Contests—who wins?

Artwork by Sérgio Neves

Contest entry by Sérgio Neves

One young designer that I’ve met through this blog asked me to write an article about contests and the practice of “voting” for winners. He says, as many would agree, “that ultimately it becomes nothing more than a popularity contest between the candidates; it’s really degrading for us.”

When companies create contests is it just a guise for crowdsourcing, free advertising, spec work? Should educators encourage or discourage contests? This is a question I’ve struggled with. My standard rule of thumb is that if there is an entry fee, I don’t encourage it or publicize it. I also don’t promote causes that I am morally opposed to. However, when looking at all the pros and cons, it can get much more complicated.

Many feel that corporations that engage in online contests also benefit from all the free advertising that goes along with them. When Robyn Waxman, of FARM (Future Action Reclamation Mob,) was asked what she thought was one of the biggest ethical issues in graphic design, she said corporate sponsorships. Waxman’s complaint was about corporate sponsorship of college courses and humanitarian projects. Sponsoring contests is another way that corporations enter this arena.

Despite the pitfalls of contests, graphic design educators often use them as a teaching tool. Not only do they provide real world experience, they often offer the winners a prize, and at the very least, exposure. As students work to fill their portfolios with professional looking pieces, the parameters set by contests are usually on par with industry specifications. In addition to the professional experience students gain, the theme of contests are often in the area of social responsibility—making it a “win, win” for educators looking to include this topic in their syllabus, students looking to show their social conscience, and corporations looking to be seen as a social advocate.

Design companies often use contests as a vehicle for self promotion. Communication Arts, AIGA, and HOW are just some of the respected design organizations that sponsor competitions. With a wide range of categories as well as different levels for entry (and fees), winning one of these competitions can bring respect from peers in the industry as well as look great on a resume. HOW even offers their readers tips on How to Win a Design Competition.

If it’s a “win, win” for all involved, how do you deal with the association with spec work or crowdsourcing? Do you see a substantial difference between contests and competitions? Are either of them degrading? Do you enter them? Do you encourage your students to enter them?


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