Do we need another design competition?

I read recently that another regional design award competition had been launched. It kind of passed me by to be honest. I got the email, saw the press release on a few industry websites and shrugged. It’s not like the design industry doesn’t have its fair share of competitions – in fact, I suspect we have far more than other industries.

Northern Futures (the latest addition to our growing list) aims to ‘celebrate future talent emerging from the North, seeking to identify and encourage future Westwoods, Hockneys, Boyles and Savilles…’ Well, that sounds great and I’m all for the design sector getting the profile it needs and deserves – because lets face it, it’s tough out there. I’m sure the competition is backed by people passionate about design, but I wonder where does it fit in the overall scheme of design competitions?

What else is already out there? There’s The Northern Design Competition – ‘developed to raise the profile of design talent’ – essentially for students vaguely hoping to catch the eye of an employer. It’s been around a few years and is growing slowly in popularity (it has a long way to go).

Then there’s the Northern Art Prize – ‘for contemporary visual artists’ – this is a pretty serious contemporary art prize growing in credibility year on year. In my opinion, it’s the closest thing to a ‘proper’ competition outside London.

On top of these we have a plethora of other regional design awards spanning the sector sponsored by publications such as The Drum . There’s Roses Design Awards, DADI awards, Cream Awards and even Roses Student Awards, to name just a few.

Not forgetting the highly commendable Sh! Awards organised by Northern Agency BRAHM aimed at helping students get their first foothold in the industry. And I’ve not even mentioned some of the dubious ‘international’ awards competitions that are floating around! With these, it seems all you have to do is navigate the complicated application forms to get a bronze.

So where does Northern Futures sit? I’m afraid there’s a real danger it’s just one amongst many. The truth of the matter is that in design, it’s the national competitions that hold the most kudos with agencies and clients alike.

It’s annoying, and we try to kid ourselves that when we win a few regional prizes we don’t care about London, but it’s just not true. And whilst it’s good to be recognised regionally by your peers and a decent panel of judges, it pales into insignificance next to a much prized national D&AD award or a DBA effectiveness award. And of course there’s the national industry publications such as Design Week, who all have highly sought after and  respected competitions.

I met an Northern agency owner recently who boasted that his reception desk was groaning under the weight of all of the awards they’d won in recent times. ‘It’s what we focus on’, he said. Fair play, I thought. But the problem is that I’d not heard of half of them – and the more of these competitions there are, the more they are simply devalued.

And what do clients think? I know for a fact they like the main ones where the awards dinners is at Grosvenor House or The Hyde Park Hilton. And who can blame them? They love swanky award dinners where they can measure themselves against their peers – we all do. I once attended an awards bash at The Cedar Court Hotel, just off the M606 in Bradford. I think we won best headed notepaper or most creative use of a compliments slip. That kind of thing doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Could Northern/Regional award competitions be aggregated in some way into something larger and more meaningful for the design industry? I think it’s almost a reflection of the lack of respect the creative industries gets outside of the capital – no-one is taking the sector seriously on a business level and it reinforces a completely London-centric approach to everything.

Speaking from the heart as a Northerner, I’m passionate about the people we have and I know for a fact we have the talent to hold our heads high in any competition – and come away with the silverware (and goldware). I’d like to see a regional awards competition for the creative industries that reflected our ambition, passion and scale of thinking.

London and The North are two different worlds in our world and I believe it’s absolutely right to concentrate on building creative industries that aren’t just concentrated within the M25. A serious and credible Northern Design Awards could be an central plank of an ongoing strategy to halt the drain of our best talent to London.

It’s a big ask, I know.

It requires joined up thinking across public and private sector and it won’t be easy. In the meantime, what we have is OK – the current awards landscape in the North delivers on a level that will keep moving design forward, but what we really need is audacious thinking to truly compete on a world stage.

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