Educator Case Study: Conestoga students learn reflective practices through Contest Entries assignment

Case Study by John Baljkas Affiliate RGD and Molly Hill RGD, Conestoga College, Department of Graphic Design, Advanced Diploma Program

Image: Project submitted by Kristyna Gottvald


Students enrolled in a Professional Practices course at Conestoga College’s Advanced Diploma in Graphic Design must research, review and refine projects, write rationales and prepare documentation (mock-ups, photography and/or other digital assets) for various competitions, contests and award entries and showcases. This assignment typically starts in the third week of classes and ends with a final review in week 13 or 14 during the Winter term (January to April).


Design competitions are controversial in the industry for many reasons. Contests that award a final design without considering process represent a lack of appreciation for the problem-solving leading up to the end product, that undervalues the elements of design thinking and strategy that are integral to producing a successful result. Also, many design contests represent a pat-on-the-back for pretty designs rather than an appreciation for the process.


The issue of spec work also surfaces when contests request the submission of original designs completed without any guarantee of compensation.


Professional Practices classes in second and third year introduce students to the concept of design competitions and the RGD Handbook is used as a text to provide an overview of the issues listed above and what constitutes an ethical vs. unethical contest. 


In this project, Conestoga's faculty group identifies ethical design competitions that take into consideration the entire process as a way of encouraging students to reflect on contemporary design practices, review and improve presentation techniques and think critically about the success of their designs by writing rationales in relation to a body of portfolio work produced over several terms. It is also a great way for students to showcase the work they have created and receive recognition for their hard work over the duration of the program. All final entries are vetted by faculty to ensure that the contests are ethical and that they meet the requirements of this particular project.



This assignment has been given to third-year students in the program since 2010, and second-year students are also encouraged to enter contests and/or design showcase opportunities. The project is worth 10% of students' final grades, and students must enter two contests to complete the assignment. They must research the awards and competitions, identify new professional practices, reflect on their portfolio of work and select their best projects for entry. Students are encouraged to seek out contests that appeal to their passions, including Canadian and international competitions. 



The tools needed for the completion of this assignment vary depending on the requirements of the competition a student chooses to enter. Typically, students will use online resources and periodicals/magazines to research different contests, competitions and award showcases.


Depending on the category of the project to be entered, specific tools may include the Adobe CC, traditional illustration tools and photography and studio equipment and/or 3D rendering software for packaging models.


Students are encouraged to speak with industry professionals for portfolio and project reviews to gather additional feedback on their work when selecting which projects to use in their contest entries. Outside portfolio reviewers provide students with insight into how successfully their designs have been executed and can provide tips to help students improve their presentation skills (both in terms of soft skills and documentation of projects). By encouraging students to seek outside feedback it also ensures that the program does not become myopic in its design approach and teaching.


Students are asked to identify two contests and prepare reports on entries for each. The reports must include the following:

  • Student's name
  • Name of the contest
  • Entry date
  • Contest fee
  • Any other documentation required (typically a rationale)
  • Thumbnails of the proposed entry

The assignment is evaluated on two criteria:

  1. How well the student has met the requirements of the report (that is, providing all of the entry information for both contests)
  2. Whether the student has selected the most appropriate example of his or her work for the specified contest

For third-year students, projects are selected from their final portfolios for entry in a variety of contests. As well, selected second-year students enter projects based on final reviews and faculty input. The projects and portfolios are developed and refined over several semesters and includes input from faculty, peers, the PAC (Program Advisory Committee) at portfolio reviews, and work placement employers. While portfolios are created individually, decision-making is not done in isolation, as students are encouraged to discuss and debate the appropriateness of different projects for different competitions with peers and faculty. The goal is to determine the best examples of strong portfolio work and establish its relevance for specific contest requirements. Students may also have portfolio critiques with other reviewers including guest speakers and reviews at RGD events (such as Creative Directions) to assist in determining areas for improvement in their projects.


Assignment Sheet:




Overall, the assignment is successful in several key respects. First, it helps students recognize their strongest portfolio work, and provides an opportunity to seek guidance and improve projects throughout the term. It also helps students understand the essential components of contemporary design projects and see how their work relates to the work of other students and professional designers. 


