The “Canberra Centenary $10,000 Typeface Design Competition”

I get no pleasure from bursting bubbles. And I would’ve merely deleted this email, except that I worry some others may not see it for what it is: good-natured grifting.

Or more precisely: bullshit.
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. It is a city that has everything - except its own definitive typeface.

Therefore, to celebrate the city's 100th anniversary, the University of Canberra challenges the world's top typeface designers, typographers and graphic artists to create a typeface that reflects the style, spirit, character and prestige of Australia's capital.

Design brief, entry form, details and conditions are at:

Please feel free to forward this invitation to other top typographers and designers.
The first line, of course, drew my suspicion — Canberra really “has everything”? But beyond that, the “design competition” sounded more like a competition to see who will do the most spec work.

And indeed, the terms & conditions confirm this. Not only must you submit “one original typeface that has not been published in any form or medium,” you must even pay “ a fee of AUD 22 for each typeface entered.” Moreover, should you win, apparently you can’t do anything else with the typeface, ever (emphasis mine):
The entrant awarded first prize in the competition will grant to the University of Canberra an exclusive, royalty-free and irrevocable license in perpetuity to use the winning typeface for the purposes of publicizing the City of Canberra or the University of Canberra, or for any purpose associated with the publication, exhibition or promotion of the competition, or for any similar purpose, without further compensation to the entrant.
But that’s not even the sneakiest thing. The landing page for the competition makes it sound as if this project has some official sanction:
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. … It seems logical therefore that our Centenary should celebrate one of the most essential skills exhibited by this city’s government ministers, politicians, apparatchiki, judiciary … [D]espite the plethora of printed words, this city that otherwise has everything, has no exclusive and definitive Canberra typeface. To remedy this lack … the University of Canberra has launched The Canberra Centenary Typeface Design Competition.
But as the terms & conditions reveal, it does not:
The University of Canberra has no imprimatur to recommend the winning typeface be adopted by the Australian Government, ACT Tourism or the University of Canberra.
So what is this really? Mostly a marketing effort for the University of Canberra, built on the free labor of gullible typographers worldwide, who apparently live in countries where landlords and grocery stores accept payment in Exposure, the favorite alternative currency of the creative & design disciplines.

I replied to this email:
Maybe things work differently in Australia, but here in the US, people get paid to do their jobs. Including type designers. This “competition” is nothing of the sort. It is simply an invitation to do a large amount of speculative work in the hopes of getting paid — an arrangement that any self-respecting designer would reject. I would be very surprised if any of the “world's top typeface designers” accept your “challenge.” This one certainly will not.
I got a long reply back from John Astley, who seems to be the competition organizer. As for how the prize was established (emphasis mine):
[W]e have some excellent typographers and typeface designers in Australia, but not enough of them to justify the $10K (I originally asked for $20K because a substantial first prize was essential to attract publicity). When you think about the vast number of fonts available online, many of them free or for a small donation, it brings into perspective the fact that the least heard comment in Advertising and Publishing is "Hey, is that the Typographer's new Ferrari?'
As for those onerous licensing terms:
Should the University of Canberra or Australian Capital Tourism choose to use the winning typeface, I have no doubt that a dialogue will be opened with the winner and any modifications or alterations would be at commercial rates.
Hear that? There might be some more money for you! But despite Mr. Astley having “no doubt” about this “dialogue [being] opened,” it is not part of the official terms & conditions. Draw your own conclusions.


  • Mr. Astley closed by telling me:
    It will surprise you to know that we've already had quite few complimentary emails from leading designers and Foundries in the US, Europe and Australia.
    Indeed it does. If you’re a type designer who plans to participate in this competition, I don’t want to rain on your parade. But let’s call it what it is. And let’s not get wound up about things like deep discounting at MyFonts while giving things like the Canberra competition a pass.
  • Worth mentioning the full scope of what they're asking for:
    To favourably impress the jury, your Canberra Centenary Typeface entry will need to comprise

    - a full English alphabet, in upper and lower case, bold, light and regular, (medium) fonts plus a light italic.

    - It should also include common English punctuation marks i.e. question, exclamation, quotation, semi colon, colon, stop, comma; brackets and general typographic marks such as ampersand, asterisk, hash, @ and percentage marks.
  • Maurice MeilleurMaurice Meilleur Posts: 58
    edited March 2013
    Well, here's hoping they're flooded with 100-glyph entry after 100-glyph entry, then. Unhinted and unkerned.
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  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 989
    edited March 2013
    Perhaps, as a governmental organization, they are simply accustomed to the bid/award process that is customary with architects for a new building project. If I was unfamiliar with standard design practice, I would wonder how this differs.
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  • Design comps are not new to Canberra - the city is the result of an international architecture competition. It was commemorated in the 2013 capiThetical design competition: (No entry fee required)
  • Competitions are not spec-work, in my understanding. There is a clearly announced prize, and you can enter or not as you please. No one is asking you to do work for free as a bid for a contract.
  • Eris AlarEris Alar Posts: 409
    I agree with Jan. But I suspect most serious type designers will pass on this anyway, but it could be a boon for people starting out.
  • Competitions are not spec-work, in my understanding.
    Most people consider competitions as spec work, since you're doing the work without the promise of getting paid (thus speculatively).

