Entering Design Competitions is Good for Business. Here’s Why

This post was originally published on Segd.org.

At their best, design competitions promote innovation, creativity, excellence and sheer possibility. Who doesn’t want to be aligned with those? And winning, of course, brings validation and acclaim. But it’s not all about the glory. There is actually a business case to be made for entering design competitions—whether you win or not.

Sure, there’s nothing better than being called up to the stage, walking past an audience full of your peers, to receive an award for your work. That plaque or statue you posed with is a symbol that what you do really matters, right? That your work is respected and recognized. (Cue up the Academy Award music here….)



But let’s stop right there for a minute. External validation is great, but if it’s the ONLY reason you’re entering design competitions, you may want to rethink the investment in time and entry fees it takes to be successful.

Lonny Israel and his Graphics + Branding studio team at Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP (San Francisco) have won numerous awards for their work, and Israel acknowledges that the recognition is sweet. “Distinguished jurors weigh in and critique our work, and we’re very grateful for their acknowledgements,” he notes.

But there are other benefits to putting their work “out there” for evaluation. Perhaps they’re less direct than an actual award, but they’re very real, agree Israel and Michael Reed, principal of Mayer/Reed (Portland, Ore.). Here are a few of them.

Preparing submissions demands that your studio organize, document and articulate the value of your work—and that’s a valuable business exercise.

“When we enter a project in a competition, it requires us to organize and document it very clearly to articulate our client’s goals and our design intentions in a very succinct way,” says Israel.

"The act of preparing a submission for a design competition requires revisiting a project and writing a design narrative that validates the visuals,” adds Reed. “This is often a difficult exercise for designers, but it’s essential in truly understanding the underlying value of design. It’s a real learning experience for us because it hones our communication skills and allows us to reflect on the outcomes."

In other words, preparing design competition entries is good practice for presenting your work to clients, community organizations, funders and other stakeholders. Even better, some competitions, such as the SEGD Global Design Awards, require you to describe your work in terms of the client problem/brief and how your design approach solved the problem. When you begin to describe your work in terms of design thinking to meet your clients’ objectives, they will definitely pay attention.

The work can be leveraged for other marketing purposes.

Depending on the design competition, submissions can take hours or even days to complete. Collecting photo assets, crafting a concise project description, gaining client approval to release the material and responding to other entry requirements requires a huge investment in time, especially for smaller studios that don’t have dedicated marketing staff.

That’s why it’s great that your work can do double, triple and even quadruple duty for you—even if you don’t win. You’ve already gathered, documented and written an eloquent project description, right? So make it work for you. Post it as a case study on your website, translate it into a shorter blog or social media post, send out an e-newsletter featuring the project or even use it as the basis for a press release to local and national media. It also represents a tidy media package to present to design publications that may think your project is great (especially if it aligns with an upcoming theme or focus).

It can be a morale booster, motivator and team builder in your organization.

Submitting work to a design competition sends a loud and strong message to your team: "We’re proud of what we do together. We’re so proud, we’re going to show the world." That can be very motivating for the team members involved, especially if you go out of your way to acknowledge everyone in the organization who contributed to the project's success.

If done as a team exercise, working on competition submissions brings even more benefits. In a team meeting, you can contribute and compare ideas about how the work was innovative, powerful or highly effective in solving the client’s problem. Like design work itself, this is definitely a case where shared perspective results in a better outcome. And again, it’s good practice for articulating those values to your clients and potential clients.

Winning = prestige = more clients.

This is the most obvious benefit, of course. No doubt, your ability to add the words “award-winning” in front of your name or project leads to attention, respect and ultimately more business.
Anthony Vitagliano, director of experience design for Digital Kitchen (Chicago) was part of the team that created the architecturally scaled "environmental mediascape" at Los Angeles International Airport's new Tom Bradley International Terminal—the project that won Best of Show in the 2014 SEGD Global Design Awards. Digital Kitchen has won numerous awards for its work, and sees the direct benefits.

