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.