Thursday, August 14, 2008

Architectural Design Awards Submittals - Best Practices

Architectural Design Awards Submittals –AIA Kansas City Lunch and Learn Lecture

This lecture was written for a "Lunch and Learn" presentation to the Kansas City chapter of the AIA and was presented to a full house on the 14th August 2008. The lecture was presented by Zack Shubkagel of Willoughby Design, Sean Slattery of El Dorado Architects and myself.

The purposes of today’s lecture are:

  1. Identify the key phases of selecting work for and preparing entries for architectural award submittal.
  2. Identifying the subtle and not so subtle decisions that can vastly improve your experience of entering an architectural awards competition.
  3. What you can accomplish by participating and succeeding in these competitions.
  4. What the parallels can be from the hard work of preparing the award submittals to your marketing and PR materials.

Why Should I Enter an Award Competition?
This is a key question, not only for those considering entering their first competition but also for those considering changing their existing awards program. There are a number of great reasons to consider entering these competitions including, but not limited to these answers below:
  1. Prestige – there’s no mistaking the fact that by entering and winning competitions your prestige in the local, regional and national market will increase by steadily and consistently entering the same competitions and winning.
  2. Staff Relations – it’s a great way to improve morale, focus on design and attract new hires from in and out of town.
  3. Marketing and Publicity – it’s an incredibly effective and cheap form of marketing;
    1. By entering a magazine’s competition you can get a front cover, inside contents page and a couple of spreads (been there, done that and it cost $65 to send the entry in). This is coverage that paid marketing could never replicate while the credibility of winning in front of your client’s and peers
    2. Winning a prestigious organization’s competition can result in all kinds of additional press coverage where magazines and newspapers show the results and projects in press and online (such as the KC Star and AIA’s competition last year).
    3. In addition to the immediate publicity your firm will be able to leverage the relationships you build with editors and writers at magazines to publicize future work outside of competition entries.
  4. Client Relations – it’s a very nice relationship booster to be able to show your client’s that your designs win awards; some great ways to leverage that are:
    1. They will receive the same publicity boost you receive.
    2. They will have enhanced confidence in the effectiveness of your work.
    3. You can give them a copy or the original of the award so that they can bask in the glory.
  5. Practice – simply put if you don’t start entering competitions you won’t win. It’s not worth waiting for that incredible project that you think can beat all others, it’s much better to enter the work that you are doing and learn the best ways to put an award submittal together and see what works and doesn’t so that the incredible project has the best chance of winning.

When the project is in the design phase
There are a variety of decisions that you can make in the design phase that can make an impact in your potential for winning an architectural design competition:
  1. Examine not only the genre’s that you have strength in but also the genre’s that you wish to expand in to and take risks on new clients and projects to create competition winners that broaden the firms base.
  2. Determine early on opportunities within the budget, the client, and the program brief that will allow you to make projects that have an award winning potential; the bottom line is differentiation however that is achieved.
  3. Document EVERYTHING and retain those documents. You may well find yourself recreating that killer sketch later on but it is well worth having the original to work from to create unique documentation to really narrate the project.
  4. The sub-contractors that might be involved in key design decisions (lighting and signage for example) should be notified that you’re aiming for a particular project to garner awards so they can participate at the most integrated level; on the flip side your sub-contractors may well actively enter your work in their industries competitions – make sure you share in the credits and document the victories in your marketing and PR efforts.
  5. Involve those sub-contractors that you want to document the final result. This will help in a variety of ways:
    1. They will fully understand the design challenges and be better able to document them.
    2. You will find the best sub-contractors to document the particular style and scale of project you want to enter; different writers, designers and photographers can be better at different projects – we all have specialties.
    3. You can estimate costs and timelines that will occur outside the design and construction phases that affect the marketing and PR efforts to fully promote your designs.
  6. Don’t be afraid to publicize your project at this early stage of work; if it is unique enough those magazine editors can start planning how to cover it and the word can get to the jurors that will judge your design.

