Maria Popova | Opinions

Death to Design Awards

Ego is the single greatest obstacle to innovation, collaboration and progress. Because central to innovation is the admission that "the old way" no longer works, and central to progress is the idea that we don't yet know all there is to know, that we are incompetent in important ways that create room for failure, change and learning. Unfortunately, much of the creative industry — design and advertising in particular, but also photography, literature, the art world — has become an industry of ego. And its currency is industry awards.

Awards are awful. Awards breed ego, create false meritocracies and ultimately stymie innovation at every step of the award-granting process — from entry to evaluation to owning the win. Here's why: For one, award shows are unbelievably self-selective, like a private school off limits to anyone but society's upper crust of privilege. Entry fees are often prohibitively high, making it near impossible for emerging designers to even enter.

Even if entry fees were to be democratized with some sort of model that subsidizes lower-income designers, the next step in the process — evaluation and winner selection — reflects all the industry's biases and homogeneity. Most juries are composed of some variation on the "old white guy" archetype, industry veterans with years of experience under their belts. And experience has its place, but as advertising icon Chuck Porter (admittedly, an old white guy) once said, "Experience is only valuable to the extent that the past repeats itself in the future." Which, of course, it mostly does not, or at least should not if it is innovation we're seeking. Specifically when it comes to design innovation, awards are essentially the old way judging the new way — and that's no way to innovate.

Finally, we have the afterlife of awards. The output of this flawed and incomplete system of evaluation becomes the currency designers flash at prospective clients and use to bargain their billing rates. It makes clients lazy and designers complacent. Lazy because it creates a cheat sheet for judging the merit of a designer or studio, making the client uninterested in actual inquiry into the process, work and product of smaller studios and emerging designers who may actually have a better, fresher solution to the client's problem than the award-encrusted top-biller. Complacent because it's easy to buy into your own brilliance when you spend your days sitting across a shelfful of awards in your posh office. And between laziness and complacency, the whole marketplace for design becomes a self-contained universe isolated from the bigger cultural context in which it lives and from the human lives it touches.

So what's the alternative? Can we create a system of recognition and a merit metric that isn't bestowed top-down by a handful of omniscient industry veterans but, rather, extracted bottom-up from design's impact on the cultural space, social function and community it lives in? This, of course, is an impossibly complex task because as soon as we step outside the industry silo and attempt to measure how "successful" a design object or system is in the field, myriad other factors come into play. Factors that span an intricate web of social dynamics, cross-disciplinary dependencies, political relationships, socioeconomic liabilities and cultural norms. Throwing an anthropologist or social scientists or engineer on that jury is not enough. (Though it's a step.) Neither is creating a financial aid system for young designers to be able to enter award shows. (Though that is sorely needed.) We need to reevaluate the whole system of evaluation, we need to build a new meritocracy of design where success is viewed as a holistic function of how a design solution propagates across culture. We need a more complete answer to what makes good design. And we don't have that today.

But that's okay. Not having a perfect answer is okay. Because asking the very question forces us to at least consider this complex web wherein the true measure of design's success lies. It forces us to entertain the admission that maybe, just maybe, we don't know all there is to know. It forces us to lose our industry ego. And the world could use more egoless design.

Posted in: Business

Comments [72]

This is such a generalist, populist view point.
Of course there are awards that work as described above, but you shouldn't generalize like that. There ARE awards that do an excellent job and contribute to bringing young talent to the forefront.
There ARE awards that provide healthy standards, offer the chance to compare ourselves against our peers in a sincere way and give us access to a client base we wouldn't be able to approach otherwise.
There is a lot of crap out there, but one can also find very useful schemes...
Daniel Berg

>> The output of this flawed and incomplete system of evaluation becomes the currency designers flash at prospective clients and use to bargain their billing rates.

We've won awards. We've spent probably too much on entry fees from time to time. The idea that our clients are willing to pay more for our services as a result is laughable. Only designers pay attention to design awards. If you don't like them, don't enter—or create your own call for entries, it's not that hard to do.

Generalist statements like "awards are awful" really comes off like sour grapes.

My .02
Doug Bartow

In an industry full of creative people, ego will always be there, it's what gives people the courage and gall to present innovative and new ideas. Where does the balance lie? Inevitably any new system you create will be transformed at least in some circles to have the same function as the award system does now.

There's also the problem of recognition. Graphic design, though it has become less so in recent years, is structured to be anonymous, which goes against the desire for ownership of work that people have.

While I agree that the award system is flawed you must approach any problem with the thought that any new system you create will probably be misappropriated as well. But on the upside it generates a constant need for new ideas and improvement. Otherwise, we'd all be out of a job.
Paul Costen

I think we need awards now more than ever.
We are increasingly being judged on how many click throughs an ad generates or how much PR a piece of design receives.
That is not necessarily the criteria which breeds good work.
Awards schemes in my experience generally get it right.
They may need to create a few new categories but lets not get carried away.


Design after Industrial Revolution became industrial design; the economic system based on the production of commodities incorporated design as a part of the production process itself. Design, in the sense we are discussing it here, is mere aggregated value for commodities.

The problem is, in a market where the things that are being exchanged are symbols (not products but the benefits of use, the status provided, etc), design, as a task oriented in symbolic creation and manipulation, takes another relevance.

