The Judges’ Table

Judges from a variety of kitchen and bath design contests share their advice for how to ace the competition and move your project to the top of the pile.

authors Janice Costa | March 8, 2017

While the client’s happiness may be the ultimate measure of your project’s success, design competitions are a great way to get feedback from your peers – as well as a chance to win acclaim, enhance your credibility in the marketplace, impress potential clients or even win cash prizes, products, trips and more.

The industry offers myriad opportunities to put your work to the test, from manufacturer-sponsored contests that require you to submit kitchen and bath projects incorporating their products, and concept-based contests that focus on product design or overall design concepts, to independent competitions that judge fully built projects within categories based on budget, style, size and type of space, etc.

Judges for these contests are usually winners of previous design competitions, so they understand just what it takes to put together a winning design. And most will tell you: It’s all in the details. From thoughtful attention to balance and proportion to excellent lighting, careful staging and quality professional photography, every detail matters. Following the contest’s rules to the letter is essential, and a “wow” factor certainly helps.

So, how do you maximize your chances of catching the judges’ attention?

This month, KBDN asked judges from a variety of design contests to talk about what they look for when judging design competitions. On the next three pages, they share their list of dos and don’ts for excelling in design competitions.


Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath, Chevy Chase, MD
Judge for: KBDN’s Kitchen & Bath Design Awards

  • Show the entire space around the kitchen to help the judges understand how the kitchen relates to other areas as far as proportion, balance and composition.
  • Keep the design statements as concise as possible. Include a short explanation of how the areas surrounding the kitchen/bath influenced, or tie in with, your design.
  • Make sure that the pictures are high resolution and framed well without too much ceiling, too much floor or too many staging props.
  • Submit only professional shots for the finished project. Non-professional before photos are fine, but if possible, have high-res shots. Your project may win and, if so, will be published!
  • Make sure you have great lighting for the photo shoot. If the pictures come out a bit dark, they can be lightened up using Photoshop or a similar program.
  • Include one or two good overall shots, but additional shots that focus on a wall, on the island or on any interesting part of the kitchen help to add sophistication to the overall appearance. In addition, close-up shots of important details can also boost your position in the contest.
  • Do use ½” scale, if it fits; ¼” is fine if the plans are too big for ½” to fit on the page that’s being submitted. Do not use any other scale! Use the NKBA standards option for plans that are submitted if using the 2020 program for drafting. For the contest judges, this kind of presentation is much more professional and much more clear.
  • Include before plan views and pictures, clearly marked “before.” This helps the judges to easily see the changes without having to imagine them based on the design statement.
  • Go overboard with overly long design statements. When they’re too long, they can become more hindrance than help.
  • Enter any plan views or elevations in any scale other than ¼” or ½”. Molding and installation details may be in a larger scale. Keep them on the plans because they illustrate the designer’s attention to detail.
  • Forget to stage your shots with appropriate props. It’s important to use props because they make the kitchen feel more realistic and they can help to show how design ideas are used – for instance, show an appliance in the appliance garage or show sink accessories like a colander with berries in it, or put ice in a bar or veggie sink with beverages.


Southern Living magazine
Judge for: Chrysalis Awards

  • Include clear before and after floor plans. These should be drawn at the same scale, oriented the same way, and be on the same page so the judges can easily see what was done.
  • Limit text to short bullet points that tell what the problems were and how the designer solved those problems.
  • Provide photographs that are professional in quality and taken from angles that show what was done.
  • Submit designs that have a simple, clean and uncluttered look, as these will usually score better than projects that have excessive ornamentation.
  • Pay attention to correct use of historic elements and proportions when submitting traditional designs. For contemporary designs, it’s more important that the project have a sense of unity than “unique” or “clever” elements. To quote one of my architecture professors, “The designer needs to know the difference between the curious and the beautiful.”
  • Try to overwhelm the judges with too much information (text, photos, drawings). There is a limited amount of time available to study each entry, so it’s very important to transmit the information about the project as quickly and clearly as possible.
  • Submit designs featuring dated ideas. From a design standpoint, the only thing worse than using the latest “hot” trend inappropriately is using the hot trend from a few years back. Baths and kitchens are expensive remodeling projects and should be designed to age well. Will the project’s design feel out of date in a few years?
  • Substitute throwing money at a project, rather than putting more thought into the design on the front end of the project. (Often the kitchen and bath entries in the lower price point categories exhibit more thoughtful design. A limited budget can be an opportunity rather than a constraint to creativity and good design.)
  • Sacrifice consistency and unity of a space in order to focus on one overblown feature within the space.


