Big Picture Design Challenge. Comments on a student and recent graduate design competition organised by the DIA and McDonald's.
9th December, 2009 by Graeme Smith
I recently saw an email along with some pdf and jpg attachments that came from the DIA (Design Institute of Australia) that made me question the effectiveness of design's industry bodies to look after the best interests of the people they represent, and frankly, it upset me.
The email's title read, 'DIA Big Picture Design Challenge – Call for Entries Deadline Extension 16/11', and the recipients were evidently from a mailing list headed, Design Media & Organisations.
After expressing delight in reporting that the deadline has been extended for 'Aussie & Kiwi design and photography students / recent graduates...' the covering letter goes on to say that the 'DIA, in partnership with McDonald's Australia launched the Big Picture Design Challenge to provide unique opportunities and platform for young designers and photographers.
Briefly, their proposal is this: students and recent graduates submit imagery, the final use being, if selected, murals on the walls of McDonald's restaurants in Australia and New Zealand as well as other promotional applications listed in the Terms and Conditions as, 'including but not limited to electronic media, newspapers, magazine and catalogues for any purpose at any time after the Promotion.'
The 'Challenge', as the letter states is to, 'Design outstanding images destined for any surface or area at McDonald's restaurants, which define and promote Australia's and New Zealand's diversity.' There are three categories. Photographic Image: prize $1,000. Vector Graphics: prize $1,000. Mixed Medium Image: prize $2,000. Additionally fifty finalists will be paid $100 each and there could be a 5% royalties deal and a chance to sell afterwards. Not a lot of money really, especially when comparing it to the amounts McDonald's must spend on TV commercials and fitouts, and a read of the fine print reveals more. What they want these lucky students and recent graduates to supply them with is a lot. I'll come back to this later.
First, the minor irritants.
The brief: I suppose at a glance, a brief like—if a bit on the thin side— 'define and promote Australia's and New Zealand's diversity' sounds like it could provide some scope for a student designer or someone fresh out of college and keen to get their teeth into a big idea on culture. But read on, because despite some jaunty encouragements: 'Grab your camera and start snapping abstract, lifestyle, active, portrait or place photographs' and 'Fire up your creative mind and vectorise basic...', there are other guidelines to reflect upon. Listed under the heading 'Inspiration' and sub-headed "To help kick off the creative process, consider the following', are McDonald's brand values and things important to McDonald's. Ok, you may be thinking, so why shouldn't they put up pictures that reflect their brand values? Well, yes, why not? But the point is that the DIA and McDonald's appear to be looking for a major input of promotional creativity—communication design, marketing, interior graphics, call it what you will—in my opinion, recast as a student opportunity.
'There have been big changes at McDonald's recently' the breathless headline on the Call for Entries reads, '—from new menu ranges to re-designed restaurants. Calling all design students and recent graduates, here's your chance to get in on the action and showcase your talent!' The brief contained in the Call for Entries, however, goes way beyond a call for autonomous creative expression on a theme of cultural identity. It's positioned unambiguously within the realm of corporate—more than cultural— identity. Put simply, what the DIA and McDonald's are asking for is an extension of brand identity for an unreasonably low fee.
A lot of preparation for a hundred or so dollars: Entrants are instructed to download an entry pack that includes a Powerpoint entry template, a selection of McDonald's interior or exterior images and a talent release form. They need to write an interpretation of the brief in less than 100 words and submit their presentation files using a specific naming procedure. This is a reasonable request. It levels the field for entrants and it facilitates pre-selection and judging.
Significant file preparation follows, however, for the fifty finalists. Presumably, whether their work ends up being published or not, finalists are expected to follow precise guidelines for submitted work files—guidelines, in my view, that most practising graphic designers would recognise as specifications to make artworks production-ready or something close to it. Of course, if artworks are going to be installed in large format they need to comply to some rigourous standards—all the checking, adjusting, finessing and checking once more that happens in a commercial studio and takes a lot of time. Even at intern rates it would add up to more than $100. The instructions at one point even request professional scans! Add this to the time the students and recent graduates have already put into thinking up, planning and creating their imagery.
It's just not fair: All practising visual communicators have heard various forms of this promise many, many times: 'This will be a great opportunity for you for exposure!' Inevitably it is usually paired with a trade-off: the money is lousy. Students and early career designers are prime targets for this ploy because they so passionately want to stretch themselves, make their mark, simply get started. Another inevitability is loss of rights: intellectual property. Not only is the work acquired for minimal outlay, the maker often loses his or her rights over usage and usually isn't in a strong position to demand them. As mentioned earlier, the Terms and Conditions for 'Big Picture' clearly states that McDonald's can use artworks for whatever purpose they like—and in some cases it may be for $100.00.
