What message does a design competition send?

A design competition has nothing to do with “design.”

The fourth part in my continuing series about design competitions and spec work.

Designers look at design competitions and know that it’s a terrible way to design anything. Design is about solving problems and there are proven processes that produce results. Look at the history of government design contests and you have to go back to the design of the Alaska State Flag in 1927 to find a successful one.

So if every serious designer knows it’s a bad way to create a design, why do we keep having contests? Two reasons:

  1. It’s inexpensive. It’s obviously less expensive to have a contest than to hire a firm to design it. Some not-for-profits or governments don’t have the money to embark on a redesign. And others don’t see any value in design and would never spend a dime on professional design services.
  2. The design isn’t the reason for the design contest. The point of a design contest isn’t about creating quality design, it’s about public relations. Drumming up support for your cause. Getting people to talk or tweet about your project, company or organization. The final design isn’t important. The attention is…

Why do most designers feel insulted by a design contest?

Many people act surprised when designers react negatively to design contests, but it really shouldn’t be surprising. When you hold a design contest, you are telling your local design community that you aren’t willing to invest time and energy into a proper design process, and that the public relations value is more important than the quality of design. A design competition sends a very clear message that an organization — or city — doesn’t value design.

Let’s talk about the Columbia Flag design competition for a minute.

Several people have asked me why I’m so concerned about the Columbia Flag design competition. It’s very clearly a public relations campaign to get people interested in a new flag. Predictably, yes, I’m insulted by the fact that my city and the arts organizations in Columbia appear to have no respect for the design community, but it’s deeper than that.

I teach a senior portfolio class at the University of South Carolina. On the first day of class, I ask students what type of job they want and where they want to work. Most of the students want to leave Columbia. After spending four years in Columbia at USC, my students are convinced that they can’t do good work in Columbia. I assure them that it’s not the case, but they leave any way. I’ve seen students go to Charleston, Greenville, Charlotte, Raleigh, New York, Austin, Houston, Knoxville, Atlanta and Chicago. Very few of our young, talented designers choose to stay here.

I hear time and again that the biggest challenge facing Columbia is attracting talent to the community and encouraging them to be part of a growing and vibrant Columbia. The recent Engenuity SC Competitiveness Report ranked Columbia 8th among 10 comparable cities in talent recruitment and retention. We constantly talk about ways to attract talent, while tangibly showing creative professionals that our city doesn’t respect what they do.

I fear that the City of Columbia, One Columbia and the Columbia Design League are solving for the wrong problem. They are concerned about our ugly flag. I’m concerned about building up our creative community.

At the end of the day, the design competition will end with an average flag that is better than the terrible one that we have now. But that banner will signal loud and clear that Columbia doesn’t believe in design.

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's still writing more blog posts. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

Kill two birds...

Two things at once? No problem, right?

The second post in my series on convention wisdom. Check out the introduction to the series...


When was the last time you killed a bird with a stone? Yeah, me neither. The idea of “killing two birds with one stone” is old, dating back to the 1600s. So what’s the story with this 400 year old piece of wisdom?

It seems pretty straightforward: accomplish two goals with one effort. People use the phrase at home and in business all the time. But if you dig down into the metaphor, it’s anything but simple.

Accidentally killing two birds with one stone is a lucky bit of good fortune, but trying to kill two birds with one stone is a trick shot. The degree of difficulty is high. The birds need to be aligned perfectly. You’ve got to pick the right angle. You need to be a little lucky. You might only get one bird and you might miss both all together.

Planning to kill two birds with one stone only makes sense if you must kill two birds and you have only one stone. If you only need one bird, target that bird and make sure you don’t miss. And if you have more than one stone, use them.

Let me translate that into modern terms.

If you happen to accidentally solve two problems with one solution, that’s awesome.

If you plan to solve two problems with one solution, be prepared that you might not solve either problem. If you really care about solving a problem, develop a solution for that issue specifically. In other words:

Kill one bird with one stone.

And if the “bird” is big enough, you may need to develop multiple tactics to address the issue:

Kill one bird with two stones.

Most people try to kill “two birds with one stone” because they lack the resources, time or energy to fully attack both issues. But it’s a strategic flaw. A lack of focus. More often than not, this approach results in bad solutions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen organizations shortcut good strategic thinking and try to quickly solve multiple problems with one solution. It almost always ends up as a mess, takes longer and costs more. In the end, no issues are adequately solved.

If you are serious about solving problems, take aim and focus directly on the issues at hand. You’ll be much more successful in the long run.

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 thinking about taking up bird watching. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.

Challenging convention

How do 400 year old sayings guide our lives today?

The first post in an ongoing series on conventional wisdom.


Years ago, my oldest daughter Norah was struggling to tie her shoes. We tried everything and pushed her to keep trying. If only she tried harder, she'd figure it out. It was frustrating for her. It was frustrating for my wife and I.

Eventually, my wife found a video of a different way to tie shoes* and our daughter got it instantly. It never occurred to me that there was another way to tie shoes other than the way I'd been taught.

As a parent, I’d bought into the conventional wisdom that "If at first you don't succeed, try again." Increased effort solves everything.

At home and at work, we often buy into conventional wisdom. Idioms, sayings, parables, proverbs and fables form a network of beliefs that we apply in our daily life. This conventional wisdom is the unspoken foundation of our belief system. 

Many of these sayings were written for a more simple time. We don't remember — or maybe we never even knew — the details of the original saying. Maybe we've lost touch with the agrarian roots of the stories. Quite honestly, many of them are just bad advice for a complex, modern world.

I want to delve into conventional wisdom and ask what these foundation concepts really teach us. How they guide us and how they mislead us.

These ideas and stories are so ingrained in our psyche, that we are resistant to challenging them. I mentioned to several people that I wanted to reevaluate this conventional wisdom and they all reacted negatively. My wife -- a kindergarten teacher -- complained that I wanted to teach kids to quit. A former colleague argued that no one really takes conventional wisdom seriously. Others fought for their favorite idiom.

But I think that looking closely at these foundation beliefs is key to understanding why we behave the way we do.

I've selected a few pieces of conventional wisdom that are prime to be reevaluated. I’m going to pick them apart, look at the root of the saying and try to figure out how to translate them for the modern world.

This post is the first in my series about challenging convention. I went ahead and published the second post in the series, Kill two birds... If you’ve got a favorite bit of conventional wisdom you want me to explore, let me know on Twitter.

* Seriously… check out this way of tying shoes. It’s amazing.

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 collecting little bits of conventional wisdom to rip apart in future blog posts. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.