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How to design a successful awards or competition entry

7 tips on how to design entry boards, fill in forms and what kind of photography you’ll need to win

With the award season truly upon us, those of us privileged to undertake judging duties (and it really is a privilege) can expect the usual mixture of wonderful, okay and disappointing entries.

What is not often discussed is the wide variation in quality of presentations themselves, irrespective of the merits of the design. And while it is true that it is very difficult to make a poor design look truly convincing, it is even more the case that good buildings and projects can be badly let down by ill-considered texts and boards. I have lost count of the number of times that a building you know from personal experience to be high quality fails to make itself felt in judging meetings because the effort put into presentation is nothing like as sophisticated as the thinking behind the thing itself.

This can be counteracted by the experience of visiting a building, but even that will be enhanced or undermined by the approach the architect takes when showing a judging panel their work, of which more next week.

So from experience, a few things to think about as you prepare or design form-based information, photography and entry boards.

  • Basics. Read the entry criteria and requirements carefully. You can’t just leave this to a junior marketing person. Then make sure that your entry doesn’t fall at the first hurdle. Example: the British Construction Industry Awards require, among other things, information about the process of construction and how challenges were met and overcome. Sending in an architectural description alone is a waste of time and money.
  • Imagery. If photographs are required, ensure they are relevant and tell a story about the strengths of the building. Inhabited buildings always look impressive. Arty night shots may be an irritation to judges faced with hundreds of entries, unless it is an essentially night-time building (eg a theatre). A context shot never does any harm. Photography in relation to awards is about information not art. Architectural awards are not photography awards – but the photography should still be high-quality.
  • Entry board formatting. This is an under-rated area, There are some standard issues requiring thought. For example, if you are submitting two A2 boards, which is quite a common requirement, think about what will give you the best chance of making an impact: landscape side-by-side; landscape stacked; portrait side-by-side; or portrait stacked. Some building types make the choice relatively easy (eg towers), others need thinking about. Another choice is whether to run images across a break in the boards. Do it deliberately not by accident. A third is what you do if you are using two boards from, say, a four-board sequence used for other purposes. My advice: redesign if you want to be taken seriously.
  • Entry board content. Unstated but generally desirable features include a site plan, indicative or key plans, key sections, context photography or CGIs if it is a project rather than completed building, and of course the key image(s). Plus clear text and captions at a readable size.
  • Entry board design. Generally speaking, it is best to use one or two key images for dramatic effect and then other images at a contrasting smaller scale, rather than filling boards up with images of similar size. Remember that the more square your image proportions, the more boring they will be.
  • Text. It is unforgiveable to supply text, either on entry forms or on boards, that has not been spell-checked. This is particularly (but not only) applicable to student award entries. Just as important, the text needs to be comprehensible by a normal person who knows nothing about the scheme. Essential information includes location, client, size, key materials and the core reasons for the design. It is perfectly possible to convey this information concisely on boards, leaving maximum room for images. Captions are a good way of supplementing the main text with additional information.
  • Drawings. Apart from plans and sections, concept sketches and/or diagrams can be very helpful in indicating how the designer’s mind has worked in addressing the programme. It is useful evidence of architectural thought.

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