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  • And the Loser Is...

    Their arrival each year is as predictable as the seasons, the sprightly calls for entry filling the air, the solemn declarations of prestige and honor crowding the in-box, the ego-directed appeals for a chance to be named best of the best. And in a response that rivals Pavlov’s dogs, graphic designers everywhere begin salivating at the first ringing of the competition bell, leaping wholeheartedly at the gold-plated bait, vying for every award that is dangled before their gaping maws. Many dash headlong into the fray, while others, aloof from the rabble, proclaim their work will only grace the entry rolls of the finest of shows: The Clios, the One Club, the Communication Arts Design Annual and their ilk. Others in the design community disdain such sordid affairs entirely, steadfast in their belief that the value of their work “speaks for itself,” that the worth of their commercial art can be measured only by its commercial effectiveness – that is, did the money spent in its creation bring a multifold return to the client? And somewhere in between the somersaulting masses and philosophical elitists are the myriads in the middle who, in an agonizing annual ritual, carefully sort through the crescendo of calls, weighing this award against that award against the cost of entry – both in time and money – to determine which competition is right for their work.

    And yet, can there actually be a “right” or a “wrong” where design awards are concerned?

    For a profession that is already notoriously self-congratulatory, can artistic competitions mean anything other than an additional ego boost to the winner? And in an industry that is arguably among the most subjective on the planet, can any graphic design award be an objective, true, fair measure of the best work in the business?

    Where did all the madness begin?

    While graphic design awards have been around for nearly as long as the graphic design profession – AIGA’s own awards program is now more than 75 years old – some date the opening of the floodgates back to the creative revolution that swept through Madison Avenue in the 1960s, when a certain sense of glamour and excitement began to waft around the design businesses and, in imitation of their kindred spirits in the performing arts – they of the Oscars and Emmys and Tonys – graphic arts awards bean to be handed out by industry organizations by the fistfuls, as a gesture of flattery both to the associations and their colleagues, and as a celebration of design that they believed transcended its commercial origins to aspire to high art.

    And yet, some industry observers have suggested that, in the intervening years, what has kept the deluge of awards shows flowing is a combination of cynicism and insecurity on the part of the artists vying for recognition. As one graphic designer posited, “Is it that we typically work for bosses or clients whom we feel are unworthy to judge the artistic merits of our work, so we seek recognition from our peers for a ‘job well done’?” Or, put thusly, are awards competitions just another way for artists to have people they respect say their work doesn’t suck?

    Whatever the root cause for their existence, two things are certain about design awards shows. First, anyone seeking recognition is not lacking for competitions to enter; and second, there is no such thing as a perfectly judged and complaint-free competition. And those two certainties are the chief culprits behind the diminishing interest – and near ruin – of awards-granting organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area.

    Indeed, the plethora of available awards is dragging the best-intentioned design competitions down into a morass of triviality, forcing everyone to swim in a stagnant pool of awards devoid of meaning. And along with the dime-a-dozen cheapening comes the credibility question – that is, who exactly is sponsoring the award and what is the ultimate motivation? For some awards it is nearly impossible to trace their provenance. For others, they appear to be issued by organizations created solely for the purpose of distributing certificates and statuettes to every designer able to pay the entrance fee. And, in a classic case of guilt by association, even the most established and respectable of awards shows begin to be ignored by long-time supporters, from the largest advertising agencies to the smallest design firms.

    A few years ago, such neglect nearly brought the Advertising Association of Baltimore to near collapse, when the city’s largest practitioners staged a wholesale abandonment of the annual Best of Baltimore awards show. Said one agency principal to a reporter from the Baltimore Business Journal in explaining his firm’s absence, “We’re looking for these awards to be credentials for the work’s effectiveness, not how pretty the ads are. That’s what clients pay us for. Most businesses view beauty contests as irrelevant.” Such client-slanted reasoning among ad people has fueled the rising prestige of awards programs like the Effie, a competition sponsored by the New York American Marketing Association where entries are judged according to marketing effectiveness as well as creativity. And yet, interestingly, when it comes to the business-effectiveness of design awards, studies have shown that for the agencies and design firms themselves, there is a direct correlation between garnering awards and garnering new business. In fact, one recent creative seminar relayed the impressive statistic that “87% of award-winning work wins sales.”

