December 13, 2016
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Design Awards – Why They Matter

By: Whipsaw

When it comes to design award competitions, opinions in the industry vary greatly. Some design firms swear by them, others think they’re overrated. Some think design awards are the best allocation of their marketing and PR dollars, others call it a rip-off or worse … a buy-out.

On the heels of a very successful award season for Whipsaw we thought it was a great time to analyze this topic and compare opinions.

Why spend time, money and resources on design award competitions?

John Guenther, a 2016 Spark juror and former Director of Design at HP states that “the beauty of design competitions is the leveling of the playing field between big companies, small design firms, and students alike. The only thing that truly matters is the new and innovative design thinking they bring forward”.

Flipping through the annual catalogs of individual award organizations indeed shows that new designs ranging from companies like Google and Tesla are judged next to innovative products from little-known startups. The judging criteria on product form, function, user experience and more are equal. Who comes out a finalist and who takes home the gold …?

Whipsaw CEO Dan Harden adds that competing with the best designs in the field ensures that the Whipsaw brand values stay fresh and current. He also sees it as an extra motivation for the individual designers on the team to keep raising the bar and work hard to stay on top of their game. A design award for their creation is a well-deserved reward, an industry validation of design excellence, and an important career builder at that.

Not all design awards are equal.

Harden admits that there are more award programs now than ever before and some are easier to win than others. Established programs such as iF, Red Dot and IDEA have a 50-60 year history and are still held in the highest regard. Spark celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

The award spectrum has widened too. Next to the general design awards, more specialized ones have come into play for medical design, UX and even plastic parts, just to name a few.

For our clients, being able to publicly attach a design award to their product brings an opportunity to build consumer confidence and boost business results. Depending on the industry they are in though, winning an award in their particular category may be a more beneficial validation from experts in their field. Medical companies for instance, will benefit more from participating in the Medical Design Excellence Award (MDEA) rather than a general award program.


Design firms need a strategy when entering design awards – after all, they do cost time and lots of money!   Are you a young and upcoming firm? Consider both national and international award competitions to help establish your name in the industry.   Pay special attention to awards that give a win the most visibility, especially beyond the annual catalog that is spread among peers. The program at Fast Company for instance gives winning designs more mainstream visibility in their printed and online publications. Your clients will thank you.

Reputation of the jury is everything!

The quality of any design award program will rise or fall with the quality and integrity of the judges. A relevant and professional jury will guarantee that only those solutions that deserve to be singled out will be impartially selected and awarded.

Word on the street has it that some (not all) “general design awards” are less consistent in quality because the jurors are more general too. Before you enter any design award competition, take a moment to research the jury. Are they reputable, practicing professionals themselves? Not all jurors are established experts in the category they are judging, and therefore not necessarily possessing the in-depth knowledge required for selecting the true cream of the industry crop.

Top award programs such as IDEA, Red Dot and iF remain extremely selective and very competitive to win.

Design awards and innovation.

“Innovation” is often linked to top award winners. Yet there is more to innovation than newness. If innovation is defined as the implementation of an idea at the intersection of (1) what the user wants, (2) what is technologically possible, and (3) what is viable in the marketplace … are design awards a credible representation of innovation?

“They can be,” says Ari Turgel, Director of Industrial & Interaction Design at Whipsaw. “Once again, it depends on the award program and the level of professional insight from the judges. Top award programs with a long history and impeccable reputation will facilitate multiple judging rounds, physical product submissions, and highly attentive jurors so potential innovation can be recognized and classified according to impact and merit.”

“People’s Choice Awards” are an interesting side concept. On the one hand they serve as a fun way to applaud a designer without relying on key industry insights to classify their project as good design or innovative in its category. On the other hand, since those voting for the People’s Choice Award are both interested in design, and they are potential consumers on top … aren’t their voices worth listening to? They may readily uncover what it is that users want, appreciate and expect from the products they embrace. Good to know.

Are design awards (still) relevant?

Design award competitions were once instrumental in growing the concept, importance and philosophy behind good design. For a long time it was also the main if not sole PR resource for design firms. Not anymore, especially with social marketing tools widely available.

With so many different award programs out there, what practices would ensure the continued relevance of design awards?

The need for mainstream media coverage.

Key to the future relevance of design awards will be an increased visibility beyond the design industry and into the hands of mainstream media. Most award programs claim they bring this visibility to their winners, but the reality tells a different story. A press release and an online gallery is a fabulous start but not merely enough to cultivate a sensitivity for good design among the general public.

This cultivation beyond peer recognition is what will keep design awards relevant, and the design industry moving forward.

Compared to European audiences, there is room to grow a more profound appreciation for design in the eyes of American audiences. German-based Red Dot and iF serve as beacons of good design that users respect and refer to when considering their purchases. Can we build a similar sensitivity here?

IDEA is said to be the American Academy of Design Awards. On the heels of the IDEA announcement of this year’s top winners, Tech Insider published “The 19 best-designed products of 2016,” with selected highlights from the IDEA winner’s list. It is this type of coverage that will keep design awards relevant for all involved, including clients and end users.

Mainstream coverage of design awards will make the general public aware of the value of design innovation and help them appreciate the benefits it brings to their own life.

Clients of design firms benefit too from the public acknowledgment that their design investment was a good one. They receive additional PR and advertising for the products they sell, both inside and outside of the design industry. But most importantly the public applause for the commitment to design will motivate them to keep their own design standards high which in the end benefits consumers and designers alike.

Mainstream coverage of design awards will bring public recognition to the products our clients bring to market, boosting consumer confidence and business results on top.


Winning a design award makes us feel good yet its benefits go beyond the momentary reward for our creative skills and efforts. Unlike our European design friends, it is still only an elite American audience that uses design as a standard of living reference. Designers, design firms AND award programs have the ability to move the needle to change that. What’s stopping us to make the next IDEA award label anything less than a symbol for consumer trust, client confidence and excellent business results for all?

Summer – Fall 2016 Whipsaw award announcements

Innovation by Design – Fast Company: HUBB Lifetime Oil Filter (winner) – Google OnHub (finalist).

MDEA (Medical Design Excellence Award): Outset Medical Tablo dialysis system (Silver)

G-Mark (Good Design Japan): Google OnHub

IDEA (International Design Excellence Award): Google OnHub (Gold) – HUBB Lifetime Oil Filter (Gold). IDEA Finalists: TP-Link Wing router, Motorola Arris router concept, VersaMe Starling child’s wearable, Outset Medical Tablo dialysis system, Pacific Biosciences Sequel System, Mimosa C5i gateway-to-home

IDA (International Design Awards): Google OnHub (Gold) – HUBB Lifetime Oil Filter (Silver) – VersaMe Starling child’s wearable (Silver) – Eton FRX 4/5 emergency radios (bronze)

Spark: Leitz Icon Cartridges (10-year AllSpark Platinum) – Silk Road Medical Enroute surgical equipment (Spark!) – Google OnHub router (Gold) – VersaMe Starling child’s wearable (Bronze)

Chicago Athenaeum Good Design: VersaMe Starling child’s wearable, Google OnHub router, Silk Road Medical Enroute surgical equipment, TP-Link Wing router.