NOTE: In dealing with the issue of speculative, or "spec," design there is often confusion with the terms "contest" and "competition." A legitimate design "competition" will always be for design work already created by a designer and most often in use by the client. Such competitions will not require designers to create new work on a "spec" basis to be considered for awards, recognition or prizes. Design competitions may be a valuable marketing and promotion tool for design professionals.
In 1995 something "clicked" within me and my business
began an adventure in a new and exciting direction. First
of all, I made a conscious decision to focus on the aspect
of the design business I had always enjoyed the most: identity
design. Secondly, I finally adopted the business name I had
kicked for the previous ten years: Jeff Fisher LogoMotives.
The final major change came in the way I marketed and promoted
decided to no longer make use of direct mail or print advertising
as a major sales tool. That bordered on sacrilege for a designer
with an advertising education background. Instead, I started
to give more attention to those creative industry award mailings
that seemed to come my way at an increasing pace. Previously,
such pieces had been sent flying towards the circular file
in the corner of my studio. I simply could not justify the
cost of the entry fees; especially in the case of some of
my pro bono design efforts. When I was paid nothing for the
finished project, could I afford to pay a high entry fee to
enter a design competition?
By allocating my traditional advertising and printing budget
to cover the cost of competition entry fees, the prospect
of becoming an "award-winning designer" suddenly
seemed more attainable. I realized that the return on the
investment was much more than a certificate to hang on my
studio wall and the validation creative types require on a
Those in the creative occupations of writing, advertising,
public relations, marketing, design, illustration, photography
and related fields may wish to pay more attention to the available
industry award possibilities. The results can have a dramatic
impact on the promotion of personal creative efforts, or that
of a client's company.
Receiving an industry award gives me the immediate opportunity
to promote my business by "tooting my own horn"
through press releases announcing the achievement. I send
out releases with the heading "Toot! Toot!" as a
reference to my train-related business name and logo. In 1995
I was sending the press missives to local newspapers, business
publications and trade magazines. I currently have a self-compiled
email press release list that is much more extensive. The
press releases are sent out via email and traditional
snail mail. Many editors still appreciate opening an envelope
and the volume of email received on a daily basis may overwhelm
The sending of pertinent news information to the media may
result in a snowballing effect. In many cases items have appeared
in "Business Brief" publication columns. Newspapers,
magazines and webzines have then written articles about my
business. Specific design projects were featured in magazines
after winning an award. I've been asked to write articles
for Internet sources and traditional publications. My business
has also become a case study in numerous marketing, design
and promotion books. All have resulted in potential clients
coming my way.
Annuals and Books
The competitions most valuable to me as a graphic designer
are those resulting in work being featured in a design annual
or graphic design book on a specific topic. My work has received
international exposure in volumes published in Japan, Korea
and the United States.
As a high school and college student, with hopes of becoming
a successful graphic designer, I spent a great deal of time
in libraries pouring over the designs of professionals from
around the world. I dreamt that some day my own design efforts
might appear in these glossy publications that I could not
afford to purchase. I looked at the books as sources of design
inspiration, not a future method of marketing and promotion.
At the time I was much more interested in the "ego strokes"
that might eventually come with being a published, award-winning
Nearly 20 years later the proverbial "light bulb"
went off in my head when a client mentioned she had spent
the previous evening researching illustration annuals for
an artist with the style being sought for a current project.
In the juried Illustration Annual of Communication
Arts she found just the illustrator, with a studio in
Toronto. I had never before seriously considered such publications
as a marketing tool and method for advertising creative work
Today at least 30% of my business is due to identity examples
being published in design annuals, or books resulting from
design competitions. Numerous times potential clients have
called, or emailed, saying "I was in my local Barnes
& Noble bookstore and came across examples of your work
in a design book÷" Like my media releases, this exposure
also led to articles about my business, inclusion in other
books, and requests to write articles or be quoted as an industry
I especially appreciate design competitions, editors, writers
and publishers providing a complimentary copy of the book
in which my work is featured. The volumes featuring specific
projects also make great client gifts. I assume clients, pleased
to have their work featured in such a manner, also purchase
a number of books.
