I am a big fan of competitions. Yes, I know that some of them can be exploitative, but I always get some high quality design work out of them, assuming I have the time to do it right.
The key is to pick a subject you feel would benefit / expand your portfolio AND is something you love. Its just too damn hard to get motivated otherwise. I also find that innovative ideas are the easiest part; its the time investment before the deadline that is your biggest enemy. Everything in your life will suddenly look more far more interesting, so it’s very tempting to ignore the deadline when no one is ‘watching.’
The advantage of the design work you produce will be that you have tremendous freedom – no client, no budget, and typically, a multi-month deadline. It really boils down to “how good are you?” and, of course, the always unpredictable judges.
The worst case scenario is that you have a gorgeous design (and/or research) in a new category and you can show every phase of the work. You can also publicize it via a press release; many gadget and design blogs are hungry for original content. Do this part right, and you can easily get more publicity and marketing juice than the winners!
The best case scenario is you win! Now you get everything listed in the worst case scenario — plus a cash prize and/or the sponsor’s publicity. Maybe even a new client or two.
I have project examples that both won and lost — and will share them in future posts.