A collection of design competition - and book submission request - tips, tricks and observations

Nearly 20 years ago I began responding to design competition calls for entries and book publisher requests for submissions with the entry of client work. Early on I saw awards and inclusion in books as much more than an ego booster. Instead, positive results of such opportunities were a valid marketing and promotion tool for my business. Since then, my work has garnered over 600 regional, local and international design awards.

My designs appear in over 130 books from publishers around the world. The majority of potential clients coming my way begin our interaction with comments such as “I was at my local bookstore and saw some examples of your design work in a book...” In addition, relationships have developed with writers, editors and publishers. When they need illustrative elements for books, I am often contacted as a result of past positive experiences to submit work for inclusion in articles or books. I’ve also been asked to judge design competitions, or book submissions, many times in the last two decades.

When writing my first book, The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success, I crossed over to the other side and became the person requesting design submissions to illustrate a book. I quickly learned the challenges of compiling the images I desired, obtaining the proper digital files for quality reproduction, collecting the descriptions and credits for specific projects and getting the permission forms required by my publisher, HOW Books.

My frustrations were multiplied in writing Identity Crisis!: 50 redesigns that transformed stale identities into successful brands - a volume greater in scope, with many more contributors from around the globe, and hundreds of graphic and photo images. I am now in the midst of writing my third book, Logo Type: 200 Best Typographic Logos from Around the World Explained which has involved over 200 submitting designers or firms and thousands of contributed images. Some days, while digging through the numerous submissions, I find myself getting really cranky and bitchy.

A few years ago, at a design conference, another author and I were lamenting about the issues associated with writing and coordinating a book before the finished manuscript is shipped off to a publisher. Our gripes and pet peeves were remarkably similar. As our conversation came to an end, he said, “If I ever even consider writing another book please slap me silly.” I gave him similar permission. Of course, he just completed his third book, and I am working on my second, since having that particular discussion.

The work on my current book got me thinking. What advice would I share with other designers in regards to responding to competition calls for entries and book submission requests?

Read the call for entries or book submission request: Seriously. Read the call for entries or book submission request thoroughly and carefully. Pay attention to the details from the entity conducting the design competition or writing/publishing the book. Failure to follow the specific documented requests could result in your work being immediately disqualified from consideration.

Evaluate what competitions and book submissions will best serve the needs of you or your firm: What do you, as a designer hope to achieve by responding to a call for entries or request to submit designs for possible inclusion in a book? An ego boost? Validation from your design or industry-specific peers? A happy client? Marketing and promotion of your work? The opportunity to “toot” your own horn with the possible results? A trophy and certificate wall in your studio?

My purpose for entering design competitions, and submitting my work for possible inclusion in books, is to make use of the results for the marketing and promotion of my design efforts. With a focus on identity design, I tend to target competitions and publisher requests that will give the greatest exposure to logo design, corporate identity and branding. Logo-specific competitions and books are always a first priority. Requests for complete identity programs are a close second. Calls for entries focusing on stationery package and business card design follow. Re-evaluations do result in changing priorities over time. For example, my logo designs were selected for inclusion in Print’s Regional Design Annual for many years. When Print opted to exhibit many fewer logos in the annual, I lost interest in entering the competition as a possible showcase for my identity design work.

An added bonus in the case of some competitions, or book submission requests, is the future release of compilation volumes by the publisher. For sometime Rockport Publishers has increased the exposure of a designers’ work with The Best of the Best of... books highlighting brochure, letterhead and logo design. LogoLounge is now doing the same with the new Master Library series. It’s great to discover your work will be featured in an upcoming book – with no additional effort on the part as the original submitter.

Create a budget for entry fees and potential publication fees: Entering design competitions can be an expensive venture. From my earliest submissions, I created a budget for entry fees I was willing to pay – and considered that expenditure a major portion of what I would spend on marketing in any given year. I sought out competitions that had a cap on entry fees after a given number of entries, offered an additional cap on any publication or “hanging” fees (which just annoy the hell out of me), charged no additional fees beyond entry fees, or resulted in a book being published. The Big Book of Logos series, LogoLounge, the former American Corporate Identity competitions, the Creativity Awards, and a few others fit into the guidelines I established for my business.

