There’s a famous quote much bandied about in advertising circles that goes something like this: ‘I know that half of my advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half’. It’s usually attributed to either Lord Leverhulme (soap) or Frank Woolworth (pick and mix). I’m starting to wonder if you could use it to describe design awards – ‘I know half the money I spend entering them is wasted, but I don’t know which half.’
Let’s face it, most of us haven’t really got a clue what to enter into what competition, and most of us are unwilling to enter 30 projects when we secretly know only three are any good. With many competitions receiving more and more entries, it just keeps getting tougher.
D&AD, as befits the oldest and stingiest, remains the most controversial. It received 24 500 items from around the world this year, into 150-odd sub-categories. It awarded 52 Yellow Pencils (and two Black Pencils). That leaves 24 448 art directors worldwide spluttering ‘fix’ and ‘clique’ into their lattes. It’s no wonder that other schemes, Design Week’s included, get increased attention because – let’s be honest – the odds of winning are substantially better.
If I had a magic formula, I’d tell you (I promise), but I haven’t found a better one yet than trying to produce original and unusual work, picking a few favourites then hoping for the best. That’s about as strategic as it gets. Designing things just to win awards strikes me as a bit desperate, and juries can usually, but not always, smell that kind of stuff. Some years, at shows, I’ve walked through the shortlisted items and reckoned that 30-40 per cent were self-initiated, or of dubious origin. You can understand people’s desire to win at any cost, but those little die-cut mailers for the local start-up rarely impress proper clients, however creative an idea. Clients want to see real solutions for proper clients with genuine problems, not made-up ones for that friend of your girlfriend’s uncle.
You hear stories of the bigger groups assigning teams and budgets to ‘special’ projects, often virtually designing the idea first, then finding the client second. Imagine being the designers working on the ‘not-special’ projects. Fun.
Now you can win an award for anything that moves, some of the language of ‘award-winning’ seems fatally flawed. Perhaps the USP of awards may have gone? Marketing yourself as ‘the most creative’ is now a hostage to fortune – it only takes a few fallow years and those damning words, ‘… oh yes, they used to be really good…’, begin to reverberate around town.
So, is there a point to this (some might say gloomy) rant? Well, yes – be realistic. There’s no doubt that the thought of winning a notable bit of wood or metal can act as a spur to genuine creativity. For your peers to say ‘now that’s a great idea’ remains a great accolade, and to young designers takes some beating. But you can understand why some have opted out of the awards game (Graphic Thought Facility, Why Not Associates) or have ‘retired’ from the business of entering having once had serious success (Peter Saville, KesselsKramer). Some, like Mark Farrow, just enter D&AD and nothing else.
They are probably confident in the quality of their work guaranteeing enough column inches, the necessary referrals and the occasional monograph. Maybe they think they are too good to enter? Perhaps. Maybe they just want to save on polyboard and the sometimes crippling entry fees. But, to many, the oxygen of publicity that awards offer, the sense of ‘we’ve arrived’, coupled with an ego-boost and that brief, warm, gooey feeling onstage remains undeniably compelling.
Whether awards get you work is much harder to prove – Johnson Banks can still only point to one award that led directly to a project. When people ask, ‘What makes that phone ring?’, I’m reminded of a lesson I learnt designing exhibition posters.
I (of course) felt the poster was critical, but the marketers I was working with explained that the public went to an exhibition for a mixture of reasons: they read a review; they see the poster; a friend goes and delivers a verdict; they see an ad in Time Out; they clip an article. If people tick three or more of these boxes, there was a good chance they’d go.
I’m starting to think the same applies in this business – people might read about you, see a piece of your work, get a good referral or spot that you’ve won an award. That might push them to your website. They’ll have a think. They might call. So the ‘awards won’ button on your homepage may still have some relevance and whoever said ‘clients don’t care how many awards you’ve won, they just want to know you’ve won some’ may still be right. All I ask is please, please, don’t take them too seriously.
Michael Johnson is creative director of Johnson Banks, which occasionally (but not always) wins design awards
View or download the Creative Survey 2006.