“It takes more bravery to be generous” – why design awards judges should be nicer

Design Bridge creative director Asa Cook says that instead of sniping at each other during judging, consultancies and creatives should celebrate great work.


I’m going to come straight out with it: I think ad agencies are more generous to one another when it comes to handing out creative awards than design consultancies. When you flick through many an awards annual these days you’ll find its pages thick with advertising examples, indicating that judges are not shy about giving an award to a good idea that’s well executed. One campaign idea will sometimes receive an award in numerous different categories. And why shouldn’t it? A good idea is a good idea. And the creators of the idea should be applauded for it.

Having judged a few professional design awards, I’ve noticed a lack of generosity of spirit when it comes to praising the work of “rival” design agencies. During the judging process I’ve seen boards turned over in search of the name of the consultancy responsible before any real, unbiased judgment of the actual work is made. Perhaps judges want reassurance that an agency with a strong creative reputation did the work? Perhaps they’re checking that they are not applauding the work of a consultancy they are currently pitching against? Perhaps it’s just snobbery, or bitterness?

When judging awards there’s a feeling that your choices will be judged by the wider industry – and perhaps that explains the occasional reluctance to award anything at all. We all remember awards annuals in which very few designs (sometimes none at all) are awarded in a particular category. Maybe the judges think that not considering anything worthy of merit imbues them with an aura of creative superiority? “I’m so creative that none of this work was creative enough for me.” I think it takes more bravery to be generous than it does to be mean.

At the other end of the awards process – the ceremony – I have noticed some people directing their negativity towards the shortlisted designs. I once had a designer approach me and say: “That agency is crap, why did you shortlist them?” We work in this industry because we love design. We all know how hard it can be to see a good idea right through to the moment when it becomes a physical reality without the original concept becoming lost along the way. So when we see a great piece of design we should celebrate it. We should applaud it without any feeling of resentment or disappointment that it was the work of someone else.

Positive PR for great work within our design discipline elevates our industry as a whole. Celebrating creativity encourages all of our clients to aspire to be better: to commission the design ideas for their brands that are the most creative. So there is a benefit to all of us in being more generous to each other.

That’s one reason why I’m a fan of the awards that celebrate good design through multiple, more specific categories. Because this serves to celebrate the different challenges that working within different categories presents. After all, how do you compare the success of a design that works consistently across 10,000 budget pack formats for an own label redesign, against doing a miniscule number of limited-edition £10,000 whisky bottles? The answer is to celebrate great work that smartly solves both of these challenges. The result should be a ceremony or annual that is a celebration of all of the best solutions that we create around the world.

I’ve been asked to judge the Pentawards this year, and my colleague Holly Kielty will be on the Jury for Writing for Design at D&AD, and we can’t wait to see the great work that is entered by agencies all over the world, whether our “rivals” or not. I hope that the other judges in other awards will feel a similar generosity of spirit, refraining from allowing another “lean” year in a small slice of a big book. Our whole industry will be stronger for it. Let’s not undersell ourselves.


Asa Cook is creative director at Design Bridge.


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  • Matt Baxter March 9, 2015 at 9:35 am

    I couldn’t agree more, Asa. I think perhaps the more internationally sourced design juries help to avoid this kind of in-industry sniping and snobbery. A bigger consideration for me is an ethical one: what was the impact of the work, beyond its communication or creative success. Why should an ethical context be limited to the White Pencil cupboard? Blimey, awards are a minefield. Matt

  • Hayden Roberts March 9, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Great article, Asa. Hayden

  • Greg Quinton March 9, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Great points Asa.
    I judge a lot and love it, I’ve seen some of the things you mentioned over the years but in my mind its not as bad now as it used to be (depends on the award). Generally good juries share a common goal and discuss work and thoughts openly and aim for the higher goal of quality. Poor juries do the opposite.

    I have also developed a theory that if there are too many rounds of judging means that even the best of design juries can become sadly mean spirited. I think its something to do with the speed in which we consume visual information. Designers analyse what they see quicker than most and therefore generally seem they get visually bored faster.

    But the real issue with awards today is that there are many who don’t see the need to enter awards at all. Why have your work judged when you can post it online and get instant nice feedback from your mates? But sadly this will short term gratification will result in mediocrity.

    I’m convinced the real strength of awards is that they push standards up (even with the idiosyncrasies discussed) but more people need to enter them. Only that way will the quality of work continue to improve.

  • LEIGH CHANDLER March 9, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    I totally agree with you Asa, and I think that historically this has discouraged design studios from entering great work, as certain awards used to feel unattainable.
    I hope that what Greg says is true though and that this situation is improving. I’m personally looking forward to doing my part in encouraging this through taking part in the judging of this year’s D&ADs Crafts for Design category.

    One thing I would like to highlight though is that we need to identify ways of making design competitions more financially accessible for everybody. I agree that awards push standards up and they are therefore vital for our industry, but when the entry fees are prohibitively high for small studios you will always be judging work from an exclusive group of agencies able to afford thousands of pounds each year in submission fees.

    I understand that funding is vital for all awards bodies, but surely if the fees were lower, there would be more entries, and importantly a level playing field for a more diverse collection of studios and agencies worldwide, all contributing to an increase in the quality of work we see.

  • Matt Baxter March 9, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Hmm, I’m not so sure Greg. I agree that many award schemes do serve to push standards up and the best ones do it very successfully. Design Week & D&AD in particular do a brilliant job of benchmark-setting. I also agree that being lucky enough to judge design awards is one of the best ways to charge up the creative batteries: I love it too!

    But I also think that some of our best designers and design businesses don’t enter, as they don’t feel the need to be validated in this way. Not because they prefer easy-win blog approval from peers, but because awards just aren’t part of their make-up. I can think of lots of design businesses who produce exemplary work – stuff that really leads the field – but use their own standards and those of their clients to push themselves.

    There’s plenty of mediocre work which doesn’t get entered into design awards. But there’s some wonderful stuff too. I think awards-set benchmarks & amazing design businesses who don’t enter awards at all can co-exist.

  • John Frieda March 12, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Totally agree Leigh, in comparison, large advertising and branding agencies have pots of money and are able to pay for multiple entries, so increasing their chances of winning at least one award.

    The prevalence of advertising agencies keen to slap each other on the back has undermined the significance of awards such as D&ADs and Lions, this may account for the lack of entries that are now made and the increase in project postings on blogs etc. Perhaps the agency receptions with shelves stacked with trophies seems a tad passé and out of touch with today’s clients, who are the ultimate judges of a designs ability to fulfil the brief.

    Furthermore, today’s clients are more interested in an agencies ability to deliver across various mediums, rather than the single award received for a viral campaign or packaging brief. They are understandably, in a post recession world, more interested in attaining high yield results on smaller budgets than whether a campaign or logo will win anything, this is reflected in the fact that we no longer see the the epic Guinness and Levi’s campaigns of old, sweeping up every gong going.

    I do agree however, that awards should be there to push designers further and prove to clients that they can achieve better, even with dwindling budgets.

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