And we, the designers, confuse the humanist utopia with today's reality, that is, market reality, and wrongly interpret the relevance of design in the commodities production process as if the discipline had an inherent importance. We tend to think that the designed object is an object itself dissociated of the commodity, and the designer as a kind of author. From this point, design is viewed in the community as some kind of artistic discipline, and design awards are created to give recognition to the designer-author for his creation, judged by another designers who evaluate the "pieces" based on aesthetic or whatever.

Design awards are just wrong. Are wrong about what it's recognized, wrong about what it's evaluated, wrong about who and what is awarded.
Alejandro Prieto

Touchy touchy! I think you struck a nerve with this. I agree with you. People will always feel safer awarding acclaim to something that looks like something that already won approval earlier—it takes courage to champion the oddball. When logos identify the clients, it's easy to align oneself with the winners. (I know some of my award winning was skewed because of the clients evident in my work) So indeed the system perpetuates success of the successful.
Diana Howard


You have three messages while you were out:

1994 called, it wants its article back.

1999 called, it wants its article back.

2004 called, it wants its article back.

The industry has been through this discussion over and over, which just points out that the Maria Popovas of the world haven't figured out how to affect change beyond the "It's the old white guys fault" routine. Don't like awards? Don't enter. Don't buy the annuals. There are designers -- respected, talented, hard-working designers (even those beyond "society's upper crust of privilege") -- who see the value in them and benefit either personally or professionally from being recognized by designers whose work and career they admire.

> But that's okay. Not having a perfect answer is okay. Because asking the very question forces us to at least consider this complex web wherein the true measure of design's success lies.

That's the perfect lead-in for the next writer in 2014. Well done!

Hi Daniel,

Can you point out some of those awards, I'm just curious.

You can't have healthy standards through awards if the awarding method is wrong. And it is. At least in advertising. The only thing you can hear is how many awards they have and how much the CD is payed. But really, is it that all about? Passing trophies to each other every year?

if, as is most likely the case, the judges themselves are not even qualified to judge, what is the sense of awards?

Interesting point of view.
Jim Scott

People can complain about the award systems and all the crap they bring for years (see armins post about 1994-2014).

Basically awards do for design pieces what billboard top 40 does for music. Pop music usually sucks, and there's a lot more talented artists and better sounding music, its just in the underground.

Awards are like a qualifier that you've "made it". Some people get off on that idea and crave the validation for their work, but others with better taste know that a blue ribbon means nothing and the quality speaks for itself.

You can complain about how shitty the songs on the radio are, but the only final solution is to just ignore it and get your own cds.
Jacob Halton

U have hit the nail on the head. Just look at designers who refuse to stopnusing flash even though it's perfectly named for what it is - flash over substance ... How many sites are BLANK If u do not have the latest flash - would u think of asking clients to build a 2-foot door for customers or only Inuit ? But flash might win u an award so it's the only tool on the table? At least make adobe pay u and your client.

The awards we should look to today are a growing and profitable client.

Did the site we built for them make it easier for the user to get to the content/product?
Did they buy or sign up?
Is the clients business growing?

Design is a tool. If used properly it can be very powerful. If not it can do even more damage.

Ask your self this, at the end of the day which would make you feel better, having a trophy on your desk or having lunch with the owner of a company that you helped grow 10 fold.

Perhaps we should start with the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism?

Thank you for writing this! Every now and then it is important to take an introspective look, and this made me question my own motivation for entering contests.

Perhaps a good place to start is to not separate in-house design from standard design contests? Where all work is to be judged solely on the merits of the pieces' success in solving the design problem.

This would probably require additional information on entries, such as: purpose, end result, budget restrictions, brand restrictions, etc.

The separation of the contests, at least to me—speaks to an "aesthetic" perception. If we were to define design as "visual problem solving," than "aesthetics" should be a secondary concern.

Sometimes the right solution may be Arial and not Helvetica Neue Condensed. :)

Some good food for thought here. Thanks for stirring the pot.
Terry Biddle


That Maria's argument has been made before doesn't invalidate it, especially since the context in which we practice design—and thus measure "success"—has changed dramatically since 1994, since 1999, since 2004, even.

I just judged a major design competition this past summer and couldn't help feel myself that the entire enterprise was dramatically flawed and ultimately no more than a superficial beauty contest. It felt hypocritical to hold up design as this agent of change and cultural significance in practice, while making two-second crack judgments of 5000 entries sitting on gray tables removed from any sort of context in which they would be seen, used, etc. How we judge our work is reflective of how we value (and others outside of it see) the design practice as a whole. If recognition from your peers is all your desire, that's fine. But then let's not purport that these competitions—if not the work itself—aspire to be anything more than that.

That's not to say they don't have a purpose. As a competition winner, do I enjoy being validated by my peers? Yes. That little ego boost can help one feel what they've done has some additional merit after everyone else (including the client) has moved on. As a judge, do I like having the power to dictate what I think good design is? Absolutely. Some of the best discussions I've had on design have been with other jurors on these competition panels. But as someone who initially got into design for its power to affect people outside the profession, the insularity of design competitions still leaves me very ambivalent about participating in them (even if I will, no doubt, continue to enter our work in them, or judge them if asked).

