A Look Inside AIGA's 2011 Design Competitions

This year, for the first time, AIGA ran three national design competitions—“365 | Design Effectiveness,” “Making the Case” and “50 Books/50 Covers”—asking designers to not only submit their best work but also articulate what made it effective. Specifically, they were asked to share the secrets of their success from both their own and the client’s perspective, supported by metrics and the story behind their approach.

Having just joined AIGA's national office in February, I was thrilled for the chance to report on this new criteria, and also to gain a deeper understanding of the organization’s goals.

Getting beyond the superficial

For more than a decade, AIGA members have encouraged AIGA to use effectiveness criteria more explicitly in judging its competitions, since these criteria, not aesthetics, define their relationship with clients and the problems successful designers solve. Also, there are many sources for visual inspiration—more and more every day—but few places that celebrate what comes before and after. We saw a void and the competitions as our opportunity to fill it. 

But that wouldn't be easy.

As any of this year's jurors can attest, measuring effectiveness is a tricky, multi-layered process—a beast that's hard to tame, with a penchant for getting messy.

The judging began bright and early, over breakfast in late spring, as Gabriela Mirensky, AIGA’s director of competitions, explained the process: In the first round, each juror would review all of the submissions, placing a sticker on the ones he or she thought merited another look. (Judging for the “Making the Case” competition was done electronically.) Those with at least one sticker would make it to the next round, and then the jurors as a group would debate and narrow down those selections to the finalists. At lunch, I asked how those evaluations went, and throughout the judging I listened in as they sorted through pieces and wrangled with what effectiveness means to design excellence.

Why so complicated?

Just as beauty can take many forms, so can effectiveness, and therein lies the complexity. What makes a design effective depends on a variety of factors—intent and medium being the big ones—and you can’t apply one definition to it, nor can you measure it with one set of metrics. With so many possible legitimate responses to the questions this year’s competitions posed, how does a designer know which one is the most appropriate, and then how does a juror evaluate it?

Articulating effectiveness

The tough part. Fulfilling the effectiveness criteria on the entry form proved quite challenging. Jurors were surprised to see responses like “My client told me they liked it” as evidence of success and even “N/A.” Some had a lot to say, but many upon closer inspection still weren’t addressing effectiveness in the way expected. In general, people seemed to have a hard time differentiating between client satisfaction and the design’s goal. Saying the client is happy is a start, but the jurors wanted to know more. How did the design satisfy the client’s goals, making him or her happy?

There are many reasons why entrants might have struggled. As Gaby Brink, chair of the “365 | Design Effectiveness” and “Making the Case” competitions, pointed out, “Designers often finish a project and then move on.” Checking back in or sticking around to collect metrics isn’t a number-one priority. What’s more, even if designers are interested in metrics, clients aren’t always willing to share them. This year’s competitions were intended to start to shift both those realities.

Another challenge could be the medium. Across the board, jurors noted that from their experience, designers are very articulate expressing their ideas—in person. So the obstacle may be the act of writing itself. The word limit on answers was an easy rule to overlook, and the questions had been very broad, with lots of room to go astray. Perhaps more pointed questions and strongly enforcing a word count would help.

What worked well. The responses that the jurors thought worked best were succinct, with clean and simple metrics; for example, “The client received an RSVP for every invitation sent.” They also appreciated those that said how the client’s mission statement shaped their design approach. More than anything, as jurors sorted through the answers to the effectiveness questions, they realized that, actually, they had a lot of questions of their own.

Defining effectiveness

The competitions this year were about evaluating design on a more meaningful level, one that strives to showcase excellent design that has both “beauty and brains.” The way the competitions asked people to define effectiveness wasn’t perfect. A general understanding of how to articulate effectiveness wasn’t clear. But the point was to move the needle, to get designers to start thinking about issues like “What’s the goal?” and “Who is the audience?” and design’s impact on society, the economy, culture and the environment. As the jurors reviewed submissions with this purpose in mind, they also addressed areas of uncertainty on the judging side:

  • If a design is visually unappealing but it has a strong effectiveness story, should we still consider it?
  • Should whether or not someone included metrics be a deal breaker?
  • If this year’s competitions are about effectiveness, is it OK to recognize lighter stuff as well as, say, medical packaging?
  • Are we judging the intent? For example, is design created to sell more vodka less effective than design created to combat plastic-bottle pollution?
  • Can design be effective anymore if it exists in only a single medium?
  • Historically, has our spectrum of “good” design been too narrow? Is design effective as long as it’s appropriate for its audience?

Some of these questions don’t have clear answers yet, but many were resolved during this year’s judging process. Most important, in response to the first question—If a design is visually unappealing but it has a strong effectiveness story, should we still consider it?—the answer is no. This year’s jurors all agreed that design excellence is the successful pairing of aesthetics with effectiveness. One should not be sacrificed for the other.

Half of that definition—the aesthetics part—is quite clear. We recognize and, for the most part, can agree on formally attractive design. In contrast, our vision for effectiveness is just starting to come into focus. Culled from conversations with this year’s jurors, here’s the view so far:

  • Design that moves beyond the client’s expectations
  • Design that doesn’t follow the trope
  • Design whose impact aligns with the project’s intent
  • Design that changes the practice
  • Design that incorporates one strong “idea nugget” into all of its pieces
  • Design that others could and would want to replicate
  • Design that is value driven
  • Design that helps get buy-in internally
  • Design that is scalable and has the ability to morph, striking a balance between continuity and flexibility
  • Design that matches and achieves the client’s goal with the best technology
  • Design that entices you to want to learn more
  • Design that gains wide support and acceptance from the target audience
  • Design that translates well across platforms
  • Design that considers and matches the target audience
  • Design that raises awareness about a social issue
  • Design that helps clients get the most bang for their buck
  • Design that makes you shriek with delight (as one book cover indeed did)

Again, the challenge of defining effective design is that no design will have all of these characteristics, nor must it. But it is important to continue to build out our perception of what effectiveness means, and what are the required components of design that “works.”

You be the judge.

What do you think are the required elements of effective design? What else should be on this list? And what questions would help you best express your design's effectiveness?

Ed. note: A sincere thanks to all of our hardworking jurors for 365 | Design Effectiveness, 50 Books/50 Covers and Making the Case! Each competition's selections will be announced in September on Design Archives and AIGA.org.