Design competitions offer a lot to designers who are willing to take on the challenge. Often, the process of working on the competition is more rewarding than results, but sometimes the hardest part of the competition is just getting started…
How can we overcome that struggle and push through the beginning phases of a competition? Where do we even begin? What can we do to get started on a very open-ended competition that has seemingly infinite possibilities? These are some of the questions we have been asking lately at Designblendz.
What we have found is that, especially with open-ended competition briefs, it's easy to spend too much time talking about the possibilities. Competitions have so many possibilities by default, so while it's easy to theorize about all the different options. Unfortunately, this will also eat away at your design time. An easy way to start narrowing this down is to think about the things that you and your team have experience with. Did the competition give you a site? If not, maybe pick a local site, that way you have some of the site-research out of the way. Did the competition give you a user group? If not, try and narrow that down to a user group that makes sense for the proposal, or that you have experience working with. Answering a series of questions like this is a quick way to give yourself the necessary constraints to start designing your competition entry. Doing this exercise isn’t foolproof, but is often a good way to work through the early motions of an open-ended competition.
On the opposite end of the previous point, sometimes it's necessary to just start design something. Getting ideas down on paper and trying to formulate a concept can require some ambiguity. If the competition doesn’t hand you a lot of information, and your concept or “big idea” is fairly specific, then you don’t need a lot of information to get started. This strategy can often result in a post-rationalization process towards the end of the competition, which is okay if approached with care. This means that if you develop your concept and need to add additional layers of information to “make it real” in your presentation, you can post rationalize user groups, site locations, etc. that fit your concept. When doing this it is critical that you don’t distract from your idea though, as post rationalizing has the potential to cloud your concept. If approaching with this strategy, the best thing you can do at the beginning of the competition is attack the brief with a high quantity of work in order to figure out what is important to you/your team in the project.
Competitions rarely are ‘siteless’ as mentioned earlier. Often the hosts of the competition will provide a location, and some basic information about where the project is to be situated. A great way to get started on a competition like this is through site analysis. Diving into some research and study into the eventual location of your project can give you time to formulate ideas for the project, and gives you a wealth of knowledge that can be used in your presentation later, as well as helping provide answers to design questions later in the process that may relate to climate, culture, and specific site features.
The last strategy to get over the hurdle of starting a design competition is to do a program analysis. Similar to the previously mentioned site analysis, studying the program of your proposal is very important. This touches on pragmatic relationships of project elements, as well as experiential relationships. This provides you with a foundation to build your design from as your progress through the motions of the competition. Often looking at precedents shows up in this part of the process, which can help speed up your research and see examples of what works and doesn’t work for your program elements.