If Maria wants to remind us again of these issues and by doing so initiate some change, however slight, what's the harm? The practice of design is changing in seismic ways right now. There's no reason to think that design competitions shouldn't be doing the same.

Eric Heiman

I have won design awards.

I have been a judge on design awards panels.

Conclusion? Too many awards. Judges invited to judge photographs not reality.

I was removed from one judging panel because I asked the wrong questions.

Awards bring kudos and money mainly to the organisations that give them. The brief for the award decides what will win.

You have to enter to win and many of the best design schemes I have seen are not entered, would not be entered.

Award criteria are set by the organisations setting the award, with their sponsors, not by the judges or designers.
Patrick Goff

Maria, I was in Santa Fe in mid-August for the Indian Market and went to Case Trading Post in the Wheelwright Museum. An incredible bolo by Pat Pruitt that won a blue ribbon for excellence caught my eye and I tried it on. It was made of stainless steel, a totally new material for Native jewelry, which is usually silver or gold, and industrial diamonds, also totally new, and coral. As I stood by the mirror admiring the bolo on me, a 70-something woman that I knew came up and said "I was on the committee that gave the ribbon to that bolo. Is it cool or what?" Yeah, I bought it--for its innovation and aesthetics and for the fact that this woman has been judging Indian art for decades and knew--knew--what was new and important.

I don't think any of your assumptions are correct. 1) Most design juries that I know of haven['t been composed of old white men for a long time.

2) Pattern recognition comes with experience and time and knowing what is truly innovative and not just a fad or fashion can often come with age.

3) My own personal experience with the Industrial Design Excellence Awards highlighted the power of awards to teach business culture the value of design and specific design firms and designers. This was one big deal. Now we see civic society catching on.

4) All the major design award programs, including the IDEA and AIGA, specifically include student work and research as important categories.

5) Most of the design awards now have a Popular Pick or a digg-type system for mass voting.

OK, enough. It's time, Maria, for you to do your duty and serve on one of the many design juries meeting this year. Anyone out there have a slot?

Bruce Nussbaum

I can't believe DO would run a piece about how "awards are awful" without including a single specific example! What awards are we talking about here? Architecture awards from the likes of the AIA and RIBA? Industrial design awards like the Red Dot? Graphic design honors bestowed via the I.D. annual review et al? All of the above seem like good ways for practicing designers and the public to take the pulse of the profession and see a large variety of interesting new work (and some not-so-interesting work too, no doubt). Sure they're subjective and fallible, but I don't think anyone's ever argued otherwise.

Maybe there are other, really crummy, ego-centric awards out there too... but like what? I honestly don't know what awards the author is thinking of. As an earlier commenter noted, it's all generalizations! Sheesh.
First-time commenter

Our studio decided to stop entering design competitions about a year ago. It really is a lot of dough, and the returns were iffy at best. When we did win something, what we got was not more work or better fees, but more job inquires. And it didn't make us distinct: being an "award-winning" studio is about as unique as being a "licensed" barber.

I think Armin's argument that this is the same article as in '94, '99, '04, overlooks one significant difference of 2010. A big part of the reason to enter competitions was to get published, taking advantage of an avenue of wide distribution and promotion that was otherwise difficult to achieve. Now thanks to people like Armin, there are more democratic ways to get your work out there, and the official validation of your seasoned peers is less and less relevant. Competitions like Print's bloated Regional Design Annual just make the whole thing seem like a form of classified advertising where the spot you paid for may or may not get published. We crave a competition that's inexpensive (and therefore democratic), rigorous (and therefore meaningful), and that upon winning, bestows a gorgeous certificate that you are proud to hang on your wall and show to all the people who've now come in for informational interviews.

Brett MacFadden

One problem with the argument: Egos preceded awards.

My awards are for my mother...apparently now she understands what I do.

On the other hand...

Michael Bierut

Sorry babe, I really did deserve the Clio. No sour grapes, k?
Don Draper

As far as this being a discussion the industry has every 5 or so years... of course it is, as it should be (along with a few other topics). The thousands of new designers entering our profession each year should be exposed to these discussions and have opportunities to consider the issues and weigh in. And with the changes in technology, media, culture etc. I think it is perfectly relevant that we continue to question things like this.

With the advent of so many 2-bit award shows popping up lately, I feel the whole awards idea is getting watered down. Most of the big annuals are tied to either clubs or magazines; the clubs seem to be keeping up well, but it will be interesting to see how the magazine awards fair as the mag publishers battle with the other design blogs for designers' online time.

my primary thoughts for awards:
- award shows help fund many industry organizations
- award shows not only promote agencies, they are also very helpful for recruiters to find talent

and against:
- judges have little real idea about the design challenge or constraints the designer was faced with, leaving it to be a beauty contest as stated

On a bit of a different note - I think architecture, industrial design, advertising and graphic design awards are each VERY different. I can't speak much to the first two, but within graphic design awards, I'm noticing more and more work in annuals that just looks different than the norm. Not clever, or innovative, or a good solution to a difficult problem... it just looks different. For example, type made out of things. Really intricate or hand drawn work. Unconventional production. It seems to me there is a trend to award work for its ability to stand out in a crowd - which is by no means bad, but is a poor measurement of what design can achieve.
Mike Williams

I was waiting for a solution from the author that never came. Maybe I'll begin crafting the 2014 article.

