Design Contests

Contests aren't the cause of the main structural problems of the design profession, but an excellent reflection of such problems.

Portrait of Jorge Illich Carpinteyro Jorge Illich Carpinteyro Leiria

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Design contests have extended through diverse practical areas of design. Although they aren't the source of most of the main structural issues of design as a profession, they do are a reflection of those problems. In that sense, they deeply affect society's perception (companies, customers, universities, etc.) of the profession, because they reflect fundamental aspects that haven't been properly solved, strongly contributing to a professional devaluation and discredit. Which are these structural problems?

  • Formation value. The existence of contests for students and professional devaluates formation. Those who host a contest don't care about formation, they care about good ideas; therefore, they understand that formation contributes little or nothing to the construction of a good designer and that anyone can get the job done as long as they have «good ideas».

  • Process value. Most of the contests perform an assessment of the product's formal components, disregarding its functional components (functional as in the relationship between the product with the user and with the context, from its origins to the scraps). When a design contest is launched, most of the time, information provided to the contestants omits important aspects and there's no possibility of requiring additional information. By proposing solutions without the full required information, designers themseleves devaluate the role they must play in the product development process. By accepting the job's conditions, they're saying that all they have to offer are «good ideas», that there's no need for too much information and analysis to work and, therefore, the professional's role in the process is irrelevant.

  • Knowledge value. Most of the contests evaluate images (formal solutions). This might be one of the most disputed points, that many designers may not agree with. Personally, I understand design as a process that creates knowledge about the problem to solve, that allows to identify and evaluate the best solution to that specific problem. Only based on generated information (knowledge documentation), it is possible to generate and evaluate the adequate formal solution. Most of the contests have no regard for this component, which has led society to consider design as drawing, something that everybody can do.

  • Relationship value. The kind of relationship that is established in a contest does not imply a work relationship nor a provider relationship. By participating in a contest, designers admit that there's no need for a serious kind of relationship with the organizations they work for; that, in order to have design, there's no need to hire anyone and that hosting a contest will suffice.

  • Respect value. Contests are disrespectful towards design on behalf of society, which doesn't submit other professional to such unfair conditions.

  • Work value. When contest proposals are evaluated and from a thousand proposals a single one is considered useful, society gets the idea that nearly all professionals aren't prepared to perform their job, or that design is a matter of luck.

To summarize: are contests something bad and the cause of many of the profession's problems? They are not the cause, but they reflect design professional's general posture. It is important to erradicate them, but more important is that we all understand why we must erradicate them and solve those structural problems that won't allow design to assume the role it's meant to play in society. Today there are lots of designs that clearly understand which their role is, but there's a lot of awareness work to be done yet.

Translated by Joel Alejandro Villarreal Bertoldi Córdoba

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Portrait of Oscar Blanco
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Oscar Blanco
May 2014

A very good article with a lot of insight on the matter!

This is one of the main tendencies that really weaken the position of designers as PROFESSIONALS.

It lends itself specially for crowd sourcing, meaning, that the outcome could simply be the contest poster walking away with "good ideas" and later hiring the lowest bidder to simply do a "trace over" of one or several "good ideas".

Thatʼs why I like elance.com, you compete only with budget and time, not ideas or proposals. The down side: you compete with people who budget ANYTHING under $10 (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc).

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