In our newest design debate, Isabel Castillo Guijarro, Gijs van den Berg, and Wael Morcos explore the pros and cons of trying to win a design award. Ready, set, debate.
When I first got to New York, applying to design awards was a great way to get ahead with my visa application. But I would have applied to awards without needing a visa: A win can be hugely valuable, especially at the onset of your career.
After school, I took part in AIGA's Command X, where you have 24 hours to respond to a brief. For me, the event became way more than just a competition. I was so shy and nervous standing in front of the crowd presenting my designs, so when I got back to New York, the first thing I decided was to do more public speaking. My takeaway ended up being nothing to do with design at all, but rather, I learned how to sell an idea—which is vital for professional life.
I’ve also won the Society of Illustrators award, which was a hugely validating win for me. I didn’t go to school for illustration but instead learned on the job while working at Refinery29 for the past five years. To be selected as a winner along with so many talented illustrators, who have all been trained in the discipline, made me think: ‘OK, maybe I really am an illustrator after all.’ The award also brought me exposure: lots of people wanted to work with me because they saw my work at the competition’s exhibition.
Awards are expensive, of course. But because of the price, you become a bit more critical of your own work. You’re not going to submit 10 different designs—instead, you need to slow down and carefully consider what to submit. The price means you also have to be careful when deciding which award to apply for. For me, I apply to the competitions that designers I admire have won in the past.
Ultimately, what has counted most for me is attending the award ceremonies themselves and meeting lots of talented people through them. Last year when I was attending the Society of Illustrators award ceremony, I commissioned artists that I met there to do things for Refinery29. On the flip side, I also met loads of art directors that hired me to freelance illustration for them. Because of these experiences, I’ll definitely be applying to other awards in the future.”
It’s a big statement, but I think awards can be a bit of a disease. First, you win one. Then you win another. And then they suddenly become an obsession—a reason to make work. If you need confirmation and validation with your work though, that will ultimately lead to frustration when you don’t win. Then you’ll become jealous, and then that’ll create bad atmosphere in your workplace.
I’ve worked at KesselsKramer for ten years, and we don’t submit to the award shows any more. Previously I worked at an agency where we did: I found that desiring awards means making work that you believe will win. It becomes a goal in itself, and then the client’s needs get lost. You’re designing for other designers.
By looking at what your competitors and colleagues are doing, you inevitably create similar work and never get outside of your comfort zone. I strongly believe and encourage creatives to look at photography, film, art, performance, and music, because they’re much better fields to find inspiration in. Crossovers can lead to much more interesting work. If you’re creating work to win awards, you’re in an echo chamber.
I’ve judged a few awards too. You have this screen in front of you and before you know it, you’ve spent five hours flicking through work quickly. I believe every idea deserves a bit of context and explanation though. If I see a poster, I can judge it on its layout, but if I see a poster hanging in a particular spot and I know its context, then it changes my opinion on the design. The judging process can be a bit superficial. It’s important to hear context instead of just scrolling on a screen and giving things a star.
There is also the financial impact of applying to awards. It’s expensive, especially if like us, you make work for many different categories. It’s much nicer to use that money to organize a great party every year for all of your people.
When it comes to design awards, I’m conflicted. Awards are a form of peer approval—they’re validating for those trying to find their career path. But they’re also expensive, aggressively marketed, and sometimes flawed in their evaluation.
For me, awards were very helpful as an immigrant entering the USA. When you’re an Arabic designer in an American, English speaking community, it’s welcoming and encouraging to see that your work is appreciated and understood. Accolades can help outsiders understand your contributions as a creative practitioner.
But one issue is that award clubs can be too sleek in their marketing. There are a lot of different types of competitions out there and it’s important that a designer, especially a young one, understands where the work fits best. It’s important to know what’s worth paying the entry fee for—and that might not be evident to fresh graduates.
While the judging process of awards can be flawed (flashy tropes tend to drown out quieter narratives), the annuals and publications produced are interesting. They're historical records giving a glimpse to the kind of work the design industry was interested in at a particular time. That’s why I appreciate the competitions that put together a panel of judges who are experts in their fields of study.
Ultimately, I don’t think awards are a necessity for someone's career. They’re just one tool for putting yourself out there. It has become easier with social media and the art of self promotion for people to achieve visibility through hard work. Whether through design competitions or online self-promotion, designers talk amongst themselves and the industry forms its discourse. What's missing is nuanced critique that bridges the divide between deeper analysis and exciting form making.
What’s interesting to me is how communities—local communities, minority communities—might enter into that kind of conversation and be represented in these dialogues. For peer- reviewed competitions, it’s important to create spaces where these voices are acknowledged. That could be through diversifying the judging panel or by bringing new, local voices to the table.”
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.