Robert Nebolon Architects, Berkeley, CA
Judge for: HGTV Fresh Faces of Design

  • Hire a professional photographer who has experience in shooting interiors rather than doing it yourself.
  • Get the right props. Eliminate distractions; put away the paper towel holder or anything that takes away from the design. Focus on the features you want the judges to notice.
  • Consider getting a photographer who can stage as well as shoot.
  • Follow the rules of the competition and review your application carefully before submitting; you don’t want to be disqualified because you missed something simple.
  • Ask yourself if the project is really noteworthy, and think about what makes it stand out. Look for projects that offer interesting design solutions, that have a “wow” factor and offer balance.
  • Submit poorly photographed shots.
  • Submit pictures that are poorly staged.
  • Choose projects that have too much going on. Balance is important, and too many details can overwhelm the space.


Thermador, Irvine, CA
Judge for: Thermador Kitchen Design Challenge

  • Review previous winners’ work and try to identify what stands out, and what the judges may be looking for.
  • Research the company you are submitting to and see if the firm has promoted certain design trends that it likes, or the environment it believes its products are best suited for.
  • Make sure to explain the thinking behind your submitted design. Was it driven by a customer’s love for a certain color or metal, or perhaps a certain lifestyle? Help paint a picture for the judges so they understand the unique purpose of the design.
  • Invest in quality photography, which is essential to demonstrating the beauty of your hard work; high resolution, lighting and staging will help your beautiful design leap off the page.
  • Read comments on other submissions (if they are public) to see what people like and don’t like, and make sure there isn’t a submission already that’s very similar to yours.
  • Try to replicate previous winners’ work. Rather, let their work empower you to develop new, creative ideas.
  • If you are submitting to a manufacturer’s design contest, don’t submit projects that showcase competitors’ products.


Frank Advertising
CID Awards for Coverings
Poggenpohl Innovation Design Contest

  • Make sure you have a lot of good lighting.
  • Get better acquainted with your phone’s camera if you are taking the shots yourself. There’s a lot you can do on your iPhone camera – you can change the exposure, lighten and brighten it up.
  • Put out fresh flowers, and put the toaster oven out of sight. Make it look the way you imagined it would look before someone started cooking in there.
  • Crop the photos to get rid of anything unsightly that can be seen in the next room.
  • Get a photo release when your clients are signing the contract and make it part of the contract so you always have it.
  • Ignore styling. We’ve seen people leave buckets and paint cans in their shots. It only takes a minute to clear the countertops, wipe things down and put away anything unsightly.


Broderick Design Associates, Sacramento, CA
Judge for: KBDN’s Kitchen & Bath Design Awards
NARI CotY Awards

  • Take before and after pictures, and take both sets of pictures from the same angles. This really helps the judges compare after pictures from the same angle as the before pictures.
  • If possible, take all the photos one way (vertical or horizontal) so the judges don’t have to flip a binder back and forth.
  • Keep entries clean and concise, with bulleted descriptions.
  • Include a simple before and after floor plan so the judges can really see what you did. Are you in compliance with guidelines for space planning? Did you really change the space or is it all cosmetic? Floor plans help the judges quickly see where you started and what you accomplished.
  • Be sure to include clear pictures. You don’t have to do all professional photos, but have the one or two “wow” shots be professional photos.
  • Put it in your contract that you have permission to photograph the client’s project when it’s complete.
  • If there was some difficulty in your project, highlight it and explain how you solved it. This makes a project more interesting.
  • Keep people out of the photos – just shoot the projects.
  • Most competitions use a blind judging process, so make sure your firm’s name is not on the drawings or photos, or anywhere except where it is specifically requested.
  • Read the entry directions and follow them to the letter. Make sure you understand them and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something.
  • Choose your projects wisely, looking for something that has some unusual aspect to it or something with a “wow” factor, something that’s going to stand out from the crowd – perhaps a different use of color, unusual use of materials or method of installation, a new product you don’t see a lot, etc.
  • Write long, flowery descriptions of your projects. Judges often review hundreds of entries and don’t have time to read all of that. Rather, create a one-paragraph statement and then bullet point the details. Be specific in the bullet points about how they address the requirements of the competition. 
  • Don’t turn in entries with spelling issues, grammatical issues or poor phrasing.


Blanco, Lumberton, NJ
Judge for: Blanco Dream Kitchen Contest

  • Submit high-quality, high-resolution images. Great images are key to selling your design.
  • Be sure to follow official contest rules and requirements carefully so that your entry will be accepted (for example, incorporating specific products into the design if the rules call for it). It seems like a given…but we’ve received a lot of entries that don’t reflect the contest requirements.
  • Be afraid to incorporate unexpected elements into your design. Creativity helps your entry stand out! ▪

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