Do you wonder what happens behind-the-scenes during the selection of craft fair applications? What the judges are looking for and what they talk about? What makes a successful craft fair application … or not?
Patricia van den Akker, the Director of The Design Trust, shares in this blog post her experience of being a judge at contemporary craft shows and how to create a successful craft fair application. Although each selection panel and craft fair is slightly different, there are some common challenges and questions that each of them have to face.
“I have been involved with organising and marketing craft fairs and design trade shows for over twenty years. One of my very first jobs in the UK was to organise the selection of the Chelsea Crafts Fair, way back in 1995 at London’s Kings Road.
At that time the Crafts Council would get nearly 2,000 applications (!) for this highly regarded craft fair. Each applicant would send in six 35mm slides (some glass mounted – and no, not all survived the journey in the post!). It was my job to sort all these slides out per category, and then put them in alphabetical order and load over 10,000 slides into slide projectors. During the judging process it was essential that the 6 slide projectors would show all 6 slides of that maker at the same time. If one got out of sync it was a nightmare to get it sorted again!
Fast forward 25 years and these days I am delighted to be asked to be a judge for craft fairs or awards. For the last 6 years I have been a judge for the One Year In Award at the New Designers graduate exhibition, and been a judge for the Not On The High Street Award in 2015, the Etsy Handmade Award in 2016, and also for the selection of craft shows such as GNCCF in 2017 and the Spotted Award at Top Drawer in 2018.
What are the craft fair organisers looking for?
“Craft fair organisers often start the judging day by talking about their specific craft fair, their criteria (e.g the quality and originality of the work) and also that they want to maintain a combination of both new exhibitors and established makers.
They often remind us not to select based on our own taste but to look for diversity – it’s no good to have loads of jewellers in a show, or ceramicists that are all showing very similar work. They want us to choose not just what we like but to select both new makers as well as established ones, and look for variety in styles and price level so they can offer their visitors a choice within a range of quality craft products.
Often ineligible applications have already been removed by the organisers at this stage, for example because the applicant did not provide all the information or correct image formats, or because the work doesn’t fit the event’s criteria. For example if your work needs to be handmade then production-made work will not be accepted.
The organisers then tell judges how many craft fair applications they have received and how many stands are available in total, and often we will get a reminder of how many stands are approximately available per category. In particular as a precious jeweller your chances are often lower as this is such a popular category!”
Your work and images really need to stand out if you want to get into a craft fair, especially in very competitive disciplines such as precious jewellery.
“The selection process goes fairly quickly, as there are often 100’s of applicants. Often the images within one category get shown once quickly, and then all the images get shown a second time a bit slower when the judges cast their vote – for ‘in’, ‘out’ or ‘waiting list’. Mostly by simply calling it out or putting a hand up. Most of the time the votes are pretty unanimous, but when a judge feels strongly either way about an application then they often will argue their case so that an agreement can be reached.
The craft fair organisers often want to allocate around 80-90% of the available places, with the rest going on the “Waiting List”. So if there are 500 applications for 200 stands then about 180 places will need to get the ‘in’ vote and 40 will go onto the waiting list.
Craft organisers use the Waiting List to add some flexibility for themselves. Not everybody who gets selected will take up the offer of a stand after all. And by not allocating all the stands immediately they can review if there are any additional gaps in their craft fair exhibitors in terms of new versus more established makers, and variety in disciplines, style, price level etc. They don’t want to have too many people on the Waiting List, as they realise that it can be frustrating for exhibitors.”
The secret to a successful craft fair application? Professional images!
“Most craft fair applications I have been involved in are predominantly judged based the images provided. Without any doubt if you want to be successful with your craft fair application then focus on your work and images.
Often the images are separated by discipline, and all the applicant’s images will be projected as a set at the same time, in alphabetical order.
To make it as fair as possible it’s rare that the maker’s name is revealed, although of course judges might recognise the work of certain makers.
Often all the images within one category are projected once to get an overview, and then the judging happens after that. Most decisions are made very quickly, and your images might be seen for only 5 – 10 seconds in total. So you will need to make an impression on those judges fast!
So what are the judges looking for in the images?
Consciously or more unconsciously the judges look for:
- Do the products fit within the eligible categories or style? Is the quality and product right for this craft fair? Very often people apply while their work isn’t eligible or not right for a certain show. If this is a contemporary craft fair then don’t apply with very traditional work, with Fine Art, or products that are obviously not created by the person themselves. In a recent judging panel we had a lengthy discussion if the maker had only strung the necklaces together, or if the glass beads were also made by her. Make sure that there is no doubt!
