SDN Contest Boycott

As part of the 2009 SDN conference this fall Volkswagen is sponsoring a “service design competition” on the topic of automotive mobility and future services. The idea is to propose a brief abstract with visuals regarding the design of a new vehicle service in the hope of winning a 1000 € reward and a paid trip to the conference in Madeira.

I’d like to encourage readers of Design for Service to boycott this contest. Working for free or speculatively (on “spec”) devalues our profession. We should collectively take a stand against it.

Design “contests” have a long and pernicious history in the worlds of graphic design, advertising and architecture but I haven’t noticed a contest like this in the service design space until now. My background is in graphic design and both AIGA and the Graphic Artists Guild have long debated the ethical nature of such work. I can see why companies love contests; they result in dozens or hundreds of free design submissions in return for a modest payout to the “winner” well below the cost of hiring the designer directly. In this case 1,000 euros probably translates to less than a day with an established design firm.

In a service design context this is even more destructive. Is SDN honestly supporting the notion that service designers should churn out a potential design in isolation without ever having met the client? Is that desirable — or even possible? It feels like the worst of “genius” design folly shoehorned into a service design context. Even then it’s not clear that what Volkswagen is asking for falls within the realm of service design. It gives the impression that a GPS for your car somehow qualifies.

I want the Service Design Network to succeed but this contest is disappointing and reflects poorly on the organization and on service design as a practice.


  1. I agree entirely. When I saw this yesterday I wondered how people would feel about it.
    We get a lot of design competitions in education and my criteria for doing them is a) is it truly educational and b) is it a non-commercial project?
    In other words, if the purpose of doing it is merely the chance to win an award or recognition, don’t do it. If it’s to learn something through doing it, fine. Although even then, I think as educators we really should be developing our own curriculum rather than slavishly following whatever turns up each year from the likes of D&AD et al.

    And if the project is a way of getting cheap work, don’t touch it with a barge pole. I know if one national competition which charges companies a fortune to put its briefs in front of students and two things happen: you get lots of briefs from companies that are intended simply to get their names in front of young people (i.e. the students) and so the competition is an opportunity to advertise to a key market; or you get briefs from people looking for ideas or possibly to recruit staff. Either way, the fee is cheaper than doing it the traditional way!

    Design competitions that are not explicitly educational and are judged on clear educational criteria rather than quality of artwork or execution should be banned, or educators should boycott them.

    And in industry, they’re just a bad idea. They’re the equivalent of a free pitch. €1000 is a very cheap way of getting a lot of ideas from people. I think SDN have shot themselves in the foot with this.

  2. Jeff,
    I’m with you in that this doesn’t actually appear to be a very service oriented brief from the outset. That said I feel there is another more optimistic perspective that I’d like to propose:

    – Viewing this as a proactive opportunity to overcome the previously identified hurdles of getting to this years conference.

    – Something that can be scaled to the maximum value it presents (however many hours 1000 euros is worth). If that is two, so be it, adopt the mindset of doing the best we can within the imposed constraints.

    – A chance to identify your own users and contact them directly. VW and the SDN are the mediators of this competition not the end users.

    Sure VW stand to gain, but probably not as much as the SDN stand to lose if we all grumble and boycott their first initiative of this kind.

    Most of all this is a chance for students particularly, but all of us to test our methods, skills and approaches against others and test our ability to communicate them succinctly. In doing so I imagine like any competition we will learn a lot about ourselves and each other.

    In many ways it is already having this effect but don’t worry we’ve got until the 15th September to make sure we can feel good about our contribution to this competion and our fledgling discipline.

  3. sdn office

    Dear Readers,

    We, the sdn office, would like to apologise for the concern and irritation that was obviously caused by the announcement of the Service Design Competition sponsored by Volkswagen AG.

    With regard to the announcement on our website, we would however like to point out that submissions are of course thought to be first concepts and ideas (rather than fully elaborated Service Design findings), which might bring about concrete projects in contracted cooperation with Volkswagen AG.
    All rights regarding submissions will remain with the competition participants at all times. It is certainly not our intention to support companies capitalizing on contests in gaining intellectual property and using it in their own advantage and profit. Apart from publication, press and advertising activities related to the competition itself, Volkswagen AG and sdn will not use submissions commercially without the definite approval of or in cooperation with the respective winner/participant.

