Competitions, Critique, and Pop-up Tents

May 2, 2014

I’ve been ambivalent about architecture competitions. As these competitions are usually run in the US, a group of some kind (usually a non-profit or a professional organization like the AIA) will openly solicit designs with a monetary prize for the winner, while requiring entrants to pay an entry fee. Entrants who do not win get nothing, and usually the runners-up get only publicity for their designs. On the one hand, I sympathize with those who, like my professor Paul Segal, are strongly opposed to competitions on the grounds that they take advantage of the goodwill and artistic tendencies of architects (see also: “starving artists”) to get quality design work for free. Can you imagine engineers or doctors or lawyers paying money to their clients in order to do their usual work for free? It’s preposterous. It’s also a frustrating experience for the designer because you never get any feedback on your design. It’s equivalent to throwing your ideas out into the void, without the chance to refine them in the way you would in a regular project with a real client.

There are, of course, some competitions that are run differently; these are usually for very large projects, in which a limited number of architects will be invited to compete for the commission, and will be paid to provide a preliminary design. But the fees in these competitions, I am told, never cover the full cost of the work that goes into the designs, so the architects still lose money; they are only willing to participate because they hope to be chosen for the actual project or because of the prestige of participation in the limited selection process.

And then there are other designers who favor competitions, and while they may not approve of entry fees and so forth, are willing to pay the fees in order to enter because they think the publicity of winning will be worth their time and money, or because they simply are so excited about the design project that they can’t help but participate. (Most everyone agrees that the prizes alone don’t make the work worthwhile.) Once you’ve done the work of solving the design problem and putting together some drawings, why not go the final step and enter your design in the competition? Those of us who are young and hungry for design work also see these events as a way to push ourselves, to design more exciting things than we get to do at our regular jobs, and to have fun. We get to control the design, develop our own ideas, and ignore those pesky building codes.

So last month I entered a competition with two of my co-workers. This is now the fourth design competition I’ve entered, having done two while in school, and one last summer before I started working. We entered the AIA SPP Pop-up Project competition, which asks entrants to design a better pop-up tent for use at farmer’s markets. And who doesn’t love farmer’s markets, the hipsters that we are? Of course we were excited. And then I started really thinking about this brief. How were we, with a budget of $500, supposed to design something that could actually be better than the existing pop-up tent? The existing tent costs $160 on Amazon, weighs only 50 pounds, can easily be assembled by one person, doesn’t require anchorage to the ground, adapts to all kinds of conditions… and is exactly what the brief asked us to design. How could we possibly beat that? Not without mass production, I decided. And certainly not within the given budget.

So that’s what I told my teammates: this brief is flawed and seems to ask for the impossible. It wants something that is exactly the same as an ordinary pop-up tent, but that isn’t one. So let’s not fight it - the best solution to the design problem posed is the existing pop-up tent. Then how do we make it better? We decided to make a new cover for the existing tent, which integrates shelving, signage, and corner weights, and simply hangs off the tent that every farmer’s market vendor already owns. Then vendors won’t have to buy or haul around tables and signs anymore. Our tent would also look much better. We covered the tent walls with grommets to provide attachment points, called our solution “walls & grommets,” spent several long nights making the drawings, and turned it in.

rendering by Ron Ajel & Liz Shearer

rendering by Ron Ajel & Liz Shearer

If I learned anything from four years as a Lincoln-Douglas debater, it’s how to run a critique (or kritik). This strategy is when you refute a position by pointing out the flaws inherent in the question you’re asked to answer, rather than by attempting to answer it directly. I have no idea if this was the right way to address our design problem, but this strategy reflects my evolving and conflicted feelings about design competitions. Design competitions are getting designs the wrong way, by abusing architects and cheapening design work in general. The competition system reveals that architects will design for free, which in turn indicates that their products (designs) must not be very valuable! So perhaps the right way to answer a competition brief is to say: no, this is not the way to resolve this design problem. The right way is to value design - and by extension, your problem - enough to hire a designer to work it out. If you just want ideas, then fine, post your question on a public design forum and wait for the responses; don’t try to charge people to give you their time and energy. Designers are usually happy to think about your problem and give you their suggestions. But don’t expect them to provide you with a finished design for free.

I don’t think I want to enter any more competitions, or at least not any more that charge entry fees. I would much rather do pro-bono work, where I can have a real client relationship, get feedback, and know that my work is benefiting someone who wouldn’t otherwise get a solution. Design competitions direct the work of many designers toward one problem - what if instead the many designers spent their time each working on a different problem? Many more problems would be solved. It’s not always as simple as that, but we do have a finite amount of time, so let’s focus on solving more, rather than fewer, design problems for those in need of solutions.

Our tent, by the way, looked awesome, and even though we didn’t win, I learned something in this process about myself, about tents, and even about design work in general. The moral of this story: Don’t work for free. Just… don’t. I think I’m starting to agree with Paul Segal that competitions are on par with unpaid internships. If none of us do them, then they won’t be permitted anymore. Do your pro-bono work, by all means, but don’t give your time away to groups that don’t really need it, and certainly don’t let them charge you for the privilege. I hope in the coming year to get more involved in pro-bono design, and that doing so will give me the outlet that until now I’ve found in competition work.

You can view the rest of our design for walls & grommets* here. Credit goes to my co-conspirators Liz Shearer & Ron Ajel for the design and images.*