The Happy Client
Clients are most often thrilled to have their work win
an industry award. They enjoy seeing their name in print,
or their project published in an industry annual, when the
award is promoted. Winning an award often provides tremendous
validation in regards to project choices made by the client.
Within corporate structures, an industry honor is occasionally
an excellent "I told you so" to be used by the client
contact in the firm. The recognition also showcases the client's
efforts within their own industry, increasing visibility among
their peers. Such an award may also increase the value of
a creative professional's work in the client's eyes.
Clients may be an excellent source of information about competitions
that are specific to their own industry. Research such opportunities
with client contacts, their marketing specialist or the public
relations person for the firm. Most industries have yearly
competitions that may be announced through trade publications,
industry associations or Internet resources.
Many industry award organizations provide certificates or
plaques for both winning designer and client. Others offer
trophies or certificates at a cost in addition to the entry
fees paid. Often the expense provides yet another way of marketing
- this time on the reception area wall of an appreciative
With the signing of my project agreement, clients give me
permission to use the project in the promotion of my own business,
which includes industry award competitions. Obtaining authorization
initially is much easier than attempting to track down a former
client months, or years, later for such approval.
Often the awards offering the most promotion "mileage"
will be those with established reputations and longevity in
a field of expertise, or the business arena of a given client.
With that in mind, greater consideration should be given to
competitions sponsored by respected industry associations
or organizations. Annual honors produced by major industry
publications, such as the HOW International Design Competition
and HOW Interactive Competition, Print's Regional Design
Annual, the competitions of Communication Arts and
Graphis, and others, also carry a lot of prestige
with an award. The added bonus of winning pieces of work being
published in an industry magazine comes with competitions
conducted by the publications.
Be leery of competitions that seem to be "award for
sale" offerings; with nearly everyone entering receiving
recognition of some sort. The value in many awards is the
fact a limited number of entries are honored.
Entering award competitions can be expensive. It is necessary
to carefully weigh the value of the possible result against
the cost of submitting examples of work. In my case, entry
fee costs replaced previous budget expenditures related to
print advertising and direct mail.
A new trend seems to be evolving with many competitions establishing
an entry fee cap after submission of a certain number of entries.
In these situations it is easier to justify submitting a larger
number of entries - and perhaps more pro bono efforts. With
relatively low entry costs, and a cap on fees, there is hope
for a greater return on the entry fee investment. Quite a
few design competitions also offer student entry fee rates
to individuals just beginning design careers. I know of one
competition that pro-rates fees based on the annual income
of an individual designer or smaller firm.
In some cases it is also necessary to consider the value
of paying a "publication fee" once a project has
been selected for an honor. These are fees sometimes charged
by award organizers, or book publishers, to print recognized
work in the annual or book promoting the honorees, the contest
for a given year and the future of the competition. Supposedly
these fees help the producer of the book recoup some of their
production and administration costs.
Some industry competitive events will also charge a "hanging
fee" for the installation of winning entries in a gallery
setting, or in conjunction with an industry trade show or
conference. Again, the value in paying such a fee is in potential
exposure to professional peers and potential clients. A client
particularly pleased with efforts on a project may be able
to assist with competition entries by sponsoring the fees
incurred for their industry specific awards.
LogoLounge.com offers yet another method to market and promote
design work through a competition. For an annual membership
fee, designers are offered the opportunity to upload images
to a Web site featuring thousands of designs. A panel of industry
professionals then judges those designs for possible inclusion
in an upcoming volume of winning submissions.
A Measure of Success?
The strategy of marketing my business through industry
awards has paid off in a big way. Since 1995 I have received
over 400 design honors, providing many opportunities for promotion.
My work has also been displayed in over 60 newspapers, magazines,
design annuals, graphic design books and volumes on the marketing
of small businesses. With "award-winning designer"
a seemingly permanent addition to my name, many new clients
come my way. Still, especially with limited wall space for
the display of design honors, a satisfied client is the best
reward of all.