And speaking of innovation, when do we know something is innovative? When judged as such by peers? Or can something simply be innovative without judgement or review? Innovative in what manner? I think there is a lot more to explore, but this article doesn't seem to contribute much to the discussion.

Oh, and awards are as necessary as a BA, MBA, Ph.D., Nobel, etc.

What Eric said. And a lot of what Armin said too.

What I'll say:

Lets not confuse awards with competitions. I've entered, judged and organized design competitions and most, if not all, exist for one reason — to make money for the organizers. Entry fees rake in a lot of dough. They also generate content for annuals, books and exhibitions, which make considerably less (although annuals are generally the best-selling issues of design magazines). That is their purpose. That is why every design publication has its own award program, why virtually every AIGA chapter runs (or wants to run) its own design competition and why the national organization runs several. Its an enterprise. A business. A profit center. If competitions routinely lost money for their organizers you'd see a lot fewer of them.

Awards/recognition are the byproduct of competitions. Books and annuals establish a record of design in a given moment or genre. Exhibitions (potentially) disseminate design to a broader audience. Peer recognition helps create a professional community by exposing designers to each others' work. A firm's "award-winning" status can help attract better talent. Younger designers, who tend to place more stock in awards than more seasoned professionals, enjoy the validation of producing award-winning work, so firms enter competitions as retention tool as well. Clients often like it when you win awards for their projects and its an easy excuse to make contact with them again a year or so after the project is complete. All these are or can be of considerable value. Every firm or individual must make their own calculus as to what that value is to them.

So can we, as Maria asks, "create a system of recognition that isn't bestowed by a handful of omniscient industry veterans?" Maybe we can and maybe we already have. Either way, it's unlikely to make much of a real difference. The system of recognition is its own industry, propelled by its own motivation. The awards it produces are a product of that industry. Until the consumers of that product demonstrate that they want something different, the industry will carry on.
Christopher Simmons

the magazine may be dead but the design contest lives on! I.D. just announced 2010 winners http://annualdesignreview.id-mag.com/
first-time commenter

People complaining about design awards are usually those who didn't win any.

And those who defend are usually those who have won them...
Rich B.

Typically love your writing and point of view. Writing here still good of course but I do take issue with the opening concept that "Ego is the single greatest obstacle to innovation, collaboration and progress."
I think Arrogance is a barrier to the above but certainly not Ego. It takes Ego to brave the uncertainty of the creative process and to see ideas through from the fuzzy stage to completion. It also takes a healthy amount of Ego to sell these ideas if you do client work. I believe it is Ego that gives us all the courage to create and believe that what we are creating is valuable - especially in innovation work where the end result may be a failure. Ego is what allows us to stare failure in the eyes and push on with our ideas. Arrogance is the enemy which doesn't allow us to recognize when our ideas aren't of merit or allow for meaningful collaborative processes. There is a marked difference between the two.
Dustin DiTommaso

If the yellow pencil or the golden lion leaves the man feeling loved, let him be.

I don't think we should try to say design should only be judged on aesthetic merit OR solely on real-world success (whatever that is.) I am a young designer. I have two kinds of design reference books I use. One type are David E. Carter type anthologies that have pages and pages of actual, implemented, successful design work; work an exec at Verizon might be proud to call his own. The other type are competition-issue mags, the AIGA Design Annual, etc. full of work that is considered brilliant and beautiful by designers but not necessarily judged based on "success" (many never actually being implemented).

I use both these types of references regularly. One is functional, the other is inspirational. They are both useful. Design awards don't give you the whole picture, and they certainly don't reward all aspects of successful design work. But I do think they have an important place in our field.

Good timing on this article. I am actually talking tomorrow for AIGA Charlotte on the lack of interest in annuals due to the convenience of getting your work published on blogs. Save your money, get your work seen a lot faster and judged by peers rather than the same judges that work the circuit.

I am just finding there is a lack of interest with even entering anyway...

I think awards are really important to the industry—if printed in a 300 page magazine or seen on a blog... it makes it push the envelope as designers.

By the way, How International is due tomorrow, but not the late fee... you still have time to save the extra 25 bucks they make you cough up :)

i joined the Lions Club Int'l to get away from you design awards heathens. After a few years I discovered something; these old farts were worse than you. Badges. Pins. Banners. Flags. I was the guy to design all the materials for the Lions. And let me tell you: these overgrown boy scouts dont leave the house without some sort of jangling "awards" accoutrement. "I'm an award-winning designer. Not an award-designing winner". They wouldn't listen.

Ironically, we serve the blind (founded in 1917 by Helen Keller).
felix sockwell

Thank you all for the (mostly) thoughtful comments. Some great points, but what I'm most perplexed about is that most chose to completely overlook the conversation nudge towards discussing how we could improve the system.

That this is a generalization is obvious. But that's part of the story – looking at those big, glamorous, generalist awards, not necessarily the diverse, smaller, more niche ones mentioned in one of the anonymous comments. The latter operate in a very different economy of both money and status-recognition.

