Massive pencils, glistening trophies, a hell of a lot of wine, some very heavy books, and dinner jackets—ah, the glitz and glamour of design awards. While everyone loves to be recognized for a brilliant project that the whole team has worked their butts off for, away from peer recognition, a great party and a nice ornament for the front desk, are design awards always worth the cost and effort of entering—do they reflect the best of the design industry at any given point? We asked a bunch of creatives from big agencies, small agencies and those going it alone for their thoughts.

“I’ve always had mixed feelings about design awards. As a youngster the thought of winning a D&AD Pencil or a Cannes Lion was thrilling. As I matured, I realized I didn’t need approval from the industry. I focus on the people who’ll be impacted by my work; that’s what gets me out of bed. This year I judged D&AD though, and loved the shift in work entered; design being used to make a difference, inspiring people to want to be better, do better, and make better. My mentor and first boss would say ‘whatever the project, make it award-winning.’ Somehow I always knew what that meant.”
Lisa Smith, head of design at Wolff Olins, New York

“The trouble with idealism is that it is needy and tricky. But I’m an idealist, and in my ideal world I would love awards to be a democratic representation of all progressive excellence practiced by our industry today. This means that, ideally, awards would cost nothing to enter so that success could never be bought. It means that work would be entered in raw form with verified data so it’s judged on its impact and not on any hype. It means that awards would reward not familiar tropes, but real innovation so that the industry furthers its relevance annually. And it means that any awarded work would have a proven, pro-social dimension so that great work is at a minimum, good. I write these criteria not as a criticism of awards, which in many cases are embracing some of these dimensions, but as a provocation to ensure that our industry’s recognized best is not just likeable, but outstanding.”
Naresh Ramchandani, Pentagram partner, London

“Creative awards are often very heavy. Many are made of valuable materials like semi-precious metals and rare woods, so as a raw commodity they are worth quite a bit if you have enough of them. Also, if design companies don’t have enough heavy metal in the reception area, they’re in danger of floating off into oblivion, a bit like the house in Up. For young designers though, the real value lies in helping them get a bigger pay increase or the chance to go out and get a better job.”
Nick Clark, executive creative director, The Partners, New York

“We’re currently designing the new identity, exhibition scheme, and digital campaign for the upcoming Designs of the Year show at the brand new Design Museum in London. It’s made us think about awards as a studio. In the past year Studio Hato has almost tripled in size to 16 members, with editors, operations, project, and studio managers joining the family. This has meant that physically entering an award has become much more viable. That said, we are very much a project-focused studio. We invest all our efforts in developing and pushing our projects further; working with our clients and collaborators to challenge and develop the briefs we are given. In the coming years it’s inevitable that we’ll begin looking into entering awards to reach wider markets—our projects are currently very much recognized by a ‘design audience’ and design press—but we’ll choose these very carefully; for an agency our size, awards are a big investment.”
Ken Kirton, founder, Studio Hato

“Awards are important on many different levels. For our design teams, and increasingly our clients, they are a recognition of the time and passion that has been invested in a project. Awards also create a healthy level of creative competitiveness in the industry and set creative standards to aim for; the ‘wish I’d done that’ factor. Award annuals capturing the best of the year, such as D&AD, become chronicles of excellence and inspire the next generation of designers. They also increasingly result in new business calls as brand owners recognize their importance. My ‘watch out’ would be that they can be prohibitively expensive for start-up agencies, so these agencies should really decide on what award schemes are most appropriate for them, enter the ones with an established track records and reputations, and only enter work they really believe in.”
Graham Shearsby, chief creative officer, Design Bridge

“As an independent graphic designer, I have never entered a design competition (though projects I have worked on have been entered by past and present employers). I am part of a generation that has had a wealth of resources and information made easily accessible (and disposable) online. The internet has made it possible to share work instantly and globally to people of similar interests. If a designer is able to utilize this tool to their benefit via social media, websites, and blogs, then their potential audience is far greater than a design competition can offer. Recognition within the industry is increasingly driven by digital representation as well as physical representation and awards.”
Alex Brown, freelance graphic designer, currently working at Pentagram previously at SEA

“We have never entered any of our work into design competitions or awards, but would definitely consider it if the incentive and benefits of winning were attractive enough and were worth the time and potential fee attached for applying. When we were launching Warriors Studio and Graphic Design Festival Scotland (GDFS) in 2014, we applied for a business award to win £10,000 [about $13,000]. The potential money was worth the time spent, and in hindsight we’re glad we did, because we won it! 

“We assume that people enter design awards for increased publicity, peer recognition, and good additions to the CV, but really they’re more of a badge of honor to show non-designers. For us, award titles and physical trophies alone have never been a great incentive. As part of GDFS, we organize two competitions; the Live Project and the International Poster Competition. These are popular events within the program, but we believe that the incentives of work placements in the Live Project, £500 cash [about $650] and inclusion within the International Poster Exhibition are more lucrative than the actual award titles and physical trophies that come with them. We never say never for design awards though; if anyone wants to give us one, please feel free.”
James Gilchrist and Beth Wilson, co-founders, Warriors Studio and Graphic Design Festival Scotland, Glasgow