I’ve always appreciated the fact that the Summit International Awards– already directed at smaller firms – is willing to offer an added discount to one-person studios. This year, the American Advertising and Graphic Design Awards offered a free pro bono project entry with a paid entry fee in another category. With their American Graphic Design Awards the trade publication GDUSA has offered discounted entry fees to previous submitters and winners. Still, having won 20 American Graphic Design Awards over the years, I have yet to pay what I feel are outrageous publication fees to have my work appear in the magazine. As a one-person studio, I simply can’t justify the expense - especially when some of the awards have been for pro bono logo design projects.

Personally, I prefer to submit my work to book producers such as the widely promoted efforts of Rockport Publishers, Rotovision (UK), Index Book (Spain) and zeixs (Germany) - which have no entry fees and incredible reach with their products. HOW Books and PIE Books (Japan) are increasingly promoting future books with no fees for submissions. Inclusion in the books of all of these publishers exposes a designer’s work to an international audience of potential clients.

I think it’s unfortunate the the American Graphic Design and Advertising Awards (formerly American Corporate Identity) recently announced that winning entries of the most recent competition will not be published in a book. To be honest, had I been aware of this prior to the competition deadline, I probably would not have submitted designs. I also noticed that for a specific submission request, although an entry fee is not necessary, Crescent Hill Books is now requiring a $25 fee ($350 for a selected case study) for publication in the future book release. I do understand the challenges of publishing these days, but such changes will cause me to have second thoughts about the book submission requests of those two entities in the future.

Enter what you consider to be your best and most representative work: When giving designers advice about what to include in their portfolios, I always say “only include what you feel is your best work.” The same goes for considering one’s own work for possible competition entry or book submission. Competitions and publications are an opportunity to present to the world what you do best. Don’t be tempted to submit what you may consider mediocre work due to an entry fee price break at, let’s say, 15 entries. If you have 10 kick-ass design projects to contribute; only submit the ten pieces. It’s almost a given that, if you present work of which you are not particularly proud, the work will be selected for recognition or publication.

Provide what is requested: Simple right? You would think so, but many designers seem to have a problem following instructions. If a competition or book call for entries requests actual printed samples don't provide digital images. Most likely there's a desire to photograph all selected projects in-house for quality control. If a writer or editor request two or three submissions, don't submit 10 and ask that the reviewer select what they like. With several hundred people submitting work, numerous additional, unneeded entries means hundreds of images that the recipient most likely doesn't have time to review. Besides, the submitting designer knows their own work best and should be able to select what they hope to have showcased.

Submit the exact image files needed: There’s a reason competitions and book publishers ask that image submissions meet their own very specific file type and size requirements. The requested files are what will best serve the needs of the specific judging process or high-resolution printing. Many submissions to my own books have been every file type other than what was requested - the wrong size, low resolution or just really poor quality. Specifications may differ for each competition or book project. It's in a designer's best interest to submit exactly what is requested to present one's work at its best. Improper image files, or misnamed digital files, may result in disqualification from review.

The old "garbage in; garbage out" adage applies here. Submission of a poor quality digital image is only going to make a designer's work look bad. High quality digital images are a book publisher's friend.

Take advantage of an opportunity to describe your work: If given the opportunity to submit a detailed description of your work, take advantage of the situation. In early 2010 I was asked to judge a large number of submissions for the book Logolicious. The online submission form provided designers the chance to include a short description of the logo being submitted. I was surprised at the large number of designers who entered no description at all. In judging the entries, I found myself questioning what some images were, and what other designs supposedly represented. Simple one or two sentence descriptions went a long ways in making my decisions as a judge much easier and definitive.

Complete all requested documentation and authorization forms: It may sound like a "no-brainer," but it is very important to complete all entry form information and provide any required signature verifying rights and authorizing publication. An individual reviewing submissions may find it easier to reject an incomplete entry than tracking down the designer to collect missing details.

Give credit where credit is due: It is incredibly important to always credit those who participated in any project you choose to submit as a competition entry or as possible book content. Be generous in listing all that have contributed to the final project – especially if the design will end up being published, with credits, in a book or magazine. There is nothing worse than a supposed “team” member providing a design for publication, or a competition, and not crediting (or improperly crediting) major players on a project. Many years ago a minor contributor on a project of my own submitted the end result for inclusion in an international design book – listing me as minor participant on the effort. To say I was unhappy is an understatement.

