5 Key Tips to Win a Design Competition

by Michael Roller on July 27, 2009

Whether you’re trying to win some money, gain exposure, or just build out your portfolio, design competitions are a great way for young designers to develop themselves. Over the past few years, I’ve entered many competitions for many reasons. I’ve even won a little bit. From my experience, here are the five keys to winning the next design competition you enter.

1. Enter for the Right Reason.

Why are you entering a design competition? Before anything else, make sure that you’re doing it for the right reason. Is it to get yourself more exposure or to make money? If you’re trying to get more exposure, consider the other options and compare the possible value of each. Starting a blog, becoming more active on twitter, or just promoting your own concept product to sites like Yanko Design could be more beneficial. Think hard about entering the competition just to make money. What if you don’t win? Go for freelance work instead.

The best reason to enter a design competition is to build out your portfolio, keep your skills sharp, and experiment outside of whatever professional work you do. The chances of winning can be pretty slim, so the exposure and prizes that come with success should be seen as a bonus, not the goal. Design competitions are about some form of self-improvement.

2. Pick the Right Project.

You’re about to invest a bunch of your personal time into this competition. How do you pick the right one? Again, the answer to this question should be form of self-improvement. There are a ton of opportunities, so make sure you pick a project that will make you a better designer even if you don’t win. When I was a student I entered one of Design Engine’s Photoreal Competitions. It was a great way to do a great rendering for a product I’d already designed. In the end, I was able to use it in my portfolio. Later, I entered Scion’s Floorplan Competition to experiment with environmental design. I didn’t win either of them, but entering both competitions helped me improve my skills.

3. Be Passionate.

Why would you enter a competition if you weren’t interested in the project? Building off key #2, you’re about to spend a bunch of your own time towards this. Designers live off passion and die by apathy, so don’t waste your time on something if you aren’t really excited about it. Plus, who do you think has the best work, the best chance of winning, the best exposure, the most success? Once you’re passionate, everything else falls into place for a designer.

4. Make sure you can do it quickly.

A lot of students ask me how I manage personal projects and design competitions in my free time. You might disagree with this point, but my experience tells me the competition you’re most likely to finish is the one you can complete effectively and efficiently. Read the brief carefully and decide if your skill sets are a good match to complete this project in a timely manner. Once you have the passion required (key #3), finish the project before it fizzles out.

One of my favorite competitions was the Bombay Sapphire Designer Glass Competition. Young designers are invited to create martini glasses inspired by the well-known gin. The brief is easy to follow and I was able to create a finished concept over a weekend. As a result, I entered three years in a row (eventually winning finalist & second prize honors) because I was excited about the opportunity and able to complete the project quickly. Follow this rule, your family and friends will thank you for it.

5. Find a partner in crime.

If there’s one final thing that will help you, it’s a close friend that shares the same excitement for entering design competitions. You might encounter a lot of naysayers in your quest for design honors, so friends act as as support network to help you maintain your energy for a project and help you refine your work by giving you an outside opinion. Think of them as your design competition creative director. They should give you helpful feedback to make your project the best it can be. Your friend can carry you when your passion wanes, and if you enter together, the projects can come together quicker than if you entered alone.

Two of my partners are Brandon Lynne and Finn McKenty. Brandon and I worked together in school at UC and we’ve used these competitions as a way of staying in touch and working together. Finn and I collaborate on projects at Kaleidoscope, where he has a design background but now focuses on business strategy. With both partners, our points of view overlap enough that we are efficient but different enough that when we work together we do better work than any of us could do on our own.

Even if you follow these five steps perfectly, I can’t guarantee you’ll win every competition you enter. However, putting yourself in the position to win is all you can do. The rest is a bit of luck, in the hands of the judges and their personal biases. Remember that the value to you shouldn’t come with winning, it should come with entering. If you want more information, check out Coroflot’s article on the subject. Have you had success entering design competitions? What other tips do you have to share?

About the author: Michael Roller is senior industrial designer at Kaleidoscope, where he leads award-winning design efforts on a range of consumer products. As adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of DAAP, Michael mentors industrial design students through the Design Communication course. Focused on understanding the dynamics of design within business, he writes about this overlap at the aptly named blog Strategic Aesthetics.

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