The ethics of design competitions: how we should judge design
While design awards can contribute to the overall quality of both design culture and community and come up with some practical benefits for participants, they are often questioned as missing the mark.
Can any design award really validate a designer's experience? Might exposure be a scourge to creative work? Does a chasm between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design really exist? We’ve talked to jury members of design competitions like TDC, A’ Design Award, Awwwards, the Latin American Design Awards and stopped over at the International Council of Design—to find out how they approach questions and controversies about design contests.
Ksenya Samarskaya, a multi-disciplinary designer and creative practitioner. Samarskaya is the Managing Director of the Type Directors Club, Board Member and United States Country Delegate for ATypI, and member of AGI. She has judged numerous design competitions, including ADC/The One Club, Communication Arts, D&AD, Spark, TISDC, and TDC.
Alejandro Lazos, Creative/Design Director based in Buenos Aires, Argentina; co-founder of intacto.com, ex-Partner and Creative Director of MediaMonks BA; Awwwards jury member since 2012.
Gabriel Birnbaum, a designer and research scientist based in San Francisco, USA; a product designer for Substack, ex-developer for Plasma.jl; A’ Design Award jury member.
Tatiana Egoshina, everywhere-based multimedia designer; a communication designer at Readymag. She judged the Latin American Design Awards in 2021.
Ana Masut, Director General of the International Council of Design, the world’s largest representative of professional designer entities headquartered in Montreal, Canada. The Council’s mission is to increase recognition of the value of design, to elevate global standards of design disciplines, and to improve the situation of individual designers everywhere.
Can any design award really validate a designer's experience?
Lazos: I think the main mission of design contests is to recognize the best work in the field, move the boundaries to the limit and contribute to the evolution of design—but I wouldn’t say that a design award is a way of validating one’s experience.
Winning an award is a team effort. There are so many team members whose work makes a design into a cohesive piece, including developers, animators, illustrators, project managers, etc. So the most important thing is to work in the same direction, from a shared vision within the team.
The most important thing is to work in the same direction, from a shared vision within the team.—Alejandro Lazos
Egoshina: Sometimes your works may simply not fall under the contest’s terms, which doesn’t make it out of place. The Readymag Websites of the Year award included website performance as a judging criteria this year, so we had some design works that failed just in terms of loading speed. But that definitely doesn’t define a designer's work and especially their experience.
Your unique artistic approach is another consideration. One of the contests I judged required participants to draw a “wise” poster. It’s not an easy task for all designers to come up with an idea, write a copy, etc. That is, a designer can be irreproachable at solving business problems and finding design solutions, but here they have to come up with a problem themselves.
What benefits can winning a design award offer?
Samarskaya: For a newbie—it expands your network and builds name recognition. It then slowly (or sometimes quite rapidly) starts opening doors to other opportunities. For a seasoned pro—I think staying relevant is just as important. Design is culture and communication. It’s not a problem you solve once and then it’s over. As culture changes, it’s a great way to keep one’s ego from getting the upper hand, by checking in to see if the work still resonates with the current generation.
Design is culture and communication. It’s not a problem you solve once and then it’s over.—Ksenya Samarskaya
Birnbaum: Although we ought to do good work regardless of awards, these contests serve as a signal that you are a good designer within and beyond the industry. I could list several practical benefits as well. It can help with expediting immigration and even negotiating a better salary with established companies.
Masut: That depends very much on the Award. Some awards give cash prizes. Others raise the winner’s profile. Some end up costing more than they give. I would say that if the award is well done and has a good reputation and high standards, then winning the award could provide publicity and connections—but this is not a given.
Working for exposure can be a burden on creativity. How does that relate to the motivation to take part in design competitions in your mind?
Samarskaya: Not all exposure is the same, right? A client profiting off of bespoke labor (while exposing you to their network of similarly aligned cheapskates) doesn’t get a designer very far in terms of progress. On the other hand, having work that you’ve already created and are proud of get a wider audience, having it recognized by your peers—especially those whose career you might want to emulate—that is a very different type of exposure. There’s useful attention, and negative attention, and there are different levels of effort in exchange for said attention—right? It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Being catcalled is not the same as a crush writing you back.
There’s useful attention, and negative attention, and there are different levels of effort in exchange for said attention—right? It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Being catcalled is not the same as a crush writing you back.—Ksenya Samarskaya
Masut: There is nothing wrong with receiving ‘exposure’ per se. The issue is to create work without remuneration. If the designer has been adequately paid to create the work by a client—as all designers should be—then the “cost" of the submission is just the time to submit the work and maybe a submission fee. If that fee is reasonable then it is not a problem to contribute for the possibility of ‘exposure.'
Lazos: Sometimes the ego can drive us to focus only on the glory of winning awards. But I’d choose to think of it as a positive exposure that can inspire others, motivate your team and bring more business opportunities.
Egoshina: I’d say that exposure to design figureheads and colleagues you admire, and belonging to the community, often drives creative work—and it is totally understandable. I remember applying for a design competition when I was a student in 2015–2016. Back then, it was both fun and important to have your work evaluated not only by your teacher, but by designers from the wider world.
Some say that those who represent a large corporation have a better chance to win in design competitions. Do you agree?