    Still, claims by agency heads that design awards have degenerated into “beauty contests” are perhaps the least vitriolic barbs hurled against the local competitions. Informal polling of recent attendees point to a range of factors behind the disdain to be subjected to another awards night: sub-par judging, painfully long-winded soliloquies, public backstabbing, inner-circle politicking and increasingly exorbitant entrance fees are among the reasons cited for a boycott. Yet, even more damning is the widespread belief among designers that many of the entries mounted and displayed at the shows were either produced solely for the purposes of entering the competition or, worse, were out-and-out frauds.

    A recent ADDY competition in Washington, DC, did little to dispel the belief that agencies create entries exclusively to win awards. One of the night’s biggest winners walked away with an armful of trophies presented for work that, upon further inspection, was accused of being produced for nonexistent businesses. In its defense, the winning firm claimed that, while the advertisements it created had yet to actually appear in any publication, the ads in question “could very well run in the future.” The whole mess was allegedly in violation of clearly stated competition rules, which stipulated that “the expressed intent of the competition is to recognize and reward creative excellence in the legitimate everyday workplace of advertising – ‘real’ advertising, for ‘real’ clients, with ‘real’ marketing objectives, in or on ‘real’ media.”

    As one witness to the messy affair remarked to the Washington Business Journal, “It’s really easy to do work for a fake client. The hard part of advertising is working with client restraints in the real world.” Said another, “There are people who crave awards so badly that they have bastardized some awards shows by submitting work for clients that don’t exist or submit work under the pretext of agency-client relations that don’t exist.”

    Despite such public airing of dirty laundry, many awards shows still flourish – and still make significant contributions to celebrating excellence in contemporary design and, equally important, to promoting the value of design to the broader public. In particular, the AIGA Annual Design Competition and AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers, extending the organizations 75-year awards legacy, continue to be among he most prestigious in the nation. And much of their acceptance and success is founded in selection criteria that includes both “aesthetic judgments and an evaluation of communication effectiveness.”

    Explains Margaret Youngblood, executive creative director of Landor Associations and a former AIGA competition chairwoman, “Our primary job as designers is to translate the client’s truths into something that is clear, informative, distinctive and differentiated in the consumer’s mind. And because we are designers, we have a need to do this in a way that is in agreement with our own aesthetics or our definition of beauty.” Nevertheless, Youngblood acknowledges that sometimes the graphic designer’s definition of beauty is in direct opposition to the client’s truth. “But we proceed anyway,” says Youngblood, “because it meets our aesthetic standards.” In the process, however, a lie is told, and the consumer’s trust is violated. “The aesthetic,” says Youngblood, “has masked the truth.”

    Design excellence, says Youngblood, is a complex process involving creativity, inspiration, skill and discipline. And yet, all these elements need to be judged within the context of purpose and the primary objective of the piece. “As designers, we play a major role in shaping the messages relayed to consumer society,” says Youngblood. “But we are by no means above it. We are consumers ourselves; buying products and services to survive, we have all experienced the feeling of being manipulated and mislead by disingenuous advertising promotions, packaging, brochures and merchandising.” Says Youngblood, the designer-facilitated dialogue between producer and consumer becomes a two-fold proposition: the consumer needs to trust the companies and organizations providing these products and services, therefore the primary objective of every piece of those companies’ communications is – or should be – to be honest.

