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Poster design by @DavidAirey

Once again the Twitter-sphere is crackling over a controversial spec work story—this time originating from a somewhat surprising source: the Obama election campaign. The campaign posted a call for “poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.” The irony here is rich.

Clearly this is an ethical misstep by the Obama campaign, but one that seems borne from ignorance rather than malice. As with other recent examples like the Huffington Post logo competition, I tend to favor the rhetoric of opportunity rather than the rhetoric of shame. I would encourage the campaign to view this moment as an opportunity to connect with an important constituency—the community of professional designers—and engage in a healthy dialogue about the value of design and the importance of strong, mutually beneficial professional relationships (not to mention paying jobs). Likewise, designers should seize the opportunity to sharpen our articulation of the value of what we do and to reconnect with our own networks using this as a living case study.

AIGA has a clear position on the issue of spec work that states that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. However, I also believe that designers must be careful to focus on the value of design rather than getting distracted by a debate about the evils of crowdsourcing and social media. These forces are here to stay, and this is a battle we will never win.

trophybThanks to Gaby Brink at Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco for forwarding this link to the DiabetesMine Design Challenge. DiabetesMine is a respected blog and online community for people living with diabetes. This brings up a topic that I’ve touched on a few times previously in Merge: business competitions.

I wrote in an earlier post about the experience Lisa and I had in the Minnesota Cup, a business competition here in our home state, which was a pivotal experience in the development of HealthSimple. We submitted our business plan in the inaugural Cup in 2005 and were thrilled to be selected as a finalist among 607 business plans that were entered that year—eventually we took the third place prize.

I think these competitions can be a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, but only in part because of the potential for financial reward. For Lisa and me, the Minnesota Cup introduced us to a network of people in the business world whom we would not otherwise have been exposed to. Among them, lawyers, bankers, publicists and successful entrepreneurs, many of whom became valued advisors as we built our business. Our finalist status also added credibility to HealthSimple as we were trying to establish key partnerships. Additionally, our participation in the Cup forced us to hunker down and write our first formal business plan for HealthSimple—a task we had been avoiding, but which proved to be of undeniable value for us.

(note to Minnesota designers: the 2009 Minnesota Cup is just getting underway—it would be great to see a wave of design-driven business plans in the competition this year)

One important note about business competitions with a design focus: the issue of communication designers providing services on a speculative basis is a very sensitive and complex one in our profession. AIGA has played a strong role in clarifying this issue and providing resources for designers to use in discussing the issue. For the record, I don’t consider the DiabetesMine contest to be a conflict in this way. DiabetesMine is not soliciting designs to be implemented by them for business gain (the way an organization might with a logo competition)—they are merely trying to support and nurture innovation in this important area.

Please send me links to other business competitions and I will post them on Merge.

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