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What’s the point of entering design competitions?

What’s the point of entering design competitions?

Course Leaders strongly encourage students to participate in design competitions. Highlighted on the ins and outs of the design competition.

In my job as Course Leader for our apprentices in Product Design I have to answer many questions. Some days my office feels like an enquiries desk, with a great variety of problems to solve, but there has been a noticeable growth in the number of questions about design competitions, and so I’ve been reflecting on what motivates our apprentices to add to their already very heavy workload, and go through the difficult task of building a project with a chance of getting noticed by a competition jury.

Florian Lemaitre - James Dyson Awards

By definition, a competition asks candidates to make proposals based on the same information, and to build a presentation to convince a jury that their ideas are the best. In professional practice, this is very close to the competitive first phase where clients ask several design studios to make proposals before they select the winning team.

So of course the first step in understanding our students is to ask what their motivation is, and the resounding constant element in their replies is the challenge of this opportunity to see whether they are ready to take on the competition from other young designers from different schools and countries. Our track record of remarkably high results for the BTS every year means that they know that our teaching is of the highest standard, but that doesn’t tell them how their own ability to approach a design brief compares to others. The competition gives an almost binary response, since in most cases there is a winner, some runners up and then the others, with little or no feedback on how the jury reached their decision, but even that cruel reality is attractive.

Another element that comes to the forefront is the potential to be noticed by members of the jury, the press, and other professionals who see the competition entries. This is clearly highly motivating. All the competitions have websites where the winning entries are shown in detail, but in many cases, the other entries are also put online. Suddenly a student’s project takes on value since it is no longer seen in the context of a design school, but out in the real world and linked to a major brand.

Laura Petitjean - Fly Contest

Perhaps surprisingly, the notion of the deadline is also motivating. Designers learn to live with and to enjoy the pressure of the timeframe for every project, and this is very much a part of the learning process. Adding a new project to a busy schedule seems counter-productive, but we can observe that this added pressure is part of the self-testing that they are experimenting with as they learn where their own limits are and use that “adrenaline” to work quickly. Competition deadlines are of course totally inflexible, adding reality to the experience.

Competitions also have prizes. Sometimes these are cash prizes, sometimes you can win an internship or a travel bursary, but whatever the financial value, there is a fantastic opportunity to have a brilliant addition to your CV, and a great excuse to write to lots of people to share the news (and maybe ask for a job).

Stepping back from the initial question for a moment, the competition is an almost unique opportunity for any designer to see what other designers “do” with the same brief. As an apprentice or a student, you spend all your time working with your colleagues to propose new designs for each assignment, so you can see how the others take very different approaches, but in professional practice you almost never get this opportunity. In thirty years work as a designer with industry, I only once got to see a presentation from two other design studios that my team and I were competing with, and that event was deliberately integrated into the process by the highly advanced design management team of Epson in Japan. We were all working on an incredibly open brief that asked, “what do you think a printer should be like now we are making portable computers” (this was in 1989). I have also seen the final models of other designers for projects for Alcatel (I won with my team) and SFR (I came second) on mobile phones, but none of the initial analysis, user scenarios, or initial design work.

What we cannot see through this enquiry is the way the young designer approaches a new problem, nor how a jury measures the work that is presented. Many of the teaching team will have been involved as members of juries at some point and in my personal experience it is clear that the composition of a jury will have a considerable influence on the results. This is hard to predict for the person entering a competition, but it would be wise to check who will be judging the work and what might catch their eye. Reality TV shows are giving the public some vision of how this process can work, and in the product design field, there has already been the British TV series “Design for Life” where Philippe Starck invited a group of young British designers to Paris for a challenge,with one person being eliminated every week. The episodes are online starting here:


I worked with Ilsa Parry, building the first carbon fibre prototype of her winning design during my time as Course Leader at Manchester Metropolitan University. She showed her professional attitude right through the series, finally making a design proposal that was not just an interesting innovation in terms of the brief, but clearly a seductive object that was going to get noticed by Starck and his team.

Finally, here is a glimpse of some recent activity from our apprentices from the BTS in Product Design:
- Solène Lemare entered the Alessi in love competition
- Laura Petitjean entered the Fly contest
- Maud Opdebeck, and Aurélien Sergeant also entered the Fly contest
- Yannick Ays entered the Designpreis Halle
- Florian Lemaitre was selected as the only French entrant in the final twelve for the James Dyson Award. His design was for a system of three products that work together to help diabetics live with their illness.

David Balkwill, Course Leader - Vocational Training in Product Design