    And those critical concerns stand at the center of the process by which jurors weigh the merits of each contestant for the AIGA awards. “The goal is to select design communications that are honest, preserve trust and meet the highest standards of design excellence,” says Youngblood. “And can there be better criteria?” Their arrival each year is as predictable as the seasons, the sprightly calls for entry filling the air, the solemn declarations of prestige and honor crowding the in-box, the ego-directed appeals for a chance to be named best of the best. And in a response that rivals Pavlov's dogs, graphic designers everywhere begin salivating at the first ringing of the competition bell, leaping wholeheartedly at the gold-plated bait, vying for every award that is dangled before their gaping maws. Many dash headlong into the fray, while others, aloof from the rabble, proclaim their work will only grace the entry rolls of the finest of shows: The Clios, the One Club, the Communication Arts Design Annual and their ilk. Others in the design community disdain such sordid affairs entirely, steadfast in their belief that the value of their work “speaks for itself,” that the worth of their commercial art can be measured only by its commercial effectiveness – that is, did the money spent in its creation bring a multifold return to the client? And somewhere in between the somersaulting masses and philosophical elitists are the myriads in the middle who, in an agonizing annual ritual, carefully sort through the crescendo of calls, weighing this award against that award against the cost of entry – both in time and money – to determine which competition is right for their work.

    And yet, can there actually be a “right” or a “wrong” where design awards are concerned?

    For a profession that is already notoriously self-congratulatory, can artistic competitions mean anything other than an additional ego boost to the winner? And in an industry that is arguably among the most subjective on the planet, can any graphic design award be an objective, true, fair measure of the best work in the business?

    Where did all the madness begin?

    While graphic design awards have been around for nearly as long as the graphic design profession – AIGA's own awards program is now more than 75 years old – some date the opening of the floodgates back to the creative revolution that swept through Madison Avenue in the 1960s, when a certain sense of glamour and excitement began to waft around the design businesses and, in imitation of their kindred spirits in the performing arts – they of the Oscars and Emmys and Tonys – graphic arts awards bean to be handed out by industry organizations by the fistfuls, as a gesture of flattery both to the associations and their colleagues, and as a celebration of design that they believed transcended its commercial origins to aspire to high art.

    And yet, some industry observers have suggested that, in the intervening years, what has kept the deluge of awards shows flowing is a combination of cynicism and insecurity on the part of the artists vying for recognition. As one graphic designer posited, “Is it that we typically work for bosses or clients whom we feel are unworthy to judge the artistic merits of our work, so we seek recognition from our peers for a 'job well done'?” Or, put thusly, are awards competitions just another way for artists to have people they respect say their work doesn't suck?

    Whatever the root cause for their existence, two things are certain about design awards shows. First, anyone seeking recognition is not lacking for competitions to enter; and second, there is no such thing as a perfectly judged and complaint-free competition. And those two certainties are the chief culprits behind the diminishing interest – and near ruin – of awards-granting organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area.

    Indeed, the plethora of available awards is dragging the best-intentioned design competitions down into a morass of triviality, forcing everyone to swim in a stagnant pool of awards devoid of meaning. And along with the dime-a-dozen cheapening comes the credibility question – that is, who exactly is sponsoring the award and what is the ultimate motivation? For some awards it is nearly impossible to trace their provenance. For others, they appear to be issued by organizations created solely for the purpose of distributing certificates and statuettes to every designer able to pay the entrance fee. And, in a classic case of guilt by association, even the most established and respectable of awards shows begin to be ignored by long-time supporters, from the largest advertising agencies to the smallest design firms.

    A few years ago, such neglect nearly brought the Advertising Association of Baltimore to near collapse, when the city's largest practitioners staged a wholesale abandonment of the annual Best of Baltimore awards show. Said one agency principal to a reporter from the Baltimore Business Journal in explaining his firm's absence, “We're looking for these awards to be credentials for the work's effectiveness, not how pretty the ads are. That's what clients pay us for. Most businesses view beauty contests as irrelevant.” Such client-slanted reasoning among ad people has fueled the rising prestige of awards programs like the Effie, a competition sponsored by the New York American Marketing Association where entries are judged according to marketing effectiveness as well as creativity. And yet, interestingly, when it comes to the business-effectiveness of design awards, studies have shown that for the agencies and design firms themselves, there is a direct correlation between garnering awards and garnering new business. In fact, one recent creative seminar relayed the impressive statistic that “87% of award-winning work wins sales.”