To clarify, my biggest point was that the structure and system of design awards is flawed and anachronistic. It's made to perpetuate the myth of the sole genius-creator. (Even if that's a studio, not an individual designer.) But we live in the age of collaboration and cross-pollination of disciplines. Take, for example, a brilliant biomimetic design product that entailed a team of biologists, engineers and designers collaborating. Whose name goes on the award? Whose shelf does it land on? Ego and collaboration don't mix. Design awards are a currency of the ego economy, not of the culture of collaboration.

@Bruce: The Santa Fe story is a wonderful anecdote. But isn't the very reason it stuck with you precisely its outlier status? I agree with some of your points, but I also think it's important not to take the "old white guy" metaphor too literally – it's a psychological archetype, not a demographic one. An extra X chromosome or a birth year in the 80's doesn't immunize one to being an "old white guy" in one's thinking – it's about the systemic mentality, not the individual jurors. As for my being on a jury, while I appreciate the snark, I'm afraid it's somewhat misplaced as I have no aspiration to partake in something I clearly don't believe in. But I do appreciate the humor.

@Brett: Your studio's choice, and the rationale behind it, exemplifies the very issues I'm talking about, bravo. I'd be curious to hear how and whether this decision affects both your work and your relationship with clients in the long run.

@Armin: Doesn't the very recurrence of this conversation prove, as Eric suggests in his altogether insightful comment, the chronic and unresolved issues at stake? I'm a writer and curator – I don't see my job as fixing the issue, but as stirring enough intelligent discussion around it that those who actually work in the discipline (not to mention those who are directly affected by the issue, among which I don't count myself) can huddle around it and maybe come up with a better solution together. It would be foolish for any one person to sweep in and bestow a solution, but if our egos keep us from even engaging in an open conversation about our own vulnerabilities, then how will we ever progress?

@Christopher: All excellent points. I especially like your emphasis on the distinction between competitions and awards.

@Daniel: Agree with Dragos, I'd love to hear about some of these awards. I'm not saying this in least bit snarky way, I'm just genuinely curious about what's out there.
Maria Popova

Sorry, I don't agree with your points here at all...

However, I am sick of year after year seeing the Webby's won by sponsors & judges of the event. And yes the high cost of entering these awards sucks because it puts them beyond reach of a lot of freelancers and agencies. And some awards are guilty of being biased towards certain entries, technologies and brands... Sure this is no doubt for PR and financial reasons... Money and headlines are important, but awards shouldn't be about that, they should reward great work, even if it's not for or by Yahoo or Adobe ;)

Life of a designer is hard; it is a continuing full-time struggle for work, money, respect, you name it... I've been there.

Awards provide just a little bit of reassurance and a little bit of pleasure to massage the ego. They usually do not bring much else.

But why take them away? So many basic human traits are now under the threat: smoking, drinking, sex, and now even ego itself... This discussion fills me with sadness.

(break) .... Have any of you tested TweeShot? A new way for generating and sharing screenshots of any url via Twitter?

It could be great for sharing web and graphic designs .....

I've never entered a design contest but I've been a juror on many. In the long run, are clients impressed with design awards? Maybe, at one time but now it's ROI and rock-bottom prices. I could go on and on.

Break it down this way; at about $100USD per entry, how many designers will send in ten entries? There is a reason you see the same names in published design awards -- they laid out big budgets for entries.

Some knowingly attribute the costs to advertising. I just don't think the outlay is there for anyone anymore and if you want awards to impress other designers, so you will be the smartest kid on the short bus. Big deal!

Maria, well written. Thought provoking. Well deserved reply to few who have been propelling the (so called) design thinking in many forums. You touched the right chord where ego, gloss, mediocrity and hypocrisy meet. There is a whole lot of little pretensions designer community cherish, be it for business or for profession. Somewhere someone is talking about it. Lets as designers think over it individually and collectively.

Since I have been asked so nicely, I feel that I have to reply on the cases that I consider as "good" examples. And I am going to offer three of these examples. It is of course my personal opinion, but it's one that has been based on participation and observation.

Example A is the D&AD. These guys have been doing it for many years and they're a non-profit organization. I like the fact that they are strict and they only award work when it deserves to be awarded (as opposed to handing out as many awards as possible in order to do their PR).
Example B is the European Design Awards. The reason why I like this one is that they have what is probably the best qualified jury around: editors from 14 communication design magazines from all over the continent (ie people who go through lots of design work and "curate" for a living). Every year when I see the winners here, I say "yeap, they got it right".
Example C is WOLDA. It's a (small I guess) awards scheme for logos only, but it has a novelty when it comes to the jury. It's triple. One jury of peers (designers) one of clients (entrepreneurs and managers) and one of the wide audience (consumer organizations). Results here are more "democratic" and not just "elitist" if you know what I'm saying.

As I said on my first comment, I'm sure that there is a lot of crap out there too (don't get me started on those), but, I honestly believe that we shouldn't generalize (and that's why I named three good examples). I'm sure that other people around here would have no trouble naming more examples for which they have personal experiences/knowledge.

