#40: Don’t design to win awards.

Everyone wants to be a winner right? Especially when it comes to our creative craft, it’s an amazing thing to be recognized for our skills by our peers. I would love to say that I have won tons of Addys or one show awards, or that my work has been featured in design magazines. The truth is, that until this week, I had never won a single design award-and I was okay with it. But I have mixed feelings about design awards and here’s why.

Why design awards are important

Let me start off by saying that I don’t see anything wrong with design awards. Just like awards in any arena of expertise, they are important in the realm of visual design.
Awards are way of recording the history of design for future designers to see the trends (color, type, photography, etc.). It is an opportunity to see design movements over time, even social commentary.
Awards show and explain the level of excellence that design is at and gives people an eye for what is currently working in the industry as a point of reference. Design awards also propel the overall conversation about what design is doing well and how it can improve not just aesthetically but socially.
Designers who are new to the industry can use awards as a way to gain recognizability and improve their resume when looking for work. If it is a local competition like the ADDY Awards, it also allows for some amazing networking opportunities. The design industry is remarkably smaller than you might think and getting to know people is one of the single greatest things you can do for your design career.

Why I don’t (really) enter my work

There are a few reasons why I have not entered many design competitions that I think a lot of designers can relate to. None of these should be hindrances to entering, but often I think that they are.
The first reason, is that I’m unbelievably competitive. I hate to admit it but for the sake of being completely transparent, I hate to lose and find myself thinking, “if you never enter you can’t lose right?”

Basically I’m afraid of the possible humiliation of loss.

The problem with this is that if you never enter you can’t win either. Part of this thinking is because I have entered before and lost with work that I felt was winning material. Another part is that being a solopreneur/freelance designer, I often feel like the work I do can’t stand up to the work done by an entire design firm. I am getting over this because really, what do I have to lose? I know I’m a good designer and I don’t need an award to confirm that.
Another reason is that (usually) the only way you can enter your work to get a design award is to pay to enter. The fees can range from $50-$200 and more depending on the competition and what you intend on entering. So, if you do win, it sometimes feels to me like you would be paying for your own award. Which I know is not actually the case, but it can seem like that. So honestly, whether it is worth it to you is a toss up and really depends on the value of that design and the potential it has to win. Sometimes I feel like it’s just not worth it.
Awards make you feel good, in fact, winning an award will probably boost your confidence 100%-for a time. Winning an award can be like a drug. There’s a sense of euphoria in the accomplishment that comes with “beating” your peers. But this can be a problem because winning can become the focus of your work. This reason is what leads me to what I believe to be the biggest problem with design awards; how you think when you are designing. Most awards, in all honesty are for us and the benefit to clients is little to none in my opinion.

Why you should not design for awards

So even though I do think design awards are important, there is an inherent flaw in these awards that can be a hindrance to our core design thinking.

The flaw is that awards can create the wrong mindset when it comes to how we approach our designs if we aren’t intentional.  


If your focus is on getting awards, instead of trying to solve the problem and get a message across for your client, then your thinking is wrong and ultimately unproductive. If you are using your client as an avenue to get to an award-winning design, then your thinking is wrong. The Oscars are coming up soon, and it got me thinking about the actors and how they approach their work. I’m sure there are some actors that choose roles carefully, hoping they will get an award at the end. But I feel like many of them just do the best work they can, and if/when they are recognized for those abilities then it is just a bonus.

How we think about awards can either help us or hinder us. Just be passionate about your work, do your very best at every part of your process, and the awards won’t really matter. 

It requires a shift in focus but it can really revolutionize your work when you remember why you are designing. The why is the very most important question behind every design, and really effects how you relate to your work.
I do have mixed feelings on design awards, because they can be a good motivator and gauge to see the kind of work that other designers are doing. They can be a great source of inspiration, and winning could definitely give you confidence in your work going forward. But they can give you a sense that you always need to prove yourself, mainly to other designers, and allow room for the wrong goals. You should absolutely enter awards if you can and have a desire to, but don’t approach your designs with winning awards or impressing other designers as your goal.

Design amazing work, then enter it for an award; don’t look to the award while you are designing.

It’s good to have goals, but unless you are only creating personal passion projects, your primary goal should be solving your client’s problems.  I have found that I have been able to work with some great clients and have had some amazing opportunities without a single award on my shelf. My goal is always to create the best solution for the client I have in front of me. Confidence comes in knowing yourself and your abilities, and believing that you can do great things. Clients are attracted to a designer who shows through their work that they know what they are doing, not just a designer with awards. If you design to the best of your abilities, then awards may come after that, but it shouldn’t matter if they don’t.

How I won my first design award

I’ve been writing this post in the days leading up to a competition that I was a part of. I started writing it primarily as a reminder for myself and as an encouragement to others like me that winning an award is not the most important thing.

I approached the competition with the mindset that I just wanted to do my best work, follow my process, and have fun.

The competition was a local Creative Jam put on by Adobe Creative Cloud where 12 teams of two competed to create any design they wanted based on a theme, and to do it in 3hours. I am honestly thrilled to say that my teammate Joseph Chavez and I won the Judge’s Choice Award for our David Bowie themed poster.
“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” – David Bowie
Creative Jam Judge’s Choice Award
I still feel that even though I have now won an award, that all of my thoughts on design awards have not changed. My process is no different whether it is a 3-hour competition, 24-hour creative endeavor or a client project. In fact, I am even more certain that making sure my focus was where it needed to be while I was knee deep in creative competition is what made our design the best. We worked our ideas out thoroughly through a specific process with a focus on the work, not on the win.
We wanted to win, but more than that, I believe that we wanted to create work that was something we could be proud of; and in the end, that attitude won. 

So remember that there’s nothing wrong with awards but make sure your intention and mindset when it comes to awards is in the right place. Your work will speak for itself, whether or not it is accompanied by ribbons and trophies. Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here, because design matters.


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