Industry Awards

A Winning Strategy: Industry awards as a marketing tool

by Jeff Fisher, Engineer of Creative Identity, Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

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 myself.

I 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 regular basis.

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.

Bragging rights

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 some.

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 designer.

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 worldwide.

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 expert.

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 client’s office.

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.

Serious considerations

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. 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.

The following is just a partial list of some of the most well-known and respected design competitions.

For listings of many additional competitions check out CreativePro and Workbook calendar links below.

“Call for entries” request forms, deadlines and specifications can be found for many design industry competitions at the following links:

AIGA Design Competitions:
American Corporate Identity:
American Design Awards:
American Graphic Design Awards:
American In-House Design Awards:
Applied Arts Magazine (Canada):
Communication Arts Magazine:
CreativePro Competition Calendar:
CMYK Magazine:
The Create Awards:
Creativity Annual:
Design & Art Director (United Kingdom):
I.D. Magazine:
PRINT Magazine:
Rockport Publications:
STEP Inside Design:
The Summit Awards:
Type Directors Club:
Workbook Competition Calendar:
Wolda (formerly European Logo Design Annual):
Global Corporate Identity:
Graphics Books:
HOW Magazine:

If you have questions or suggestions, contact us.