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How to win design awards

Why do some people win awards and others never seem to?

My son’s grade 5 class recently had a ceremony to award leadership positions for the forthcoming year. Some of my son’s classmates proudly accepted the awarded positions while most, including my son, missed out. That’s a tough break for child and parent, and I came away wishing there was a better way to recognise each child’s immense value and potential in the school community.

This lead me to thinking about awards given in the design industries. I was first involved with graphic design awards as a team member at a studio which picked up many accolades for their outstanding work. As I developed my own studio, Univers, we entered a range of awards. I felt, and still feel, that the work we entered was innovative, imaginative, well crafted, relevant and generally of a very high standard (of course!)

But we did not win any awards. :′(

After a few attempts, we stopped entering awards. We put all our energy into creating the best possible design to help our clients succeed, instead of seeking external gratification for ourselves. I felt good about that change in perspective. I was tired of trying and failing at something that feels totally unwinnable and has unquantifiable benefits.

Which is a pity because I know how good it feels to work in a studio that wins awards, and I would like Univers to be recognised by its peers for the cool things we do.

Forget about winning

Some people say that ‘every child wins a prize’ is a cop-out on the hard facts of life. But that’s become a platitude in itself: in our complicated reality there are endless ways we win and lose every day. We don’t need any more training in it! Your profession is not a game of tennis or checkers. It’s not a track event, and it’s definitely not a zero-sum game.

The role of a professional designer is far more elaborate than any game, so win/lose is not that relevant. Design project excellence can be measured in many ways, from client ROI to how cool the outcomes look or how well the brief was met. In fact, there are so many variables that assessment is inevitably inaccurate. I do believe that real standards exist, but in something as personal as design, they are not, and should not be, very rigid. For example, what is a higher standard: blue or red? The answer will be different for different people at different times.

Likes vs Awards

Although having a cabinet of awards would float the boat of many designers, social media likes and views are arguably more important now. Instagram likes and comments reflect an engaged dialogue with people from different fields, including other designer experts, collaborators and clients. In many ways, that kind of interaction is more rewarding than a nod from the rarefied air of awards panels.

Make awards great again

So, what’s to be done about design excellence awards? First, designers need to accept that the current model where a limited panel chooses a winner from paid entries in a limited field, is broken. It’s too open to stacking and influence, and beyond that swamp, design can only be judged on taste and other subjective criteria.

When enough designers accept this, and perhaps they already do, I think it becomes clear that:

  1. We need many more awards and kinds of awards;

  2. Selection for excellence awards should be highly democratic or academic, with either way needing thoroughly detailed decisions and processes; and

  3. Eligibility to win, let alone enter, needs to be very clear: either totally open to anyone doing any design, or conversely only open to designers in a select group.

Start your own awards. Seriously.

Perhaps this all means you should create your own awards with a group of your immediate peers. Why not? It may not be that different to what happens in the current system as it is.

Just like my son’s school class, it’s time to change how the unique qualities of each designer’s work are recognised by their peers. That probably (hopefully?) means an end to awards as we know them.