    Still, claims by agency heads that design awards have degenerated into “beauty contests” are perhaps the least vitriolic barbs hurled against the local competitions. Informal polling of recent attendees point to a range of factors behind the disdain to be subjected to another awards night: sub-par judging, painfully long-winded soliloquies, public backstabbing, inner-circle politicking and increasingly exorbitant entrance fees are among the reasons cited for a boycott. Yet, even more damning is the widespread belief among designers that many of the entries mounted and displayed at the shows were either produced solely for the purposes of entering the competition or, worse, were out-and-out frauds.

    A recent ADDY competition in Washington, DC, did little to dispel the belief that agencies create entries exclusively to win awards. One of the night's biggest winners walked away with an armful of trophies presented for work that, upon further inspection, was accused of being produced for nonexistent businesses. In its defense, the winning firm claimed that, while the advertisements it created had yet to actually appear in any publication, the ads in question “could very well run in the future.” The whole mess was allegedly in violation of clearly stated competition rules, which stipulated that “the expressed intent of the competition is to recognize and reward creative excellence in the legitimate everyday workplace of advertising – 'real' advertising, for 'real' clients, with 'real' marketing objectives, in or on 'real' media.”

    As one witness to the messy affair remarked to the Washington Business Journal, “It's really easy to do work for a fake client. The hard part of advertising is working with client restraints in the real world.” Said another, “There are people who crave awards so badly that they have bastardized some awards shows by submitting work for clients that don't exist or submit work under the pretext of agency-client relations that don't exist.”

    Despite such public airing of dirty laundry, many awards shows still flourish – and still make significant contributions to celebrating excellence in contemporary design and, equally important, to promoting the value of design to the broader public. In particular, the AIGA Annual Design Competition and AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers, extending the organizations 75-year awards legacy, continue to be among he most prestigious in the nation. And much of their acceptance and success is founded in selection criteria that includes both “aesthetic judgments and an evaluation of communication effectiveness.”

    Explains Margaret Youngblood, executive creative director of Landor Associations and a former AIGA competition chairwoman, “Our primary job as designers is to translate the client's truths into something that is clear, informative, distinctive and differentiated in the consumer's mind. And because we are designers, we have a need to do this in a way that is in agreement with our own aesthetics or our definition of beauty.” Nevertheless, Youngblood acknowledges that sometimes the graphic designer's definition of beauty is in direct opposition to the client's truth. “But we proceed anyway,” says Youngblood, “because it meets our aesthetic standards.” In the process, however, a lie is told, and the consumer's trust is violated. “The aesthetic,” says Youngblood, “has masked the truth.”

    Design excellence, says Youngblood, is a complex process involving creativity, inspiration, skill and discipline. And yet, all these elements need to be judged within the context of purpose and the primary objective of the piece. “As designers, we play a major role in shaping the messages relayed to consumer society,” says Youngblood. “But we are by no means above it. We are consumers ourselves; buying products and services to survive, we have all experienced the feeling of being manipulated and mislead by disingenuous advertising promotions, packaging, brochures and merchandising.” Says Youngblood, the designer-facilitated dialogue between producer and consumer becomes a two-fold proposition: the consumer needs to trust the companies and organizations providing these products and services, therefore the primary objective of every piece of those companies' communications is – or should be – to be honest.

    And those critical concerns stand at the center of the process by which jurors weigh the merits of each contestant for the AIGA awards. “The goal is to select design communications that are honest, preserve trust and meet the highest standards of design excellence,” says Youngblood. “And can there be better criteria?”

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