SND38: A First-Timer’s Guide to Judging

Next week, a bevy of visual journalists will come to St. Petersburg, Fla. to help with the Society for News Design’s annual creative competition. Some will judge the competition, but many students and professionals will help as “facilitators.” It’s a tough job, but one that comes with incredible learning opportunities and gives everyone involved a wealth of inspiration. Several years ago, SND asked me to write this guide for first-time facilitators. It has been re-worked and re-mastered for 2017.

Also, check from Feb. 18-20 for live coverage of both the Best of News Design and the World’s Best Designed Newspaper competitions.

What to bring

The goal for the contest should be comfort, especially in your footwear. I recommend tennis shoes with plenty of padding because we’ll be on our feet a ton, and a second pair of shoes so you can switch it up and give your feet a break is never a bad idea.

The weather in St. Pete this time of year runs close to high 60s/low 70s, so you can leave your boots and winter coat at home. (For those of us used to going to Syracuse, this will feel very odd.) Google tells me that’s around 19-24 degrees Celcius. 

Don’t feel the need to be formal, just be comfortable and prepared for long days. Jeans are fine, shorts if you’re daring, and t-shirts and sweatshirts will do. I usually bring some extra shirts and socks to change into after we return to the hotel for the evening so I can socialize in fresh threads.

Sunday is “Jersey day,” and many people will wear jerseys from their favorite sports team, so if you’ve got a fave, bring it along. Otherwise, be left out.


Facilitators and judges arriving on Thursday are invited to dinner, drinks and a sunset provided by Type Network, with thanks to Roger Black and Foster Barnes. Details will be provided in your welcome packets (more below). I recommend going to everything you can because the weekend will fly by, but if you’re tired and feel you need a nap, that’s ok too!


When you arrive, Ground transportation at Tampa International Airport is near the baggage claims. Taxis and shuttles are available. Supershuttle runs $21 a person and cab fare runs around $45. Know somebody else who might be getting in around the same time? Save yourself some trouble and split the fare!

When you check in at the hotel, you will receive a packet with an itinerary and some etiquette rules. If you don’t receive the packet, ask for one. It will contain badges that get you into both Pointer and the Dali institute during your free time. Facilitators have free time on Friday, so it’s a great day to take advantage of some of the perks. Please also spend some time actually reading your packet, and if it’s your first time here, do us all a favor and don’t skim.

Judges and captains will have a planned dinner on Friday night, but facilitators are on their own. Normally, people will start to meander in the lobby and slowly make plans. It’s everyone’s first time at a judging in St. Pete, so there are no rules! You can text the friend you made on the shuttle to see if they are going to dinner yet and just pick something close by. Ask around if you need a recommendation.

Whenever possible, introduce yourself to someone new. Ask what they do. Talk about design. Talk about your dog, cat, kid, paper, website, pay wall, ebooks, mobile apps. Exchange business cards. If you’re a professional and have time to connect with a student, do so. Offer a critique of their work or give them a way to reach you afterwards. 

All of my best mentors are people I met at judging. You never know who you might be riding the elevator with. (The first time I met my wonderful friend Andrea Levy, whose work I had long admired, was on an elevator in Syracuse. I almost fainted.) Try not to be shy, everyone’s pretty nice, whether this is their 10th contest or their first.


Identification badges will be handed out on Friday night/Saturday morning. Check to make sure your name is spelled correctly, get your sharpie marker out if it isn’t, but DO NOT LOSE THE BADGE. If you’re wearing it, it means the 40-some new people you just met don’t have to remember your name right away. 

At 9 a.m., we will meet in the hotel lobby. This is an excellent time to find your team captain (noted in your packet). Don’t be late. We will walk to the judging facility, but after we are there we’re there for the day, so make sure you have everything you need. (Phone, chargers, a sweatshirt in case the A/C gets cold, etc.)