PS In case you're wondering, no I have NOT won a D&AD, nor an European Design Award. I have only won a "regional distinction" at EULDA (a previous version of what is now called WOLDA)
Daniel Berg

Award competitions and annuals exist in order to provide content for the next year's nominees' mood-boards.

I have a quick question to ask. Maria, or you a designer?


"Ego is the single greatest obstacle to innovation, collaboration and progress."

Seriously? Did Steve Jobs' ego somehow stifle innovation, collaboration and progress?

"Most juries are composed of some variation on the "old white guy" archetype, industry veterans with years of experience under their belts."

I've served as a juror for various design competitions since I was 28 years old. I may be "white" and a "guy" but at what point did I become "old"? Or by definition was I always such? I'd love to hear what the non-guy, non-white, non-old designers I've served on juries with have to say about this statement. And really, why would anyone want to be judged by clueless rookies or people from other areas of expertise? Hello, Nobel Prize for Economics people: I'm available for judging. Call me!

"award shows are unbelievably self-selective, like a private school off limits to anyone but society's upper crust of privilege."

Say what? Before I had my first piece of work accepted into what I considered to be a serious design competition, I sure as hell didn't belong to "society's upper crust of privilege." And I don't now. They won't even tell me where they hold the meetings.

And while a few of the same names seem appear in various award shows year after year, many of the designers who won awards 10, 5 or even 3 years ago have given way to a constant flow of talented new people. That doesn't sound much like "off limits to anyone but society's upper crust of privilege."

"Entry fees are often prohibitively high, making it near impossible for emerging designers to even enter."

When I was an 'emerging designer' I worked my ass off to be good enough (in my own opinion at least) and to make enough money to be able to enter the competitions I valued and respected. Got enough money for an iPhone and a daily latte? Got enough to enter an award competition. If your investment doesn't pay off, be a better designer.

"Awards are awful. Awards breed ego, create false meritocracies and ultimately stymie innovation"

Seems to me we're in a world now where everyone needs to be awesome, where kids get medals for losing the soccer tournament and get college degrees just for showing up. Isn't that the ultimate false meritocracy?

Award competitions may be flawed in many, many ways, but ever since I managed to show up in one that mattered to me, they've made me want to be better.

What's awful about that?
Dave Mason

Entry fees aside, the designer's path is often a lonely one and I really don't think it's so wrong to seek a little validation from one's peers.

Not everyone is so convinced that what they're doing is so right and worthy that they need never show it to anyone. In fact, I think that's where you'll find the real egos.
Craig Ward

I agree that awards are a problem, but I don't think this even scratches the surface. It's hard for us Americans in particular to admit because competition generally is so fundamental to our economic and cultural makeup.

For a deeper look at why we should question prizes, check out 'Award Madness' in Eye magazine. It quotes research that shows a 'significant negative correlation between competition and achievement'. And also quotes Nick Cave: 'My muse is not a racehorse'.

If you want to feel superficially relevant and flattered, or if you need a trophy to 'want to be better', perhaps your muse IS a race horse?
Dan Nakano

@AngryPaulRand says

“The only thing winning a design award proves is that you are good at winning design awards.”
Raul Pand

We couldn't agree more with Maria (and @AngryPaulRand).

In fact, many of Maria's thoughts are the reasons why we created iheartlogos.com. If you'd like to see more of why our concept is unlike the typical, expensive, elite design competition, please read our latest blog post:


We welcome your feedback (you too Maria) - thanks!

I'm all for awards shows and enjoy looking at the annuals when I remember to pick them up from wherever they wind up after getting mailed to the office. As for entering--typically I forget about sending my stuff in on-time. When I didn't miss the deadline, I've gotten a few awards but didn't find the recognition nearly as satisfying as doing the work in the first place. But that's me.

These days I prefer the blogs because I get to see more work that way, rather than only getting the filtered versions of what a jury deems worthy.
Brad Gutting

I appreciate this article. It touched on a topic I've been contemplating for some years now.

Generally, and I say "generally" emphatically, I find that design awards tend to be reflective of our industry's insularity. Earlier in my career, I designed with the goal to create a piece I would be proud as a designer to display in my portfolio. The piece's relevance to the client and her target audience was of insignificant concern. In the end, the only thing the client received from me was a piece of eye-candy. And yet, despite the irrelevance of such a piece, my colleagues would applaud the so-called "design" brilliance.

Awards usually don't tell us whether or not the design was successful or even relevant to the problem that needed solving. But it need not remain that way.

I am a big believer that great design does not win awards--it exists all around us and is often taken for granted. If entered, this work may not win awards because it fails to meet the aesthetic sensibilities of a particular group of judges. If it utilizes stretched type or is printed on generic copy paper, forget it!

That being said, I don't dislike awards, especially those that do consider the application, the client, the audience, and success of the piece. It simply feels good to be recognized for a job well done.

Thanks, again, for the article.

Carlos Centeno

Award-winning work performs better in the marketplace than work that did not receive awards, according to the book, "Pick Me: Breaking into Advertising and Staying There". They cite the Gunn Report to substantiate this claim:

Click for the book.
Thomas K.

Interesting how many reactions this article has drawn.

Being observant and self-aware is one of the most important qualities of being a successful designer; and design competitions are an efficient way to assemble and display a range of work in a single place.