“We definitely see more potential client interest and ultimately, more work coming our way due to our awards,” says Vitagliano. “There’s no denying the power of your work being recognized as ‘excellent’ by a highly respected jury of your peers.”

The awards that offer the most credibility and prestige (and promotional punch) are those with established reputations and longevity in a field of design or expertise—such as a professional design association. You may want to be aware of competitions that ask for publication fees in addition to entry fees or communicate a “pay-to-play” vibe. And you may want to invest more in competitions sponsored by respected industry organizations. A client’s business arena or professional association (think healthcare or hospitality design) is also a good source for competitions, especially if you want to win more business in that sector. 

Entering means you’re supporting excellence in your field (and that’s good business).

Lea Schuster, graphic designer at RDG Planning & Design (Omaha) says her team has had success in more than one design competition, but they’re selective about which ones they enter.

“We try to be selective by asking ourselves if the award is meaningful,” she explains. “We like to focus on awards that are part of a larger effort by an organization often providing funding for the group. SEGD, IIDA and AIGA are three of the organizations that we submit our work for award consideration. Participating in award programs with those organizations means to us that we are supporting their work to serve the design community through education, camaraderie and elevation of the discipline.”

Pentagram Partner Paula Scher clearly agrees with the idea of being selective. Even though the firm has staff dedicating to preparing award submissions, they recognize the work involved and want to make sure they enter only the competitions that are right for them. She told SEGD recently, "We only enter two awards, the SEGD Global Design Awards and the Type Directors Club."

Recognition not only feels pretty good, but is also a source of connection with your field, your clients and your potential clients.

“In a somewhat indirect way, it contributes to our reputation,” says Israel.  “Recognition provides an opportunity to communicate with the industry, past clients and potential clients.” Attending an awards celebration in itself is a source of connection to the field and peers. And winning an award can often provide the opportunity to reconnect with past clients and new ones.

With that in mind, make sure you leverage your award as much as possible for promotional value. Ask the awarding organization if they provide press releases and if not, create your own. Blast the news on your website or blog, start a social media campaign and whatever else you do, make sure you share the credit where credit is due.

Your clients will love it.

Clients love validation, too, and winning an award not only validates their design choices, but their choice of designer. Being quoted in an industry publication, seeing their name on a project credit list or, better yet, being able to show their boss that a company project has been recognized by others, is a valued achievement for your client. Even just submitting the work to a competition in your own or their field signals that you’re confident and proud of the work you did for them. That can only strengthen your relationship and often leads to more work.

Design competitions are great career-starters.

Ask Katie Bevin, a former SEGD student member who entered the SEGD Global Design Awards with her senior project at Massey University (Wellington, New Zealand). Her urban typographic installation won an Honor Award in 2011, and after attending the 2011 SEGD Conference to claim her award, she found herself in high demand as a junior designer.

“Entering the SEGD awards was definitely a turning point in my career,” says Bevin, who now works at Holmes Wood (London) after a stint with Frost* collective. “I was working as an intern in Sydney at the time I entered, looking for my next internship to move onto, when my teammates encouraged me to enter the competition. Winning the award gave me recognition within the large studio, and I feel this was definitely part of the reason I was offered a permanent job soon after winning the award.”

The same scenario applies to young studios working to earn a reputation in a new field. Entering design competitions becomes a smart marketing strategy and a way to make connections in the community. And there’s no better credibility-builder than an award.

And again, it’s not all about winning.

“We design to solve problems for our clients and not to win awards,” says Lea Schuster, RDG Planning & Design. She admits that the recognition is ultimately helpful to her studio’s financial success, but “it means more than that.”

“Sometimes our clients are looking for designers who think differently in the problem-solving process. Other times a client learns that we bring more to the table than they originally thought. When we win an award it instills a subtle level of confidence in our designers and reinforces for our clients that we will strive to deliver a unique and carefully considered solution to them.”

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