Designers call Ottawa's logo contest to celebrate Canada 150 a sketchy way to get cheap labour

Glenn Johnson
Daily Brew
Photo: Government of Canada

Designing a logo to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday is becoming a political lightning rod for the Harper government, which has been accused of using a sketchy contest to get cheap design work from students.

It has also been widely criticized in reviews. Some reports, such as one from the Toronto Sun, openly invited criticism with the headline Canada 150 logo: Love it or hate it. The Ottawa Citizen also wrote about the design and unsurprisingly gathered opinions from designers who called it simple or student work.

When the government announced a design contest last year to come up with a logo for the 2017 celebration, it only allowed students to do the work — angering groups such as Graphic Designers of Canada, an organization representing professional designers.

Last week in Burnaby, B.C., Heritage Minister Shelly Glover announced University of Waterloo student Ariana Cuvin’s logo design had won the national honour, which carried a $5,000 prize.  The announcement came as the government launched its plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The event was celebrated in a news release titled Strong. Proud. Free.: Get Ready to Celebrate Canada 150.

At the time, the minister said this logo — which depicts a series of diamonds arranged in the shape of a maple leaf — is extremely important to Canada.

“Visitors from around the world are already making plans to come visit while we celebrate,” Glover said in remarks provided to Yahoo Canada News. “A celebration this big deserves a brand that will be recognized at home and abroad. And we’ve found the perfect brand produced by a young Canadian. The logo will be featured in all Government of Canada products and at all events related to the 150th anniversary,” Glover said.

But Adrian Jean, president of the Graphic Designers of Canada, told Yahoo Canada News the government exploited cheap labour.

Graphic Designers of Canada, with the support of schools and students from across Canada have been advocating for a better way and petitioning the government since last year.” he said. “Our goal was to inform the government of the unethical nature of design contests, and offer a solution — instead of a contest, connect with students and schools and develop an educational experience for students to learn the ropes of working with a government procurement process in a client service relationship.”

In the petition that has so far received more than 6,400 signatures, Adrian said students did unpaid work with the hope of being chosen, while only one person got a small amount of money. The government gave a $5,000 payout even though a PR firm had offered $25,000 for a logo prize.

“The real issue for us is not the logo that was designed, or the fact that it was designed by a student — no,  it continues to be about our government soliciting 300 designers to do unpaid work under the guise of patriotic engagement,” he said.

“If each applicant spent only two hours on their entry, and the $5,000 prize was split among them all, each design student would have made less than minimum wage for their work — and the government just got 300 logos for only $5,000. That’s why speculative design contests are so insidious and devalue our profession.”

Design organizations have also been under fire themselves for using unpaid interns — an issue they acknowledge in an article on their website. But there is a difference between giving a student experience that will help them get a job and holding a contest where only the winner gets something they can put on their resume.

“The government isn’t a charity.” says Jean. “At a time when students are desperate for employment, exploiting our newest Canadian designers is a horrible legacy to mark our 150 years as a country.”

Coincidentally, the government was also under fire in the House of Commons Wednesday about cuts to student employment programs. Liberal MP Scott Brison criticized the government for cuts to student employment while it’s spending thousands for each TV commercial during nightly NHL playoff games about budget proposals that have not been passed.

Veteran designer Stuart Ash said the contest brought back memories of a similar campaign that failed to lead to the winning design of Canada’s 1967 Centennial logo.

“Much like what has been proposed for the Canadian 150th anniversary identity, in the years prior to 1967 the Canadian Government conducted a design competition for the creation of the Centennial logo,” he writes in an article on the Graphic Designers of Canada website. “As a consequence, this approach did not yield an acceptable design. The submissions were banal, predictable or clichéd.”

After the contest failed to produce an acceptable design, Ash eventually came up with the final logo that was chosen.

Despite the end of the Canada 150 contest, designers are continuing to press the issue that speculative design contests of any kind are unethical.

The government of Canada defended the use of the contest Wednesday and again congratulated Cuvin for her victory.

Asked to respond to the criticism, a spokesperson for Glover said this logo is important for Canada.

“The Canada 150 Logo Design Contest  was an effort to engage youth in Canada’s history and to encourage them to celebrate our country’s birthday,” Marisa Monnin, Director of Communications, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, said in an email to Yahoo Canada News.

“Knowing the Canada 150 Logo was designed by a young Canadian invests the image with a deeper, more personal meaning that will resonate with Canadians.”

Cuvin, the 19-year-old logo artist from the University of Waterloo, has been the subject of a number of news stories about the contest.

Cuvin did not respond to requests for an interview from Yahoo Canada News, but a post from her on social media suggested was she avoiding reading comments about her design.

Her university congratulated their student Wednesday for her victory while downplaying the controversy.

“The global business and digital arts program at the University of Waterloo includes logo design, and we are supportive of students pursuing independent initiatives to gain real-world experience relevant to their field of study,” said a statement to Yahoo Canada News from Christine McWebb, director of academic programs at the University of Waterloo’s Stratford Campus.

“We are thrilled for Ariana and congratulate her on her success.”