GR Parks Signage Design Competition

To our membership and extended design community:

Several weeks ago the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department announced a competition to re-design the park entry sign used throughout all 75 Grand Rapids parks. At that time several of our members reached out to us with concerns. While we don’t doubt that the Parks and Recreation Department had good intentions with an open-call contest, we felt compelled to open a dialogue and share with them AIGA’s strong stance against spec work. To that end, we sent the following letter to David Marquardt, director of the Grand Rapids Parks department. We’re sharing this letter and the outcomes with our membership and extended design community because it is in this organization’s mission to define global standards and ethical practices.


Dear David Marquardt and the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department,

We have recently been informed of the new Parks Signage Design Competition that is currently being hosted through the city.

As President of the West Michigan chapter of AIGA, the nation’s largest and oldest professional association for design, I wanted to reach out to you and let you know that — the members of our board, and others in our community, have concerns regarding this particular design competition and the negative impact it may have on the West Michigan creative community.

While we are very excited at the idea of updating signs and the collaboration that can occur between the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department and the amazing creative talent we have here, we do feel it is our duty to inform you that competitions asking artists and designers to contribute their talent, time, and rights of ownership, with only the potential of being compensated for their efforts is considered spec work, and is against standards of professional practice. AIGA strongly opposes work solicited in this manner. To be clear, in your competition guidelines: “The City of Grand Rapids will own the winning design, including the right to modify as necessary and to use for other locations as appropriate.” This is taking away intellectual property rights from a creative that did the work without compensation.

For such a design-focused city, we want to help educate and inform why this could be a problem for us. As designers and artists we are visual problem-solvers and critical thinkers who make our living by selling our time. The work we do is labor intensive—it requires research, thinking, experimentation, and execution. When an organization requests creative work and the right to own it without compensation for the creator’s efforts, this activity promotes disrespect towards artists and designers broadly, and perpetuates a misunderstanding of the value of effective design. We do understand that there is the potential for a contract awarding up to $1,000 for the winner, however please keep in mind that this is still work being done for free with only the hope of being paid for it.

We have a couple suggestions for how this could be altered to possibly benefit all as we believe having community buy-in, due to the voting element, is important to the city.

  1. Have designers submit portfolios of environmental design work for judging vs. asking designers to design for the contest. Then judges will select the designer to produce the signage based on the best portfolio of work. Once a designer is selected hire them to create several design options, which can then be voted on by the community through social channels.
  2. Hire a designer to work with a group of students as a teaching endeavor that not only results in something collaborative, but involves our future creative generation as well.

We understand that taking on unpaid work, whether it be volunteer or for a competition, is ultimately up to each individual to assess and decide if it is something they would like to contribute to. However, this is an excellent opportunity for our local government to advocate for best practices that protect and promote the West Michigan creative community.

Below I have shared links to AIGA’s position on spec work as well AIGA’s Standard of Professional Practices. Hopefully this will help guide you in making the competition fit within the best practices of the design.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Hopefully you will take these suggestions into consideration to change your current competition and any future competition. Please feel free to contact me or the AIGA WM board of directors at any time, as we are more than happy to discuss these important matters.

Elyse Flynn, President, AIGA West Michigan


After receiving our letter Mr. Marquardt responded stating, “While our intent was to be as inclusive as possible to the entire community of Grand Rapids citizens, I can see how we have inadvertently marginalized a valued segment of our community.” He then invited me to meet and discuss perspectives and options to move forward.

While we were disappointed with the Parks and Recreation Department’s decision to ultimately continue with the competition as originally structured, we are happy to have engaged in a conversation that was educational on both parts. This has opened up a dialog regarding ways AIGA WM, as well as the broader creative community, can have more regular feedback with all of the Grand Rapids city departments.

Ultimately, we understand it’s up to each individual designer to assess calls such as these for submission—its parameters, impact, fine print, etc., and decide for themselves if it is something they feel comfortable contributing to. Additionally, if you are ever asked to work on spec, and are in need of a response, please feel free to use this form letter AIGA provides.

Elyse Flynn
AIGA West Michigan President

By AIGA West Michigan
Published November 7, 2018