- What is it? Sometimes it’s very hard to see what the product actually is! That can be because only a detail of the product is shown, or because there are so many other items on the image that we don’t really know what your product is. Sometimes the image is very dark or the shadows so stark that it’s hard to see the object. Sometimes it’s hard to see what material the product is made from, if it is indeed handmade or mass-produced, and sometimes the scale is hard to guess.
- Do you show coherent work? Does your set of slides together look like it’s made by the same person or is it very diverse in style and materials? Especially at the start of your career you might still be trying to identify your style and creating very different work. But try to show a collection of work that is coherent. It’s about getting the balance right between similarity and enough diversity!
- Are your images in focus? Especially important of course for detailed products such as jewellery. But any shaky image will make you look unprofessional, especially as they will be projected large scale during the judging. Also make sure that all your images have the same DPI (dots per inch) otherwise some images might show up much smaller or bigger than others. Ensure that you check the format requirements when applying, because if the organiser is unable to open your images then it’s unlikely that you will be selected. Quick images taken on your phone, with shadows and a busy background, projected on to a big screen really will not come across as very professional.
- Are your images professional enough? Most craft fair organisers will use the images you sent in for your application for the promotion of the show. They might ask for additional press images later, but basically the images for your craft fair application need to be of a professional standard so that they can be used in the press. If you are shooting new images think about professional styling, and avoid busy backgrounds. I have seen images shot outside with parts of grass showing up, or a big contemporary chair in a very old-fashioned and brown house. Neither got selected.
- Be careful with using models. Using professional models who wear professional make up, photographed by a professional photographer who works with lighting, can create the most amazing images. But if you are not an experienced photographer then be very careful. Look at how other professional makers show their work on sites such as NOTHS or Design Nation for professional inspiration.
- Are you showing your work at its best? Especially in very popular categories such as precious jewellery, prints, scarves or cushions you will need to show what makes your work better and stand out. You don’t have to limit yourself by only showing one product per image! Show a collection of earrings or a set of a necklace and a ring that belong together in one image – but don’t add too many items and it feels overcrowded. Show your work really close up so we can see the detail of your craft skills! Go up close to show your weaving quality or the thickness of your glazes. If your work is really big or really small then show them in context so we as judges can recognise the size immediately.
- If you are an established maker or if you have exhibited at the show before then don’t make the assumption that the judges know you and your work. Show recent work, and if you are planning to launch new work that’s always great to see and a big bonus.
- If you are looking to add a little variety to your product pictures then add an image of you working on one of your pieces, or add your branding or packaging, and sometimes it can be great to see how your stand or display looked too. But make sure that your products are clearly the heroes of your images!
Look for image inspiration at last year’s exhibitors for the show on the organiser’s website and some of the most popular Instagram accounts. This will give you a good idea of the organiser’s expectations in terms of products and quality of image.
What else do the judges look for?
“Most craft fair organisers love showing a diversity of work, in terms of price level and style. However, do research the show in more detail to find out who the visitors are. For example many Christmas craft fairs will be looking to include some more giftable items too, while some of the higher end craft fairs might be looking for wow pieces that truly show off the quality of the work. Tailor your product selection to what the show is about and who attend.
Most craft fair organisers want to add some new makers and keep some well-established makers who can attract good press and the collectors. If you make more unique work then it’s often much easier to get selected then in the most popular categories such as precious jewellery or fashion textiles, where you will need to stand out more.
Sometimes when there are questions about an application then we might look for further information on somebody’s application, website or social media. But often there is very limited time for this. When it is difficult to see the size or material from an image then the additional information will be checked, or for example if it is unclear if something is handmade by the person themselves or just bought-in and only assembled.
However, in my experience when an event is for new makers then the website and additional information will be more likely checked too so that the judges can get a better overall picture of the applicant.
Some craft shows, such as Made London do not use external judging panels and they take the time to look in more detail at the extra information and your website, and not just your images.
So when you apply for a craft fair do make sure that your website is up-to-date with good images and information such as materials and sizes, as you are much more likely to get selected.”
Did you find this expert-behind-the-scenes blog post on what judges are looking for in craft fair applications useful? Then do let us know below. Have you got additional experiences as a judge or organiser that you would like to share? Then we would love to hear from you … send us an email or do comment below.