Wear your coat in case the bus breaks down, or accidentally hits somebody, and you find yourself stranded. Oh wait, that only happens in Syracuse. There is no bus this year!

Your captain will set the pace of your team, and all the teams will aim to finish around the same time each day so we may all walk back together.

About meals

If you want something special before breakfast at the judging site, like Starbucks, make sure you give yourself enough time to grab it before meeting up in the lobby. Don’t plan on stopping on the way there as the judging is on a tight schedule. Get ready to see more newspaper pages than you could possibly imagine.

After you eat, find your captain! You will be with your team for the whole weekend, and your captain is in charge of the pace in which you go through the categories. If you have a question, your captain is the person to ask. If you aren’t sure of what you are supposed to be doing, your captain will know.

All meals that take place while judging is taking place will be provided. Meals are a great time to meet new people! Your captain will tell you when it’s time to eat and lightly prod you when it’s time to get back to work. Rumor has it this year will feature the return of the popcorn shrimps. If you are anti-popcorn shrimp, now is a good time to politely excuse yourself from attending. I’m kidding. But Stephen, if you’ve read this far, know that we will riot without the shrimps.

About the work you’ll see

Be respectful. Every page on the tables is what someone thought was the best work they produced in a year. Entrants have paid a fee to ensure it is judged fairly. You may have an opinion about work that you see — maybe you love it or hate it. Please take note of who is around you before you speak.

Do not express your opinion within earshot of any judge, because they need to form their own opinions. You never know if someone who worked on that page is standing near you, so be discrete. Also remember there is plenty of time to talk at meals and at the hotel after the judging is done for the day. Even the judges are not allowed to talk about the work unless it’s in a medal discussion.

As a facilitator, you are there to help make the judges’ job easier. Help them before you help yourself. I find the best way to be available is to stay on your feet near where your group is set up, looking at pages, making sure the entries are set up properly, etc.

If you see a judge looking around blankly and standing by a page, for example, they are likely looking for YOU. They probably need you to read a translation on a page, or check to see if they have voted, or have a question. Just make sure you’re ready if somebody needs something.

If you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to be doing, ask your team captain or another experience facilitator how can do to help. It may be that nothing’s needed, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Don’t be offended if somebody asks you to do something or pulls you out of your chair to work — everyone is there to help.

About results

Only people authorized by SND or the competition committee may reveal any results from the competition publicly. Live-streamed results are preliminary. World’s Best winners will be announced at the workshop in April and should be kept strictly confidential. 

All attendees are encouraged to share their experiences before, during and after the competition. You are free to promote and share your experiences via personal blogs, Twitter accounts and photo-sharing services. The only restriction is outlined above: Sharing results without permission is prohibited.

About Karaoke night

SND Foundation Karaoke Night is Sunday, and it’s one of the most fun days at the competition. Nobody is forced to sing, though we may apply polite peer pressure. (If you have major concerns about being “forced” to sing, please let your team captain know. We want everyone to be able to enjoy themselves.) Karaoke will be hosted off site this year at a banquet hall about a block from the hotel. Complete details will be in your welcome packets. Please note that we ask all facilitators to attend karaoke night.

The best way to learn

Listen in on the medal discussions whenever you’re not needed. It’s the only time the judges can really dig into the details of the work they’re seeing and express their opinions. (If they are discussing your work, however, you must leave the room as to not make them feel awkward.) You can’t jump in on the discussion (only judges are allowed to speak), but you can soak up their knowledge like a sponge.

Expect to work long days and be exhausted. Expect to be ordered around by people who have been there before. Expect to need coffee in the morning. Expect to see and speak more design than you will for the rest of the year.

You will learn more than you thought possible. Try to soak it all in and feel encouraged and inspired.

Learn. Network. Work your butt off. Sing Karaoke.

Andrea Zagata is a news designer at The New York Times. This will be her (she has lost count) time attending the creative competition, but her first time attending in St. Pete!

About Andrea Zagata

is a news designer at The New York Times.

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