Coca-Cola’s open-to-the-public design competition (or "unique creative assignment") for the 2020 Summer Olympics was announced at Adobe Max in Las Vegas earlier this month. What we instantly thought was another brand trying to get free design work, is in fact a little more complicated.

Vice president of global design at The Coca-Cola Company, James Sommerville, spoke to me about why the brand has chosen to open up its design process to the public, in-house design teams versus outsourcing, how young designers can make their work visible in an ever-increasing industry, and what it's like to design for such an iconic brand and the future of Coca-Cola.

Coke x Adobe x You / Birgit Palma

Adobe and Coca-Cola have teamed up for this initiative, calling on graphic designers, illustrators, 3D artists, photographers and animators to create their own design inspired by the Tokyo-based Summer Olympics by following a brief and using Coca Cola assets (including the Coca-Cola Spencerian script and the Coca-Cola ribbon) opened up to the public for the first time, as well as Adobe Creative Cloud.

From motion graphic artist Kouhei Nakama of Japan to photographer Guy Aroch of Israel, Adobe and Coca-Cola briefed 15 creative professionals to develop a work of art.

For you to get involved, you need to download Coke’s assets, create your own design using an Adobe app before December 31 and share your work on Instagram, Behance or Twitter using the hashtag #cokexadobexyou. You work will be showcased in a gallery on the website, which will be credited and captioned with links to your social media profile or Behance portfolios. For every submission, Coca-Cola will donate to the Special Olympics, up to US$30,000.

We take a look at what this initiative means for the design community, but first, we find out from James what it’s like to design for Coca-Cola.

James has just spent the year at Coca-Cola rolling out its "one brand strategy", focussed on bringing all Coke bottles and cans back to their iconic red colour, no matter if it’s Coke Zero or another flavour.

"You’ll see when you go back home, you used to go buy a Coke Zero, it used to be an all-black can, and when you buy Coca-Cola Lite, it’s a silver can, and we’ve been very, very successful at building these sub brands; too successful," he says.

"What we’re trying to do now is reign those sub brands back in.

"In the future all those cans will be red. And if you’re a Coke Zero drinker, now the red is creeping in, and in two years time from now, it will be all red and say 'no sugar'."

Designing for a brand as iconic as Coca-Cola

It may not sound like creatively groundbreaking work, but when you design for a brand as iconic as Coca-Cola, it must be hard to come up with fresh ideas. James says one of the company’s biggest strengths is that everybody knows Coca-Cola, but that’s also one of its biggest challenges.

"There’s nothing that this company has not done. What could I, as a guest, bring to the table that has not been done in 130 years, on every street corner? I mean, it’s across the planet," he explains.

"But yet, when I see the tools of today which were not around, therefore the same assets, that same logo, same colours, same bottle shape but with completely new tools now, we can create new stories that they couldn't have done in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

"We have to serve the same identity week in and week out, but keep surprising people. I think it’s a balance of being true to who we are but actually presenting something new."

Coke x Adobe x You / Kouhei Nakama

In-house design versus outsourcing

To achieve this diverse way of thinking, James says it’s not about building up a giant in-house design team at Coca-Cola unnecessarily, but by looking outward, which explains some of the thought process behind its Coke x Adobe x You campaign.

"The design team is the world, and our role is to steer that thinking and help make it strategically aligned to the brand objectives.

"So whilst not having a design team means we wouldn’t be able to function, by not having one too large, that enables us through this challenge to make these connections.If you’ve got just one design team of 200 people, personally it’s too many eyeballs, too many opinions on every piece of work, and you will very rarely step out."

James says the risk of being too insular would mean taking Coca-Cola’s success from the Brazil Olympics, and repeating that in Japan.

"Everyone tends to be a creature of habit, so you’ll tend to do what you did last time, and I think that’s the wrong thing to do.

"We can’t do what we did for the last Olympics, for this Olympics, so this [campaign] is a way of disrupting our own model."

The future for Coca-Cola

It looks like Coca-Cola won’t be quick to jump on the VR, AR immersive technologies steam train, as the brand’s product is essentially "analogue".

"The fizz, the pour, the ice cold, that what makes Coca-Cola special, and when we think of experience, I think of it as something that’s memorable," says James.

In a future situation, he envisions a point where the beverages become very personalised.

"You’ll go to your local gym, you’ll drink a hydration straw, it will tell you pre or post workout what drink you need that may or may not be a Coke, because the Coca-Cola Company has multiple beverages, but I think the future is very much about catering for a consumer-centric world."

Coke x Adobe x You / Guy Aroch

Why should you take on the Coke x Adobe x You challenge

Although stepping out and tapping into the free resource of eager young graphic designers makes economic sense for Coca-Cola, why would a young student, at a college, right now, take on the Coke x Adobe x You challenge?

"If they can create something magical, firstly, it will make it into our mosaic, so great exposure, but secondly, when they’re going for an interview and a potential employer says, ‘Okay this is interesting, tell me about this then’, I think an iconic brand like Coca-Cola, the Olympics, the Adobe partnerships, is definitely a conversation starter for that particular individual,” says James.

"So it’s not just about being aesthetically cool, but there’s a story behind it."

James says young designers can often forget about showing their creative process to employers, but yet the journey behind the final product is the most helpful when a design agency is hiring.

"There are lots of opportunities out there, there’s also a lot of competition," he says. "The creative community is growing, thankfully, I think it’s healthy for our industry as well, but at the same time as a young designer that can be somewhat intimidating or maybe even competitive."

James says Coca-Cola’s competition allows the brand to "connect with a global community of creatives who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to work on such a high profile event for a high profile brand", and for Coca-Cola to discover talent it didn’t know existed.

"If some of this work makes it way to the 2020 Olympics I think that’s the icing on the cake, I think it’s about driving that connection and feel, we’re trying to use this as a platform for the next generation of creatives."

How to be noticed as a young designer

In this competitive market, it can be intimidating for young designers to know how to be noticed. James says it’s about finding the balance between commercial work and experimental work, to diversify your CV.

"Commercial work is usually confined to a brief – a brief they’ll set – but in more experimental work, it’s really about expressing the personality of the individual that maybe the client didn’t allow on a commercial project," he explains.

"So having a balance of both really attracts future employers and teams to want to work with you. It shows the reach from being very focused and strategic, to being very expressive."

James describes the Coke x Adobe x You campaign as "more in the expressive category".

For more on free design competitions, take a look at when to say yes to working for free by Gordon Reid, or our feature on nine companies who are trying to exploit designers, artists and photographers.