When the construction begins
There are a number of steps you can take during the construction phases of the project to better prepare a competition entry:
  1. Document EVERYTHING and retain those documents. You may well find yourself recreating that killer sketch later on but it is well worth having the original to work from to create unique documentation to really narrate the project.
  2. Consider photographing in-progress images in-house or professionally to document the challenges you faced and the solutions to them in progress. A huge part of architectural design is problem solving and that requires careful and considered documentation; both visual and graphical. The consideration for using a professional at this stage is to compete with those other firms in producing the best documentation possible.
  3. Again, work to get the word out about your design work and see if you can generate a buzz that could help your case with the jurors.

As you approach completion of the project
Immediately after you finish the project, and preferably a few weeks prior to completion plan on how to document the project:
  1. Contact the vendors you’ll be using to ensure their availability and scout the location to learn how best to narrate the design vision.
    1. Design Vision
    2. Photos of People / Use
    3. Photos of Details / Icons
    4. Photos of Different Lighting Conditions
  2. Gather all the final materials and comprehensively catalog them; copy and scan all originals and begin the documentation process.

Competition Phase
So you’re getting towards the start of the competition season, typically the fall and the holiday season, what’s the best way to prepare? There are a number of things you can do to make this process a LOT easier:
  1. Individual entry preparation revolves around the following key issues:
    1. Concise narratives – tell the story quickly and make it simple to understand; the rule is 20 seconds we’ll explain why later.
    2. Interwoven documentation – the words, the images and the diagrams must all support each other and be consistent; less can be more if an image or diagram is redundant.
    3. Accuracy – double-check EVERYTHING; your sub-contractors names should be spelt correctly, you shouldn’t have typos and don’t try and slide something by them. The jurors know the process, the materials and may even know of the project.
    4. Research the jury – try and take twenty minutes at least to acquaint yourself with the jury; the purpose of this isn’t necessarily to pick things they like as much as avoid things they detest. If they hate cats, don’t show cats (this is a metaphor…maybe…as long as you don’t hate metaphor).
    5. Critique your submission – don’t just test the files to see if they work; try and set up a mini-jury of your own to review your narrative and see if it works. BE completely honest.
    6. Be careful - read every set of competition entry guidelines very carefully, a month in advance, so you can ensure you don’t end up having to pull all-nighters right before the deadline and compromise the quality of your submittal to simply deliver the entry. This way all those hard-worked materials actually meet the requirements, trust us, everyone mucks this up a couple of times and don’t let stupid be the tiebreaker.
  2. Preparation of awards submittals should be an ongoing process where there is a staff member assigned responsibility for gathering dates and requirements for potential competitions. It’s a great idea to keep a spread sheet with the deadlines and key deliverables.
  3. As you come towards competition season scan all the potential competitions and double-check your thinking to see if you’re fully exploiting each competition in every genre.
  4. Check that the materials you have been preparing throughout the year are fulfilling the best narrative for the project you are submitting and capture any additional materials to support your case.
  5. Prepare your entry early and deliver it on-time; it’s a great feeling when you know it’s all done and you’re not relying on same-day air freight and a wing and a prayer to get there on time.
  6. After you enter a competition scan and retain EVERYTHING; once you gathered the artwork, photography, diagrams and copy to enter one successful entry it sure is nice to quickly draw from those materials and immediately prepare a new entry without restarting the organizational process.

Jury Phase
Now for the magical, mystery tour; what happens behind the curtain, etc… It’s not as mysterious and magical as you think and it is a lot of common sense where good designs can fail to yield the results the deserve through poorly prepared materials:
  1. The 20 second rule we referred to earlier is the amount of time (on the outside) that a jury is going to review your ENTIRE submittal; they have a huge number of entries to review and their first consideration is to weed out the also ran’s and focus on the potential winners for placing.
    1. This concept is fundamental to realizing your award submittal ambitions. The visual portion of your narrative has to be powerful and immediately understandable; you can have complex subtleties but you must get the basics over to that jury in an unbelievably short time frame.
    2. Focus on the photography and the diagrams that can get you to see the initial results in your awards submittals.
  2. This may lead to a halving or an even greater cull of the entries and the next step, which can be on a different day, is to sift those maybes out and now they’ll start discussing the work between each other.
    1. This is where the design will really take hold as they have an opportunity to truly review it.
  3. The jury will now begin picking and placing winners;
    1. Now may be the only time they read the written narrative and this may well be the tie-breaker and this will be where your copy writer earns their fee.
    2. Also, this is where stupid can ruin your entry; check for those typos, those inconsistencies and poor grammar and arguments.

