Have you entered an awards competition lately? How'd that go? What does it mean to enter, win and lose these competitions, specifically as illustrators? How do they benefit us personally and as an industry?
Let's start by focusing on the positives. Awards competitions showcase the best work and make it accessible to everyone. They raise the bar, and stimulate the drive toward excellence. Also, importantly, it allows illustrators to receive recognition from the people who properly understand what they do: their peers and heroes. The rest of the world might appreciate illustration but not at the level we do, and not in the same way. Because our people get it, their esteem has more weight than the general public. Sorry, moms, but you'd love us even if we were terrible.
Now, naturally, competitions have winners and losers. And for the majority of us, not winning sends us to a place of doubt and even disillusionment. And let us not mince words: not winning means losing. We lose confidence. We lose joy. We lose those hefty entry fees. But doesn't this make winning all the more meaningful? When we win, we win a huge boost in confidence. We win elation. We make many returns on our investment as our work becomes enshrined in print and online annuals. We get to add the phrase "award winning" before "illustrator" on our bios. When we win, we earn a sense of accomplishment, and we gain a distinction. Distinction can only exist as an exception. Our rarity as winners increases the value of our work.
When we lose in a competition, we do not know the true nature of this loss. We do not know why we lost, how we lost, or how close we were to winning. And this is the problem with awards competitions: in not winning, we have no idea how and why we fell short.
It's easy to fall into the trap of hinging our worth on winning or losing though. Winning means that our work has been validated, but not winning does not make our work invalid. We did not succeed in pleasing a particular set of judges with a particular set of criteria and personal factors we cannot possibly be aware of. When we lose in a competition, we do not know the true nature of this loss. We do not know why we lost, how we lost, or how close we were to winning. And this is the problem with awards competitions: in not winning, we have no idea how and why we fell short. I have yet to enter an awards competition that offers any kind of feedback to its entrants. Non-winners must languish in darkness. It's like when we send a text to someone we like and have to wait forever for a response. Our assumptions run wild, and it can wreak havoc on our sense of self worth. Perhaps, for some, entering is just a shot in the dark — no biggie if they don't win. For others, the entire universe hinges on the results. And within this range, we will each experience different levels of despair and self doubt. Unfortunately, many of us forget that not a winner is does not equal not good enough.
We must remember that a competition's purpose is to elevate the craft, not to ensure personal happiness or to validate an illustrator's existence. And it is completely the entrant's risk to enter work. Like any sport or game, there is a natural selection process, where the best come out on top — over everyone else. Most of us can't be on top all the time. We must be willing to accept the feelings of loss that may come when we don't.
It's okay to feel disappointed, even to experience momentary existential despair if we don't win. But I do believe competitions could widen the benefits of entering to all participants, winners and losers both. I have no idea how entry fees work, but is it too much to expect some feedback? At the end of the day, we're all paying a lot to enter — this makes us customers. From a customer service standpoint, awards competitions are the real losers! It would be helpful, for instance, to have a list of judging criteria and how our entries measured up against it, almost like a grading sheet. Or perhaps all entrants could receive a voucher for a portfolio critique with one of the judges. Or at very least, is it too much to ask for a copy of the annual we competed for? A 10% discount?
For me, the benefits of participating in competitions, so far, has outweighed the risks of losing. While I have not won every entry, the process does make me think of my work on a different level and drives me to do better work. There may come a time, after repeated losses, that I must decide to focus my efforts and resources on other ways of being part of the illustration community. Or it may help me redefine who and what my community is. To be honest, my work has received more recognition in the design community than in that of illustration. And this is unsurprising for someone who identifies more as a commercial artist than an illustrator. It may by that I want to be in with the illustrators, but maybe they're not my people after all. Who knows?
From a personal standpoint, I strive to make work with more artistic merit — something I believe the illustration industry has a unique ability to recognize. Winning an illustration award, for me, would mean that I can make images that are original, interesting, and significant. That is not a bad thing to strive toward. But even if I never win an illustration award, I will never let that stop me from doing what I do. I can only assume that, as long as people are paying me, and as long as I feel joy in the creative process, I'm doing something right.
FOLLOW-UP ON JANUARY 8 2018
I found this amazing article about the inner workings of the Communication Arts judging process, by Ryan Anderson. This is really helpful to know for both winners and non-winners alike — it brings some much needed context to the judges' decisions.