Some people lose. Some win. Boohoo, and hooray.

Bring on the awards. Let me see the solutions, ideas and techniques that I didn't get the chance to try, the ones I'd never make if I had, and keep the visual buffet open all night long.

(PS, Dave Mason is the shiz)
Scott Theisen

Judge's Entry / Exhibit A re: Ego Complicity -

* Sorry babe, I really did deserve the Clio. No sour grapes, k?

Like with any business, a contest revolves around having a budget. The more prestigious, the more funding it requires to produce the top quality books and award statues, to get the great judges, to do the office work and drum up the necessary PR. Fully understood. But in my eyes these contests should not be limiting creative entries based on an individual’s, or a small firm’s, cash on hand. Instead they should find a corporate sponsor that wants to be seen as a forward-thinking-creative-problem-solving-type (Hmmm, not sure I can name a single one of those?) and eliminate the entry fees.

May the true talent win…and give the sponsor a shot at creative bliss while you’re at it.

(Full post: http://blog.geyrhalter.com/2010/05/11/may-the-true-talent-win/)
Fabian Geyrhalter

As a design writer Maria Popova persists in using the predictable to discuss the obvious, and the industry's best and brightest (Beirut, Boym, Nussbaum, Sockwell, Vit) prove once again that we are an accomplished bunch of navel-gazers.

Note that the discussion concerns primarily American designers, partly because they're the only ones with the cash to spare.

Note also that the discussion completely skirts, hell, doesn't come within light years of touching, the best alternative to competition: cooperation.


Note, finally, the absence of the voices of educators like Ken Fitzgerald or Gunnar Swanson, with good reason. The extent to which the competition disease infects our design education system is the direct result of myopic discussions like this one.

david stairs

Imagine how much could be accomplished if designers were more united? I thought we all wanted the same thing: The Best.

Is the trophy you won in your little league baseball game still as relevant after decades pass?
Graphic Discharge

As a design competition administrator I find this discussion of great value. Maria, I invite you to be on panel next year and experience the jury process.

Our judges change every year, are not judges "from the circuit" and we have kept entry fees at a very reasonable level. Firms of all sizes from all over the world enter and win. We also have a student competition at the same time.

All winners are published in an Annual and we try to generate as much PR buzz for them as possible. We are not a membership organization and are strictly in the business of helping designers and agencies big & small promote themselves.

After 40 years we have seen many firms & designers win and never all from the big agencies.
Creativity Awards

Good awards are good. They are good for the designers, and they are good for the clients.

Unfortunately there are too many bad awards. Too many awards that will reward you with something for as long as you willing to pay their high entry fees.

How about awards that are judged by non-designers? Wouldn't that be the ultimate social reward, and eliminate the sometime introverted aspect of our self-congratulating award ceremonies?

stephan Donche

The answer is to design to the satisfaction of your own conscience. Awards can come and go, clients can come and go, and you can sleep at night.
Joni B

I had a boss who said that design awards did nothing for business and the time it took to assemble and file the submission was little more than pointless...."What matters is the success (in the marketplace) of the products that we design". (I think he just wanted me to get back to work)

I did the work to submit a project anyway (on my own time) and we won an award (ID). The product was never released fully and the client never came back for more work. But was my boss right?

I think it might be interesting to do a "where are they now" or "how good was that thing" retrospect of award winners. a DMI case study?

"Ego" is also the reason things get done. Maybe they don't get done in a pleasant manner, but "ego" is a reason that we have the accomplishments of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas, to name a few architects with big egos. It is also why we have the innovation driven by Apple. "Ego" and "vision" often move hand-in-hand. When the naysayers try to put up roadblocks to innovation, it is ego--tempered by insight--that sustains a visionary's drive.

Hopefully some day graphic designers have "prizes" like architects and artists do. When Peter Zumthor wins the Pritzker Architecture Prize and its $100,000 cash, I don't see a lot of criticism stating architecture is a collaborative effort, which it is. I also don't see a lot of "groups" winning the MacArthur Fellows Program and its $500,000 award. Yet the MacArthur program is predicated on the individual visions of its respective inductees, not their respective collaborative outcomes.

From a culture perspective, graphic design does not have the support of a gallery system. Yes, the fees for competitions can be steep, but those fees are essentially the financial support that would otherwise maintain an infrastructure for a gallery: rent, employees, utilities, promotion materials, commissions. So until graphic design has the same regard and support structure to sustain that the public's regard like painting and sculpture do, graphic designers will pay to support their own form of cultural infrastructure through competition fees.

It is disheartening to read comments from incredibly talented individuals like Eric Heiman and Brett Macfadden here who are disillusioned by the competition process. (Full disclosure: Brett is a classmate from Cranbrook. Besides having a razor wit, he is an exceedingly talented graphic designer.) Graphic design is a cultural practice. It is not a fixed entity. It is not a form of mathematics or science. The way that graphic designers invent and combine images and words to create meaning is reflective of the time in which it is produced.

