Wikipedia are having a design competition.

Whilst it doesn’t come as a complete shock that a site which offers free content is after free work, I’m still reeling from the opportunity that this presents to some designers, and recoiling from the effect this type of project has on the industry.

A while ago, I did some work for a Music TeleVision network. I’ve also done some work for some other pretty big brands in my time as a designer. The one thing that is pretty much constant with all of these big brands is an element of brand worship. You are expected to, as a supplier, bend over backwards in order to pander to their needs (because they’re big, right? And you need them much more than they need you). Now, a lot of you would say that’s the way we should all be for our clients right? Well, yes and no. For me, it comes down to respect.

A client should respect their supplier. In my day job, we commission design sometimes. Simply put, I wouldn’t commission an agency or individual who I didn’t respect and trust to get the job done. Common sense right? Well, yes, but in larger organisations, who might not have a designer on hand to assist in the commissioning process, this is where things start to break down and the cycle of miscommunication begins—usually ending the supplier being screwed down on price because half of the budget has been spent internally. Anyway, I digress.

Wikipedia, in my opinion, are doing a bad thing by holding a design competition.

Why? Well, Andy Standfield makes exactly the right point in the ‘discuss’ page for the Wikipedia competition. He says:

This is not, in fact, a “good idea.” Regardless of whether or not there is any prize or payment for such a “contest,” this is still spec work, and Wikimedia should not practice this kind of bad business. By running such a contest, you are devaluing the work professional designers do, and you are doing a disservice to yourself in that any proposal which comes from this kind of contest has no market or technical research behind it.

I would propose that, instead, Wikimedia ask designers to submit queries of interest. No actual designs or proposals should be submitted. Rather designers should be allowed to invite Wikimedia to view their portfolios and prices (or lack thereof).

In all actuality, what would really be best is for Wikimedia to simply go and look at designers’ portfolios and when they find someone they believe could do the deal, they should query them as to whether or not they’d be willing to do the work pro bono. You’d be surprised at how many professional designers would love to be able to work with you for free.

Please see the No!Spec website for more information on how this could possibly hurt Wikimedia and furthers damage to the design industry.

I totally agree. Yet, I feel drawn by the possibility of being involved in such a project. Back on goes my design ethics and business head and I agree again. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. Part of you wants to (usually your heart), part of you doesn’t (usually your head).

Kim Bruning replies:

Hmmm, Wikipedia is Open Content, so the “rules of the game” might be somewhat different from what you’re accustomed to. Would you care to comment on that?

Andy did comment:

I can’t really comment on it since I don’t really see how it pertains the subject. It’s spec no matter what the content or organizational structure is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a multimillion dollar international corporation, a two-person small business, or NPO (like the Wikimedia Foundation). The “rules of the game” are the same. Seriously, read through that No! site. You might find it really interesting and enlightening.

Based on Kim’s answer, I’m very much inclined to agree with Andy. Open Content, I feel, is not a concept you can apply to design. Design is a process, not an end result. It’s not a ‘skin’, or a ‘theme’ or a pretty little logo made out of puzzle pieces.

Let’s say, for one moment, I submitted a couple of photoshop comps complete with logos, grids, colourways and typographic design. What is involved in just one visual.

  • Thinking
  • Sketching
  • More thinking
  • More sketching
  • Working up logo ideas
  • Finalising and working up final logo
  • Applying logotype, with overall brand development, to a brand styleguide
  • Sketching up ideas for proposed screen
  • Applying brand guidelines
  • Many hours of tweaking (so, it’s just right)
  • etc.
  • etc.

Until you get to a design visual. Can you see what happened there? The design is not the end result, the design is process one took to arrive at a solution to the problems. There’s just so much in there to give away for nothing. Yeah, you may get your name up in lights, but at what cost?

Make no mistake, this project is a high profile big deal. But it’s also going to take ages.

But Wikipedia want a design, a free one, and they’ll get it because they are Wikipedia and you will bow to the brand and this will keep happening until designers, real ones, say NO to free work.

I still want a crack at it though. You see, there goes my heart again.