Design competitions: good or evil?

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Design competitions can be a divisive subject. While some swear they are excellent for getting your graphic design portfolio up to scratch, or for forcing yourself to learn new skills and work to a deadline, others feel they're a waste of time, or are a way of getting free work from inexperienced designers.

Computer Arts asked its readers whether they think design competitions are beneficial overall, and here's what they had to say...

01. You get to work on a live brief

Freelance designer Grace Abell knows first-hand that design competitions can lead to paid work. "When I was a student, entering design competitions was a rare opportunity to work on a live brief. They offered an exciting focus beyond those that tutors set. In my case, a gig poster competition entry, pinned to the wall at college, proved to my tutors that I was serious about pursuing a creative career. The poster went on to become part of my portfolio for university applications," she says. 

"I acknowledge that some design competitions for professionals are ethically dubious; if someone doesn’t want to hire a pro, they shouldn’t expect the work of an experienced creative. But for me, winning led to paid work. 

"Passionate students, wanting to work in a competitive field, will take the chance. A competition entry in their portfolio could give them the edge when applying for the same jobs as their cohorts.”

Andrea Kaye White agrees: "They can be an amazing opportunity for students, especially at the local level. It can lead to recognition and the opportunity to network with professionals."

02. You gain confidence

“You don’t need to win a competition to benefit from it," says design student Emma Jayne. "As a design student, it’s also a great way to receive the kind of real-world feedback that’s necessary to our development and understanding. 

"I recently entered a competition for a print magazine; I submitted a piece that I had created during my studies, because I was proud of it. It was a great way for me to get noticed and to get my name out there. I was rejected, and obviously a little hurt by that, but I believe this helps us students to build resilience. We need the confidence to pitch work, so that when it comes to clients and businesses, we can adapt to what they’re seeking and be able to deal with likely rejection. 

"It’s this kind of experience that makes or breaks a designer, testing whether this is the right career path, and helps to build one’s personality.”

Lindsay Kempter agrees that it's a good idea to submit work you've created for something else. "I enter projects that I do at work, not in my free time," she says. "Two birds with one stone, still designing for a client but then getting some bragging rights in the process." 

03. They're just superficial

Others are less positive about design competitions. Dennis de Groot says they're only beneficial or important "because we allow them to be. In essence they’re superficially creating a distinction between the 'best' and the rest," he explains.

Andrea Roze also isn't sure about their worth. "All it appears to be is other designers showing off," she says. "Instead of trying to impress, we should be designing for the client or customer."

04. It depends on the competition

Design competitions vary widely, so it's no surprise that some think you should choose the competitions you enter wisely. Dave Brown, co-founder and 2D design lead of Brown&co  says that the best kind of competitions for agencies to enter are those that measure the impact and effectiveness of design in-market and reflect the ability to deliver tangible return on investment. 

"So, I’d put the DBA Design Effectiveness awards right up there," he says. "These awards aren’t a lottery, based on a closely knit judging panel with voting based on subjective creative excellence, or indeed any perception of cronyism. No, they are measured by results. Winning awards gives that feel-good factor internally, gets the agency noticed and builds reputation amongst peer groups, and of course more importantly, within the world of brand owners out there. Some awards programmes are a waste of time and effort, though. Naming no names but you know who they are!”

Joshua Marsch agrees. "I think it actually depends on the competition itself. If the final award helps the designer get more clientele then yes, definitely," he says.

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