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Oh, Those Design "Competitions"

Oh, Those Design "Competitions"

Mike Lenhart

As I’ve been out in the design world more, I receive a lot of “Call for Entries” postcards and email messages for various design competitions. They come from design magazines, most of the time, but they also come from professional organizations looking to showcase some current work from their memberships. The CFEs from the magazines, usually for their Design Annuals, are basically a Call for Magazine Sales, while those from the professional organizations are a little more practical, in my humble opinion. While the latter may be a ploy for membership, as you can’t normally enter unless you are one, the professional organization CFEs and competitions normally have the greater good of the industry in mind. How do you differentiate between these so-called “competitions”, and how do you know that your work will really be looked at, or even considered?

A Candid Look

I’ve entered a lot of these competitions in both areas of this genre and have one main caveat – read the rules and fine print. I guess there are 2 caveats, but they kind of go together. The magazine design competitions are usually more involved, in terms of entry, and have a lot of rules, restrictions, and fees in order to get your work “considered”. While the fees can range from $25-$75 per entry, they can add up, especially if you go for more than one competition. These “Annual Design Award” competitions are usually juried by well-known celebrities in the graphic design world in order to gain some legitimacy and notoriety. That’s where the problem lies, in my opinion. I really feel that the “winners” in this type of competition are from well-known and established design firms or designers that help to sell the magazines – just as the “celebrities” pull in the buyers and subscribers. Not that I have some sour grapes around this, but I really feel that this is the case. Look at those who are showcased in these Annuals and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe they are really good, but I feel that there are also some lesser-known artists out there whose work is just as good and even more cutting-edge. Would those “sell”, though?

Also, look at what it may cost for you, as a “winner”, to actually get your work placed in the Annual. I won 1 (yes, only 1) of these for a somewhat reputable design magazine and was asked to shell-out $250 just to get my “winning” entry in their special publication. I don’t know, but when you consider all of the “winners” in these Annuals who pay the same fee, that’s a lot of revenue for the magazine. Can we say greedy? Of course I paid it and ended up getting solicited by placement agencies and other headhunters who wanted to represent me for their clients. Humph.

The professional association showcases are not so shady, again, in my opinion. They may be juried by celebrities in the field as well, but the results, and winners, tend to be more reachable and local, and easier for us to relate to. We may actually know them. The fees to enter may also be more nominal, sometimes there are none. But remember, you may need to be a member of the association where annual membership fees exist. I’m always an advocate for industry associations, so spend your money on your local chapter.

What to Enter

When you finally have the time and guts to enter a design competition, which work do you submit? Well, obviously that which you consider your best, but also work that will most likely match the category in which you’re entering and hopefully cause a “wow” factor. Creativity and cutting-edge work should usually make the grade. You may want to be out in the field for a while to get some varied work in your portfolio that you can choose from for entry. Don’t waste your time, energy, and money to enter a design competition with work that really isn’t your best. We all know, in our gut, which work is really good – or not.

Final Thoughts

I realize I may have been a little harsh on design magazines and the celebrity jurors and winners. They’re not all bad and some of them may even be more above-board. It’s all just pretty arbitrary and you may have to enter your work numerous times and ask around to those more experienced in this area to get some valuable experiences and opinions. It’s always good to ask others. If you’re a student, there are ample opportunities to enter student competitions. Design competitions can be, and many times are, very good ways to get your name and work out there and contribute to the overall reputation of the industry. Heck, it just makes you feel good, too.

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