It is not just a problem that I have. Starting by cutting down the ocean of hopefuls is fairly easy, you can build a small, select pile and be quite sure of it. It’s the next part that is bewildering; whittling a set of broadly equal projects down to a handful, and then one or two. I am foreman of one of the graphics juries for D&AD this year and towards the end, I expect the same sage nodding of heads, and pointing out of clever typographic details, then, ultimately, everyone going with a raw gut feeling.
And, you ask, what’s wrong with that?
I remember my art teacher used to turn a picture upside down to judge whether the composition worked. I never understood this. Either the composition works the way it’s meant to be seen, or it doesn’t. I think this upside-down-ness is what happens in awards. The problem lies in what gets emphasised: the sheer luxury and novelty of what is in front of you. How different it appears to be from what is around it, which, of course, is not how it appears in the world outside. And you end up using a judging method which is a kind of emotional, mysterious, hold-your-finger-up-to-the-wind, decontextualised amnesic myopia. Without any broader context, we can only judge the-thing-in-itself, as it appears at that moment.
By context I don’t mean the couple of paragraphs the designer writes about how perfectly he or she anticipated and fulfilled the brief, but some idea of how the intended recipients responded, and how the client feels about what they ended up with.
I have been asked to judge bogus work; jobs that I know never had a client, or work where I know the job was rejected and the designer paid for the printing. I have judged work that never subsequently appears in the real world, or fails, or actually damages the client’s business. And yet, at the purely formal, novelty level, some of this stuff is fabulous.
I can sympathise with how award schemes are run. They have to make economic and organisational sense. And too much context does not necessarily help. Great sales figures sometimes shield work that wouldn’t get a second glance. It can be complicated to provide context – the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards have steep criteria for evidence of a design being effective that dissuades many from entering.
My first suggestion to overcome these ills is impractical, because all the award schemes would go bankrupt overnight. It is that the jury doesn’t judge in a day, its members judge all year. They e-mail in a list of work they have seen and this stuff is invited to be presented. It doesn’t have to be fresh, it could be years old – in the case of corporate identity or sign programme it really ought to be. It would all be encountered in the world, by jury members and his or her friends and associates, and responded to in something approaching a genuine context.
If this is too taxing, then I suggest not a change in the way we enter the work, but in the way we judge. Instead of fuzzy “um that looks original” or “I just like it”, we could devise categories that would not be at all taxing to find winners for. Mine would include: Best Use of Helvetica; Most Expensive Print Job; Biggest Page Size, Smallest Type; Best Use of Blind Embossing, Best Job With No Client; and Best Use of Unglamorous Photographs of Real People For A Charity. By far the biggest section would be Best Homage. The individual homage sub-sections could be altered year to year, but good ones for this year would be Best Homage to Massimo Vignelli; Best Homage to Neue Grafik; Best Homage to Wim Crouwel; Best Homage to Grapus; and Best Homage to Dan Friedman’s Artificial Nature catalogue.
Too cynical? Clients won’t like it? You are just not thinking; Tate Modern could sponsor Best Homage to Rene Magritte, London Graphic Centre could stump up for Best Use of Tracing Paper, and Bayer could give a year’s supply of amphetamines to Most Unexpected Use of Medical Graphics.