The history of design contests
While we thought we were pretty clever when we came up with 99designs, we were far from the first to dream up a creative contest. Contests like ours have been around for centuries – we’re just the latest to take up the torch.
Contests throughout history
Whether the competition spans the globe or is limited to resident locals, the contest has been a time-honored tradition that’s proven itself again and again for centuries. By studying the history of design contests, we can steep ourselves in the traditions of the past to inform our practices for the present and future.
Phyllis Buchanan | Flickr
One of the first known design contests was for the Duomo of the Florence Cathedral in 1418. After a difficult centuries-long process, the decision for the massive structure’s final design was left to a contest.
Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were eventually declared the finalists. With the support of famed Florentian arts and culture patrons. the deMedici family, Brunelleschi won the contest and solidified his name in the history books.
Spanish Steps – Rome
In 1717 a contest was held to determine who would design the stairway to the Trinitá dei Monte church from the Piazza di Spagna, a steep 135 steps below. This architectural feat was, for a long time, the widest staircase in Europe.
Much like current contests, the design was based on a brief. Drafted by Pope Gregory XIII in the 1580s, the brief challenged designers to come up with an idea strong enough for the space while maintaining the principles of centuries-old plans.
Europeans sure do love contests! In one recent example, the EU offered up €6,000 for the best design of new organic label requirement to be put on all pre-packaged organic products. The contest was an open contest to all European art and design students.
After nearly 3,500 submissions, screenings by top industry professionals, and an online vote, German student Dusan Milenkovic came out victorious. Milenkovic not only received the cash prize, but also the ubiquitous sight of his work across the European Union.
The benefits of contests
Throughout history, design contests have proven mutually beneficial for both the designer and the contest holder. If they weren’t, this time-honored practice wouldn’t have persisted for hundreds of years.
But what are some of the key benefits? Let’s break it down:
- Students become more prepared to actually participate in the field of their study. Students are able to apply the theories and practices they have learned to real world projects.
- The industry receives their design and encourage the growth of future artists and designers in their community as contests foster a desire for designers to be more prepared for such real-world work.
- The authority of the client is strengthened, as the power moves from the designer or design team as decision-makers, back to the client who has the final word on the project.
- The project moves back to what is important: the designs. Instead of choosing between designers who will then make choices for you, the importance returns to the actual work that is being produced rather than an expected blind trust in who is producing it.
Famous contest winners
While most contests feature cash prizes, recognition is always an added incentive. Some of the past years’ most famous designers have risen to the top of their field due to a high-profile contest win.
Tokyo’s “master of illusions” is globally known for his deceptive graphic and sculptural designs. But before his name became synonymous with visual puns, he won the International Post Biennale at Warsaw in 1972. From there he went on to win even more contests including the Moscow and Helsinki International Poster Bienalles.
He is now a part of the Art Director’s Hall of Fame in New York City, a guest professor at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, and has had his work featured in multiple Museums of Modern Art as a thought leader in the designing community.
At the turn of the century, design competitions were common for Berlin businesses as the advertising industry started rising in importance. Among them was the Priester Match contest, where the winner was offered what would today be roughly $50.
Lucien Bernhard wowed one of the panel’s most prestigious judges, Ernst Growald, with his design’s unconventional nature. He went on to win the contest, the prize money and the support of the panel. Bernhard went on to influence graphic design and Germany’s distinct style throughout the course of his illustrious career.
Current headlining contests
With so much history, the momentum behind design contests hasn’t slowed yet! Here’s a few contests that are happening around the world today.
Kieler Woche Poster Competition
For the past 60 years, the German sailing regatta competition Kieler Woche has held an annual design competition. The brief remains virtually unchanged and showcases how European design traditions have changed over the course of the years.
This year’s selection for the design is featured above. What do you think this says about today’s style?
Chicago – City of Lights
In an attempt to re-create the vision of this American midwestern city at night, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched an international design competition for design concept proposals. Take a look at a rendering of current potentials and possibilities. Paris, look out, there is another City of Lights on the way!
You didn’t think we’d forget about ourselves, did you?! Employing today’s worldwide online marketplace, 99designs is (what we believe to be) the pinnacle of modern day design competitions.
It is a place where promising designers can hone their skills for real-world challenges. Clients can easily steer the direction of the work being produced. You might consider 99designs an open competition: open to anyone with a computer! Now that’s an open contest.