Tag advice

Tips for entering design awards

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Photo: Kristine Arth

1. Place your work in the right categories and try to stick to only one or two categories

I have seen this time and time again in awards shows where certain pieces show up multiple times throughout the judging process. It’s confusing for the judges, but worse than anything it results in voting fatigue and the project will almost definitely suffer when the judges see it too many times. Absolutely outstanding work will survive in one of the categories, though may be knocked off the top pole because the judges have become hostile to its presence; but projects that are merely excellent actually risk being shut out altogether. Given a choice between letting something in we’ve seen once, and something we’ve seen 10 times in different categories, we’ll choose the thing we’ve seen once if it’s of comparable quality. So choose: is your project best as a poster series, or is one poster the strong one that should just be entered on its own? Is it strongest as a series of posters, or a collection of design collateral, or a not-for-profit campaign, or or an advertising campaign? It may be all of the above, but find what it’s best at and enter it once.

(An exception to this rule is when the show is so large that there are different juries for different categories (e.g. D&AD.)

2. Be strategic

Note that some categories are usually stronger than others. Posters, for instance, usually have the strongest work, making it more difficult to win in. Point-of-purchase displays are usually weak. Book covers are strong, book interiors are weak. Award shows that have an advertising focus are always weak on typography. (I judged typography for D&AD one year, and the entries were so poor it was depressing. A strong typography entry would have walked away with an easy pencil.) So if your design is strong in an area that has typically weak entries, enter it there. Also, comprehensiveness helps. It’s much easier to get in on a full identity system than it is on a single logo, which are always underwhelming.

3. Ditch the small stuff

Winning on a set of business cards or a paper soap wrapper is extremely difficult. Similarly, two hats, however funny/nice, do not make a winning entry. If it’s a set of baseball-style cards, there had better be at least 10. If it’s a website, it has to have more than 2 pages. This may sound obvious, but every time there are many entries of things that beg the question “Where’s the rest?”

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4. Find the best way to show your work

Although most competitions ask you to send a description, if the impact of your design relies on a description it is at a disadvantage. Judges tend to read descriptions when something appears to have merit but we can’t figure out what it is, but there is no way in the world there’s time to read them all. If your project is interactive in a way that can’t be shown, is part of a big, clever campaign that needs to be demonstrated, or has something else that needs explanation, if you have the option to submit it as a SHORT explanatory video, do so. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t still fill out the description. It’s very irritating to look for more information on a project and read, for example, “This is an identity project for X.” Similarly, don’t describe the piece—we can see that it’s a book with red type and a hole through the centre—Why does it have red type? Why the hole? (Although if I see one more thing with a hole through it I’m going to throw it out the window.)

Aside from the above, don’t send analog work in digital format. We want to see the size, feel the materials and inspect the details. Especially never submit multi-page documents (books, magazines, etc.) as digital content. Photos or videos of work that pops up, pops out, transforms, etc., will always lose to the pop-up-pop-out projects judges actually got their hands on.

5. Respect the judges’ intelligence

Most judges are extremely marketing savvy. This means we won’t fall for the stuff a general market might fall for. We are quick to call bullshit. This has surprised me time and again, where I thought I was the extreme cynic in a group, only to discover we’re all cynical. Judges are also usually very savvy to sexism, greenwashing and packaging waste.

If you’ve made an explanatory video cut the crap: we don’t need to hear the marketing schpiel or the rousing/pounding/sad music. Just show and explain the project as nicely, beautifully and succinctly as you can. Similarly, spare us the number of “impressions”, clicks, eyeballs and shares.

6. On packaging

Prepare your work to be handled and opened. Remove the shrink-wrap and undo the tape: judges will open it, and close it, and repeat. If your amazing thing is in a package we can’t get open, we’re not going to struggle with it. If opening it, looking through it, or handling it destroys it, it wasn’t a good design to begin with.

I’m please to say that most of the people I’ve judged with are very environmentally conscious. Over-the-top packaging doesn’t work any more. Giant plastic things are particularly disdained. Things with multiple parts and layers to unfold for no reason except to get at the thing inside are not appreciated. If the packaging looks worth more than whatever is inside, we’ll notice. If, by the time we get to the item through layers of packaging, and our ultimate thought is “WHY is there there so much stuff?” it will not win, even if it’s gorgeous and well crafted.

7. Funny v. Sad

Judges love funny things, and often want to keep them but seldom reward them with a prize, simply because just funny isn’t good enough. If funny is a bonus, that’s great. Like it’s interesting and well crafted and a great idea, plus it’s funny? Perfect.

Sad is another story. It’s not often that you can get judges to cry, but it has happened, and it’s a powerful response.

Inside Design Awards

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What is judging an awards show like?

Depending on the show, it is usually exhausting. Most national and international shows have a lot of entries; some of them have a mind-boggling number of entries, so it is a lot of work, usually spent on your feet. But it is also usually fun, especially if you get a group of judges that clicks, and educational.

