David Van Der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute.

Competitions, as television programming has shown us, usually extract reliable entertainment from participants in return for the mere promise of exposure. Whether they offer high quality, however, is a different matter entirely. Architectural design competitions, to the great credit of the entrants they attract, often produce excellent results with a similar formula—but imagine what they might yield if they paid more attention to just what participants might want out of the experience.

The Architectural Record/Van Alen Institute Competition Survey recently explored this question, advancing beyond the typical dynamic of design competitions—offering a single question about a built or designed solution and waiting for answers—in a survey asking many questions about the nature of design competitions in general.

In an interview, David Van Der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, said that in 20 years of running design competitions, the institute has seen many advances in their form. “The unapologetic way of putting this is they were a way to show off your drafting skills in the old days,” Van Der Leer said. And yet, even with improvements in their arrangement and consequence, the institute, as Van Der Leer said, felt the need to be “critical about our own practice.”

The survey, which drew 1,414 replies from 65 countries, collected answers to a wide range of questions about what lured entrants to particular competitions, what they found gratifying, what they found lacking, and what they felt would improve design competitions in the future. The survey looked primarily at competitions entered by professional firms, not student design competitions such as ULI’s Hines Student Competition.

When it came to missing elements, one prominent answer, unsurprisingly,  was money. The typical design competition solicits a considerable amount of work from participants for very little or even no gain. Finances came first in a listing of the top three limitations to entering competitions: “1) lack of compensation for time/resources spent (78.6 percent); 2) low probability of winning (29.4 percent); and 3) no or low chance of implementation (28.6 percent).” Topping, alternately, the list of things that would make entering competitions more appealing was “more compensation for work produced and time committed.”

Firms clearly do enter many design competitions without any hope of much or any financial reward. More than 10 percent of respondents had spent over $100,000 on a competition; 59 percent of respondents had entered competitions with rewards of less than $20,000. Even if financial rewards or compensation may not always be viable, some acknowledgment of the effort and time involved seems desired.

Imagine a design firm that routinely spends millions of dollars generating hundreds of proposals for a given competition. Ridiculous? Well, that is the collective effort that designers put into competitions. The parties holding the competitions need to recognize all this labor by designers and put a dollar amount on it. Competition organizers should require designers to track the hours they spend on a proposal and the value of those hours, and include that as part of their entries.

Another thing that clearly interested participants was feedback. Competitions that award financial prizes to one or no entrants may be offering little incentive, but clearly many still respond to the challenge; a very real additional encouragement would simply be the certain expectation of jury feedback. Responses indicated a strong interest in “more feedback for all proposals, not just the winners” and “greater exposure for proposals, even if they are not selected.” Commentary from an expert jury should not be a prize reserved only for a winner, but could be a valuable resource and attraction for all entrants.

The very theoretical nature of many competitions was not much of an issue for participants, with 67 percent of respondents indicating that competitions have not led directly to commissions or paid work and yet, of three possible reasons for not entering competitions, only 28.6 percent of respondents cited “no or low chance of implementation” as a disincentive to participation. The creative possibilities of competitions, often untethered from practical realities, seemed an active encouragement: 57 percent of respondents indicated that one of the top three reasons for entering competitions was “the opportunity to experiment.”

One result that Van Der Leer indicated was the extent to which respondents valued the opportunity for interactivity in competitions. He noted that competitions often have an unfortunately cloistered aspect, that there is “often very little interaction with the other participants and the public.” This is not isolated in its consequences, leading to the conclusion that “many clients believe that’s how you want to work with a designer and of course it’s the very opposite of how you want to work with a designer.”

Respondents expressed a strong interest in interactivity and collaboration. Nearly a fifth indicated that they never work with other design professionals. Designers are interested in working with artists; artists reciprocate that desire. “Participants indicated that the top three professions they would like to work with are 1) art (47.3 percent), 2) engineering and infrastructure (33.6 percent), 3) environmental sciences (30.7 percent).”

The chance to shape the topics of competitions did exert a clear attraction, however. The survey revealed some design competition favorites: the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial competition, the Guggenheim Helsinki, and the High Line topped the list. Respondents are also interested in less explored topics: racial segregation in cities, the federal highway system, newer models for suburban growth, cooperative models for land use and production, and more. It is hardly a surprise that designers would be more interested in devising solutions that interested them before a call for entries. The report suggests the following: “To encourage designers to explore these kinds of opportunities, let’s make competitions that ask designers to define their own brief, and identify an issue or frame a problem that they’d like to work on.”

The institute intends to build upon its findings with an additional survey next year focusing on “city officials, developers, nonprofits, and other competition ‘clients’ and organizers.” In the interim, it has provided a glimpse into the minds of the unsung design professionals who make these many flights of imagination possible, and a blueprint to ensure that they continue to provide reliable inspiration for the participants and everyone else.