Awards don’t matter

[Hey students! is a multi-part series. Read the rest.]

At Oxide, we have a love/hate relationship with design awards. We have a good number of accolades laying around at this point, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever really gotten us, save for a quickly fleeting ego boost.

In the local (and probably national) design schools, it seems like there’s a great deal of importance placed on the winning of awards. Students are encouraged (and sometimes required) to enter competitions held by local organizations and national publications. But a student winning an award probably does much more to promote their educational institution than it does to bolster the career prospects of the student. Design employers know enough to take student design awards with a grain of salt; prospective design students (and their parents) often don’t have enough experience to avoid being star-struck by a school hallway lined with award plaques.

The reality is that all design competitions are amazingly subjective. It’s usually just three people (sometimes with unknown qualifications) making snap judgements of each piece in the matter of 1-2 seconds. In the end, if they share your aesthetic style, they’ll probably give you an award; if not, you’ll probably win nothing. Having judged a variety of design competitions, I can tell you there’s simply not time to delve into each piece to determine how successful it really may have been at solving the problem.

The take-home message from all of this is that you should never evaluate your design skills on how many awards you’ve won or haven’t won. Some of your best work will never win awards – but that doesn’t mean it’s not great work. (In fact, some of the most elegant or thoughtful design solutions simply don’t have the visual impact to get noticed in a design judging.) It’s not that I’m recommending that you never enter another design competition. I’m just telling you to be very cautious about how much importance you place on the outcome.

This was a hard lesson to learn in the early days of Oxide. I was very proud of several of our design projects, and dreamt of getting loads of accolades and validation from my peers. I sent the projects into every design competition I could find, only to be summarily shut-out from every single one of them. It took me a long time to come to the realization that they were still good work. It’s for this reason that Oxide rarely enters design competitions any more. We end up getting caught up in the dream, but the outcome is rarely relevant, well-informed, or an accurate measure of quality. (That’s probably true just as often when we win as when we don’t.)

I’m hoping I can spare every student some of my past heartache by letting you all know that design awards do not reflect the true quality of your work. Just keep solving problems the best way you know how.

p.s. Thanks to Joe (the regular author of our Hey Students! series) for kindly allowing me to add a small nugget of wisdom to his already valuable reference.

AIGA The Show posterThe poster I designed (ironically for The Show, AIGA Nebraska’s design competition.) Its “images on one side mirrored by text on the other” concept never won an award, even though I thought it was brilliant. Illustrations by Nate Voss.
Christmas at Union StationA logo I designed to mirror the Art Deco styling of Omaha’s Union Station, where this event is held every year. I never got the present of even a single design award.
benchmarks logoThe (I thought intelligently clever) name and logo we developed for Bench Marks, a public art project employing interpretations of inspirational phrases painted onto bus benches. Passed by in every design competition.


19 Jan 2011


What?! You mean all these fake clients that I made up just to post on logolounge won’t score me any cred?
Welp, back to the drawing board.

29 Jan 2011


drew – quite insightful.

after years of entering design shows, why do we enter? accolades are great, but really don’t do it anymore. for us at eurie, it’s about client retention (love to invite clients to the award shows and personally thank them in front of the community) and new business (while not a big factor on why someone should go into partnership with us, it’s nice to show that we have earned our stripes – so to speak).

over the last four years we have been involved with IABC – International Association of Business Communicators. there is a chapter in omaha: http://omaha.iabc.com/ their award show, the bronze quills, bases the criteria on not only the work, but a work plan. one must answer a series of questions on objectives, creative direction, implementation, results and lessons learned. it’s a great exercise in evaluating one’s work. we have modified these work plans and use them as great case studies.

as critical thinkers and graphic communicators, i would invite all to take a look at your local chapter.

