The Keys to a Successful Student Design Competition Entry

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Advice from design director and current Adobe Design Achievement Awards judge, Paul Hoppe

Concept, Execution & Presentation – Keys to a Successful Student Design Competition Entry

By: Paul Hoppe

We all want to get better at what we do, but this requires challenging ourselves. Over the course of my career, I’ve come to the realization that taking on new challenges can be both exciting and intimidating, but ultimately provide invaluable opportunities for me to grow as a designer and individual. Deciding to go to design school was a huge collection of challenges including creating great work and pushing myself to get the most out of that experience. The semester’s long critiques and even longer working nights gave me the opportunity to produce some of the best work I’d ever made. The sense of accomplishment at completing a formidable challenge each semester, was often quickly replaced by the equally intimidating and exciting prospect of a new challenge. This combination of excitement and dread is instantly triggered the moment someone says “you should submit that for competition.”

Regardless of which competition you are entering, pushing that extra mile to prepare and submit a project for competition can be a daunting experience. The deadline is looming and always seems like it comes while you’re trying to juggle simultaneous projects and deliverables. Fortunately this process has both of the key components of a good challenge. On one hand, there is the ever present fear of failure and the risk that your work might be ignored. Conversely, there is the potential for recognition, validation and encouragement to be gained by doing well in the competition (not to mention the great prizes). Even if your entry doesn’t go on to win, competition entries are a great way to practice professional skills and make your best projects portfolio-ready. To get started, here are a few recommended student competition opportunities to consider: Adobe Design Achievement Awards, HOW Design (currently the HOW International Design Awards), PRINT Magazine, and RSA Student Design Awards.

Exploratorium – Generative Identity by Paul Hoppe, a project that received an Adobe Design Achievement Award in 2011

I’ve been able to advance my career and gain invaluable learning opportunities from my experience participating in the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. I first entered the competition in 2011 while studying graphic design at Art Center College of Design. After the intense process of crafting my entry followed by months of waiting, I had the good fortune of being selected as a semi-finalist. A few months later I was notified that I was a finalist and would be traveling to the awards ceremony. I was honored to win the grand prize in the Web & Application Design category. The trip gave me the opportunity to network with the talented group of finalists, making invaluable professional connections for my career to date. I entered the competition again in 2013 and was selected as a finalist, but ultimately didn’t take home the trophy.

Upon graduating, it was a huge confidence boost to know that I could compete at an international level with my peers and it enabled me to launch my career at Local Projects, an experience design studio in NYC.

This year, Adobe approached me with an exciting, new challenge. Less than five years after winning the Adobe Design Achievement Awards as a student, I was kindly asked to serve on the professional judging panel to help select the finalists and winners. It was an invigorating experience to be on the other side and see the immense quantity and quality of work that is considered for the semi-finalist pool. It’s also rewarding to collaborate with the other judges and learn from their diverse perspectives and experiences.

The judging process is an intense few days of rigorously evaluating great work to find the most extraordinary student projects around the globe. While it is an amazing experience, it can be difficult to eliminate a large volume of submissions. However, it’s encouraging to see a room full of design professionals excited to honor the amazing student work on display and fight for their favorites to make it through to the semifinalist, finalist and winning groups.

Experiencing the Adobe Design Achievement Awards from the perspective of an entrant and judge has given me valuable experience for my career and inspired me for the future of design. It’s encouraging to see the breadth of design talent exhibited from all over the world and a privilege to connect with a community centered on excellence in design.


Making a great project takes a lot of work, but entering it in competition brings the added tasks of documenting it, writing about it, preparing images, editing videos, and crafting the entry with the same care you gave the project. This process is difficult, but extremely valuable, and even if you don’t win, it carries the added value of helping you prepare work for your portfolio and practice presenting your ideas. Here are three keys are essential to good work and will help you stand out both in competition and in your career.

Concept

When both the competition and the job market are incredibly tough, a beautiful visual alone won’t ensure a winning entry. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, an illustration, or a brand identity. What makes a project stand out is the designer’s ability to translate ideas into visuals and weave a strong point of view through their work. I always give extra notice when submissions demonstrate that the designer applied critical thinking to their design solutions, rather than simply creating a beautiful visual without proper context and discussion. Pinterest, Tumblr, and many other parts of the internet are saturated with beautiful projects that, more often than not, get reduced to JPEGs and are regurgitated as “inspiration” devoid of their original concept and context. There’s a lot of great work out there to learn from, but it’s critical to apply unique thinking and a critical approach to remain competitive in the fast-paced design industry.

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Identity design for Tough Glove — a winner in the Student category of HOW’s 2016 International Design Awards | Creative Team: Andrea Norcross, Whitney Holden | School: University of Texas at Arlington | Location: Arlington, TX

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Execution

Stellar execution of your craft is the primary thing that will get your work noticed.

Whether competing at a high level or applying for your dream job, every detail of your project will be scrutinized. You can’t expect to throw some work together at the last minute and take home a trophy. Even if you work incredibly hard and make the best work you’ve ever made there’s a good chance that you might not make it as far as you think. Don’t be discouraged though. I guarantee that even the best work can still be improved. Look critically at your own submission in comparison to the winning work and apply key learnings for next time to challenge yourself to produce stronger work for the future.

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Assets for “Inner Turmoil,” an exhibition at de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — a winner in the Student category of HOW’s 2016 International Design Awards | Creative Team: Chin I Lee, Ariel Grey | School: Academy of Art University | Location: San Francisco, CA

Presentation

Crafting the presentation of a project is its own monumental task. While the work should speak for itself, a good presentation is what sets the stage. In the same way that a good project uses craft to clearly communicate a strong concept, a good presentation should clearly communicate the project and position it in the best light. This applies to portfolios as much as it does for contest entries. Poor presentation immediately raises red flags that the work must not be very valuable to the designer. A good presentation is as much about what you leave out as what you include – the key is rigorous editing. Showing some of your process is a great way to communicate your thinking, but show too much and it can be distracting from the final result. A series of images can be a great way to communicate, but don’t show five when three will suffice.

Weaker pieces in a series immediately call into question the taste and abilities of the designer, so it’s always better to leave the viewer wanting more than wishing you had showed less.

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Think Geek Redesign — a winner in the Student category of HOW’s 2016 International Design Awards | Creative Team: Ryan Miller, Dinah Hodges, Armando Godinez | School: Texas Tech University | Location: Lubbock, TX
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We all know what a challenge it is to create a great project, but preparing for competition forces you to step outside of that work and examine what’s been made from a critical perspective. This distancing to ask yourself how you can improve the project is an essential skill to practice. An attitude of constant learning and self-improvement is what excellence is all about. The skills you acquire and refine as a student in competition will pay dividends far beyond the awards ceremony and, in my experience, it’s worth that extra all-nighter to showcase your best work to the world.


Check out HOW’s competitions, which all accept student design work. You could be featured in the pages of HOW Magazine!

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