There’s always an organizational team that catalogues, sets up, and keeps track of all the entries. The amount of work they do is crazy. Imagine having to lay out and pack up thousands of pieces of work, many of them with multiple parts, and cataloguing their scores at the same time? Ridiculous! But by the time the judges arrive, it is already laid out for us to see. A common method is to go room to room, so they’ll have several rooms for us to go through, and after we’ve voted on everything in the room and left it, the team comes in and bundles it all up, sorting it by the collective vote (in or out), and lays out more work. Another common method is the “lasagne” method, where posters and other flat objects are laid out on tables, with rolls of paper between them. We judge the top layer, and when we’re done, and moving on to another table, the team rolls up the top layer, counting scores, to reveal the next layer.

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The lasagne method: layers of posters separated by rolls of paper. Photo: Kristine Arth

How is the work scored?

Scoring is always done with the name of the designer/agency hidden, so we’re not influenced by who did it. Additionally, at least for the first round, our scores are hidden from each other, so we can’t see what other judges have voted. A common method is to have 2 upside-down cups with slots in the top, labelled IN and OUT. Judges put a chip in one or the other for their vote. Sometimes there’s only one cup, and judges have colour-coded beans or something, and they put 1–3 beans in the cup, for no/maybe/yes. Some of the larger shows have electronic systems for voting.

After this there is usually a second round. Depending on the size of the show, this round is either done the same way as the first, or may bring the pieces open to discussion: a chance for judges to look at what’s been voted in, and to query some (maybe even vote it out), and ask about pieces they loved but that didn’t make it in (maybe even vote it in). If there are two tiers, e.g. “Merit” vs. “Award” there will be some shuffling between these two, moving some up and some down.

And finally there is almost always a discussion about which pieces will be given special awards, like Bronze, Silver, Gold, Best in Show, and Judges’ Choice. Any time there is discussion amongst judges is by far the most interesting time in the process. Personal taste, bias and knowledge come out here. Sometimes there are long, sometimes-heated arguments. I love this part, and am always disappointed if there is no opportunity for it. Some shows place things strictly by the numbers, which I find odd, but discussions are extremely time consuming, and I can understand why they do it.

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Is it difficult?

Depending on the size of the show, the judging usually takes all day (sometimes 9am to 7pm) for several days. Small ones are only one day. The longest one for me is four days; two to three is most common. You’re on your feet for a lot of it: standing and moving slowly, like in a gallery where you’re really contemplating each work you see. Parts are often in dark rooms watching video of motion work, interactive, and environments.

No judge is ever paid. The organizations are usually good to us: they fly us to the location and put us up in a hotel and feed us. But it’s time away from work, and many of the judges are trying to juggle their business at the same time: answering emails and making phone calls in breaks, and staying up late to get things done.

Trying to judge consistently is very difficult. Some judge hard at the beginning and easier later on; others the other way around. At the end of the day, judges are tired and may overlook things. When they’re hungry they may rush. Sometimes they get sick. Many times, during a second cut of work, I see things I don;t remember from the first round. Where were they? What else did I miss? It happens. But all these inconsistencies between the judges balance out in the end.

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What is the work like?

The vast majority of the work entered into design awards shows is very good. Work that has absolutely nothing wrong with it. But very good is not good enough: award-winning work has something extra: something surprising, or very smart, or utterly compelling to make it excellent. It should be enviable to the judges to get in. And to get a top prize like a gold award or best in show, it has to blow the judges away (or most of them): to make them sick with envy. This work is rare.

Judging is a democratic process and even work that one or two judges think is outstanding may still be outvoted (with bitter recriminations) by the others. Juries are little microcosms with many different skills, tastes, biases and personality types. If your excellent piece didn’t get in it may be because it was the loser in a battle between judges, or maybe it wan’t actually excellent. Sadly, you will probably never know.

Is it just a beauty pageant?

Absolutely not. Effectiveness, wit, craft, strategy, surprise, appropriateness, beauty and other considerations are taken into account by varying degrees, depending on the judge. Awards organizations try to get a mix of judges from different backgrounds and disciplines so that many different aspects will be taken into account.

On environmentalism:

Most of the people I have judged with are very smart and very critical. Remember, they have years of experience in this business, and they can see through all the tricks. They are also very attuned to what’s been done before. And I’m pleased to say that there is a growing awareness of material waste. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily respond to everything wrapped in brown recycled paper, but your plastic packaging towers, and unbelievably complex boxes with moving parts are not impressive, no sirree. Similarly, pretty labels on plastic containers for dry goods are going to get knocked out. If only the whole packaging industry were as savvy as the designers I’ve judged with.

The other thing about smart designers is that they are knowledgeable of — and suspicious of — corporate practices. Work for large companies with bad business practices are going to meet a great deal of scepticism. Greenwashing? We’ll probably figure it out.