Fast Company’s Design Awards trophies

The #1 most depressing yet obligatory word in the English language has got to be “networking.” All its corollary phrases reek of forced cheer: “You gotta get your work out there!” “Make a name for yourself!” “Show ‘em what you’re made of!” (Note the strained exclamation points and apple-cheeked American tenor.) And yet, it’s only depressing because it’s true. As a writer, I embrace my trade’s lone-wolf aesthetic with gusto, but in reality the design world is remarkably small and populated with people you’ll actually meet and re-meet over the course of your career.

As editor-in-chief of Communication Arts Patrick Coyne notes, the biggest misconception about his magazine’s Award of Excellence is “that it’s run by some faceless corporation. We’re a small, three-generation family-run business committed to inspiring all visual communicators.”

In other words, there’s no Big Brother of Design. Everyone’s got a stake in pushing our field forward.

Design awards advance the collective conversation in design; even criticism of these awards has value. For instance, designer Braulio Amado’s post on It’s Nice That re-ignited ire about the sometimes-prohibitive cost of award fees. In industrial design, the Good Design Award caught flak for allegedly benefiting the product manufacturers more than designers. This debate swings like a pendulum in design circles: should we judge good design by clearly defined measures of effectiveness or by that unmistakable oomph of good design that’s more difficult to quantify?

Christopher Simmons hews to the latter view. As a designer and former critic-turned-insider—he’s now on AIGA’s national board and was the competition chair for AIGA’s annual Cased competition last year (then called Justified)—he articulates exactly what design awards should do: jolt us out of the humdrum to think bigger.

So, what are the most valid—and most bogus—reasons to apply for a design award? We’ll give you five reasons (pro and con) and welcome your continued reaction on Twitter @AIGAdesign.

Valid reason #1: You have a concrete promotional goal.

Here are some specific results you can expect to achieve by winning a design award.

  • Awards can help you attract and hire the best young design talent. Students and up-and-comers still outside the working field watch these awards; they’re a window into the live action of design.
  • They can help you make a career transition i.e., getting into grad school, or establishing your bona-fides in an adjacent practice. In the best instances, they can bend your career arc. Take Naomi Usher, whose project EducationSuperHighway owes its existence to a string of awards: first a Sappi Ideas That Matter grant and then a 2014 AIGA Justified award, which attracted notice and support for the project from the White House, Congress, and the FCC and put Usher’s career on a different trajectory. Or, if you win a monster accolade like the Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award, you’ll enjoy a benefit 2011 winner Matthew Carter noted in his acceptance speech: “It simplifies one’s resume.”
  • They can make a client happy for a little while longer, but know that clients too laser-focused on accolades will never love you forever—because they love you for the wrong reasons.
  • If you’re an international working in America, awards can keep you legal. Portuguese-born Braulio Amado described it this way to It’s Nice That: “I really do need all of this ‘press’ in order to keep my Artist Visa. The visa also requires you receive some awards in your given artistic field.”
  • Awards make you feel good, which matters in the lonely business of creative work. Tad Carpenter thinks his 2014 Print Regional Design Award “adds validity to what he’s doing. As designers and artists, self doubt is natural. [This] reminds you to push on and keep making what you know you should be making.”

Awards can sometimes help land new clients or make the phone ring, but that outcome isn’t as likely as you might think. Other caveats of note: Most design awards don’t grant any prize money to the winners, in case you’re wondering. Also, most don’t provide individualized feedback from the judges, unless you win, of course.

Valid reason #2: Your project is a spot-on match for the award criteria.

Did you design a slam-dunk book cover? Then it’s worth forking over $45 to submit it to 50 Books/50 Covers, a nearly century-old award started by AIGA and now run by Design Observer. Does your self-promotional project scream for broader exposure? HOW Magazine’s Promotion & Marketing Design Awards welcome both paying client projects and self-promotional work.

Keep your applications surgically precise; the applications guidelines get refined to biblical exactitude over time. If you’ve loved previous award winners and find yourself fist-pumping as you read the application criteria, that award was tailor-made for you. If you have to fudge even one application requirement, save everyone some agita and don’t apply.

Valid reason #3: You’ve done the math, and the cost justifies the potential benefit.

Award fees deserve your scrutiny first and foremost. But consider the value of your time, too. Most agency types work on billable hours, so time you spend applying to an award is time away from earning a living (not to mention some probably much-needed downtime or designing your Next Incredible Thing). Only apply if the total cost of submission equals or exceeds the value of winning. It’s not always about crude ROI, but if it feels onerous to apply for awards, staying honest with yourself on the cost-benefit can focus your efforts and maximize your odds to boot.

It’s worth noting the reformatory zeal sweeping the design industry on this question of award fees. For instance, Design Observer hopes to expand its online award to a physical book and traveling exhibit, an effort they’re funding not by juicing their submission fees but instead via a Kickstarter campaign. More power to this kind of creative rethinking.

Bogus reason #4: You’re eager for “exposure.”

Working for exposure is a scourge on creative work that you should regard skeptically. Too often working for exposure is a glitter-sprayed way of asking you to work for free. Similarly, if you can’t find a clear motivation to apply for a design award beyond personal promotion, you haven’t sufficiently examined your motivations.

Now for a caveat: making amazing work for yourself or a great cause is kickass and forever allowable. Why isn’t that contradictory to the above? Because nobody ever says they did purposeful, self-actualizing, startlingly beautiful work for the exposure. That stuff we make for love.

Bogus reason #5: You’re out to prove something.

No design award can validate your existence, right the wrongs from your childhood, make you pen pals with Paula Scher, induce a LOLcats-level fervor around your firecracker self, make your boss not want to fire you, or justify any grudge you hold.

Why? Because the best design awards are, and should be, about crackling-live dialogue. If you’re proving something by applying, make sure you’re proving it to yourself. By all means use an award deadline to light a necessary fire under your own ass. But winning the award should be secondary to other effects, like seeing if you can elicit a pungent reaction from your peers. Can you get people talking, whether kvelling or riled-up or—best of all, in my opinion, some mixture of both?

Allow me, oh gym-class rejects (of which I am captain), a final competitive sports metaphor. Creating great design is a confusing, exhilarating game. We make noise when obstreperous players move the goal posts on us, which might seem to make scoring impossible, or else infinitely easier. It is neither. Scoring in design is real, and it’s unmistakable when it happens. Judging design is inherently tricky, therefore madly interesting. Some competitions are worth your time, and some aren’t—but at least the rules are clearly stated. Entering is for you to decide. Go into it with your eyes open and we all win.