…and this time with a cousin in the creative community, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for their Art Works logo design contest. While not openly advertising it as a contest, NEA is asking for completed design work to be submitted with the proposal. Some may ask “So what?” But there has been long-standing opposition in the creative community about speculative work. For thorough explanations of this issue, see here and here. The fact that this has come up so often makes one wonder why such a notable institution would engage in this way.

The design community is chiming in from various corners like today’s Huffington Post article and comments on the NEA’s own Web page for the contest announcement itself. Debbie Millman, president of AIGA sent out a tweet today questioning NEA’s intentions.

If you had the energy to wade through the 23-page RFP (request for proposal), you’d note the curious lack of creative brief (I discuss briefs here). A government agency needs pages and pages of liability, rules and restrictions. But for such a seemingly important project, for which they are willing to spend upwards of $25,000, the fact that the creative criteria for the work is so thin seems negligent.

Here is the RFP. There are also two amendments—answers to proposers’ questions. Some questions revealed a lack of reading the most basic elements of the proposal, which NEA found themselves repeating over and over: how many design options can I submit? One. Some questions revealed a laudable desire for more information. One asked why they were asking for design solutions in a proposal. NEA justifies this request saying: Since we believe that art works for everyone, this is meant as an opportunity to solicit ideas from as broad a public as possible and invite this country’s creative community to engage with their NEA.

While this is a nice thought, the benefits are not to the country’s creative community; they are to NEAfree ideas, no guarantee that any idea will be selected and ownership of all submitted ideas.

Which brings me to a few big problems with this RFP (aside from the obvious).

The “winner” believes they can get $25,000 if their proposal is chosen. NEA makes no claim to compensate that amount; it is merely their budget’s upper limit. I’m sure NEA has figured out that it’s in their best interests to pick a design that they can live with (but which represents them well enough), and have money left over. This is what multiple free ideas gets you—leveraging power. And once the work is done, it’s hard to justify the worth. The designer did give it away for free after all. Why would the recipient bother spending $25,000?

Another problem is the lack of a well-fleshed out brief about the Art Works program. The thin criteria designers are reacting to amounts to designing in a vacuum, rather than designing for a purpose. The “audience” is the American people. Given our health care debate, you’d hardly think we were one people. Not that it’s impossible to design for such a diverse group, just that you would think an organization like the NEA with a $25,000 budget cared enough to communicate more.

Also, it is surprising that a government-funded organization, also receiving donations, has the staff time available to receive, organize, print and review hundreds, maybe thousands, of submissions. Is this in line with their mission? And I’m on their side!

If the NEA had kept to the original (implied) spirit by limiting submissions to students, it could begin to justify the contest if they were to build an educational campaign around identity development. But the project is open to the world at large. And the fact that they are also claiming ownership of all submitted ideas means that they are freeing themselves of liability should they decide to use those ideas down the road, uncompensated.

There is more to say on this subject than I should write in a blog post. I’ll just end with this ironic statement from the RFP, which is the third of three interpretations of the word Art Works, as seen by NEA.

3. “Art Works” is a reminder that arts workers are real workers who are part of this country’s real economy. They earn salaries, support families, pay taxes. Artists are also entrepreneurs and placemakers, who revitalize towns, cities, and neighborhoods – both the economies and the ethos of them.

I couldn’t agree more.

Update June 2: Read D.K. Holland’s piece in Communication Arts: “Where Our Wild Things Are: Graphic design ethics in an age of exacerbation.”

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