    See also:
  • There is a clearly announced prize … No one is asking you to do work for free as a bid for a contract.
    Reasonable people can differ. But it does seem to me that this competition is a "bid for a contract." The entrants are competing to "win" the opportunity to trade all the important rights in their work for AU$10K. I'm not familiar with any other design or typography competition where the organizers insist on owning the winning entry at the end. (Though if there are others, I'd be curious to hear about them.)
  • That aspect is a worry.
    Canberra really “has everything”?
    Well, most people outside of Canberra disagree. There are too many politicians and academics there, and only a few humans.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,059
    edited March 2013
    Thanks for posting this, Matthew.

    I don't enter or judge competitions of any sort, but that's just me.
    As a member of the Ontario RGD, I am allowed to enter competitions but not to do spec work, which the RGD defines as free work done in the hope of securing future business:
    That kind of thing has a long history, especially in the advertising business (“pitching”).

    I do some things for free, but generally for a cause I support.

    Personally, I think these Canberra folk should hire, and thereby help develop, local talent.
  • Shouldn't we distinguish between doing spec work on request and self-initiated spec work? As I understand it, JFP proposed his Le Monde series to Le Monde on his own initiative, without any promise of pay. He convinced the board that they needed a new suite of typefaces, they hired him to finish the job, and the rest is history. (Have I got this right, Jean François?) I can't see how that exploits anyone. In fact, I think it reflects well on both parties.

    But this Canberra thing? Yecch. And I think most competitions are similarly dodgy. When MoMA wanted a new development plan about 10 years back, it invited a dozen or so architects to compete and paid them all a fixed fee to help compensate them for their work. That shows a decent regard for professionals' time and trouble. Most competitions aren't so scrupulous; they're like Lotto for creatives.
  • Eris AlarEris Alar Posts: 409
    I agree with both of you Nick and Max, good points. I know that when I saw the email I had mixed feelings.
  • Jackson, here is what AIGA says in your link (my empasis):
    AIGA acknowledges that speculative work—work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid—occurs among clients and designers. Yet not all unpaid design work is considered “spec work.” In fact, unpaid work may take a number of forms:

    • Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
    • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
    • Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
    • Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
    • Pro bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

    Not all of the above are considered speculative work, and in fact many designers choose to do unpaid work for a variety of reasons.

  • • Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it
    • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
    Thanks for quoting the link I posted.
  • Jan SchmoegerJan Schmoeger Posts: 280
    edited March 2013
    You are welcome. The list (from which you quote selectively and out of context) concerns "unpaid work", not "spec work". The meaning of the quote is quite clear:
    Not all of the above are considered speculative work.
  • MB: "I'm not familiar with any other design or typography competition where the organizers insist on owning the winning entry..."

    It's not uncommon, but it's seldom public.
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,947
    It's not uncommon, but it's seldom public.
    I thinks it’s actually pretty common in big design contests, but most of them are taking advantage of students and don’t get noticed by professionals.
  • WH TypefacesWH Typefaces Posts: 12
    edited March 2013
    I'm glad a discussion is happening here.

    As a graphic designer who also does (very) amateur type design after hours and on weekends I'm interested in this competition for a couple reasons:
    • As a 'brief' which provides impetus to do practical type design
    • The chance at a first break into professional type design
    • Potential Income (despite the unfortunate risk of not being paid…)
    I think it takes a position of privilege to be able to reject this competition, when you have no access to other means of being seen… and making your way into the nebulous world of professional creative work (as in I'm not JFP by any means, skill or profile wise). I recognise how it also takes privilege to be able to enter these competitions in the first place (as in I don't need to work two jobs so I have free time to do this [for now]).

    My feelings currently lean towards not entering because the sheer volume of work they are asking for is beyond me within this time frame… and oh I don't want to have wasted my time.
  • kupferskupfers Posts: 259
    edited March 2013
    Being around in type for a while, I have seen a good couple of people grow and develop over the years, and I can honestly confirm, that if you do good work, it will eventually be recognised. It has never been easier to share things you think, write or do with others. I see no argument for doing work for free in this (not wanting to judge whether this case here is spec work or not, and also not including pro bono or pro amico work which both can have their place and reason).
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,827
    Ten people pay a fee in order to be allowed to work in a restaurant kitchen. They all work a nine hour shift. At the end of the evening, the chef decides which one of them will be paid.

