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4 Tips for Winning a Design Competition

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Every year the attendees of CASACOR Miami - an architecture, interior and landscaping design exhibition that takes place during Art Basel at Miami’s Brickell City Centre - choose the best room of the show to be awarded. For the second year in a row, Mr. Allan Malouf's room was selected amongst many incredible projects. This time, doral stones helped by providing the Natural Stones for the two feature walls. One wall showcased the All Saints, an elegant marble, deep and luminous at the same time with a complex personality because, despite emerging from a dark background, it transmits great light and vitality. On the other wall Mr. Malouf chose the Matarazzo, a refined Dolomite that features grey hints over a white backdrop to combine a solid appearance with a minimal accent. This amazing balance was probably one of the many reasons his Family Room was chosen as the best room but if you want to increase your odds of winning a Design Competition, here are 4 tips from the NKBA panel “How to Win a Design Competition,” featured speakers Bob Borson, FAIA, associate principal for BOKA Powell and a former NKBA Insider; DJ Carey, editorial director for CT Cottages & Gardens, who has served as an NKBA competition judge;Kendall Ansel, principal for Kendall Ansell Interiors and a winner of an NKBA 2020 Design Award for Living in Place design, and Peter Salerno, CMKBD, owner and lead designer for Peter Salerno Inc., who also has served as an NKBA competition judge. They shared personal experiences as entrants and judges. Here are their key tips: 1. High-Quality Photography

Although it seems like a no-brainer, it’s one of the most important factors when submitting a competition

entry package. In order for a judge to consider someone’s work, the judge needs to see a great portfolio of images featuring the design.“If the images aren’t great, you’ve already lost the judge,” Carey said. Lighting and composition are notable in photograph selection. Everything should be appropriately lit to accentuate the space, and nothing should seem unnatural.“It’s important that it doesn’t look like a showroom photo,” Borson said. He added that it should appear how it would while enjoying morning coffee.The first photo in a series should pull all of the information together and orient the judge to the space. Any photos used for design competitions are also portfolio-building content, so paying extra for a good photographer’s service is worth the effort.“You’re going to use this image to build your portfolio,” Salerno said. “That $2,000 can help you get more than you put in, and it’s not wasted money.”

Photograph: Kris Tamburello

2. Tell a Story

The narrative piece in a submission is where the designer can explain layout choices, overarching themes and anything that’s not easily expressed in a photograph. Use writing as an opportunity to pique the judge’s interest in the space beyond visual appeal.“Please don’t use clichés,” Carey said. “Tell me about the project, tell me about the problem, tell me about the solution.”Writing processes depend on personal preferences, and some of the panelists shared their perspective. “I write the bullet points first, and then the next day I work on the ‘fluffy’ parts,” Ansell said. Floorplans are also part of the storytelling aspect beyond the written statement. These detailed documents show a designer’s skillset and ability to adhere to guidelines. “When the documentation doesn’t match the product, that’s a big red flag,” Borson said. Make sure the written portion matches what is being represented in the plans and the visuals. Judges look closely at plans to confirm that a designer is carefully considering both aesthetic and technical components in a space.“As designers, we need to be able to provide the proper floorplan and elevation,” Salerno stressed.

Photograph: Kris Tamburello

3. It’s All in the Details

What brings charm and sophistication to a design is carefully thought-out detail. From a purposeful color choice to patterned tile, choosing thoughtful and subtle elements brings a design together. Panelists mentioned elements like greenery, thoughtful ceiling choices and carefully chosen accents as factors that enhance designs.“You need something green, something that has life,” Carey said. “Otherwise, the space will feel dead.”With increasing technology in the kitchen and bath spaces, clever solutions for hiding it are appreciated. Ansell mentioned that sometimes “wall acne” accumulates from the multitude of wires, switches, ports and smart devices. Designing with this in mind helps determine functional accessories that add to the details as opposed to detracting from the aesthetics of a space. Homeowners need the devices and the ways to charge them — but they don’t need to see them.

Photograph: Kris Tamburello

4. Don’t Give Up

Receiving a letter that states, “We regret to inform you…” is disheartening. The panelists collectively agreed, however, that this is the most important piece of advice — never stop entering competitions. It takes a lot of work to construct a winning package, but a loss leaves room for growth and improvement. The best way to get better and improve the odds is to send in submissions and learn from those that were not chosen.“If you submit for a design award and don’t win,” Borson said, “keep trying.”


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