This is to say that what we produce NOW will not work for an audience 20 years from now. This is why we don't reuse graphic design from the 1920s, or 1960s, or 1970s. No matter how much we may admire that work, we look upon it from a historical perspective, not as a way to connect and communicate with audiences now. So when Mr. Heiman passes judgment on a piece of graphic design in two seconds, that OK. His judgment is a reflection of the way that a piece is able to tap into the cultural ethos of today. It is not easy to produce something new, innovative and, yes, beautiful; something that solves a client's need to communicate a message, and simultaneously produce something which resonates with society today. A two-second judgment is a reflection of experience that tells us, "Yes, this communicates beyond just a client's need, it communicates a culture's need."
David Cabianca

David manages a very good summary of the prevailing notions of competition. It's unavoidable. It's necessary for progress. It results in improved outcomes. It's natural. Of course it's not just design awards that are based on these assumptions but our economic and ideological structures - the very fundamental ways we relate to the world.

The only problem is these notions are evidentially wrong. All the research over many years, in many diverse fields, demonstrates clearly that our assumptions about competition are actually harmful. Far from being natural, they are learned (and can be unlearned). Far from improving results they almost always result in poorer results (and less creativity). And far from being inevitable, they are propagated by structural interests that are threatened when we cooperate.

Before defending awards and competition generally, I'd recommend checking out the research, for example:

David and Roger Johnson's survey of 122 studies from 1924 to 1980 "Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis". Psychological Bulletin 89 (1981)

Alfie Kohn's No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Houghton Mifflin Company (revised edition), 1992. This is a highly accessible overview and introduction to the issues around competition.

And at the risk of self promotion (ego anyone?) a piece I wrote about design awards

Speaking of ego, David's defense of it, although standard, doesn't account for the fact that when we have extrinsic goals (outward, egoistic concern for other's approval) we don't perform as well as when we have intrinsic goals (internal, self motivated capacities).

For design to be a relevant cultural practice we need to cooperate and collaborate more, and compete less.
Jason Grant

Mr. Grant,

There is a difference between a competition, and competition among individuals. When graphic designers enter their work in competitions, it is (always?) after-the-event. The work has served its purpose and met the client's aim.

And in fact, the work was probably designed in a cooperative and collaborative vein among a group of designers.

The books and articles that you cite refer to competition as a form of negative social animus among individuals pursuing some like minded outcome. However graphic designers enter their work in competitions after the work's completion, after the work has achieved the goal that was asked of it. It is a non sequitur to equate graphic design "competitions" with "competition" as a negative form of goal pursuit.

Mr. Cabianca is not claiming that changes in communicative structures are a form of "progress." He is simply stating that change is constant and the ability to tap into an ethos that communicates to contemporary society is a challenge unto itself.

I went in wanting to agree with this article, but came away feeling it was pretty pointless. The biggest problem with awards shows in our industry is that there are so many of them. Just look at the number of competitions FW Publications (ID/Print/HOW) puts on all by their lonesome.

Trust me, if you want to win some awards, there's a competition out there with low enough standards, no matter what your talent level. You'll just need to invest significant time, money and samples before you see anything.


any difference between a competition, and competition among individuals misses the point. I reckon it's disingenuous to suggest designers who enter awards often don't see their creative production as part of a goal which includes prizes.

The effect of awards and competition is to foster a decontextualised design culture where the work's stated goals become part of a process of designers pitting themselves against each other. A predictable evolutionary expression of this culture are the many new 'designer fight clubs' such as The Cut&Paste Digital Design Tournament, and Layer Tennis.

The struggle to defeat each other, to be a 'winner' is a problem. It's inconceivable to many that this can be the case, since competitive myths are so ingrained, especially in neo-liberal capitalist cultures like the USA.

I would recommend actually checking out the research, including James English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value which deals with cultural prizes specifically.

I tried to tackle some of the issues in relation to design awards here


ya, "Down with sports!" we need communism!

tomm's constructive contribution is helpfully illustrating the above comments points about competition being so ingrained and naturalized. well put tomm

"it's disingenuous to suggest designers who enter awards often don't see their creative production as part of a goal which includes prizes."

The above claim smacks of a fascist page straight out of an Orewellian Thought Police Guidebook. Rather than evaluate actual projects and actual efforts, you are condemning designers for what they may or may not have been thinking just to force a point.

A rational explanation as to why designers who work in a cooperative, collaborative environment to complete projects that satisfy client needs yet enter the work in competitions post-facto, is somehow equal to a competitive environment where designers work in isolated silos to complete projects individually, has yet to be spelled out. Thus far, only dismissive comments that have glossed over facts have been made.

Your claims have detached graphic design from its actual practice in order to make an idealized claim. "Designer Fight Clubs" don't serve a client's needs. They are simply image production exercises. There is no client's message which "suffers" as a result of competitive animus, nor does the wellbeing of the designer competitor suffer. So to claim that "designer fight clubs" foster a "decontextualized design culture" is to treat design practice as though it were a meaningless activity in the first place. When "designer fight clubs" are used as a mechanism to serve clients, then perhaps you may have a point.

hmmm accusations of communism and fascism. does one protest a little too much? agree that competition is out of hand and defending it is defending a whole ideology

"Ego is the single greatest obstacle to innovation" ???????????????

Exactly opposite!

Ego is the single greatest engine to innovation.

I like your writing style, Masha, but leave the thinking to us, people with huge ego.
Leon Mege

Jobs | July 19