Architecture & Design, Government, and Sustainability

GR unveils park signage winner

City moved forward with competition despite outcry from professional design community.

December 21, 2018
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AIGA Signage
Steve Voelker said the goal for his winning design would be to use sustainable materials such as aluminum, stone and brick. Courtesy city of Grand Rapids

Despite public outcry from members of the professional design community, the city of Grand Rapids went forward with its park signage design competition and has unveiled the winner.

The city announced Steve Voelker as the winner of the competition. Voelker was awarded $1,000 to collaborate with a licensed design professional to produce final drawings.

“The goal would be to use sustainable materials such as aluminum, stone and brick,” Voelker said in his design submission. “There are various products on the market for sustainable wood or products to look like wood that could be explored.”

Voelker’s design will be used at all 75 parks throughout the city.

The 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 reviewed the concepts and then narrowed the field to five finalists for a public vote.

Voelker’s design proved to be the most popular among nearly 5,000 voters.

Not everybody was happy with the city’s decision to run a design competition, however. The American Institute of Graphic Arts’ West Michigan chapter argued the competition, with its promise to grant $1,000 to the winner, counted as speculative labor with only the hope of being paid and could undermine the creative community, according to an earlier Business Journal report.

AIGA President Elyse Flynn recently told the Business Journal she thought the format of the contest set a poor precedent for how the city values the work of artists and designers.

“We have schools paying money for students to become experts,” Flynn said. “Why would we have this model moving forward? It sets the precedent that these professions aren’t worth the money.”

Although Flynn explained her position with Parks and Recreation Director David Marquardt, he still chose to move forward with the competition.

“We were disappointed they weren’t going to stop the competition,” Flynn said. “I understand the contest had already been open for a couple weeks. It was too late for him to shift gears.”

Flynn said she and Marquardt did discuss future ideas involving collaborations with designers and the city, whether the plans involve murals, park signs or other citywide projects.

“I hope he feels comfortable with my committee moving forward,” she said.

AIGA in the past has expressed a strong position discouraging spec work. The organization, however, does not regard all unpaid design work as spec work. Unpaid work may take a number of other forms, including volunteer work, internships and pro-bono work.

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