    We hope that this statement will clarify our intention and confront any further doubts!
    Best wishes , your sdn office

  4. Jeff

    I recognize that attitudes toward this practice may vary in other cultures around the world. Ultimately it falls to each person to determine for themselves whether working speculatively is appropriate.

    Noting that submissions might bring about concrete projects with Volkswagen casts this more in the light of speculative architectural competitions rather than “design our logo” graphic design contests and while this is somewhat better it still results in an overwhelming majority of participants working without compensation for their efforts.

    But the general prohibition against design contests and the questionable nature of the service brief are both secondary issues to me.

    What most concerns me is the negative impression this conveys about how service design works — that a design concept springs forth fully formed from the fertile mind of the design guru. Working in isolation (individually or even in teams of three) rather than working with Volkswagen to co-create value appropriate to their circumstances.

    If Volkswagen were to sponsor a service design project at KISD, CIID, CMU or the like, that might be a different matter (if it fell under the criteria that Jonathan identifies above). It would need to be explicitly educational and the client would need to commit to a proper co-design effort. This would better reflect the values and perspective of service design.

    But in its current form this contest is something that I don’t believe the community should support.

  5. Jeff, your point is very important and well-put. A “competition” doesn’t sit well with the concept of service design, which is a process that begins a long way before any “first concepts or ideas” are arrived at.
    Therefore for anyone to take part in this with any degree of seriousness would require a great deal of time and effort.

    There are techniques, of course, designed to generate ideas quickly and they are often very useful. But again, that approach is not always appropriate.

    But thinking through this logically, if the competition were along the lines of “demonstrating how rapid development techniques can be applied to service design problems” it might be more interesting. From an educational point of view, that would give me a hook for introducing students to some of the tools.
    If I were in the sector, I might use the competition as a way of developing my team, or as a creative diversion, knowing it should only take a couple of hours.

    So there is a way of approaching this appropriately. A regular series of challenges, based around development of new ways of working or thinking, sponsored by companies might be a great addition to SDN’s work.

    All credit to SDN in replying to this post and comments thread.

  6. Dear Jeff, dear All,
    I really appreachiate your feedback and the discussion – we are willing to learn!
    Our idea was to have a sponsored “competition like event” every year and make this part of SDN tradition. It would enable the winner to come to the conference location for free, win little money, connect to the sponsor ….and it would be interesting for all the network members to see work done all over the world on the same topic.
    So we would be really happy if we could make this “fly” and we are still able to integrate your suggestions in the way we design this competition. We could use this discussion to improve it step by step, building on this years experience. So your suggestions on how to improve are very welcome. And it would be great if you could support the SDN by making this a good and positive opportunity. Thanks!!
    My best regards,
    Birgit

  7. Enric

    Jeff’s position totally resonates with me. I don’t like it when companies try to take advantage of the massive pool of designers and design offices that are trying to get some visibility in the design space in order to potentially get future work.

    On the other hand, I am also a big advocate of free markets, and if designers end up submitting proposals to the competition, it will probably happen because they have done some cost-benefit analysis mentally and is in some way positive for them to participate (few hours of work invested for potentially a free pass to a conference and some extra reputation).

    From the Volkswagen side though, I don’t know how good is the ROI on the money they are investing in the competition: as it has been pointed above, solutions will be generic ideas that could apply generically to the whole car industry and nothing extremely relevant to Volkswagen per se. I would like to believe Volkswagen has an internal team of designers that have deep industry knowledge and way more resources to find the answers to the questions they propose than the average service designer.

    Which makes me think about what exactly is Volkswagen trying to get out of this competition: Do they need new ideas from outside because they are suffering internally the ‘curse of knowledge’? Or maybe, are they doing some undercover primary research asking designers what would be their ideal vehicle service so VW can later use this insights to market their cars to edgy consumers?

  8. Rachel

    I am a recent graduate with a little limited experience of design competitions, but would like to make a little comment for what it is worth.

