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Contribution or Exploitation: Design Challenges for Social Good

Design challenges – pro bono contests and collaborations – have been created as a way for creators to support causes using their talents and skills. Challenges have been created by designers and illustrators in response to natural disasters or societal crises. However, social-cause challenges essentially require designers and illustrators to create work without compensation. That means that challenges can, and do, tread into questionable ethical territory. The burden is on the artist to assess the legitimacy of a challenge, and gauge whether the demands placed on participants are outweighed by the social good the artist intends to contribute to.

The International Council of Design recently posted an article, “Think Twice about Participating in Challenges Like Foodicons”,  about such a challenge that they feel crossed into questionable territory.

logo for Foodicons

The Foodicons Challenge asked designers to submit their icons designed to represent all aspects of the food system, such as basic food elements, agricultural techniques, supply chain, etc. Their self-stated goal is lofty: “…to provide people with greater food literacy, but also make the food system more transparent.” Submitted designs will be judged by a panel of food experts. The chosen designs will revealed at the UN Food Systems Summit in September of this year, and later folded as a free resource into the Noun Project’s iconography library.

The Council was contacted by Foodicons to see if they would support and promote the project. However, in examining the challenge’s terms, the Council came to the conclusion that Foodicons is basically “…a spec contest without any winners.” There were two factors which guided the Council’s assessment. First, unlike most design challenges, the beneficiaries of the Foodicons challenge are unidentified on the challenge website. In fact, the Council reported that the Foodicons organizers admitted in a communication that the icons resource will be available globally to a wide audience, including large manufacturers and growers – entities with deep pockets who have the means to compensate designers for the creation of needed icons and imagery.

Secondly, the Council was troubled by the expansive rights participating artists are required to grant Foodicons. The Foodicons terms ask of entrants whose icons are chosen for an expansive grant of rights which permit Foodicons and Nounproject users the right to “…edit, adapt, modify, reproduce, promote, publish, and otherwise use the entrant’s submission and/or its contents in any way and in any media for educational, promotional, and/or any other purposes.” While designers retain the copyrights to their creations, as the Council points out, that sort of whole-sale grant of rights renders copyright ownership almost meaningless.

Both of these factors – the opaqueness of the project beneficiaries, which admittedly includes large corporations, and the expansive granting of rights ­– place the contest into an ethical grey area. The organizers have dangled in front of participants the promise that they will be credited on the Noun Project’s website, as are all contributors to the Project’s lexicon. But that “benefit” is the tired “exposure” argument designers and illustrators have heard time and time again.

Devaluing Designers and Illustrators

Work on spec contests range from contests soliciting free work for a product, event, or brand, to crowd-sourcing websites which require designers to compete on creative briefs, to hiring homework. At the root of each is that designers and illustrators are asked to work for free, on the “speculation” (or hope) that they will receive some sort of compensation in exchange (such as an award, recognition, publicity, or the granting of a paying project). The artist is usually asked to work in competition with other artists, meaning that the chance of realizing the benefit is a numbers game: how many other artists are competing, and what chance to you have of “winning”?

The truly troubling thing about such contests is that they are teaching generations of visual artists and clients to trivialize the work of designers. Creating icons and symbols which truly communicate complex messages and provide a visual short-hand require thought, a development process, and, when done right, a back-and-forth between the designer and stakeholders/clients. Even when participating in a contest where engagement with a client isn’t part of the process, a competent designer will engage in a research and development, producing sketches and working through ideas before producing a design they are comfortable submitting. And yet a non-designer viewing the Foodicons website would be led to believe that the creation of an icon simply involves coming up with a drawing, popping it into a shape, and abiding by some simple image branding guidelines.

The result is that an appreciation of the value of the work of the artist is decoupled from the solicitation of the artist’s labor. Designers and illustrators are becoming commoditized, viewed as the simple producers of products with little intrinsic value beyond the sheer labor involved. Even the compensation for that labor is being challenged; crowd-sourcing and work-on-spec contests demand work with less and less (if any) return for the artist. It’s a trend that Tricia McKiernan, the Guild’s executive director, warned about at the Council’s Platform Meeting in 2014:

Crowd-sourcing may be legal as a business model, but it is another form of spec work taken to an extreme, and far from ethical from the Guild’s perspective. We’re talking about devaluing the work of an entire profession in an incredibly public fashion. Crowd-sourcing sites encourage below market rates and treat graphic artists as an expendable commodity instead of highly trained professionals providing a genuine service.
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When Pro Bono Is for the Public Good

There are design challenges which do in fact serve a greater public good, and do so without devaluing illustrators and designers. These challenges are truly “pro bono” – for the “public good,” as in the original Latin meaning. They give creators who often do not have extensive financial resources a way to support causes they believe in.

A good example of such a challenge are the Font Aid campaigns organized by the Society of Typographic Aficianados in the early 2000s. Font Aid I started as a campaign organized by Swedish designer Claes Källarsson in 1999. Font Aid I solicited designers to participate in the creation of a collaborative typeface, with all proceeds from sales going to a UNICEF refugee organization. Subsequent Font Aid campaigns benefited victims of 9/11, the earthquakes and tsunamis in South Asia and Japan, Hurricane Sandy, and the earthquakes which struck the Philippines. Participants created glyphs based on a theme unique to each relief effort, such as sun images for the Philippines relief, or icons based on Japanese popular culture.

As contributions to a collective work (the typefaces and icon libraries resulting from the campaigns), the works submitted to the  Font Aid campaigns are considered works-made-for-hire. (As explained in the Copyright Office’s guidelines, works commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work may be work-may-for-hire if there is a written agreement between the creator and the commissioning party.) Participants in the challenges are acknowledged on the Society’s website.

What makes challenges such as Font Aid different from Foodicons is that these campaigns directly benefited communities ravaged by disasters. For each Font Aid campaign, proceeds raised from sales of the typefaces, icon sets, and other products went to benefit local aid organizations. The Society informed participants that submissions were considered “charitable works.” Additionally, the Society contributed considerable effort to each challenge. A team of volunteers from the Society donated their time to cull through the submissions, select the final glyphs, and assemble the collections using Adobe Illustrator and FontLab.

Best Practices for Participating in Design Challenges

Every illustrator and designer makes their own choice on how they give back to their communities and work towards a better world. However, before deciding to participate in design and illustration contests – even ones devised to benefit non-profits and support causes – it’s advisable to dig into the contest a bit and ask some hard questions before investing your time and effort:

  • Does the contest truly contribute to the greater good? Does it support a cause, community, or non-profit, and how? Who benefits from the contest?
  • Is the contest green- or white-washing a corporate entity or organization?
  • Are funds raised by the contest, and if so, how? Are products sold using the contest submissions? Who receives those funds?
  • Is the contest asking you to create original work? Or can you submit pre-existing work?
  • Read the contest’s terms, in particular the language regarding copyrights and licensing. What type of rights licensing are they asking for? Do you retain the copyrights to your work? Are you granting the organizer, the beneficiary, or some other entity (such as a corporate sponsor) generous licensing terms?
  • What benefit do you gain from participating from the contest? Is your attribution – your name and other identifying information – attached to your submission, so that you get some recognition?

Also consider the impact challenges and work-on-speculation contests have on the design and illustration professions as a whole. Designers and illustrators can refer to ICoD’s Position on Unpaid Work. The guidelines exist to provide some clarity on the different forms of speculative work, and help designers come to a more informed decision.



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