February 20, 2006

Design competition opens to controversy

A competition sponsored by the Department of Canadian Heritage has raised the ire of graphic designers.

The contest is called My Canadian Cultural Gateway Webpage Competition. The Design Exchange, a design museum in Toronto, is running the open call to redesign the website, Culture.ca.

Culture.ca is a gateway into Canadian cultural content. It provides links to Canadian architecture, film, graphics, literature, arts and culture in Canada. It also has links to the CBC archives and Radio 3. There’s design news and a listing of festivals and events across the country.

The redesign contest will consider all entries. A committee will pick the top three proposals and there will be an online vote. The winning project team will receive $2500. So what’s the controversy?

Mark Busse, design director of Industrial Brand Creative of Vancouver, is infuriated by the whole idea. He says, “The open competition solicits free work from anyone who cares to call themselves designers.”

He says, “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be done. Actually, it breaks the ethics and practices code for registered graphic designers.”

Societies like the Graphic Designer of Canada or the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario prohibit their members from doing speculative work.

Busse says, “It cheapens the value of design and what makes it worse is that institutions like the Design Exchange and Canadian Heritage are supposed to support and encourage professional design.”

Usually, design projects from the federal government are put forward as request for proposals. RFP’s, as they are called, require designers to submit their qualifications, a portfolio of their previous work, and information about their design method. A jury or a selection committee would pick a number of teams to compete. Those short-listed teams would receive an honorarium. Busse says, “Even $500, would be fair. Then a winner would be picked. That’s the professional way of doing it.”

“You don’t walk into a dentist’s office and ask him or her to do one filling for free and if you like it you allow them to do the whole mouth.”

Both the Graphic Designers of Canada and the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario have asked for the competition to be withdrawn. Instead, they want Canadian Heritage and the Design Exchange to make a request for proposals.

Victoria's Peggy Cady is the president of the Graphic Designers of Canada. By e-mail she argued, “The result of speculative contests is that the client doesn't get what they really need. Good work is developed and matured through the process of a thorough briefing, consultation, research and design.”

Now, it may sound like research and design don’t need to go hand in hand, but according to Carmen Von Richthofen, executive director of RGD Ontario, good research “prevents copyright infringement and plagiarism.”

After a long day of answering e-mails from the design community, the president of the Design Exchange, Samantha Sannella still believes open competition produces the best work.

This might be the result of her own experience as an architect. In architecture, there is a tradition of speculative architecture that has created some important, visionary architectural ideas.

“This is only Culture.ca, version 0.5,” says Sannella, making reference to the numbering system used to designate prototype versions of software.

Sannella also adds that they plan to repost the contest and to explain to the professional community that there will be a formal qualification process as the design process continues. In other words, she says this is only a preliminary call for public visions, more like an online public consultation that will be refined later with professional input.

The new call will be posted in the next few days.


  1. Thanks in part to protests by GDC and media coverage like this, a follow up email from the Design Exchange Express was sent out saying :

    "Oops! We Made a Mistake! Our recent Express alert included a teaser announcing an upcoming project with Culture.ca. This project is only at the conceptual stage and no decision to proceed has been made. We apologize for any inconvenience the announcement may have caused.".

    Good job JJ.

  2. Thanks to the Design Exchange for “promoting the value of Canadian Design.”

    We have a rant going over at our blog. Please join us :)


  3. Very interesting reading. Thanks.



  4. Good stuff. Thanks for a nice blog.


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