Running a Design Competition  

by Stephanie Vierra
Vierra Design & Education Services, LLC



Design competitions have been a standard method of selecting the best design or most qualified designer for a project for centuries. As far back as the 1400s, a competition was announced in Florence, Italy for the design of the main Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore which had been under construction for more than a century. The solution chosen, which was submitted by goldsmith and clock maker Fillipo Brunelleschi, was a master achievement that still amazes architects, engineers, and scientists today for the ingenious solutions to the architectural and engineering puzzles Brunelleschi solved through his design.

Photo of the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy

View of the Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy

A design competition is a vehicle to allow entrants to solve a proposed problem and compete against others, oftentimes their peers, in order to receive an award or building project. Entries to a competition are usually reviewed and awarded by a jury who is charged with making both objective and subjective evaluations of the entries based on criteria established for the program. Competitions have expanded in scope and purpose since the days of Brunelleschi and may be utilized to accomplish many goals within the design and building arts professions. Competitions are increasingly utilized to award projects and ideas based on not just aesthetic merits but a more comprehensive and holistic approach to design. Competitions have the ability to bring many different design ideas, innovations, and publicity to a project, an issue, or to the designer/design team; which is why it is important to carefully plan and develop a competition with stated goals and outcomes in mind. The following document may serve as a framework for developing a design competition.


Define the Goals of the Competition

The first and most important step is to establish a set of goals to be achieved through a competition. If a competition is a one-time event, then the energy and focus must be expected to make an impact within a limited timeframe, budget, and to a limited audience. A competition that is run several times, either annually or as often as is necessary to achieve stated goals, has the potential to make a greater impact on more short- and long-term goals. For example, a competition may be utilized to promote and educate design professionals on new concepts, laws, codes, design standards, best practices, materials and methods of construction, process, etc. In the case of a competition that seeks to educate, it takes several years to see the impact of new-found knowledge being utilized in practice.

A competition may also help to establish new relationships within the design profession, encourage multi-disciplinary approaches to design, advance diversity, or encourage more environmental/sustainable solutions, etc.

Define Audience for Competition

It is important to define the audience that may participate or submit entries to a competition. If the audience is broad it will allow for a greater range of entries, but may also make the judging process more difficult. The scope of the audiences to consider might include: professional, student, national, state, regional, international, multi-disciplinary, etc. The audience and scope of the competition may also have a direct impact on the budget.

Number and Type of Entries Accepted

Defining the number and type of entries to be accepted into the competition will allow for a focused jury process, but also has the ability to limit qualified or quality entries. So carefully consider the implications of number and type of entries.

Develop Competition Budget

Define expenses that will be covered under the competition, including staff/consultant time, travel and or honorarium expenses for jurors, rental space and other jury meeting expenses, marketing and publicity, entry fees, and awards to winners. The variety and scope of these expenses can vary widely. If a budget is not available to run a competition, sponsorships through fund-raising are a good option to consider. The ability to develop and manage a competition, including the jury process, in electronic form will also reduce overall expenses on a competition.

Develop Competition Program

The competition program must clearly state the goals and entry requirements for the competition. The program is also the place to set the tone and provide background on the competition including trends or new directions sought through the use of a competition. It is critical to request information about the entry that will give the jury a complete understanding of its intent in order to evaluate the merit of the individual entry and be able to compare it against the other entries. The level of completeness of the entry may range from a sketch to a completed set of shop drawings, depending on the stated requirements.

Issues to address in the program may include: the program brief, site map (real or imagined), scale of entry materials, photos of existing or surrounding context, background on the competition or the program, real or ideas competition, built or unbuilt, or other categories within the competition (for example residential versus commercial structures).

All pertinent information to be included in the entry must be stated within the program including contact information, project information, reports and/or research, analyses or process, supporting images, supporting documentation, demonstration of concepts, etc.

Establish Competition Entry Rules and Guidelines

Items to consider are the eligibility, regulations, format (hard copy or electronic submission), deadlines, overall competition schedule, or resources (physical or access to) that entrants should utilize as part of the competition.

The format of the entry is an important consideration. Depending on space and support on the competition, a small size (say a standard 8.5" x 11" portfolio) is preferable to a 20"x 30" board. If winners will be published, high quality photos or electronic images and supporting text are critical. If the winners or entrants will be on display, then entries may be a lightweight foamcore board. Limit number of pages or boards and define the size of the entry carefully. If running an electronic competition, state file type and size requirements.

