Winning Ways: How Design Competitions Boost Your Success

Print, HOW, Communication Arts. The One Club, the Addys. AIGA, Type Directors’ Club. The Webbys, Flash Forward, Adobe.

We’ve seen an explosion in the number of design competitions that recognize outstanding creative work in graphic, web and advertising design. Creative pros have long sought recognition for their work from distinguished peers. A major win provides an opportunity for an agency to toot its horn to clients and prospects, a sexy hook to lure new employees, a reason for the creative team to raise a glass in celebration.

Pre-internet—when spreading the word about your creative work was much more challenging—a design competition win and the resulting feature in an industry magazine  was an important bit of PR exposure for a firm. These days, agencies use sparkly websites with interactive portfolios to showcase their design projects. Recognition in a design competition may not be as crucial to an agency’s reputation as it used to be—but firms of all stripes still use competitions as a small and mighty part of their marketing programs.

So, can a design competition win help a studio land more work? Yes and no. We asked a couple of top winners from HOW’s Interactive Design Competition to talk about their experiences.

Chrissie Graboski, group planning director, and Steve Savic, group creative director, at the global digital agency Critical Mass (winners of the 2012 Best of Show award for their integrated digital campaign for the Nissan Leaf), say “We always highlight our wins, and we think it’s a big part of our success in landing new clients. We definitely see a surge of web traffic and RFIs after we earn a major accolade.”

Critical Mass Twitter

Critical Mass FB


Eric Heiman, principal of the San Francisco-based multidisciplinary agency Volume , sees softer benefits to competition wins. “We’ve come to the conclusion that design awards are mostly about peer recognition, which is great: potential employees find us through them, we get speaking and judging gigs through them, and it’s nice to get some affirmation, especially for the employees who are instrumental in making the work happen,” he says. “But no one (as far as we know) has ever hired us (at least for any job outside of the design industry) directly because of our awards. They might help further legitimize the overall profile of the firm when we’re pitching for work, but I don’t think they play a major role in hiring decisions.”

“That said,” he continues, “With the proliferation of so many more in-house design departments who often hire outside firms to help them, visibility in the design press is probably becoming more important than it was. Designers hiring other designers is much more common than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

David Lai, principle of the multi-award winning agency Hello Design in Los Angeles, says there can be an indirect line between capturing a design prize and landing new business. “I also had a dream client call me once and tell me she had been following us for years and was just waiting for the right project to come along,” he says.

In other words, a major win creates a halo effect for a creative agency. Lai says that a strategy of entering award shows also helps.

But any design intern or junior staffer—the people usually tasked with doing the (online) paperwork associated with entering a design competition—will tell you that the process takes time. There are entry fees to consider. If you’re going to make design competitions part of your firm’s marketing portfolio, here are some strategies to consider:

Build it into your marketing plan. Entering a design competition can be a major pain in the ass when you have to pull all the information and samples together at the very last minute. When you create your marketing plan, choose which contests you plan to enter and build those deadlines into your marketing calendar. Twice a year, gather the creative team to review recent work and decide what to submit.

Choose the right work to enter. Be selective about what you submit to judging. “We look for the things that will make a mark,” say Graboski and Savic. “Something with a story. Something that taps into a customer’s truth and inspires change. Something that uses interesting technologies in new ways. Or even something that just makes you smile.”

Promote your wins. Any competition recognition provides the perfect opportunity to spread the good news to clients and prospects via your website, e-newsletter and social media. “Whenever we win, we instantly share the news via email with the client and give them their due props via social media,” Heiman says.

Volume Promo

Celebrate the win. “The first thing we do is go for a beer,” say Graboski and Savic. “We’re always excited to share a win with our team, clients and the broader world. Of course, we share the wins on our company channels like the website, Facebook and Twitter to give the team some extra recognition. But we’ve learned that sometimes the most gratifying thing is just looking over to your friend at the desk beside you, taking a moment to smell the roses and say, ‘We did it.’”

Make sure the local creative community knows about your win. Industry recognition plays a role in recruiting new staffers, Heiman says. “I think most employees—designer or otherwise—want to be at a place that they can brag about a bit. Feel proud about how the level and prestige of their employer reflects on them, and conversely they need to bring their A-game to the studio every day in order to maintain that status. Certainly many of the cover letters we get start with, ‘I saw your work in ________ …’”

Critical Mass on Alberta EgotistDo good work, period. “I think some clients want an ‘award-winning’ agency, but honestly I think they just want an agency that does good work,” Lai says. “Whenever we’ve focused on that founding principle, ‘Do good work and everything else happens,’ that goes for awards too. Focus on the work and the awards will naturally follow. Good work gets you more good work—awards just help you get there a bit faster.”

Hello Design

Ready for your next design awards submission? Hurry and enter HOW’s 15th Annual Interactive Design Awards by October 1st!


Want to expand your interactive design skills to produce that next winning product? Don’t miss the 2013 HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago this November!

Discounted registration rates end October 7th, so don’t wait. Reserve your seat!