22 Sep 2019

‘Enter’ to submit

The design student’s dilemma

It’s that time of year when students are looking for summer plans. Many agencies and design firms in town are accepting applications for internships, and students are applying (and the smartest students are applying at Oxide). For design students, it’s a great opportunity to put your skills to use in a professional environment, produce work for real clients, and gain valuable experience working within deadlines and budgets. I don’t think it’s some big secret that design jobs are hard to…

Your online portfolio

Here at Oxide, we review student portfolios on a fairly regular basis, and I have some thoughts to share. First of all, when you are not showing your work in person, you need to have your portfolio online. (This isn’t just because I’m a developer.) An online portfolio shows so much better than flipping through a bunch of pages on a PDF. And I would highly recommend against sending a potential employer or internship several individual files of your projects.…

Code is friend, not foe

Should design students learn how to code? Yes? No? How much? Why? As a designer-who-develops/developer-who-designs, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic. My hope is that by explaining a little, it will help you – as someone interested in web or UX design – make informed decisions about the kinds of opportunities that would be best for you to pursue.

Sketching is good

True story. Since I started at Oxide last June, I have filled 14 official Oxide sketchbooks (and I’m well on the way to finishing the three I have on my desk right now), a large 200-page sketchbook, a small hand-bound sketchpad, three Field Notes memo books, and countless index cards. In addition, I have a three-inch stack of computer printouts, hand-rendered sketches, and other miscellaneous design ephemera. (And those are just the notebooks I used at work”¦ I also have…

Never stop learning

I recently had a discussion with one of my professors from Iowa State University. She was asking what skills I felt ISU needed to better teach to prepare students for the real world. Which got me to thinking about the things that I have needed to learn in the past ten months at Oxide. I spent most of my four years learning about typography, proportions, and print design. And while I still utilize those skills, I’ve had to learn how…

Put yourself out there

For most of us, landing a job in design didn’t just happen. In our field, there is an abundance of applicants and a minimal number of openings. This means that you’re going to have to do everything you can to even get noticed. If you’re getting ready to take the plunge into the frigid waters of the design job market, following these guidelines will help you to get noticed.

Know when to care

This is a sequel to the first post in this series: Care about your work – which continues to be the most important lesson we have for you. But caring is more complicated than that. When you start caring, you lose the ability to evaluate your work independently of your personal investment in it.

You’ve got competition

While judging the 2010 Nebraska Student ADDY Awards, I was inspired to address the student readers of our blog. While Joe has been the regular author of our Hey Students! series, he has graciously allowed me to contribute to his already great student reference. There’s no easy way to say this. If you didn’t already know, there simply aren’t a ton of desirable jobs just waiting to be filled by design students. Knowingly or not, you have signed up for…

Start with the problem

Classes are back in session, so after you’ve ranked all of your new professors on the Sparano Scale™, it’s time to get down to some designing. Today’s bit of advice may be the most important in the Hey students! series so far. It’s so fundamental to your growth as a designer – and so critical to the effectiveness of design in general – it should really be addressed to Hey all designers everywhere!

Let go of the leave-behinds

When you’re in the classroom, you imagine that life as a professional is just like life as a student. Or, at least, you prefer to imagine it that way. Even though, buried deep inside your thoughtful designer brain, you know you’re kidding yourself. Some of your classroom experiences translate into the real world and others don’t. Every moment that you spend designing is worthwhile, but each finished piece isn’t necessarily going to help you outside the classroom. One particular project,…

Yeah, really, you

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with several design students. I won’t embarrass any of them (intentionally), but here’s the general consensus: most need to spend more time designing, several show a lot of promise, but very few are ready for the next step.

Design is not a job

We listen to a lot of internet radio at Oxide, which means we hear a lot of internet radio ads. One of these ads features a list of college degrees that, I assume, people listening to internet radio during the day may be interested in. They’re they kinds of degrees that are often listed together in these kinds of isn’t it about time you did something with your life kinds of ads: nursing, criminal justice, business, technology, management, and graphic…

Care about your work

It’s portfolio review season, so if you’re showing your portfolio around this year, there’s a chance you’ll see one of us. Personally, I’m returning from a portfolio-review-hiatus. You’re probably thinking: “Mr. Sparano, Professional Designer at Oxide Design Co., why in the world would you need to take a break from student portfolio reviews? It’s totally fun!”