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Art Inquisition: Could You Be Our Next Winner?


The NYC Campaign Finance Board, of all places, may have me rethinking my general rule against design contests.

For the most part, I’m opposed to working for free (like most of us are). Spec work “for exposure” or “to see if I like it” isn’t an arrangement that would ever fly at the grocery store or doctor’s office, and contests don’t actually fulfill the real needs of the organization or individual hoping to get a ton of cool stuff to choose from. And you sure as hell can’t pay rent with ExposureBucks™.

HOWEVER, when we’re talking about civic engagement and getting people more involved with how our country is run, I’m all for it. After four years with a Statue of Liberty sticker designed by (then) 10-year-old Zoe Markman, NYC Votes is holding a contest to make a new “I voted!” sticker. Guidelines are simply to incorporate the phrase “I VOTED” into a design that fits in a two-inch circle, and must be submitted by April 14 at 5pm ET.

What makes this contest different? A few things, and they’re all a bit nebulous so I’m still not 100% certain I’m in favor. But good causes are, in general, well worth a smidge of my time. Donating a bit of work toward encouraging more people to be proud of voting seems like a win to me. Also, the “I voted” stickers are a fun add-on rather than part of a business’ brand or campaign. And not that money-making makes or breaks a contest, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s raking in mad cash off of “I voted!” stickers or anything. People love those stickers, even the most basic ones! (And I may be a bit jealous since Chicago gives out voting receipts instead of stickers.)

I honestly can’t think of anyone who wants to be asked to work for free. Even “budding artists” deserve something for their work, even if it’s just constructive feedback rather than blindly throwing their work into the void. And contests simply can’t provide the effective, tailored work most contest-holders are hoping to get by sheer luck. So is this one okay regardless of all that? While I’m leaning toward yes, I’m still on the fence.

What do you think? What makes an art/design contest good or bad? If “exposure” is acceptable compensation, how do artists pay rent or buy groceries? Are contests okay as long as everyone agrees to the terms? Is the work produced by a contest really the best for the job? What if nobody’s making any money off of it? Are there exceptions when working for free (or even paying an “entry fee” to work!) may be okay? Comment with your opinions below!

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab reader. It appears on random, occasional days at 3pm ET… Because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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