Iconic Recycling Symbol Winner of Spec Contest

Let’s not pretend for a second that spec contests are good for designers.

Spec contests have worked out pretty well for transatlantic flight and mapping the human genomebut are more or less a poison for emerging designers. Those businesses who source their design work to internet-based spec contests are promoting a cynical race to the bottom and need to cut it out.

But just as the Bubonic Plague produced some neat triptychs and World War I some readable classic novels, there was once a spec contest that produced an icon of great design, and created the curious case of Gary Anderson. But the takeaway isn’t as simple as it may seem.


Only recently has Gary Anderson told his story, in an interview with the Financial Times’ Katie Engelhart. In it he describes how, as an engineering graduate student in 1971, he designed the now-iconic recycling symbol for a contest, won 2000 dollars for his effort, and didn’t nearly grasp the gravity of his accomplishment. The full interview is here, and is well worth the read.

The contest was sponsored by the Container Corporation of America, who were looking for a universal symbol for recycled paper. Intended to capture the youthful spirit of the first Earth Days (1970-1971), the contest focused on entries from not only from established designers, but high schools and colleges as well. It was in the halls of the University of Southern California that Anderson saw the entry poster and thought of a water flow graphic he had recently sketched for a class presentation.

Anderson“The problem with my earlier design was that it seemed flat, two-dimensional. When I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink.”

Gary Anderson went on to pursue a career in Urban Planning and made efforts to obscure his design achievement — out of a desire for a focused resume — which is a very engineer-like thing to do.

There are a lot of ironies here. First, that there are a great many iconic designers in the canon who will never produce work that approach the notoriety of Anderson’s symbol. Second, that an untrained student created one of the most recognizable, appropriate, communicative, and scalable logos of the modern era. Give Anderson credit where it is due – the more you look at the logo, the more clever it seems.

Third is that he did all this while entering a spec contest. That a type of competition that promises exposure and opportunity to young designers was won by someone who wouldn’t even put it on his resume.

That’s the rub. If we make some reasonable assumptions about design — that an industry of professionals will produce better work than a pool of crowdsourcers; that Anderson’s historical stroke of genius was a bit of a fluke — then this really is quite an indictment of spec contests. To the extent that these contests are defended in the community, it is to give up-an-comers their “shot” at legitmate client credits. If the winners will often come out of the ether, either as gimmicky one-offs or from “arty” types that spent years working on the odd design or two, than the notion that spec helps designers launch careers becomes pretty dubious.

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