What is often inspiring about design competitions are the meritocratic ideals that they constantly reaffirm
Viewpoints: Oran  Day

In our latest series of Viewpoints, we've been asking people about design awards. First up, architect and IDI president George Boyle discussed the variety of criteria that should be in place in order for a design award to be of value. Next, designer Seán Mongey suggested that while there are examples of good awards schemes and awarding bodies abroad, here in Ireland we still have some work to do. To wrap things up, we hear from Oran Day. Oran has been an associate at Atelier since 2002. He teaches at IADT and served as an ICAD board member between 2011–2014. Here is his response:

Are awards an effective way of recognising, showcasing or encouraging quality design?

Wendy: He wants to talk to you about a job.
Cliff: I don’t need a job. I got honourable mention at that festival in ... in ...
Wendy: Cincinnati? The documentary film festival? This is what you’re clinging to? Everybody got honourable mention who showed up.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) by Woody Allen

Like most things in life, an awards competition is only as good as the reputation and credibility of the organisation or individuals involved in running it. Other factors that may help to legitimise the recognition of ‘quality design’ through awards are the status of previous winners and broad participation by the design community. When these ideal conditions exist it is easy to answer in the affirmative – ‘Yes, awards do recognise quality design.’ What is ‘quality design’? Let me park that for now (if possible, forever), as it requires separate discussion.

Despite the best (mostly voluntary) efforts of those involved, design competitions (like everything else) exist in an imperfect reality. Ensuring broad/full participation and achieving consensus around jury selections can be tricky at the best of times. Fees, personal ideology, indifference, past experience and the overestimated (and imaginary) influence of ‘sinister forces’ [1] are all reasons for abstentionism. Higher numbers of entries not only serve to make design competitions financially viable but, as important, the value of the recognition/award is enhanced through broader participation and representation.

The opportunities for recognition and promotion are more numerous and varied than ever. However – much like a Michelin star – a shiny bauble or certificate awarded by a jury of one’s peers is more comprehensible/accessible and reassuring as a marker of quality to existing and potential clients, colleagues and writers/historians than the number of Instagram Likes a project receives online. I’m not denying the personal sense of validation that we all experience when someone leaves a positive comment below our work, but it’s not easy to translate the value of this type of endorsement to clients or appropriate to include it in a list of ‘recent achievements’.

Great work inspires, regardless of whether it receives an award or not.

What is often inspiring about design competitions are the meritocratic ideals that they constantly reaffirm. Having been involved in a number of national design competitions (as an organiser, a jury member and an entrant – not all at the same time!), I’ve regularly witnessed the ‘level playing field’ that is established when experienced, critical and assured colleagues convene to assess the work of their peers.

There are many ‘lost’ masterpieces in the history of painting and popular music. For work to inspire us we must first be aware of its existence. The additional exposure that accompanies some design competitions ensures that commended work reaches a wider audience and consequently its ability to inspire is greatly increased.

The motivations behind the decision to enter design competitions are diverse – finances, egotism, personal ambition, open competition, validation, solidarity, exposure, immortality. It’s difficult to extol the personal and professional benefits of competition without it sounding like Al Pacino’s Locker Room speech in Any Given Sunday [2]. Serendipity and a fondness for symmetry leads me back to Woody Allen who offers the following paradoxical advice – “80% of life is just showing up.”

 

[1] Michael Bierut, ‘How to Win Graphic Design Competitions’, How to Become Famous, Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 24.

[2] Many thanks to Ross Phelan for the 'pop culture' reference.

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