Why Award?

/Why Award?

Are design awards worth entering?

Massive pencils, glistening trophies, a hell of a lot of wine, some very heavy books, and dinner jackets—ah, the glitz and glamour of design awards. While everyone loves to be recognized for a brilliant project that the whole team has worked their butts off for, away from peer recognition, a great party and a nice ornament for the front desk, are design awards always worth the cost and effort of entering—do they reflect the best of the design industry at any given point? We asked a bunch of creatives from big agencies, small agencies and those going it alone for their thoughts.

“I’ve always had mixed feelings about design awards. As a youngster the thought of winning a D&AD Pencil or a Cannes Lion was thrilling. As I matured, I realized I didn’t need approval from the industry. I focus on the people who’ll be impacted by my work; that’s what gets me out of bed. This year I judged D&AD though, and loved the shift in work entered; design being used to make a difference, inspiring people to want to be better, do better, and make better. My mentor and first boss would say ‘whatever the project, make it award-winning.’ Somehow I always knew what that meant.”
Lisa Smith, head of design at Wolff Olins, New York

“The trouble with idealism is that it is needy and tricky. But I’m an idealist, and in my ideal world I would love awards to be a democratic representation of all progressive excellence practiced by our industry today. This means that, ideally, awards would cost nothing to enter so that success could never be bought. It means that work would be entered in raw form with verified data so it’s judged on its impact and not on any hype. It means that awards would reward not familiar tropes, but real innovation so that the industry furthers its relevance annually. And it means that any awarded work would have a proven, pro-social dimension so that great work is at a minimum, good. I write these criteria not as a criticism of awards, which in many cases are embracing some of these dimensions, but as a provocation to ensure that our industry’s recognized best is not just likeable, but outstanding.”
Naresh Ramchandani, Pentagram partner, London

“Creative awards are often very heavy. Many are made of valuable materials like semi-precious metals and rare woods, so as a raw commodity they are worth quite a bit if you have enough of them. Also, if design companies don’t have enough heavy metal in the reception area, they’re in danger of floating off into oblivion, a bit like the house inUp. For young designers though, the real value lies in helping them get a bigger pay increase or the chance to go out and get a better job.”
Nick Clark, executive creative director, The Partners, New York

“We’re currently designing the new identity, exhibition scheme, and digital campaign for the upcoming Designs of the Year show at the brand new Design Museum in London. It’s made us think about awards as a studio. In the past year Studio Hato has almost tripled in size to 16 members, with editors, operations, project, and studio managers joining the family. This has meant that physically entering an award has become much more viable. That said, we are very much a project-focused studio. We invest all our efforts in developing and pushing our projects further; working with our clients and collaborators to challenge and develop the briefs we are given. In the coming years it’s inevitable that we’ll begin looking into entering awards to reach wider markets—our projects are currently very much recognized by a ‘design audience’ and design press—but we’ll choose these very carefully; for an agency our size, awards are a big investment.”
Ken Kirton, founder, Studio Hato

“Awards are important on many different levels. For our design teams, and increasingly our clients, they are a recognition of the time and passion that has been invested in a project. Awards also create a healthy level of creative competitiveness in the industry and set creative standards to aim for; the ‘wish I’d done that’ factor. Award annuals capturing the best of the year, such as D&AD, become chronicles of excellence and inspire the next generation of designers. They also increasingly result in new business calls as brand owners recognize their importance. My ‘watch out’ would be that they can be prohibitively expensive for start-up agencies, so these agencies should really decide on what award schemes are most appropriate for them, enter the ones with an established track records and reputations, and only enter work they really believe in.”
Graham Shearsby, chief creative officer, Design Bridge

“As an independent graphic designer, I have never entered a design competition (though projects I have worked on have been entered by past and present employers). I am part of a generation that has had a wealth of resources and information made easily accessible (and disposable) online. The internet has made it possible to share work instantly and globally to people of similar interests. If a designer is able to utilize this tool to their benefit via social media, websites, and blogs, then their potential audience is far greater than a design competition can offer. Recognition within the industry is increasingly driven by digital representation as well as physical representation and awards.”
Alex Brown, freelance graphic designer, currently working at Pentagram previously at SEA

“We have never entered any of our work into design competitions or awards, but would definitely consider it if the incentive and benefits of winning were attractive enough and were worth the time and potential fee attached for applying. When we were launching Warriors Studio and Graphic Design Festival Scotland (GDFS) in 2014, we applied for a business award to win £10,000 [about $13,000]. The potential money was worth the time spent, and in hindsight we’re glad we did, because we won it! 

“We assume that people enter design awards for increased publicity, peer recognition, and good additions to the CV, but really they’re more of a badge of honor to show non-designers. For us, award titles and physical trophies alone have never been a great incentive. As part of GDFS, we organize two competitions; the Live Project and the International Poster Competition. These are popular events within the program, but we believe that the incentives of work placements in the Live Project, £500 cash [about $650] and inclusion within the International Poster Exhibition are more lucrative than the actual award titles and physical trophies that come with them. We never say never for design awards though; if anyone wants to give us one, please feel free.”
James Gilchrist and Beth Wilson, co-founders, Warriors Studio and Graphic Design Festival Scotland, Glasgow

Making a Case for Design Awards

When it comes to design award competitions, opinions in the industry vary greatly. Some design firms swear by them, others think they’re overrated. Some think design awards are the best allocation of their marketing and PR dollars, others call it a rip-off or worse, a buy-out.