    Wei Hang, would you work under such conditions? Would you consider it a 'position of privilege' not to have to work under such conditions? Or would you agree that no one should have to work under such conditions, and that workers should organise to ensure that no one does?
  • Eris AlarEris Alar Posts: 409
    So John, you are morally against all forms of gambling? Cause in some ways I view competitions like this as a punt. Also, unless I read it wrong, they only keep the rights to the winning entry, so what's to stop losing entries from being refined and released as per usual?
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,827
    edited March 2013
    I don't consider competitions like this to be gambling, and I don't consider this a 'moral' issue (except, I suppose, in the sense that failure to pay a fair wage is one of the 'sins crying out to Heaven for justice'). I consider them arrangements by which corporate entities -- and lets be clear that this is what modern universities are -- avoid paying fees for creative work and even, as in this case, collect fees (as well as claiming for themselves exclusive, perpetual rights to the 'winning' work). What they are doing in this case is obtaining for themselves a work of value, as well as what they assume will be positive press coverage, civic praise etc., for far less than the going fee price for the work involved, and further reducing the cost to themselves by collecting fees. Heck, if enough people were to take part it might not cost the university anything; they could even make a profit (beyond the asset, publicity, etc.).
  • WH TypefacesWH Typefaces Posts: 12
    edited March 2013

    It's nice that you have seen people grow and develop and have work recognised but my experience doing graphic design has been one of increasing precarity — internships, short term contracts, no job security, let alone doing quality and satisfying work — is this the price to pay to do "creative" work (work that may have no demand depending on the subjectivity of the worker)? Making money and success in type design feels more like trying to make money from art.

    It's true that the tools we have access to for disseminating work are more powerful than ever, but unfortunately I find the means to subsistence from this kind of work failing.

    Some flaws in your scenario: in this case, our Canberra restaurant doesn't make immediate profit from the labour of 10 people, only 1 — of course they are benefitting by increased quality offered by competition publicity. Each worker also gets to take everything they've made to market or repurpose for other use — and actually they're working on their own terms already (not under a boss, at home, or at work, with their own tools and so on).

    The conditions you outline are exploitative and no one should have to work under those conditions. I don't know what kind of organising type designers are capable of… and against whom?

    Personally, given the difficulty in making money from graphic design let alone type design, I personally see it worth entering. It's a sad case of accepting the best of the worst for me.
  • Personally, given the difficulty in making money from graphic design let alone type design, I personally see it worth entering. It's a sad case of accepting the best of the worst for me.
    Doing things like entering this contest are only going to make it harder to make money from type design. That is the whole damn point of this conversation.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,827
    edited March 2013
    Wei Hang, the competition organisers have arranged it so that they collect a fee from all entrants (hence the part of my parallel in which the cooks pay to be able to work at the restaurant). In effect, the participants subsidise the prize, so that the university gets to pay even less for the fonts that they end up owning. They may not be profiting, per se, from the work of all the participants, but they are certainly exploiting those participants to lower their costs.

    given the difficulty in making money from graphic design let alone type design

    I know plenty of people who make a living from design without entering such competitions. If you want to make a name for yourself, and see competitions as a way of doing that, then enter competitions that are not organised to enable corporate entities to obtain assets for less than those assets are worth. After almost twenty years making a living from type, I still enter the TDC competition on a fairly regular basis, because it is generally respected in my profession and having one's work selected is satisfying (even though it ends up costing a lot of money in entry and hanging fees). As I would hope this discussion makes clear, competitions like that being organised in Canberra are not well respected.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,059
    Many professions are harder to “make money” in, such as dance, music, and sport. Sure, there are superstars, but, for instance, the average career of a pro hockey player in the NHL is just over two years. Imagine training from an early age in dance or music, and getting a career-destroying injury in your 20s. Those artists don’t even have a union to protect them, as many athletes do.

    Sitting in front of a computer all day is not good for your health, but it beats working on an assembly line, and is safer than being a soldier, cop, firefighter, cabbie or running a convenience store.

    If you invest as much time and effort in studying type design as people invest in studying for many other careers, you will have no difficulty in making money.

    Now, with Reading and KABK offering training and education, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur, but can get a job as an employee.

    IMO, the font industry will continue to grow and prosper, despite all the doom and gloom about the ongoing challenges type designers face from Google, piracy, deep discounts, etc.

    And here is the proof!
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