Reviewing the performance of competition, marketing and PR materials

Creating design competition entries is only part of an overall marketing effort and it is definitely worth putting the whole process we discussed today as part of your marketing effort and a means to an ends not the end itself. Here are some steps to make that work:
  1. When your competition entry fails think about how you can alter the narrative to make it better in the next competition.
    1. The best way to do this is to ask the competition organizers for jury feedback and/or placement; many competitions will supply this and if they don’t then it didn’t hurt to ask.
    2. Volunteer someone from your organization to be intimately involved in the process; this is the only way to really get on the inside of what happened to whom and why (plus you can also find that missing entry when it slides behind the couch).
  2. When you win (hopefully more often after today) really study the entry and think about what you may have done differently to succeed this time and how to improve the number or placement of your results.
  3. In any competition you can see the results and study the winners, and if possible, the losers. Clear trends will emerge from the quality of the photography, clarity of diagrams, concise nature of supporting copy, overall quality of the presentation, as well as style of project and design. It’s normally obvious why things win if you can look at the winners and losers.
  4. Know that how you create that competition entry (the text, diagrams and photographs) may well NOT be the way you want to represent it in your marketing materials and PR entries.
    1. Examples may be more use of people in your photography for editorial submittals, enhancing the write-up of the project to make it easier on a magazine editor, focus on the sexier images for your marketing efforts and using a standardized template for formatting those elements when a competition entry may require a custom look and feel.
  5. Implement a strategy that all significant projects will be documented; this may be a tiered system depending on how important a project is for your long term marketing and PR. Once you know how you will narrate projects, visually, diagrammatically and in text, you can dramatically foreshorten the time you take to fully utilize your design talents.

So here are those fundamental steps once again:
  1. Document EVERYTHING; and bring that documentation to bear in creating a true narrative design entry.
  2. Every element of your design and award submittal should differentiate you from your competition.
  3. The best design competition entry will narrate the design; the solution, the success, the failure and the final creative result. Focus on that narrative and make it concise; think of the 20 second rule.
  4. Approach the entire design and construction and completion phase with a goal of creating a competition entry.
  5. When you enter the competition phase improve your odds and enter several pieces; it’s a little like a lottery in that more tickets can yield more prizes (although it helps if you know the winning numbers before hand).
  6. Learn when you succeed and learn when you fail and make an even better entry for the next go around.
  7. Go back to your office right now and build that system where your work is reverentially documented and the efforts and toil will be harnessed to bring rewards, work and prestige flowing in.
  8. Above all the process is a competition; great designs can fail to win awards through sloppy award presentation materials. Utilize professionals when you can and really concentrate on a comprehensive but targeted submittal.
  9. Enter the Central States Awards using this advice and be shocked, yes SHOCKED, at your success.
Potential Architectural Design Competitions:
AIA Central States
AIA Kansas Excellence in Architecture
Kansas City Business Journal Capstone Awards
International Interior Design Awards (IIDA MADA) Mid America Chapter
Commercial Journal/KC Magazine Design Excellence
Kansas City's ULI Excellence in Development
MidAmerica Design/Build Awards
FIRE CHIEF's 2008 Station Style Awards – Fire Station Design
A.R.E. Design Awards – Retail Design

ASMP Working With An Architectural Photographer
Architectural Design Awards Submittals - Best Practices Word Document
Architectural Design Awards Submittals - Best Practices Presentation PDF Slideshow

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