How to Create a Winning Design Award Submission

By Michelle Fanzo, AIA Pittsburgh Executive Director Posted on June 22, 2022

Having observed a variety of design awards juries in my time as Executive Director, I see common suggestions, best practices, and shortcomings about submissions each year. Following is a tips list for anyone preparing a design award submission.

Another great resource is this one-hour webinar about how to craft a winning submission. It offers three different perspectives with me as a jury observer, Mike Gwin, AIA, as a frequent awards jury chair, and Ed Massery, as an award winning local photographer. Check it out.

Common shortcomings:

Unclear narrative: You are ultimately telling a story about your project: which needs a beginning, middle and end.  What changed? What did you achieve? Use data where possible.  Consider using some of the Framework for Design Excellence elements as an outline for your submission.

Unclear project scope: Renovations / adaptive reuse – include before photos, or some other way of clearly designating what the firm did versus what was already there. I have seen jurors confused about what the project was – so they do not consider it for an award. They don’t know what you know. Assume nothing.

Lack of context for work done: Include constraints and challenges; special needs or requests from client; site issues.

Info overload: Keep narrative short. The jury might be looking at 100 projects in one day on the first pass. They will not have time to read more than a page of text when making the first cut list. Use bold subheads and captions to make points. Use bullets in text. Make text large enough to read on a screen. Where possible, use an image or diagrams instead of text. Jury members will read more of your submission if it gets past the first cut, so make that your first goal.

Incomplete submission: Read submission requirements! Do not have your firm’s name or principals in the photos. This is grounds for disqualification.

Rushed submission: Start earlier than you think you need to. We get submissions each year that look hurried and / or are missing required pieces.


Tips / Best practices

Think like a juror, not like a submitter. Juries start with a ‘first pass’ on all projects – meaning they review all submissions in a few hours. They do not have time to dig deep, so make a project’s strong points immediately recognizable. Juror will peel back the layers of your project as your submission advances through the process.

There is no substitute for good design. Pick your best projects that also fit the awards category. Highlight what makes your project stand out among others.

Tell a clear, compelling story. Start strong and end strong. Bring the project full-circle and celebrate its success at achieving its purpose. If it is a renovation, be clear about what parts of the project were renovated.

Write less, diagram more. Good quality, well-done visuals are almost always more desirable than text. Dense text on a slide often goes unread. When you need to use text, be brief, clear, and use large type and a simple typeface.

Less is more. Beware of including too many things. Your submission is only as good as its weakest part. During the editing process consider what your weakest elements are and remove them. When you think it is done, edit it down one more time.

Devote sufficient time. Leave time not just for layout and writing, but for the submission to sit so that it can be edited and reviewed with a fresh eye.

Use at least one third-party reviewer. A trusted critic with no personal attachment to the project will help to determine what is missing from the story and what might be extraneous.

Pay attention to the awards criteria. Demonstrate what about your submission is unique and creative within the given criteria. Make sure you submit all elements required for a complete submission.

Engage members of the project design team as a resource. Team members should, where possible, be involved in preparing the awards submission. They are most familiar with the challenges and purpose behind project and can help communicate these best.

Provide high-quality photography and/ or imagery. Do not cut corners here. Humans (including jurors) are sight-dominant, with as much as 85% of our total sensory perception coming from visual input. If you have limited resources, you can still capture effective images. Camera quality is important, but even more key is finding a colleague, friend or photo student who knows how to get the best out of the camera you have.

Get your work out there. AIA local, state and national are great awards programs, but there are many others as well. Look for additional opportunities. Successful awards submissions from AIA Pittsburgh members give attention to our region and help all in our AEC community.

If you don’t succeed the first time, resubmit! This offers you an opportunity to pause and go through your submission again (using this list). Many projects that took the time to revisit and edit their submissions received awards after resubmitting.

Share the credit: Include your whole team.

Framework for Design Excellence: Consider using some / all of the Framework for Design Excellence elements as an outline for your submission.


Good luck!







Comment Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *