One of the six finalists in the competition to design Guggenheim Helsinki.
Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition One of the six finalists in the competition to design Guggenheim Helsinki.

Design competitions have produced iconic architecture, including the Sydney Opera House and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. And they continue to push the boundaries, with ongoing competitions to design projects such as the Guggenheim Helsinki. Not only do competitions result in great work, they can also mobilize international designers across disciplines to collaborate on innovative solutions to global issues.

But some designers argue that competitions can also exploit and undervalue the work of designers, waste unrealized concepts, and lack transparency. In the case of the Guggenheim Helsinki competition, jury members received a whopping 1,715 submissions. Now whittled down to six shortlisted proposals, the remaining teams have spent months developing their designs. Teams not chosen will each receive €55,000 (about $59,757), but the ideas they've spent time and money developing will be discarded when the jury selects one final winner.

A survey about design competitions released by the Van Alen Institute and Architectural Record on April 22 offers insight on the state of design competitions. The results are being shared at the Design Competition Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, held yesterday and today, where architects, designers, non-profit organization leaders, government officials, and community members will discuss case studies of competitions and their impact on design, planning, and the built environment.

Here are some highlights from the survey, which drew responses from more than 1,400 designers in 65 nations worldwide.

  • Designers enter competitions primarily to work more creatively than they would be able to in daily practice, and to explore new concepts, collaborations, and skill sets outside of typical constraints.
  • Survey participants indicated that the top three reasons for entering competitions are: the opportunity to experiment (57.0%), an interesting issue (54.9%), and an opportunity to gain publicity (39.0%).
  • Respondents specified that the main drawbacks to participating in competitions are: a lack of compensation for the time and resources spent (78.6%), low probability of winning (29.4%), and no or low chance of implementation (28.6%). A majority (67%) of survey participants responded that competitions have not led directly to commissions or paid work.
  • Participants said that the top three things that would make competitions more appealing are: more compensation for work produced and time committed (64.2%), more feedback for all proposals (47.6%), and greater exposure for all concepts (46.8%).
  • Among students participants, 65 percent said it would make entering competitions more appealing and 19 percent responded they are interested in collaborating with people outside of the design fields, whereas just 9 percent of the firm leaders said the same.

The survey is one in a series of three documents Van Alen is releasing about the future of design competitions. In response to the survey findings, Van Alen also unveiled its 10 propositions for making competitions more effective, inclusive, and rewarding for all participants. Suggestions include: a new tracking system that records the total hours designers commit to a particular competition in an effort to better communicate the value of design; a push for cultural institutions to use competitions to address critical social challenges, instead of new museums or performance centers: and a call for organizers to offer participants more visibility and learning opportunities for entering competitions if their proposals aren't selected. The third document is Van Alen's key findings, which highlights data from the survey and additional analysis produced by Health x Design.

Note: An original publication of this article incorrectly indicated that One World Trade Center was produced from a design competition. While architect Daniel Libeskind, AIA, won a competition to design the tower, SOM ultimately won the contract, despite having withdrawn its entry in the competition. The original publication also stated that the design of the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum is an ongoing design competition. This statement is misleading, because an architectural competition has not yet officially been announced. We regret the errors.