Since 2010, students have received over 50 awards and acknowledgements for various competitions including: Applied ArtsAdvertising & Design Club of Canada (ADCC)Design Exchange’s Connect: Enabling ChangePackaging Association of Canada (PAC) Sustainability CompetitionRGD Student Awards (Regional and Category); and RGD So(cial) Good Design Awards. This industry acknowledgement can be attributed to the skills gained through the program, and also provides exposure for the students. Applicants to the program have also commented on seeing Conestoga students being recognized in awards, as a mark of quality and value of the program for future applicants. 


Assignments are updated and refined each year and faculty will often adjust evaluation criteria to best match the learning outcomes for the program, course and project as the industry evolves. In this case, the assignment changes depending on what award competitions are running during the term. In the future we may look into providing a list of specific contests and provide students with the opportunity to add others (with faculty approval). 


Student Feedback

"The contest entry assignment not only motivates you to produce design work throughout the year at a competitive level, but it also opens your eyes to the design community and the rewarding nature of the industry. This assignment pushed my design to new heights knowing that it would be reviewed by panels of industry professionals, and also made me realize how many opportunities there are to showcase your designs to professionals. Win, lose, or draw, it is all about moving the industry forward and getting your name out there." Zak Hannah Student RGD, Conestoga Graphic Design Diploma Graduate 2015 (now a designer at Quarry)


"Design awards have been an interesting facet of my professional education at Conestoga College. There is a great deal of ambiguity when submitting your projects for judgement at the end of the line, but it doesn't differ much from that of a client presentation. You do your best, seek to solve the problem, make the solution both functional and beautiful and in the process hope to learn something. The biggest learning curve is maximizing the potential of your resources. Professors, peers and especially those who might not be educated in design. It's only through understanding the problem from different perspectives that you can create a sensible solution. A sensible solution wins awards." Matt Piotrowski, Conestoga Graphic Design Diploma Graduate 2015 (now a designer at Cineplex).

"As a student, entering awards shows and competitions helped me gain confidence in talking about my work and presenting it to others. It also made me aware of the work that was out there and what other designers were doing. Later, going to the awards ceremonies and exhibits encouraged me to meet other designers and build a network. I have met a lot of talented people from the industry, I have received part-time, contract and full-time jobs and I was asked to be a mentor and a conference speaker. Most importantly, it has helped me grow as an individual, as a person and as a designer." Antonia V. Goga Prov RGD, Conestoga Graphic Design Diploma Graduate 2013 (now Art Director & Designer, Overdrive Design Limited).


Educator Takeaways

  1. Promote students’ passions. We encourage students to find contests that speak to their interests, often in the areas outside of ‘traditional’ design such as illustration and/or photography. Students often pursue passion projects in these areas and enjoy the opportunity to explore topics that are of interest to them. Often, these passion projects make the strongest work, and therefore the strongest entries for competitions.
  2. Use contests to support curriculum and outcomes. Each year, faculty members research upcoming competitions to identify those that will enhance students’ knowledge of specific design topics, i.e. accessibility (Connect: Enabling Change) and sustainability (PAC design competitions).
  3. Promote collaboration. Look for contests that accept group work, explore possible collaboration with community partners and promote the value of external feedback throughout the process to ensure students are getting the most out of the experience and developing their soft skills as designers. 


Student Takeaways

  1. Seek input from outside sources. Students receive feedback within a course in the form of grades, faculty comments and peer reviews for each major project, but the best designs receive input from other sources as well. Interacting with industry professionals is a great opportunity to practice presenting work, as well as listening and interpreting varied opinions and suggestions about design projects.
  2. Focus on process and refinement. Successful designs are often a struggle to achieve; they require research, reflection and an excessive number of iterations. Students should recognize the importance of all steps throughout the process and appreciate how each contributes to reaching the most successful end result. 
  3. To quote Paula Scher, "Execution matters." Her statement at DesignThinkers 2014 reminds designers that, while great ideas and process matter to solving a design problem, the final product needs to deliver results. In terms of fabrication and quality, if a design doesn’t look or function exactly as it should it will not be considered.



Molly Hill, BFA, RGD, Conestoga College, Department of Graphic Design, Advanced Diploma Program, Cambridge–Kitchener–Waterloo, Canada.

John Baljkas, MFA, Conestoga College, Department of Graphic Design, Advanced Diploma Program, Cambridge–Kitchener–Waterloo, Canada.


Project Examples (PDFs): 

Sarah Bracewell

Emily Leung

Kristyna Gottvald

Meghan Wassink


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