    I am, I suppose, a service designer, although as I get comfortable in my own skin I am finding out what that really means. For me to explain what I do to anyone who isn’t already well acquainted with it is quite tricky. SDN is helping to define what Service Design is, to expand the industry’s reputation and professional credibility, and help me explore what my skills could be good for. That doesn’t mean I adore everything they do, but appreciate where they are going.

    To this end, I see SDN as something that is growing.

    I can see both sides of this debate about competition, and the format in which this one has arrived. It is the first in a growing network, so maybe people could suggest how the NEXT one could be conducted. This would give Birgit and her team something constructive to work with, and would avoid slamming this relatively new endeavour that young designers such as myself really could benefit from as it evolves.

    A few suggestions to get the ball rolling:

    – A competition with a set TIME LIMIT, as I believe was suggested by someone earlier in this debate. Please see Core77’s one hour design challenge as an example:
    http://www.core77.com/blog/featured_items/new_1_hour_design_challenge_launches_today_ideation_sketches_14243.asp

    This would still be free work I suppose, but a time constraint makes it a more reasonable venture.

    – Alternatively, maybe a LIVE WORKING SESSION: sketching, thinking online thing of some sort? Members can log in at a certain time, watch the session leaders and contribute, feedback, share discussions.
    I know this may be a logistical nightmare, but would be time-limited, more beneficial to be involved in (as opposed to working in isolation), would include an opportunity to hear a client’s POV, and is about discussions and relationships, which surely is at the heart of Services.
    Organisers could select a contributor as a winner, from observing and later analysing the contributions.

    It’s just an idea, I would like to hear other people’s suggestions.
    How can you run a ‘service design’ competition without compromising the integrity issues others here have highlighted?

    Thanks for reading, all the best to everyone and thanks for the lively discussion. I love it!

    P.S. Please don’t underestimate the value of contact between students/young designers and industry, for both parties. An opportunity for one, and exposure to untempered, fresh thinking for the other. I hope!

  9. Will

    I sense a strongly political bias of yours toward large corporations engaging in design competitions. If we isolate ourself from partners of our practice, then what’s the difference between our profession as service ‘designer’ and a pure ivory tower type design academics? Also I encourage to look into the details of the the competition (they clearly state that all the rights are remained to the winner). I am quite dissappointed with your unfairly politicized post since I really like other entries you offer.

  10. Jeff

    Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. I’ve responded to SDN elsewhere with suggestions for addressing these issues in future contests, though I’m not convinced that there should be any future contests, and I’d prefer that they cancel this one.

    The only competitions I view as semi-legitimate are those which are used as a venue for judging existing work, not as grounds for commissioning new work. Some sort of annual review of service design case studies could be quite valuable for both students and practitioners. It was also help to evangelize service design by packaging case studies into a digestible form for businesses to browse.

    I also agree with you about the importance of connecting students to industry. It was not so long ago that I was in a similar position. But students are also at a greater risk of being exploited because of their willingness to devalue their own work. And this contest doesn’t connect students to industry; that’s one of my principle objections. Most entrants will never even meet with VW, much less engage them in co-design.

    And William, I would have hoped that after two and a half years of writing here I’d earned a little more credit for making an argument in good faith.

    But in some sense this is political. Politics are ethics on a group scale. And this does involve ethical ramifications. However, it has nothing to do with the size of the corporation; in my experience smaller organizations are just as likely to see merit in commissioning free work.

    I agree with you about the hazard of isolation from partners of our practice but this contest in no way addresses that danger. In fact, it encourages ivory tower concepts. To repeat what I wrote above, that’s one of my principle objections. Most entrants will never meet VW. Will never work with them. Will gain nothing from the experience other than a reinforced belief that it is possible to work in isolation. That is unacceptable.

    This objection is by no means unique. It’s overwhelmingly common in more mature design disciplines.

    Part of my frustration stems from a failure of leadership on SDN’s part. As a parallel in the world of graphic design AIGA has been quite clear in taking a stand against these sorts of competitions. I would expect SDN to take a similar position in standing up for the rights of designers. Instead they appear to be on precisely the opposite side of the issue.