Opinion is split over the ethics of public design competitions

Opinion is split over the ethics of public design competitions. Are they good for the profession, or a form of free-pitching? Angus Montgomery reports

It goes without saying that public design competitions will never have majority backing from the industry, as they violate the sacrosanct rule that you should never give away creative work for free.

But, unfortunately, they are unlikely to ever go away, and, as high-profile examples such as Transport for London’s search for a Routemaster bus design and the Royal Mint’s 50p coin design contest spark controversy in the design world, there are signs that some industry figures could be willing to embrace, or at the very least accept, the idea.

Following the Royal Mint’s decision to launch a public competition, which offered winners £1000 in prize money, but no remuneration for unsuccessful entrants, the Design Business Association reiterated its opposition to such initiatives, stating, ‘Commercial design businesses should not give away creative ideas for free.’

But as well as this condemnation, there was also support for the Royal Mint’s initiative. The Design Council came out in favour, with chief executive David Kester saying, ‘Britain has a long history of public design competitions, and while we don’t support professional free-pitching, there are times when it’s right to give the whole nation the opportunity to get creative.’

Following Design Week’s report on the competition, Emily Campbell, director of design at the Royal Society of Arts, wrote about the issue on the RSA’s Design and Society blog. She says, ‘A public competition like this seems to me to be a good way to engage non-professionals in the processes that designers go through all the time, and thereby increase the public standing of design.’ She adds, ‘The DBA has urged professional designers not to enter the Royal Mint competition because there are no fees to entrants, saying, “In the current economic climate, it is more important than ever that design businesses maintain a healthy profit margin.”

‘I’d say that, in the current civic climate, it is more important than ever that the public understands what designers do.’

Speaking about public design competitions as a whole, Campbell tells Design Week, ‘I think they are justified as they give [non-professionals] an insight into the problem-finding and problem-solving processes that designers go through. It is unlikely that public design competitions are really going to get so popular that they threaten commercial design, even in a recession. The loss of fees going to a small number of design consultancies is a small price to pay for giving wide exposure to design through projects of conspicuous public interest.’

And, in a statement sure to raise the hackles of the DBA, Royal Mint director of commemorative coins Dave Knight defends his organisation’s position, saying, ‘Public competitions are good for the design community, they raise its whole profile – the design world needs to avoid coming across as precious.

‘Anyway, if the industry believes that only professional designers should be designing these things, they should enter the competitions and they should win.’

Many of those who hold public competitions are more circumspect than Knight, and would argue their aims are not to get designs on the cheap or for free, but to engage the public with their issues.

Charles Gore is chairman of the World Hepatitis Alliance, which is holding a design competition, open to ‘patient groups and individuals, amateurs and professionals’, to encourage ‘new and imaginative ways to get people talking about hepatitis B and C’.

Gore says the WHA has no concrete intentions to use the resulting designs in a commercial manner, adding that the organisation already uses professionally designed logos and campaign materials.

He says, ‘We’re holding the competition to try to get people to talk about the issue. The point is to involve the public in the process.

‘If you’re looking to get people taking about an issue, then public design competitions are a great way to go, but if you’re looking to design something then I think it’s the last way to go.’

With this statement, Gore chimes with the sentiments of DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton, who says, ‘I’ve yet to see “an appropriate public design competition” in the professional world of design. When I do, I’ll revise my opinion and let you know.’

Public design competitions: for and against:

• David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, says, ‘While we don’t support free-pitching, there are times when it’s right to give the whole nation the opportunity to get creative’

• Emily Campbell, director of design at the Royal Society of Arts, says, ‘The loss of fees going to a small number of design consultancies is a small price to pay for giving wide exposure to design’

• Deborah Dawton, chief executive of the Design Business Association, says, ‘Design competitions that are used as an alternative to paid contracts are clearly out – that’s like asking a consultant surgeon to carry out open-heart surgery for free’

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