Architecture & Design and Government

Graphic artists take issue with city’s design competition

AIGA contends call for public entries could undermine work of creative professionals.

November 30, 2018
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The city of Grand Rapids recently opened public voting for a public parks signage design competition in order to engage the community, but the competition is not sitting well with professional designers.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts West Michigan chapter believes the competition could undermine the work of creative professionals. In an open letter, the group acknowledged the city may have had the best of intentions by launching the competition but encouraged an open discussion about the risks of speculative work and offered some alternatives.

The Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department launched the competition earlier this fall. During the open call for entries, community members submitted more than 150 design concepts. The resident-led Parks and Recreation Advisory Board then reviewed the concepts and narrowed the field to five finalists.

The city opened public voting for the five finalists from Nov. 14-Dec. 7. The winning submission would be used at all 75 parks throughout Grand Rapids, and the winner will be awarded up to $1,000 to collaborate with a licensed design professional to produce final drawings.

Elyse Flynn, president of AIGA West Michigan, in the letter stated the competition could have negative impacts on the design community by expecting designers to submit work for free.

“As designers and artists, we are visual problem-solvers and critical thinkers who make our living by selling our time,” Flynn said. “The work we do is labor intensive — it requires research, thinking, experimentation and execution.”

Flynn went on to say while there is a potential for a contractor to win $1,000, the work still is being done for free with only the hope of being financially rewarded.

AIGA in the past has expressed a strong position discouraging speculative work; however, not all unpaid design work is considered spec work. Unpaid work may take a number of forms:

  • Work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it

  • Competitions in which work is done in the hopes of winning a prize — whatever form that might take

  • Volunteer work that is done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid

  • Internships as a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain

  • Pro bono work, in which volunteer work done “for the public good”

AIGA said many designers choose to do unpaid work for a variety of reasons. Students and professionals may draw different lines on what constitutes unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the associated risks.

The risk of spec work is two-pronged, according to AIGA. The client could take advantage of the designer believing he or she would work for free, but inversely, the client could also risk receiving an inferior product if little effort is put into it.

The letter also offered a couple of alternatives. Designers could submit their portfolios for judging and then judges would select the designer based on the best portfolio of work. Once a designer is selected, he or she should be hired to create several design options, which can then be voted on by the community through social channels.

The city could also hire a designer to work with a group of students as a teaching endeavor. Flynn said the effort would not only be collaborative but also engage the next generation of designers.

According to the letter, David Marquardt, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, responded by saying, “while our intent was to be as inclusive as possible to the entire community of Grand Rapids citizens, I can see how we have inadvertently marginalized a valued segment of our community.”

Marquardt also agreed to meet with Flynn to discuss other options moving forward, although the competition still is in effect. Marquardt was not available for comment at press time.

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