Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Win-Lose Situation

Not long ago, a business associate asked if we would design a poster for her organization's well known fundraiser, on a pro-bono basis. This was a well-attended local event and the project sounded like a worthy challenge. Toward the end of the conversation, she said: "oh, and we're having several others work on poster designs as well" -- basically turning the request into a contest. She said arrangements had also been made for the printing to be donated. When I asked if she was having more than one printer produce it, she laughed and said: "of course not." I respectfully declined to participate, but what I wanted to say was: "Do you know how rude this is?"

I can imagine few other circumstances where someone would ask for a favor, while at the same time saying essentially: "We value your contribution...unless we decide to value someone else's more." I think one reason for this attitude is that we are taught from a very early age to place little value on creative work. Because it's "fun" and "anyone can do it." Contests are common in schools where kids learn that creative work (like music and art) is secondary to "academics."

Many professional design organizations reject contests as unethical. I dislike them, but for different reasons. My problem with contests is that they are a colossal waste of resources. Imagine that an organization decides they need a logo, so they launch a 60-day contest. Suppose they get 100 entries, with each requiring an average expenditure of 20 hours of design time. That's a total of 2,000 hours -- almost a year of labor. That means that after picking a "winner", the other 1,980 hours (of the community's pool of pro-bono time) has been wasted. Simply in the interest of giving someone a choice.

I don't think competitions should be shunned. And I don't think creatives should stop entering them -- if that's how they choose to spend their time. If it makes business sense for a firm to participate in them, they should have at it. But I do think it's important for organizations to think about how they value what they ask for, and how they ask for it. If they truly need a donation of time and talents, it shouldn't come with an insult.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

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