Results of the Architectural Record/Van Alen Institute Design Competition Survey are in.

The Van Alen Institute proposes 10 reforms to the way design competitions are run. For all 10 proposals, click on slide show.

Architects starting their practices often see open design competitions as a stepping-stone to the next stage of their careers. A mechanism for advancement particularly abroad, this method of selection is less customary in the United States, owing to a variety of factors. Regardless of country, however, aspects of competitions can leave architects either frustrated or energized—or both.

As an organizer of competitions dedicated to improving the public realm, New York’s Van Alen Institute (VAI) has collected many anecdotes about the opportunities and abuses of this process. David van der Leer, executive director of VAI, says, “We hear from designers all the time that open competitions spread the perception that they will work for free.”

While that feedback has helped VAI with its own competitions, the nonprofit decided it could affect the marketplace of competitions by documenting opinions about advantages and pitfalls systematically. With RECORD as media sponsor and with support from the Graham Foundation, VAI recently created and administered a survey on the subject that elicited 1,414 responses internationally—approximately 79 percent from architects. It published the results of the architectural record/Van Alen Institute Design Competition Survey in mid-April and will present them as part of a Design Competition Conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on April 23 and 24.

Responses to VAI’s survey—a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended questions— indicated mixed feelings. Two of the most popular reasons for entering competitions were the opportunity for design experimentation (57 percent) and a particular interest in the competition subject (55 percent). Publicity garnered as a winner or runner-up was the third reason cited, by 39 percent of those surveyed. VAI competitions director Jerome Chou says the findings indicating widespread appreciation for competition-related research and creativity were unexpected. “It was also surprising that so many designers said they want to collaborate with artists [47 percent],” he says, “perhaps a reflection of how designers see themselves.”

Nevertheless, the survey corroborates a common complaint that competitions provide insufficient compensation (79 percent of respondents). Also, 67 percent of respondents said that competitions do not directly yield new business. More than half noted that they draw no income as a result of competitions.

Whether survey participants view design competitions as a necessary evil or a welcome platform for artistic expression, they did have clear suggestions for improving the process.Providing adequate compensation is at the top of their list. Yet almost half also rallied behind measures that cannot be directly measured in dollars, such as receiving more feedback from jurors on both winning and losing proposals. Respondents championed greater exposure for their efforts as well, highlighting the value of competitions in drawing attention to their talents.

In a similar vein, survey takers reported that they rarely work with colleagues or non–design professionals, or with public stakeholders, on competition submissions. VAI is trying to rectify this absence of collaboration in its own competitions and is testing interdisciplinary involvement. It is also hoping to figure out ways to get the public more involved in the submission process too.

Inspired by the survey analysis, VAI also has incorporated public engagement, disclosure of jury comments, and exposure for all competition entries in a document that itemizes 10 reforms for all design competitions (see ). It has produced this list alongside the survey results.

Besides presenting at the Harvard conference and applying such propositions to its own competition processes, VAI will share the survey results and lobby for reforms in the design world, says van der Leer. “It’s not as if we’re calling for impossible changes,” he concludes. “Organizers, clients, and designers can and should act on our propositions.”

For full results of the survey, go to: https://vanalen.org/projects/architectural-record-van-alen-institute-competition-survey/

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