Now for the major irritant.
Best practice: The Big Picture' Terms and Conditions clearly states this: 'The Promotion outline adheres to ICOGRADA's (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) 'Regulation and best practices for organising design award competitions best practice paper'.
I have to say, that after reading the Call for Entries I was surprised by ICOGRADA's endorsement. Both ICOGRADA and my own affiliated industry body, AGDA, actively support student development through engaging with industry but both have ethical guidelines, and while they can't be 'policed', they do put forward a plain language description of some practices or behaviours they consider exploitative. I'm less familiar with the way the DIA operates. Perhaps the DIA has a more flexible view on best practice for visual communicators than AGDA or ICOGRADA.
I downloaded a copy of ICOGRADA's "Regulations and best practices for organising design award competitions' and had a read through it.
The introduction commences, 'Design award competitions differ from competitions for contract work. Award competitions are aimed at evaluating and recognising existing work. The purpose is to illustrate and define current benchmarks, and to highlight leading social, cultural and economic markers that may influence future design projects.' What this indicates is that the paper referred to by the DIA is a paper about industry awards for existing works, such as AGDA may organise in which a graphic designer is awarded by peers for an exemplary piece of web design or photography or print work. This is not about competing for the chance to win new work and it is not about speculative calls for proposals.
ICOGRADA has another best practice paper called 'Best Practice: Soliciting work from professional communication designers', that states, 'Speculative calls for proposals are exploitative because they demand work without guarantee of compensation.' Of course, there is a loophole here for apologists for Big Picture. The title of this paper says 'professional designers' and we're talking about students and recent graduates. But let's at least think more expansively about the ones just out of college and call them professionals, then let's be a little more expansive and realistic, and admit that a student who supplies work to the commercial world at least deserves to be called 'practising' and in this sense the spirit of ICOGRADA's paper should cover their interests as much as any seasoned designer.
Students do get a mention in this second paper, under 'Special considerations'. 'Calls for proposals from students— If you want to limit the Call for Proposals to students of communication design, you must define the learning outcome of the assignment. It is not appropriate to publish a Call for Proposals for communication design work that is limited to students simply for budget considerations'. Yes, loopholes again, in that we're talking about calls for entries and not calls for full commercial world, supplier proposals. And of course the learning outcome, though not defined in the Call for Entries, may go something like, 'It's a learning experience because a student or recent graduate can work to a brief for a real-life client'.
It's hard to cover the working life interests of a practitioner from entry to exit levels with a couple of industry papers, but regardless, there are still some sensitive souls in the visual communications industry and I believe in the Councils of AGDA and ICOGRADA who remember times when they were easily taken advantage of because they were young and keen, as there are also more work-hardened cynics like myself, who know bullshit when they hear it. What I'm saying is that when you know something isn't right, there are obligations that come into play outside of the bounds of industry charters.
This competition will continue to run as planned and after the results are announced it will be easy for anyone to supply loads of evidence that in this project, everyone was a winner. Doubtless there will be students and educators who speak highly of it as a welcome exercise in corporate philanthropy. There will be publicity shots of happy students, some wonderful wall graphics and some happy families happily munching in front of them. Except for the designers who didn't make the grade (perhaps because their work didn't align enough with corporate values) all those unrewarded hours of work and bright ideas will be forgotten.
The purpose of my writing here is not to criticise the general practice values of McDonald's. Large companies often do much good for communities, groups and individuals that need help. McDonald's puts significant effort into community projects but they also understand deeply, that direct and indirect commercial rewards flow on from aligning these good works to brand.
Big Picture will provide exposure to some talented design students but for a few thousand dollars, McDonald's will get a lot more exposure. It will have in essence a powerful marketing campaign that connects its corporate values to its customers' lives and it will have some appealing imagery for its many walls, and by the sound of the Terms and Conditions, all file-prepped and production-ready.
My problem, however, is not so much what McDonald's will get, but how, in partnership with the DIA, they will get it.
I'm certain there are many ways to combine student talent and enthusiasm with commercial goals to create a result in which everyone is happy and is satisfied that the exercise has been worthwhile, enriching, profitable. Some of these ways could be by competition, but my feeling is that at least some of the reasoning behind this competition is less than noble and the acquisition process and terms are patently unfair.
Graeme Smith - Parcel
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