Let’s stop wast­ing our time on de­sign com­pe­ti­tions

I’m in the fi­nal year of a de­sign de­gree, and one of my fi­nal pro­jects is to an­swer a com­pe­ti­tion brief. It sounds good in prin­ci­ple — work on a pro­ject set by a real com­pany and get some ex­po­sure if your work is good.

Let’s look at some of the briefs that are part of my as­sign­ment. Here’s one from this year’s D&AD Young Blood awards:


Whatever you do, drive sign up on­line” — Huh. Here’s two from this year’s YCN-Awards:

Notice any­thing about these? It sounds like they’re each ask­ing for a very spe­cific piece of de­sign work that will di­rectly ben­e­fit their busi­ness. A cam­paign to drive signups on­line” for a stream­ing startup. A Christmas gift that will be handed out […] in goody bags to pro­mote our Constellation’ range of pa­pers” for a bou­tique pa­per com­pany. Some content for our so­cial me­dia chan­nels” for the Met of­fice. Sounds to me like the kind of spe­cific, tar­get-ori­ented work you would nor­mally hire a de­signer for.

Design com­pe­ti­tions are a po­lite way of ask­ing for free work

But hir­ing de­sign­ers is ex­pen­sive, so why not get a bunch of stu­dents to do it for free? What would nor­mally be an ex­pen­sive de­sign com­mis­sion be­comes a creative chal­lenge” — that sounds fun, right? And who would you ask for money if they’re hav­ing fun! And if you’re lucky enough to win, you will have the ho­n­our of see­ing your de­sign used in the real world — Just think of all the ex­po­sure you will get from that.

Except of course, the com­pany does­n’t give a shit about your ca­reer. They’re here to min­imise cost, and a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion is a great way to do ex­actly that: They get not just one, but po­ten­tially hun­dreds of young de­sign­ers to de­velop so­lu­tions to their busi­ness prob­lem for free. If one of them hap­pens to be good, they get to profit from it for­ever while you get noth­ing.

And it’s not like these com­pa­nies can’t af­ford to pay peo­ple: Mubi, the startup look­ing for a cam­paign to drive on­line signup, is worth a hun­dred mil­lion pounds. Fedrigoni, the pa­per man­u­fac­turer ask­ing for a Christmas gift took eight-hun­dred mil­lion pounds in rev­enue in 2016. The Met of­fice re­ported a rev­enue of two-hun­dred and twenty mil­lion pounds in 2014. They don’t men­tion that in the brief, of course. Why? Because they’re here to screw you. They don’t care about your ca­reer, the only rea­son they par­tic­i­pate is to get some free labour and move on.

They don’t prove you’re a good de­signer

If you’ve ever done free­lance work, you know what it’s like: You get the client to sign your con­tract. You ask smart ques­tions to pin­point the prob­lem they’re try­ing to solve. You speak to the peo­ple who will be us­ing what­ever you’re sell­ing. You gather the data. New prob­lems come up. You pro­to­type, you test, you ask more ques­tions un­til you ar­rive at a so­lu­tion. You make the case for your so­lu­tion to the client. You get paid.

That’s de­sign.

Now, let’s see how a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion works: You get handed a brief that has a lot of flow­ery lan­guage and few ac­tual facts. You try to guess what the jury will want to see. You make a some­thing that looks pretty. If you’re lucky you might get a voucher.

That, friend, has noth­ing to do with de­sign.

Winning a de­sign award proves that you made some­thing that hap­pened to ap­peal to a panel of mid­dle-aged white peo­ple. It does­n’t prove you’re a good de­signer be­cause, guess what, you did­n’t de­sign any­thing. You did­n’t de­fend your idea to the client, you did­n’t ne­go­ti­ate a bud­get, you did­n’t it­er­ate. You made some­thing that looks pretty, for free.

They’re hurt­ing all of us long-term

We’ve es­tab­lished that de­sign com­pe­ti­tions are a glo­ri­fied way of ask­ing for free work. That should be rea­son enough not to par­tic­i­pate, but the long-term dam­age these com­pe­ti­tions do to the in­dus­try goes fur­ther. By le­git­imis­ing free work as the way to es­tab­lish your­self in the de­sign in­dus­try, we’re shut­ting out tal­ented peo­ple who sim­ply can’t af­ford to work for free. What if you’re a young woman with a kid to take care of? What if you’re work­ing class, your par­ents can’t sup­port you and you’ve got rent to pay? What if you’re an im­mi­grant who needs to have an in­come to be al­lowed to stay in the coun­try? These peo­ple are smart, and when they re­alise the de­sign in­dus­try ex­pects them to work for noth­ing they’re not go­ing to stick around.

If we don’t do any­thing about this, we will end up with an in­dus­try that only rep­re­sents the most priv­i­leged parts of so­ci­ety, and not the peo­ple who are go­ing to be us­ing with our work. We need to keep the de­sign in­dus­try open to any­one re­gard­less of their so­cial back­ground, gen­der or na­tion­al­ity if we’re go­ing to stay com­pet­i­tive.

This is why it is im­por­tant to in­sist on get­ting paid for your work even if you could af­ford not to: It hurts not just you but all of us (including the peo­ple ask­ing for the free work) by mak­ing the in­dus­try less di­verse, and thus less ef­fec­tive in the long run.

… and frankly, we don’t need them

50 years ago, do­ing un­paid work for a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion might have been your only real shot at get­ting your name recog­nised — but we have the in­ter­net now. Chances are you have more peo­ple fol­low­ing you on Instagram than will ever come to an award cer­e­mony. And the peo­ple who fol­low you on­line are do­ing so not be­cause your name came up on a short­list, but be­cause they gen­uinely care about your work. They’re the ones that will come to your ex­hi­bi­tion, they’re the ones who will buy your book, they’re the ones who will sup­port you and your work long-term. Social me­dia lets you en­gage with your au­di­ence on your terms, in­de­pen­dently of any­one else’s plat­form.

The peo­ple run­ning award cer­e­monies know all this, of course, and it ter­ri­fies them: The con­tin­u­ous stream of un­paid work­ers their ad agen­cies have re­lied on for 50 years is about to dry up. That’s why they’re try­ing every­thing to con­vince us (and our teach­ers) that their awards are still rel­e­vant — they’re not.

What can we do?

Let’s stop par­tic­i­pat­ing. Spend the £20 it costs to en­ter the D&AD awards on some new ma­te­ri­als in­stead and get to work. Share your work on­line and build a sus­tain­able au­di­ence there. If a com­pe­ti­tion brief is part of your course, do the work but don’t sub­mit it, and let your teacher know why. You and me have skills that are in de­mand every­where, so let’s stop wast­ing our time on those try­ing to ex­ploit us 🖕

This ar­ti­cle was first pub­lished on Medium