Healthy contest

When Matt Dent recently triumphed in the D&AD Awards it proved that competitions give everyone a chance of success. However, some feel we are being exploited when we give away our ideas for free, argues Gary Cooke

I’ve lived and breathed design since I discovered the work of Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin as a wide-eyed 15-year-old. I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1978, passionate and hungry for fame and fortune. As a student I’d already won an international typeface competition and had my work featured in D&AD. I expected more accolades to come my way. So where did it all go wrong?

As a founding partner in a successful design business that has survived for more than a quarter of a century, I’ve seen our industry change beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve worked hard with great people, and built strong relationships with loyal clients who love our work, but I’ve never won a D&AD pencil of any colour, never even come close.

As a big fan of clever ideas, I remember the first time I saw the reverse designs for UK coins on the front pages of our national dailies; the idea was so simple – a ‘wish I’d thought of that’ idea. So I was delighted to see that Matt Dent, the young designer of these coins, picked up a Yellow and a Black Pencil at this year’s D&AD Awards.

Now there are some in the design industry who believe Dent shouldn’t have won this award, shouldn’t have even had the opportunity to work on such a prestigious project. Why? Because, he took the risk of not being paid for his designs. He entered a competition, a competition open to anyone.

Recently, Royal Mint held another open contest – to design a set of 50p coins to commemorate the Olympics in 2012. The raging debate that followed this announcement was predictable – it’s taking advantage of the poor designer, we shouldn’t be giving our ideas away for free. Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson branded the competition a ‘nightmare’ and likened it to a lottery. He suggested that the Royal Mint would get a far better result if it shortlisted six good design groups and paid them £5000 each.

Yes, but which would the six shortlisted groups be? With all due respect I doubt that Three Fish in a Tree, the group where Dent is a designer, would have surfaced on the radar. And this is the whole point about competitions – they give everyone a chance, and shock horror, you don’t even have to be a designer. But aren’t we always saying great ideas can come from anywhere? The implication that unless a leading design group is involved, the quality of the winning work will be substandard is obviously not the case – our £2 coin chosen in a similar open competition was designed by Bruce Rushin, an art teacher from Norfolk.

No one’s forcing design groups to enter these competitions, but for many they’re a great opportunity. Let’s face it, when do most designers get the chance to create something as iconic and high-profile as our own currency?

At the time of the coin competition debate, Design Business Association chief executive Deborah Dawton was quoted as saying, ‘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.’ I wonder how Dawton now views young Dent’s success? I appreciate that the DBA is protecting the interest of its members and the industry in general when it endeavours to save us from ‘exploitation’, but there are times when healthy competition is a good thing.

Emily Campbell, director of design at the Royal Society of Arts, and David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, are both in favour of public competitions, believing that the publicity surrounding the winners far outweighs the loss of potential fees. I’m sure Dent’s not complaining. He is obviously a gifted young designer who entered a competition and against all odds, he won. He’s ambitious – he entered his designs into D&AD at his own expense.

The Dent story is an inspiration to all young and not-so-young designers. Sometimes to achieve the unexpected we need to take risks. Sometimes it’s not just about the money. How much would most of us give for a coveted Black or Yellow Pencil?

Gary Cooke is the executive creative director of Open Agency

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