If the jury will not be meeting as a group to review the entries, consider the number of copies entrants must submit, for circulation to reviewers. If the competition is meant to be reviewed as a blind jury process, be sure to request that no identifying feature of the firm or designer be located on the front of the entry, but included in an entry form or on back of entry materials. This will require a coordinator who is responsible for logging entries, checking their adherence to competition guidelines, and developing a system to ensure blind review.

Develop an overall schedule that will allow you to properly plan the development of the competition along with the marketing and implementation of it. Additionally, consider the amount of time notices should be repeated during the schedule in order to get the desired exposure and attention on the competition. Develop the schedule around critical deadlines and milestone tasks to be completed.

Develop and Coordinate Jury/Judging Panel and Process

Photo of the new wing of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC

Image of the winning entry, designed by Frank O. Gehry and Associates, Inc., for the new wing of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC

The structure of a jury should be carefully considered so as to bring the appropriate and desired backgrounds and perspectives to bear on the jury process. A balanced jury might include individuals with a mix of technical, design, political, or educational perspectives to accomplish goals stated within the competition. In addition, it is healthy to attempt to bring diversity to a jury process by means of ethnic, racial, and gender selection. The credibility and level of professionalism associated with a competition can be increased through the use of respected individuals or firms with direct experience and award-winning examples of the building or idea under consideration in the competition.

Establish a set of rules for the jury to follow when making their award selections. Select an individual to serve in the role of jury chair. The role of the jury chair is to ensure a fair and orderly process and negotiate through difficult situations and/or disagreements about entry selections. The chair may also ensure that entries have met the initial entry requirements and make recommendations for removal of ineligible projects or entries that present a conflict of interest within the process or among the jury.

It is also important to determine whether your jury will physically meet in an assigned location and judge physical entries or review electronic submissions. Either arrangement requires a structured process to be developed for review and coordination of final entry selection. A scoring sheet, voting, or debating are all valid methods for evaluating entries. It is important to capture the salient jury comments that can be utilized for a variety of purposes including additional communications with the entrant, and educational and promotional materials that are developed of the competition results.

Establish Marketing/Publicity Schedule

To maximize the publicity and exposure of the competition and its results, it is important to develop a marketing and publicity strategy at the outset of the competition. Develop a schedule of publications, email newsletters, direct mail campaigns, and press contacts to be targeted and include editorial deadlines, contact information, circulation rates, and circulation dates.

Developing a relationship with periodicals or websites to focus articles on awards or the process can ensure greater exposure on the competition. If the budget allows, consider the use of a clip service to track publicity on the competition.

Consider capturing key elements of the competition and results for future publicity and/or educational efforts. Ideas may include developing a competition summary publication or website of the results. If the competition was developed in order to encourage change or implement a new standard of practice or design, then the post-competition communications are critical to educating key audiences and helping those audiences modify their own way of thinking or practicing.

Develop and Establish Awards Structure

There are a variety of approaches to awards within competitions. Depending on the budget available there may be monetary prizes, award certificates, trophies, publicity or awards ceremonies, educational opportunities, or professional opportunities.

Establish the levels of awards to be given such as first place or honorable mentions, etc. Categories and award levels may be established, however, the jury should have final say as to how those awards are bestowed.

Consider arranging awards ceremonies, displays, traveling exhibits, or publicity to announce the results. Also establish rules for tie breakers or non-award.

Additional Resources


Regular Columns in Periodicals

  • Architect's Journal—This journal has a regular column titled "Competitions" with many listings.
  • Architectural Record—The "Design News" column under the subheading "Design" occasionally lists current competitions and also lists the winners of past competitions.
  • Architectural Review—In the "Prelims" column, under the "Marginalia" subheading, there are occasionally listings for current competitions.
  • BSA Chapterletter (Boston Society of Architects)—The column titled "Opportunities" lists competitions.
  • Competitions—A quarterly journal devoted entirely to design competitions, including listing the winners of recent competitions. A supplement called CompetitionHotline updates current competitions every six weeks and is available at the Reserve desk.
  • Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA)—The "Awards and Competitions" tab lists results of recent competitions and provides information on entering the programs.