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?”
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.