Why spend time, money and resources on design award competitions?

John Guenther, a 2016 Spark juror and former Director of Design at HP states that “the beauty of design competitions is the leveling of the playing field between big companies, small design firms, and students alike. The only thing that truly matters is the new and innovative design thinking they bring forward”.

The beauty of design competitions is the leveling of the playing field between big companies, small design firms, and students alike.

Flipping through the annual catalogs of individual award organizations indeed shows that new designs ranging from companies like Google and Tesla are judged next to innovative products from little-known startups. Each submission is equally graded on product form, function, and user experience.

Not all design awards are equal.

Harden admits that there are more award programs now than ever before and some are easier to win than others. Established programs such as iFRed Dot and IDEA have a 50-60 year history and are still held in the highest regard. Spark celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

The award spectrum has widened too. Next to the general design awards, more specialized ones have come into play for medical design, UX and even plastic parts.

For clients, being able to publicly attach a design award to their product brings an opportunity to build consumer confidence and boost business results. Depending on the industry, winning an award in their particular category may be a more beneficial validation from experts in their field. Medical companies for instance, will benefit more from participating in the Medical Design Excellence Award (MDEA) rather than a general award program.

For clients, being able to publicly attach a design award to their product brings an opportunity to build consumer confidence and boost business results.

Design firms need a strategy when entering design awards – after all, they do cost time and money.  Are you a young and upcoming firm? Consider both national and international award competitions to help establish your name in the industry.  Pay special attention to awards that give a win the most visibility, especially beyond the annual catalog spread among peers. The program at Fast Company for instance gives winning designs mainstream visibility in print and online publications.

Reputation of the jury is everything

The quality of any design award program will rise and fall with the quality and integrity of the judges. A relevant and professional jury will guarantee that only the deserving solutions are impartially selected and awarded.

Word on the street is that some (not all) “general design awards” are less consistent in quality because the jurors are more general too. Before entering any design award competition, take a moment to research the jury. Are they reputable, practicing professionals themselves? Not all jurors are established experts in the category they are judging, and therefore not necessarily possessing the in-depth knowledge required for selecting the true cream of the industry crop.

Top award programs such as IDEA, Red Dot and iF remain extremely selective and very competitive to win.

The quality of any design award program will rise and fall with the quality and integrity of the judges.

Design awards and innovation.

“Innovation” is often linked to top award winners. Yet there is more to innovation than newness. If innovation is defined as the implementation of an idea at the intersection of (1) what the user wants, (2) what is technologically possible, and (3) what is viable in the marketplace … are design awards a credible representation of innovation?

“They can be,” says Ari Turgel, Director of Industrial & Interaction Design at Whipsaw. “Once again, it depends on the award program and the level of professional insight from the judges. Top award programs with a long history and impeccable reputation will facilitate multiple judging rounds, physical product submissions, and highly attentive jurors so potential innovation can be recognized and classified according to impact and merit.”

“People’s Choice Awards” are an interesting side concept. On the one hand they serve as a fun way to applaud a designer without relying on key industry insights to classify their project as good design or innovative in its category. On the other hand, since those voting for the People’s Choice Award are both interested in design, and they are potential consumers on top … aren’t their voices worth listening to? They may readily uncover what it is that users want, appreciate and expect from the products they embrace.

Are design awards (still) relevant?

Design award competitions were once instrumental in growing the concept, importance and philosophy behind good design. For a long time it was also the main if not sole PR resource for design firms. Not anymore, especially with social marketing tools widely available.

With so many different award programs out there, what practices would ensure the continued relevance of design awards?

The need for mainstream media coverage.

Key to the future relevance of design awards will be an increased visibility beyond the design industry and into the hands of mainstream media. Most award programs claim they bring this visibility to their winners, but the reality tells a different story. A press release and an online gallery is a fabulous start but not merely enough to cultivate a sensitivity for good design among the general public.

Moving beyond peer recognition and into mainstream media is what will keep design awards relevant, and the design industry moving forward.

This cultivation beyond peer recognition is what will keep design awards relevant, and the design industry moving forward.

Compared to European audiences, there is room to grow a more profound appreciation for design in the eyes of American audiences. German-based Red Dot and iF serve as beacons of good design that users respect and refer to when considering their purchases. Can we build a similar sensitivity in the United States?

IDEA is said to be the American Academy of Design Awards. On the heels of the IDEA announcement of this year’s top winners, Tech Insider published “The 19 best-designed products of 2016,” with selected highlights from the IDEA winner’s list. It is this type of coverage that will keep design awards relevant for all involved, including clients and end users.

Mainstream coverage of design awards will make the general public aware of the value of design innovation and help them appreciate the benefits it brings to their own life.

Clients of design firms benefit too from the public acknowledgment that their design investment was a good one. They receive additional PR and advertising for the products they sell, both inside and outside of the design industry. But most importantly the public applause for the commitment to design will motivate them to keep their own design standards high which in the end benefits consumers and designers alike.

Mainstream coverage of design awards will bring public recognition to the products our clients bring to market, boosting consumer confidence and business results on top.


Winning a design award makes us feel good yet its benefits go beyond the momentary reward for our creative skills and efforts. Unlike our European design friends, it is still only an elite American audience that uses design as a standard of living reference. Designers, design firms and award programs have the ability to move the needle to change that. What’s stopping us to make the next IDEA award label anything less than a symbol for consumer trust, client confidence and excellent business results for all?

Reference: Whipsaw