Samarskaya: Definitely not. Corporations may try to up their luck by entering the work in various categories. Or corporate production budgets can allow a campaign to exist in multiple formats which might seem more impressive. But this isn’t something I have experienced much at the TDC since the judging criteria is specifically about type, or the use of type, so judges aren’t considering these external factors. And to counter the idea that large corporations get an edge, there are also definite advantages that independents and smaller studios have: their work is often braver. They take more risks and are able to produce more innovative work, which other creatives who are judging place a high value on.
Birnbaum: Much of the work done at the heart of large corporations is not all that interesting. Their design space is more about optimizing what already exists, often in small increments constrained by testing. This is extremely useful for businesses and it helps designers develop rigor, though its value as design work is not necessarily the main idea.
Masut: I would say that this is invariably true for awards with high entry fees. There are many well-known awards that are in fact money-making schemes. The cost to enter, cost to advance and then the cost to accept (and have the right to promote the winning of) the award are so exorbitant that only companies with high marketing budgets can afford to enter. These are not respectable awards in our estimation, because they are not rewarding design value as much as deep pockets.
What do you think about the sometimes prohibitive award fees in the industry?
Birnbaum: I think there shouldn’t be award fees at all. Or very small, just to eliminate the least interested participants.
Lazos: It all depends on how you approach costs: as an expense or as an investment. In my opinion, a design competition is the same investment as an advertisement to show your creative power.
Samarskaya: There’s definitely a range of fees associated with competitions, but that also speaks to different competitions existing for different communities. Advertising competitions can range from hundreds to thousands, which for an agency isn’t much, but that’s also not been my wheelhouse. At TDC we’re regularly discussing and reworking our fees, making sure that the prices are approachable for independent designers and smaller studios, and thinking through how individuals in different circumstances might experience them (our international Advisory Board is regularly helping bring in new perspectives, and we’ve introduced a steep global price parity this year with half of the world’s nations receiving 60% off, and another quarter getting 20%). On the other end of the spectrum, free competitions exist (often for students)—but those require significant government funding, and are incredibly large machineries because they simultaneously have to navigate how to process the hundreds of thousands of entries they receive, most of which don’t ever make it in front of the judges whose name they tout.
Should we judge good design by clearly defined metrics of formal or aesthetic considerations, or by considerations that are more difficult to quantify?
Samarskaya: I think that is one of the more valuable outcomes of competitions, that every year the judges that come together have to really grapple with those questions (which is also why getting a diverse and diligent set of individuals to judge is so important!). It’s never just about formal qualities, so a lot of heavier criteria is also debated. Where does this work fit in the greater culture? Which direction does it move the industry? What is the responsibility that comes with recognizing it in terms of precedent? The judges I’ve been around take the honor very seriously, and there’s a lot of debate and self-reflection on the state of the industry—in addition to the specific work being discussed.
Masut: The Council would argue that you should judge those things and also the merits of the design socially, culturally, economically and environmentally. We define ‘good design’ this way. A design that is functional and has a ‘wow’ factor, but that is terrible for the environment, should simply not exist. We think that designers have a professional responsibility to the societies they live in: to not ruin the climate, to not create or perpetuate damaging stereotypes, to not promote values that are socially damaging, etc. The clients might not require this, but—as a professional—the designer should demand this of themselves. And, as design industry agencies, we should not promote design that goes against these principles, no matter how exciting.
We think that designers have a professional responsibility to the societies they live in: to not ruin the climate, to not create or perpetuate damaging stereotypes, to not promote values that are socially damaging.—Ana Masut.
Lazos: Formal, defined metrics don´t always mean good design or UX; it depends on many more factors, like creative copy, marketing strategy, impact, etc. It also depends on the way we present cases. Sometimes the design process can be more visible and can be considered directly as well. At the end of the day, I think a smart process, as well as deep thinking and value, should prevail over aesthetics.
Egoshina: In my opinion, the perfect design comes together when formal, aesthetics and quality considerations add up. It's rich in content, it works flawlessly, looks good and serves its purpose.
Which design projects tend to be a spot-on match for design awards?
Samarskaya: I’m not sure as far as the design, because it’s really down to the selected judges in the room. But I can offer tips on devising a high-impact entry submission. Judges are often looking at hundreds of pieces of work, so you do have to catch their attention fast. Lead with your strongest image. Include just enough imagery to understand what the piece is. Don’t rely on the text to explain the project. You’re only as strong as your weakest image. When it gets down to the end and it’s neck and neck, one weak image can often throw out an otherwise stellar presentation.
You’re only as strong as your weakest image.—Ksenya Samarskaya
Egoshina: I’d offer to think of something completely unexpected and exceptional, or it could be a design that resembles a set of recent trends—but it should be the best in the row. This year, I’ve noticed many designers spicing up their works with round-edged rectangles.
Lazos: First off, you need to conduct some contest investigations. Imagine that you are a soccer trainer and want to win the World Cup, so you check out your rivals first of course. I always look at design heads and past winners for inspiration. Then you should review the criteria to really understand what to put most of your attention into: a creative concept, grids, fonts, layouts, visual disruption, intuitive interactions, innovative use of technology, etc. Then just believe that anything is possible and strive to push the boundaries.
Imagine that you are a soccer trainer and want to win the World Cup, so you check out your rivals first of course.—Alejandro Lazos
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