Competitive advantage

Exposure via competitions is a sure-fire way to separate yourself from the pack of hungry designers and also attract funding, says Natasha Chetiyawardana

We are very lucky to have such acknowledgement and encouragement of design in the UK. What people have (finally) started realising is that not only is what we do worthwhile, it can also be very lucrative.

When it comes to looking for funding and grants, a good place to start is the myriad design competitions found on websites such as Designboom and Core77. Some of these competitions offer not only monetary rewards, but also kudos and publicity. They are also not as complicated to enter as the funding option and provide thought-provoking briefs for those designers who prefer parameters. But, so many of these opportunities exist now, it can be a full-time job just keeping up with them.

It pays to be aware that the depth of your plans, amount of background work and lead times you need to work to will vary between organisations. The ones that offer the biggest rewards will often require more in-depth work and more detailed planning for the future. Some clients can even require you to submit five-year plans, so beware.

But, hey, if they’re going to give you £40 000, it’s understandable that these companies want you to have some idea as to what you’re going to do with such recompense.

Less obvious than the fact that you have to put time, consideration and a bit of graft into applying for funding is that you have to be able to commit whole-heartedly to your design. It is very easy to lose yourself in the mêlée of competitions and grants, but you have to bear in mind the (seemingly) obvious: you might win. This means that your idea will become an extension of yourself; it will represent you in the public domain that is the world of design. It is what you will be known for. So you really have to like it yourself. No one ever thinks that they will win. But someone has to, and, to borrow a phrase, it could be you. That’s when it matters whether you did the project specifically for the grant’s brief or whether you had a project in the archives that happened to ‘fit’ perfectly. I know it sounds obvious, but it happened to me recently (I’m not saying what exactly) when I never expected my entry to go very far.

So you could win. What happens next? You could be shunted into the limelight and suddenly Design Week will be asking you what your design philosophy is and who is your biggest inspiration. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. They don’t teach you how to deal with success at college (although they should). So be prepared to have that happen, and choose the competitions and grants that suit your line of work and philosophy.

Entering competitions and grants can be a great way of being able to do ‘your own’ design while simultaneously working at a consultancy. But another thing to bear in mind is that, more and more, you will be up against the big boys. Some of thegrants (such as Nesta) are specific about how long you have been out of college, but others are open to everyone, from Karim Rashid to in-house designers. Barber Osgerby seems to keep very good track of all the competitions, and quite deservedly, has won many. It’s really easy to sit there, green-eyed and grumbling that you never win the grants that your contemporaries do because – most of the time – you have to enter to win.

Tips for Finding Funders

• check the specific lead times, depth of entry details and project requirements for each competition or scheme, as these vary greatly

• use friends and the Web to keep track of your personal list of schemes

• make sure you do not enter on a whim – your design idea needs to be fully formed

• be prepared for the big league, you might just win.

Websites for funding and competitions

Natasha Chetiyawardana is co-founder of Seen The Light and was co-winner of the 2003 One Year On prize

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