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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.

2 Comments

19 Jan 2011

Reply

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

Reply

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

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