we bring a higher awareness to government (particularly) about the value of the designer-client relationship? If we come across as witch hunters, Internet trolls, haters, complainers, a mob of angry design snobs, we may be feared, but we will not be revered. We are listeners. We are researchers. We are guides. And yes, we are artists. But I fear that to some, we are only artists. Somehow the value of the service of design needs to come through. People are getting it more today than ever before, but we still have a lot of work to do.
*It should be noted that I have actually worked with some government organizations to produce some wonderful results. But these have usually been special projects or very particular situations — usually retail oriented — where there are professional marketers involved. In any case, these are rare in my experience.