Verify that you have have permission to submit specific design work: Many designers automatically assume that they have all permissions required to submit a project for award or publication consideration. Work for employers, work-for-hire situations, projects executed as a contractor for a corporation and other scenarios may not offer carte blanche authority to do so. Many competitions and book publishers require that contributors verify that they have maintained the right to make the submission in question. Early in my career I would often find myself chasing down a former client to get permission to enter a project in a competition or for inclusion in a book. For the past decade the following clause in my own project agreement has made such submissions much easier:

The designer retains personal rights to use the completed project and any preliminary designs for the purpose of design competitions, future publications on design, educational purposes and the marketing of the designer’s business. Where applicable the client will be given any necessary credit for usage of the project elements.

Feel free to use and abuse the clause for your own purposes.

Set yourself apart from the crowd: What makes your design efforts unique? Work that stands out from the crowd in concept, execution and presentation is what will often get the attention of those judging a competition or selecting graphic content for a book. Several years ago I was judging the Summit Creative Awards and the trend of lime green and orange ink colors was a bit overwhelming. I found myself being drawn to the submitted designs that were unusual, didn’t fall into the trap of current trends or offered unique solutions to what may have been a very common design brief.

Ask any questions you may have about the competition or book project: Most design competition calls for entries, or book submission requests, do provide contact email addresses or phone numbers for any questions that contributors may have about the detailed specifications for such activities. Make use of these resources. Making your own assumptions in regards to any questions you may have could result in an entry that will not be accepted due to failure to follow the rules. In addition, contact with the competition sponsor or book publisher may initiate a relationship of value when submitters are being sought in the future for other projects.

Inquire about possible deadline extensions: Many design competitions and book submission deadlines allow for some flexibility. Rather than rushing to finalize an entry, due to a looming deadline, contact the entity in question and inquire about a possible extension. Often additional time will be provided, allowing for completion of an organized and complete submission.

Neatness counts: Neatness in all aspects of an entry or submission does make a difference. Enough said.

Package your submissions carefully: If shipping off actual printed samples of design work, make sure that your pieces are packaged to survive the wear and tear of the U.S. Mail or other delivery option. The first impression of a damaged project is going to impact the review or judging process.

Be patient in awaiting the results of a competition or book publication: Competition judging, and the production of a book, takes time. Be patient in awaiting the results of your design submissions. Most calls for entries or submissions result in hundreds, if not thousands of contributions. In its first year the HOW Logo Design Awards received over 800 entries. The book Logolicious required the review of nearly 5000 logo designs. In selecting designs for inclusion the book Letterhead and Logo Design 11, the firm Design Army had to sort through over 3000 submissions. Most design books are the result of a year or two of interviewing, writing, image selection, editing, design and printing.

Many competition coordinators and publishers are excellent about informing those whose work has been selected. By doing so, they are providing designers the opportunity to promote the news in a very timely manner - giving greater exposure to the competition or possibly increasing book sales. Unfortunately, in some cases I have received official notification of my work being included months after a book has hit the retailers' shelf.

Promote the hell out of your competition or book submission successes: It's in a designer's own best interest to "toot! one's own horn" when receiving a industry award or having work published in a book. Post the news on your blog, create a note on your Facebook page, or "tweet" about the information. Send out press releases to online and print design media, local newspapers, business publications, alumni organizations and trade magazines. An email press missive may be sent out to art/creative directors, vendors, clients, past clients, potential clients, design peers, friends and family. Make sure the client whose work has been recognized is aware of the fact. Ask the client if their specific industry has a trade publication or organization that should be made aware of the news.

Making others aware of your honor, or inclusion in a book, may result in requests for new work, possible inclusion in other books or articles, opportunities to make business or design organization presentations, or more.

Show your appreciation: In some cases, designers may receive complimentary copies of a book or magazine in which their work appears. If so, immediately send the author, editor or publisher a handwritten thank you note. In addition, whenever a writer or interviewer includes me in an article, book or podcast, I always make sure to express my appreciation with a note, email or call. Simple "thank yous" are an incredibly valuable tool in establishing career-long relationships.

Some additional resources on this topic:

Calls for entries: Upcoming graphic design competition and book submission deadlines

When a "contest" is not a contest

"Calls for entries" confusion?

A Winning Strategy

© 2010 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives.