Michael Bierut | Essays

You May Already Be a Winner

Poster announcing seven accepted entries in the Twentieth Communication Arts Design Annual, Woody Pirtle and Luis Acevedo, 1979

My first internship at a "real" design firm was a bit of a bust. It was an old-school Midwestern commercial art studio, turning out hackwork on a dime with no high design pretensions. But it did have an incredible library. No Walter Benjamin or Guy Debord for these guys. Instead, we had competition annuals. More than a decade of Communication Arts. New York Art Directors Club awards books going back to the 40s. A foot-and-a-half of Graphis. Between putting tissues on mechanicals and thinning two-coat rubber cement, I spent every free minute studying these books. After three months, I could tell you the names of every art director who had worked on Volkswagen at Doyle Dane Bernbach, the best package designers in Chicago, and the up-and-coming illustrators from Smyrna, Georgia. Out in the middle of nowhere, those books were like Bibles to me, and everything in them struck me with the irresistible force of revealed truth.

Whatever happened to design competitions? Are they still important? Were they ever important?

There was a time when entering, and winning, design competitions was the one true path to fame and fortune in the field of graphic design. A young designer like Woody Pirtle could burst on the national design scene from the obscure reaches of Dallas, Texas, by getting seven entries in the CA Design Annual only after eighteen months in business. (Naturally, he then produced a poster promoting this achievement, which was then entered in the following year's competitions.) Gaining a profile in the annuals led to feature stories, speaking engagements, board positions, calls from headhunters. Design competitions don't seem to have the same power today.

Not all competitions are alike, of course. CA is legendary for its selectivity; although there are no golds or silvers, it's easier, statistically, to get into Harvard. The Art Directors Club books are the most exhaustive, with categories and award levels to challenge the Olympics. The AIGA's 50 Books of the Year may be the oldest, going back to 1922. The D&AD competition is arguably the most prestigious of all, with their highest honor, gold, bestowed rarely; I have heard aficionados recite the names and years of D&AD gold winners like soccer fans remembering World Cup victories.

In other ways, though, juried graphic design competitions are all the same. They seem mysterious and vaguely awe-inspiring until you judge one. Then you discover that the process has all the glamour of digging a ditch. The judges are presented with rooms filled with hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of pieces of graphic design. They are asked to examine each one individually and decide its worthiness. The up-or-down voting process gets tabulated different ways in different competitions, but the one constant is that the decision takes seconds. Corporate identities informed by elaborate marketing briefs, coffee-table books with thousands of pages, annual reports months in the making, packages that were subjected to hours of consumer testing: each entry has just a moment to make an impression with a judge who has to look at hundreds more before lunchtime. The decision process by necessity devolves to a simple question: is this thing cool-looking? Yes. No. Next!

All this helps to clarify what you should and shouldn't bother entering. What tends to win graphic design competitions are cool-looking solutions to easily understood problems. (Of course, if something is extremely cool-looking, the problem it solves doesn't have to be understood.) Your reward as a winner is seeing your entry reproduced with neither a rationale for its creation nor an explanation for its inclusion. You may also have to pay a "hanging fee" on top of your entry fee; on top of everything else, competitions are big money makers for their sponsors.

There have been exceptions. ID magazine has long included judges' comments in their design awards issue; these are seldom revelatory but at least provide some background behind the selections. And sorely missed is the late, lamented ACD 100 Show, for which the American Center for Design's president Katherine McCoy instigated a format in the early 90s that was a true breakthrough. Each of the competition's three judges made individual selections and in effect "curated" their own shows, and matched the selections with often idiosyncratic commentary. The resulting publications, organized and edited by designers like 2x4, Andrew Blauvelt, Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, Rudy Vanderlans, and Barbara Glauber, were artifacts in their own right. They are collectibles now, since the ACD and the 100 Show are both defunct.

But even at their most expansive, graphic design competitions exist in a hermetic world. Graphic designers give awards to other graphic designers for an audience of still more graphic designers. Frequently, the winning pieces play to the same in-group: letterheads for design firms, posters for design lectures, catalogs for design schools. And the outside world? Some clients are gratified when work they've commissioned wins awards; many designers say their clients don't care at all. Certainly, criteria like effectiveness or impact on users hardly ever come up.

As a result, designers may wonder if there is a point to these things. Some important ones choose to not play the game. Bruce Mau, for instance, states his position as item number 26 in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth: "Don't enter awards competitions. Just don't. It's not good for you."

I don't agree. The saving grace of design competitions, even at their most superficial and cosmetic, is that they return a bit of attention to something that's become easy to ignore: the design artifact. Our work, in the end, isn't about making manifestos or strategies or ideologies. All those things are important, but only in that they help make a real piece of graphic design that real people can experience. And those real pieces of graphic design, as empheral as they are, don't have many homes other than these much-derided design annuals.

I have one in front of me right now, The 34th Annual of the Art Directors Club of New York. It's 50 years old. 1955 was a transitional year for advertising and design. There are no shortage of those corny images of women in New Look dresses posing next to cars with big fins, happy housewives pouring Hunts tomato sauce over hamburgers. But there are other things. A Knoll swatchbook by Herbert Matter. A small space ad for the Glide Window Company by Saul Bass. A beautiful riff on the still-new CBS eye logo by its creator, William Golden. A classic Fortune cover by Leo Lionni, and a great Esquire by Henry Wolf.

Except for the CBS piece, I don't think I've seen any of these images reproduced anywhere else. If I hadn't bought this book for $5 at a yard sale a few years ago, I never would have seen them.

I have no doubt that 50 years ago there were people who felt that the 34th Annual Competition of the Art Directors Club was silly, trivial, an empty exercise in self-congratulation. But because of that seemingly trivial exercise, today we have a record of what design was like then. If that's not good for us, what is?

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [56]

Great topic.

I've spent about a year working on a decently high profile project and I feel it stands a decent chance of getting selected for some competitions. I haven't had this sort of opportunity so far in my career, so if it were to get selected for some things, I guess I'd look at it as some vindication that my career is actually going somewhere (I've had my doubts).

What Bruce Mau maybe isn't taking into consideration that we all more or less have a desire to have other people tell us "Hey, you're actually doing a pretty good job."

Now, maybe when you're a talented, big-time guy like Bruce, you don't need that affirmation, but speaking from where I currently stand, I definitely wouldn't mind it. :)

Yes, those annuals provide an important resource for anyone doing design history research, though you have to be very careful not to allow the historical picture to be skewed by the few things that make it through the filter.

And yes, those D&AD golds are fiendishly hard to obtain. So, lest we forget (what we may not have known in the first place), I'm going to grab the opportunity to direct readers towards a film-maker with a design sensibility, who won a D&AD gold award in the early 1960s for a superb piece of work which you can see on a recently released DVD.
Rick Poynor

Great post, Michael. I think I first read your name in an annual when I was 16 or so, when I spent my summer scanning at Target headquarters in Minneapolis. Their first library was similar to the one you describe, and I'd regularly haul books back and forth, studying, taking notes, making drawings, and memorizing typefaces. Design annuals are wonderful artifacts of the past. You can see a lot of what's lasted and what hasn't in their pages.

But they are also wonderful motivators for the future. Other than teaching, the majority of the new designers we've met have seen our work in an annual somewhere. And while I can't deny that it's nice to get a pat on the back now and then, it's an even greater thrill broaden our horizons by meeting those motivated design students who, as we once did, pore over annuals with delight.
Rob Giampietro

I wonder if there isn't a need for - yes - a People's Choice Award for graphic design. Michael notes that the world of graphic design is pretty hermetic, and yet its end-products are accessible to all. An example of this in action is Threadless.com, where designs are voted on by the public, and the ones with the most votes get produced.

The entire process - from nominations to voting - should be driven by the public and tallied by computer. I wonder how the results of such a poll would parallel or diverge with the sort of things that win awards in juried competitions.

Before this thread turns into a love-fest where everyone shares their tales of great days taking inspiration in the library as students from the immortal design greats, etc. etc., it's worth remembering that the idea of the design competition is highly problematic.

One of the best critiques was written in 1993 by Michael Rock in an annual published for the American Center for Design's 15th 100 Show.

"At its weakest," notes Rock, "the show presents a skewed version of the profession and an illegible mishmash of supposedly representative work. Since the show attracts entries that mimic previous winners, the contest reconstitutes itself each year in the same self-perpetuating form. The entrants know what kind of work will win or won't win, and what won't win is the majority of work that you or I ... do almost every day."

Anyone with a serious interest in the logistics, professional politics and limitations of design competitions should search out Rock's essay.

The 100 show was chaired that year by none other than ... Michael Bierut. I assume he commissioned Rock's text.
Rick Poynor

I love it when designers say awards shows dont't matter. 9 times out of 10 this only confirms they haven't won any.
felix sockwell

A piece of mine was recently was selected for a design annual (I won't mention the name of the magazine), and although being selected was a big thrill, there were two things that really diminished the experience. First, after paying the entry fee and being selected, we had to pay $250 to actually get printed in the magazine. Although the letter they sent out with the certificates implied that only 15% of the entrants were selected, it made me wonder if they didn't just send certificates to everyone in the hopes that they fork over the $250. Do all annuals work like this? Second, the quality of much of the work in the annual was pretty bad, and in some cases almost embarrassing to be included with (not to sound cocky, but some of the stuff looked it it was done by a beginner with clip art).

I love design annuals, but I'd love to see more commentary from both the designer and judges about the pieces. Looking at a nice piece is great, but being able to learn a little more about it would be even better.

And why are they so damn expensive?!?!?!? $20 for a magazine? Come on! They're generally only slightly bigger than a regular issue, and I would think that most of that cost is covered by all the entry fees.

(Thankfully, we subscribe at work, so I rarely have to buy them myself!)
Jonathan Hughes

Most awards shows are scams. One of my favorites- American Illustration- can be placed in such a category. The people who run the show (in this case the admirable Mark Heflin) arent the people running the company's show (in this case the brutal Corbis/ Images.com). Owners make the bad, short-sighted decisions (ie: lets say it costs this and then charge that).

Interesting aside: I had a piece in the AIGA 365 a few years ago and snagged a nicey- IKEA- who was apparently scouting thru it looking for someone. I rarely snag clients via awards but nontheless after we finshed I entered it into American Illustration- it was accepted.. yet neither of us cared to pay the additional $60 web hanging fee- which was never mentioned in the show's call for entires. Brutal, right?

"I hate awards shows" the client pouted. "I never enter. It's bad for the head".
felix sockwell

I have never entered a design competition. I can't say that I never plan to. And I also never say never.

I understand that people need to be compensated to jury these competitions, which is why we have entry fees. But I have been witness to competitions here in Chicago whose winners seem to be tied potically or financially to a juror or governing body. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Felix, I don't doubt that what you say is true - that people who think the shows don't matter haven't ever won an award. I, for one, have never won a design award. But I've also never tried.
Andrew Twigg

I love it when designers say awards shows dont't matter. 9 times out of 10 this only confirms they haven't won any.

Wrong. The designers who say awards shows don't matter have already won all the awards they need, so entering serves no purpose any more. Just like the ones who say they don't care about money, since they've already made a ton of it.

I'm with Michael--it's fine to complain about awards shows (or try to experiment with their format--see Jennifer Sterling's notorious AIGA 365 or this year's I.D. Annual), but in the end they are simply a record of some work that was made in the last year or so.

So we try to enter as many as we can (when we have time). I think it's kind of like voting--the more people that participate, the more accurate a cross-section the result can be. Of course we don't always win, but I still insist on entering whenever possible.

But as someone who has been lucky enough to get invited onto a few juries, I agree about the problems with the selection process. I can pick what I think I "like" or "don't like" in a few seconds, but isn't design supposed to be more complex than that?

Some keep the volume of entries down by charging exorbitant fees, but then the competition is skewed towards larger firms with more resources. Meanwhile, the shows with low fees (Print, GD USA, etc) end up with way too many winners and thus are hard to wade through.

I don't know what the answer is, but I sure do miss those ACD 100 annuals--especially the last two, which weren't published thanks to the ACD going under. We were supposed to have two projects in there and we never even got our entry fees back!
Scott Stowell

Interesting to get the other side, Rick. But I'd suggest that a juried compeititon of any creative enterprise is "highly problematic," and that it's not accurate to fault design in particular for the practice. In fact, it's quite the opposite: the issues that Rock discusses, of influence and representation, also come up in regard to other creative competitions, like prizes in architecture and art. The job of rationalizing the dialectic between the choices of a contest and the direction of an artform would seem to be one for the skilled critics in any circle to reckon with.
Rob Giampietro

I understand that people need to be compensated to jury these competitions, which is why we have entry fees.

No awards-show jurors are paid. The only compensation is travel expenses, and that's only when the juror is being flown in--which is the exception to the rule. Awards shows are a major (sometimes the major) source of income for the magazines and non-profits that mount them.
Scott Stowell

My first experience winning an award was the aformentioned "Now we have to pay what? .. for what?"

Now I'm on the other end, embroiled in organizing an awards show (the GDC's biennial Graphex awards), and I can honestly say it's a daunting task, and we've only just started. Things are a little different here, because in Canada we have such a small base to draw from, the total we rake in from the thing barely covers our costs. AND we're working on all-volunteer labour and sponsor donations for everything we possibly can. (The printing costs on the catalogue alone are way more than we could ever afford.) So I have some sympathy with the fees issue.

But again, I agree that if for nothing else, they really are a great archive of work for the future. For all their flaws in choosing criteria (and ours does include a design rationale), it's better than nothin'.
marian bantjes

No one is wrong or right here (and no one is on the McLaughlin Group!). When you come from the quintessential rough and tumble competitive design city (as Pirtle-from Dallas) awards are a bittersweat seduction. Alot of confused designers claim to hate awards then post award winning design firm on their website and PR correspondence. Almost, but not as bad as boasting member of the AIGA on one's business card. Jesus Louise.

I wish I were Christoph Niemann, never mailig a single postcard and never entering shows (OK. OK aside from AI- he enters that one), but alas I'm no bonified German genius.
felix sockwell

Over here in France, we don't have many award competitions, and this probably accounts for the overall mediocrity of French graphic design (there are many other causes, off course, but they are not part of the current discussion). Graphic designers are generally put in the spotlight when being comissioned by a state-funded institution, museum, theater, etc., whose consultations are generally run in the most obscure way.
Anyway, the NYTDC exhibition used to be showed in a Paris gallery back when I was a student, and it provided me with the opportunity to see many real graphic design artefacts by the likes of Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Michael Bierut, Fred Woodward, Charles S. Anderson (this guy was huge in those days), et al. I miss these shows a lot.
Stéphane Darricau

I think it would be wrong to argue that awards shows are not important - clearly they are. I, too, love looking at them, and buying older ones at yard sales. But Michael also makes a claim in his original post that really bothers me: "The saving grace of design competitions, even at their most superficial and cosmetic, is that they return a bit of attention to something that's become easy to ignore: the design artifact." What an extraordinary statement. It's my sense that design writers have for years been trying to broaden the terms of discussion and debate within design circles to include something other than just the "artifact". (Note that I'm saying "broaden" and "include", not "change".) As one famous designer put it quite recently: "All you have to do is go back to issues of Communication Arts in the 1970s, and graphic design feels like the dumbest fucking field on earth.... zero, zip, nada intellectual content." (That's Michael, quoted in Heller & Pettit's 1998 book Design Dialogues.)

So, I think Michael is ignoring over a decade of design history and criticism - a movement he's been intimately involved with - when he says, almost as an afterthought: "Our work, in the end, isn't about making manifestos or strategies or ideologies. All those things are important, but only in that they help make a real piece of graphic design that real people can experience." in stark contrast, here's Steve Heller in 1994: We need "a body of criticism that will help legitimize the graphic design profession - in the way it did for architecture and industrial design." And Rick Poynor in 1995: "we need, in short, a more academic form of criticism to compare with those generated by, for instance, art, literature or cultural studies." As long as we understand graphic design history and criticism as being useful only when they're helping us produce "real" graphic design, this business we love will remain more of a trade than a profession.
Matt Soar

Oops... Sorry for the "off course", of course...
Stéphane Darricau

Matt, I grant all your points, but I have observed with wonder how reluctant design theorists are to engage with actual designed objects. Bodies of work, yes. Ideological movements, fine. But individual products of graphic design practice? For the most part, forget about it. When has the "artifact" actualy been discussed critically, except for the occasional historic overview?

Of course, I don't intend to demean design thinking. But I have found it, so far at least, a faulty lens to view the actual things that graphic designers make as part of their practice.
Michael Bierut

how reluctant design theorists are to engage with actual designed objects

I've been mistaken for a design theorist so I'll say I don't think I'm reluctant to discuss one specific thing produced by a designer. Would focusing on Sagmeister's AIGA Detroit poster in my Rant essay qualify as an exception? Or are you thinking of more "mundane" design artifacts?

I do such analysis all the time. At the start of every semester, I have new students bring in all sorts of design stuff and I discuss them just the way I've written about anything (yes, pity them). If it hasn't happened often in print, for me, it's just one of those things, not an avoidance.

I will now make the obligatory comment about how unpopular any critique is (better than in the pre-Rant days but not a whole lot) so there's the issue of who's going to commission/support it.

Still, I don't see this as a rebuke but a challenge. Point at anything and I'll channel it.
Kenneth FitzGerald

I question Michael's premise that design annuals are good because they preserve the past. In my opinion, they present a horribly skewed version of the history of graphic design. Not only because of the questionable selection process, but because the work is rarely shown in its actual context.

For example, I drive past the Citibank identity on a building in Denver every day on my way to work. It's a great identity and I'm sure it has won more than its share of awards, but let me tell you: that thing looks like absolute dog shit on the side of this particular building. If it wasn't so famously designed by Pentagram, I'd take a picture of it and enter it into a design competition. There is no way it would win a single award. But, it's technically the same award-winning identity, except instead of being surrounded by a clean white page, it is surrounded by dirt and a few members of Denver's homeless population.

Same goes for Landor's BP identity. Sure, it's great in controlled environments, but I filled up at a BP station earlier today that was scuzzy, dirty, and covered in handwritten signs telling me that I could only pay with a credit card. People looking back fifty years from now at the BP identity in an old annual will have a skewed perspective on the reality of these designed objects. The reality is that many of them look like shit in real life, regardless of whether they were designed by Pentagram or Chermayeff and Geismar or your neighbor Bob in his basement.

Michael addresses a similar idea in a previous article on Design Observer about architectural renderings:

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building became a post-modern cause celebre because its Chippendale profile was presented, again and again, in point-blank Palladian elevation; no matter that no one has ever seen the real building that way, or ever will. Again and again, architects present their offerings in splendid isolation, editing out anything that inconveniently impedes the view, adding those props that support the rhetorical theme.

Isn't a building presented without a context the same as a logo presented on a blank page? Logos don't exist on blank pages just like buildings don't exist in contextless environments. Michael suggests in the same article that architectural renderings -- even when borderline-fantasy -- provide a direction and make people believe in the idea behind a building before it is built. It seems like graphic designers do the same thing in annuals, only after the fact. If annuals are for documenting history, then why are we documenting such a fake version history?

A few weeks ago a mentor and former boss told me, "I hope graphic design fucking dies. As soon as possible." Even though I'm a wide-eyed kid right out of design school, I'm really starting to agree with him.

To me, graphic design only seems important when it is in collaboration with other fields: architecture, interior design, business planning, writing, interface design, etc. What good is the BP identity if it doesn't mean anything to the guy who runs the BP gas station? How can we have a good experience at BP if the interface of a gas pump is a pain in the ass to use? What good is a great typeface if what we're saying is meaningless? What good are the things we are designing if we don't consider the various contexts and activities in which they are experienced? What good are the images in design annuals if they don't tell us anything real about the winning designs? More importantly, how can these designed objects be evaluated when the judges itself know nothing about the context of the designed object?

Call me crazy, but when graphic design is placed on a pedistal without context, it all seems kind of pointless. Maybe this question is stemming from the naivety of my age, but what is the purpose of graphic design? Certainly there is a need for expertise in specific fields of design, but graphic design annuals seem to have lost sight of the big picture of holistic designed experiences.
Ryan Nee

I'd actually love to see a 'People's Choice Design Awards'. We have them for film, TV, books, music, etc - why not design? Design Awards are judged by designers who may not be fully appreciative of the real context of a piece of design. They can guesstimate a design's effectiveness with its audience, remark on how interesting its typography or colour or other formal element may be (and that can be quite illuminating) - but how did the users of the actual real, live design artefact respond to it?

The proof of a pudding is in the eating.
Andrew Haig

For example, I drive past the Citibank identity on a building in Denver every day on my way to work. It's a great identity and I'm sure it has won more than its share of awards...

It's never won an award, to my knowledge. Big corporate identities seldom do, since they can never be as satisfyingly clever as a logo for a florist.
Michael Bierut

People looking back fifty years from now at the BP identity in an old annual will have a skewed perspective on the reality of these designed objects. The reality is that many of them look like shit in real life, regardless of whether they were designed by Pentagram or Chermayeff and Geismar or your neighbor Bob in his basement.

Very good point. And I would suggest there is almost nothing designers can do about this and to think anything else, as many designers once did, is sheer hubris. Nothing stays constant. Things will always fray and fail and diverge from the masterplan. Ordinary people -- the guy at the cash desk in the garage -- will always fall short of the expectations built into the design scheme, which looked so convincing in the drawings and plans.

Might there be a way of designing and involving people in the processes of design that allows for this? Were things often better, perhaps, when the look of environments evolved at a more local level, arising from the skills and preferences of the people who would inhabit and use them? Do these moments when design's would-be perfect veneer splits apart tell us something about where we might be going wrong with our belief in the voodoo of branding?

Annuals, which embalm instances of putative perfection for our open-mouthed admiration, simply reinforce design's ultimately unrealisable fantasy of visual seamlessness and control.
Rick Poynor

Personally, I think the notion of annuals as embalmed instances of putative perfection deserves its own post.
jessica Helfand

Is it just me, or does the idea of design competition miss the whole point of design success? I was under the impression that design exists to solve problems of communication and usability. I'm afraid that the only award that has any relevance to design, in my opinion, is how successful it was for its intended purpose (generally for the client). If it didn't benefit the client or the user, it was a suckass design.

Or am I wrong?

Personally I think the whole topic of Design comps has been beaten to death. Some hate them others run their shops by them. I do however like the idea Michael points out about a sort of historical record of the trends that carry through our profession. It seems like you can take any qiven set of annuals from a time period and see how the entire industry uses them to direct their design for the coming year (Make it look like this...)

One thing I dont get though is the classification of competitions. I was looking through a self promotion annual from last year and it seemed no different than a regular design comp. Seemed like quite a few of the pieces were from designers for someone else. HOW does that qualify as self-promotion?

Personally I think sites like this and others do more to further our profession than any design competition could ever do...

Might there be a way of designing and involving people in the processes of design that allows for this? Were things often better, perhaps, when the look of environments evolved at a more local level, arising from the skills and preferences of the people who would inhabit and use them?

Michael, I think some forward-thinking companies are doing this themselves. Witness Trader Joe's, the specialty boutique-style grocery chain. At the local level, store employees are encouraged to create their own signage and murals, store "captains" also take time to listen and respond to feedback from customers. This works alongside their great design, which also deeply informs each store experience. Shopping in one of these places is an engaging time, and the package designs seem right at home in their environments.

So, maybe it's more of a back-and-forth between clients and designers--and I mean this: We design, you alter the physical experience. You adjust the physical experiences, we tweak the designs. I thought this was supposed to be the ideal designer/client experience, but often it seems like busy/proud/disinterested designers don't do this crucial follow-through. (Is it because clients often just want to be "finished" with such a difficult process? Or maybe designers feel that the work is too good to "adjust" after the fact? Or maybe it's too humbling to acknowledge that initial research + conclusions could be improved upon.)

THIS back-and-forth kind of design should win awards. Of course, you can't explain this in a 3-sentence design annual blurb.
Tim Lapetino

In my younger, more "anti-everything" days, I was indeed "anti-"design competitions for many of the reasons cited in the posts here. It was my current partner that convinced me that entering them was good for our business in the long run, and so, begrudgingly, I played ball. We've won some awards since, we've got some nibbles from potential clients who saw the work published, and I admit it was rather nice to be honored for work that often goes unappreciated by most (especially outside design), and rarely yields rewards beyond one's own personal satisfaction.

That novel feeling of peer appreciation does get old quick. But as a practitioner who also teaches and writes about design, I also have a desire to contribute to, if not sway, the high level discussion about my chosen practice. As John Bielenberg told me recently, getting work into competitions gets you the interviews, the chance to judge other contests, and write articles or give talks that get your views out into the larger design arena.

Though, these days, posting regularly on a influential blog may do the trick, too.
Eric Heiman

I love it when designers say awards shows dont't matter. 9 times out of 10 this only confirms they haven't won any.

I love it when name designers make statements like this. It only confirms what pompous, self-important, elitist pricks they really are.

Guy B Bored

It's not that I completely disagree with "fatnuckle's" comment that sites like DO offer more to further the profession than design competitions judged by admittedly cursory overviews (thanks for the insight, Scott Stowell!). However, as visual thinkers, I do think that competitions (or perhaps, more broadly, exhibitions) of the work currently being done in the profession is also a valid catalyst for discourse. By nature of what we do, we rely on the visual manifestation of thoughts. The writing about our ideas is crucial to forwarding the field, but how can we get away from the imagery?!

I, too, used to be highly skeptical of competitions (anti-?), feeling like it was searching for validation. And, it is. But I've realized that that's not something that's inherently negative. Recognition (whether our own or not) serves as encouragement & revitalization when our energy levels are sapped; it exposes us to the work of other designers in other regions or areas of specialization; it may garner some additional clients (who are presumably design savvy if they seek out the designers as a result of the awards we're discussing here), and it preserves a moment (year/decade) in time for historical preservation, as Michael had pointed out.

The problem isn't necessarily with the existence of award shows, but perhaps in how the shows are structured and judged. Maybe this is what we can begin to re-evaluate? I'd be especially interested in comments from those who have judged competitions over the years.
tracy kroop

St. Michael:

I'm in no way Defending Bruce Mau. Only to say that his Mantra of not entering Design Competitions has been heard before by other Designers from the past. Most notably Saul Bass, and Erik Nitsche and a few others.

They didn't enter for reasons very different than Mau.

Baseline Magazine a few years ago when they began profiling Designers released that information about Bass. Something I'd heard from former associates.

Generally the clients submitted his work. I don't know how much of that is true. His work is was also in Foreign Annuals.

Fifty years ago Bass said "if he wasn't a Designer he would've been an Archeologist. His son Jefferey is an Archeologist".
Every Designer of late from A-Z I've read something about has iterated 'if they were not a Designer they would be an Archeologist'. Go Figure... So much for Original Thinking.

Anyway, there are two many Award Competitions. Other than the Big Four, AIGA, D&AD, Art Directors, CA. I don't think the others are as Prestigious. They allow inclusiveness which is Great.

That's neither Good or Bad.

For Identity Designers American Corporate Identity and Graphis are our Holly Grail.

Based on my Research, Logo Lounge has lost some Major, Major Stock in the area of Credibility.

In many ways I think the quality of work that enters these Annuals have been watered down. Or the quality of work that get into these annuals is not on the same level of the past.

I can definitely attest to the digression of Identity Design and Poster Design of all said annuals.

The Very Best Design Annuals were British.
Far Superior to their American Brethren. Most important International in Scope.

Just like The British are the Best Sartorial Dressed Men in the World. Needless to say they make the best Shoes.

My Favorites have always been the above referenced four along with Modern Publicity a British Publication. In many respects head and shoulders above all four in reference to quality of work submitted.

Another British Publication Penrose Annual.

Definitely Graphis Annual, also British was a staple of the Design Industry for decades.

International Poster Annual, (IPA) published by Arthur Niggli Ltd Switzerland was an AWESOME Presentation of Modern Poster Design. In a league by itself.

If not for Graphis, there would not be a publication dedicated solely to Identity Design.

In reference to Prestige on American Soil AIGA, ADC, D&AD and CA are what you Aspire.

Within the International Arena of Design you could not consider yourself a Design God or World Design Master unless you were consistently showcased in Modern Publicity, Graphis, International Poster Annual or asked to submit work to be Published, Featured and Dedicated as an Idea Special Issue.

The Designers that constantly showcased in Graphis, Modern Publicity, and IPA were largely responsible for becoming members of Design most Elite Brotherhood The Alliance Graphique Internationale. Without question the most Presitgious Organization.

Most important, there was no other vehicle to witness the competitiveness of International Design other than these Annuals. You could not see the work of Abram Games, Tony Zepf, Roman Cieslewicz, Tom Eckersly, Bernard Villemott, Milner Gray, Franco Bassi, Franco Grignani (others).
All whom were equals to Bass, Rand, Beall, Lustig, and Golden.

I also have the 1956 Annual of the Art Directors Club Annual in my Archive.
Sitting on my Desk now as it has alway been is the 35th Art Directors Club Annual dated 1956 Cover Design by George Giusti. Along with a Publication by the Alliance Graphique Internationale before you became a member.

Looking through ADC 34 with the exception of Illustration no longer in use today. Also there are no Art or Design Houses with Big Names to Represent anymore. There were Art & Design Houses such as Lester Rossin Associates that could boast of having access to Great Designers Bass, Bob Gill. Noted Illustrators, Ray Prohaska, Jerome Snyder, Thomas Vickery. These Associations also did Retouching, Mechanicles, Lettering, and Photography.

Others such as Mel Richman Studios, another Art & Design House claimed the same with other noted Designers and Illustrators.

I always wondered when I looked at these publications when I was younger how these Art & Design Houses could claim to have all these supposedly Famous and Busy Artist and Designers at there Finger Tips?

If you have ADC 34 wonderful Feature on Georg Olden. Director of Television Graphic Arts 1943. The first Noted Designer to venture into Title Design and Film before Saul Bass, Morton Goldsholl, Maurice Binder, Phil Norman, Howard A. Anderson, Pablo Ferro, Dan Perri, etc.

I say venture into Film because early Television was shot with Film. Video tape had not been invented.


I love it when name designers make statements like this. It only confirms what pompous, self-important, elitist pricks they really are. -Posted by: Guy B Bored

you are correct on all counts!... but at least i have the balls to speak my opinion- and more importantly not hide behind a moniker that is, among other things, boring.

felix sockwell

Getting back to Woody/ his relevance to today, I recently bought a copy of Pentagram's Profile wherein John Hockenberry relates Woody's story- rehashing his "indefatigable" work ethic. I always amired (ok, worshipped) Woody but found some of the writing (on him and others) a bit meandering and trite (do we need to call all good designers artists?).

If so we'll have to start entering our design elsewhere.
felix sockwell

In my experience, the exhaustion involved in judging a design competition is perfectly mirrored in the fatigue created by perusing the annual. Design competitions serve a valuable professional function for the designers who enter them (and even those who judge them) but I question whether their overwrought publications really present "authentic design artifacts."

The problem with the proposition that an annual represents "a record of what design was like then," is that it implies that we might be able to get together for an afternoon and sum up "what design is like now." As much as anything, design annuals chronicle the profession's misconceptions about itself at a given moment. It's not that old design annuals are useless but one has to remember that what designers liked then is not the same thing as what design was like then.

Design annuals always strike me as artificial, especially because records of design are a naturally occurring phenomenon. Look in the background of any film, the ad pages of any magazine (besides a design magazine) and there it is -- the graphic design of the time! Not only do these organic design annuals provide valuable context for the work, they also present projects that have survived a much more rigorous selection process -- the free market. I'd even be willing to bet that the ratio of good work to bad won't be so different from that found in Graphis or the AIGA 365.



"I'd even be willing to bet that the ratio of good work to bad won't be so different from that found in Graphis or the AIGA 365".

What you will find if you compare and contrast Graphis and AIGA Annuals. There really isn't or has there ever been an American Dominance in Design. Only Cultural and Stylistic Differences when you compare and Contrast work of Designers of International Repute from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

AIGA 365 is a young publication in its infancy compared to Graphis. The AIGA didn't began Mass Marketing Chronology of Design Ephemera until 1981. Before then the publications were small confined and restricted to members only if I'm not mistaken. A better comparison would be the Art Directors Club Annuals or the Society of Illustrators Annual. Since Visual Communication was Dominated by Illustration at the Turn of the Century. The Art Directors Club Annual date back to the 1920s. Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of Design History is depending on what you're researching.
One thing for certain, Visual Communication annuals are at the very BEST an Accurate Portrayal of whom Practiced Design and Illustration. As well whom submitted work. These Annuals are a Visual Communication Census in that respect.

If a student asked me about Legendary Identity Designer G. Dean Smith whom Designed the Identities for Channel 7, Yosemite Park, Corn Nuts, Boise Cascade, collaborated on AT&T (others).
There's only one article to my knowledge ever written about G. Dean Smith. I could direct that student to a plethora of Annuals where his work exist. Type in G. Dean Smith in your web browser and the Internet cannot provide you with any information. :( and :'(

That is what Michael Bierut is referencing on many levels. The Annuals of Design Census may not be accurate that's all we're got except a few museums. Which depend on the accuracy of Records, Journals and Design Annuals.

To reference your point about Film being an accurate portrayal of history and ephemera. Film Historians and model makers depend on Photography, Industrial Design, and Fashion of the given era to accurately represent history.


Personally, I'd rather see money and energy go into educating business and government leaders (on the value of design). If AIGA and CA (et al) spent the same energy and time promoting design to (shocker!) non-designers we'd all be better off.

Granted it's not really a CAs place to educate, but they would serve the industry better in that capacity, and I have to believe they have a vested interest in that. It is in the AIGA's interest for sure.

I've won some awards, been published, whatever. And I can tell you, since I am not in a NYC, an LA or a MINN - it is nice to know that someone somewhere who really appreciates design is paying attention. Out here in the 'burbs where *most* designers live...it's a nice feeling. It never translated to work, never thought it would. But it did give a nice pat on the back - and around here thats fairly rare.

> In my experience, the exhaustion involved in judging a design competition is perfectly mirrored in the fatigue created by perusing the annual.

Not quite Dmitri. As noted above, judges are gathered together to view several thousand pieces.

What's not mentioned is:
1. the eye muscle fatigue after two days of constant scanning.
2. the back ache from bending, ever so slightly, over tables meant for sitting.
3. the catering.
4. the blood sugar drop from too much coffee and too many pastries.
5. the fight to keep awake when sitting in a warm room and looking at slides.
6. the anguish when your favorite artist doesn't get in.
7. the anguish when your favorite artist submits bad work.
8. a brain exhausted by all the "yoga positions" applied to one's rationale.

and worst of all...

8. being forced to restrict all the embarrassing and/or gross things one does when nobody's looking — because you're trapped in a room with perfect strangers.

Oh, the horror.
m. kingsley

I give thanks for this topic and that relates to everyone.

Having a great opportunity to design a project, making my client happy on the way and being super proud of my work is enough for my contentment. That's the real reward, and it should not be judged by another designer's eye to say whether that work should be "two thumbs up" or "simply avoid". If the project helped establish more business for the client, isn't that enough?

I can understand we need critics to keep up some sort of standard yet I immediately think of the documentary by "F for Fake" by Orsen Welles. I highly recommend it and I will not talk about it here but don't listen to a critic. OK I am diverging...

I would want to see a competition book that focus on why the judges did not pick the other entries instead, and what would better help that project move from good to great. We cannot learn from what is considered perfect work. People will view this work from a superficial level and will get a different focus on it's success. As much as these design award books are important and relevant, I just seem to see other designers I work with view these books as visual guides, and not jump into the concept or question why these works are so great.

When I see design sites with a section for "awards", I cringe or fall over, only to make me think this particular designer doesn't value his or her own work enough on their own or trust that anyone coming into the site knows better. They are relying on marketing (another source than what it really is) to tell others to take their work seriously.

It's always "ncie" when getting referred from other people to new clients or you hear from other people about what they think of your work with a passing comment is also good. However I usually smile and move on, forward and not dwell.

I also think competitions are celebrating what is the current common good, not the next great thing. It's already happened, it's yesterdays news. It is like the difference between reading the latest RSS feed news posted by the minute and seeing the same reporting in a magazine a few weeks later. I find 60's to 70's design to be highly regarded as good inspiration source, but the 80's? How many people pick up 80's deisgn books still?

I am always facinated at quotes made by reviewers for music and how it dominates most of the cover. You hear the music and you think what the hell did they talk about. I made a parody of this on my website and deliberately misquoted some quotes to mislead. Some quotes were sarcastically complementing my work...but you get the idea.

I would like to end by saying something totally non tight ass. An award is like a hard on. You think with your gold member and use it everywhere you go. You wake up the next morning totally regretting it but it's already too late...

Calvin Ho

"I find 60's to 70's design to be highly regarded as good inspiration source, but the 80's? How many people pick up 80's deisgn books still"?

You are a MAN with a very HIGH acumen for DESIGN.
Actually Originality began to Decline around 1975. The 80s Ugh !!!!


There are Web galleries and forums where designers can post work for feedback by their peers.

How many of you know of these places? How many of you look for these places? How many of you submit work to these sites or even offer comments to others?

What would it take to get you to visit and contribute to these sites?

Some designers are willing to share their work and would value input from such seasoned and gifted designers.

You don't need to change the purpose and format of competitions and annuals. The Web gallery format has the potential to fill many of the voids discussed in the previous comments.
Steven K.

I'm drawn to what Dmitri had to say about success as defined by a "more rigorous selection process -- the free market."

How about a show where you can't enter your own work? Hell, maybe even one where designers arent allowed even to submit.

I think that would be a far truer exposition on how design is perceived by those that it caters to.

did some research on that earlier statement. Cry babies have names too.

In the old days, a guy like James Victore could actually win awards for expressing a political opinion with good design. Not any more. If publishers would replace all of those cheeky florist logos/ chili cook-off posters with real dialogue we might actually affect something other than magazine sales.
felix sockwell

i feel that the Type Director's Club always includes at least a few pieces that are pretty forward thinking design-wise and not completely mainstream. its great to see pieces in it that would never survive the 'free market' alongside really good work for mainstream corporate clients. It's one of the few american design annuals that i find interesting. but there are at least a few international design annuals / competitions / surveys that i would be happy to find myself in because of the calibre of the work in them.

true, design annuals are filled with things that other designers like, and they are primarily for a design audience. i dont really understand the missionary zeal some people have, saying that these publications should push awareness of design in the greater public consciousness. these are trade journals, and most professions have them. whats wrong with having other designers as an audience? inadvertantly these annuals do become part of history, but is history-making really on people's minds when these are made?

Thanks for the comparative history of Graphis and AIGA 365 -- fascinating stuff. Of course, I was not comparing the two. I was comparing reading a design annual with reading a popular magazine of the same era, where you might encounter one of G.Dean Smith's identities in its "natural habitat" surrounded by countless other examples of "the design of the times."

My point about the background of film was also a bit uncler. I'm not talking about films that historicize graphic design. Scott Stowell's article "Accident Grotesk" (Trace, Issue 1, January 2001) clearly demonstrates the folly of typographic art direction in film. I'm talking about films in the realist tradition: news reels, documentaries, home movies, nouvelle vague, etc. Films that aim to capture life inevitably capture graphic design, and not just the graphic design that someone feels compelled (for very valid professional reasons) to enter into a contest, but the graphic design that finds enough purchase in the market to become a poke in the eye.
Dmitri Siegel

Design awards & annuals are both useful and problematic.

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 's book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, a system approach to viewing creativity is presented, which includes 3 major elements: the creative personality, the domain, and the field. The creative personality, who is knowledgeable about the symbols and rules of the domain, produces a work that is then evaluated by others involved in the field. It is then judged to be worthy (or not) of reinforcing or expanding the domain.

Such is the place of awards and annuals. It is one way that the fledgling field of graphic design determines what work will be considered for addition and expansion of the domain. Future generations may accept or reject these evaluations (as the fields of painting or poetry have fluctuated between classicism and romanticism), but it's a process that has to begin somewhere.

Still, awards/annuals have their drawbacks. Graphic design has a critical job to do of informing, identifying, or persuading. By and large, the way contests are judged and then published makes those qualities invisible and seemingly irrelevant to what looks good. Obviously, a design needs to look good. But the domain that graphic design holds will be in danger of self-indulgent self-referencing without a continual discussion of what a design does, as well as what a design looks like.
Daniel Green

I don't think that design competition winners are recycled from previous winners. Why do they keep winning? Cultures and Icons change overnight in the "Information Age". So how can something inspired or left over from the previous year win? Doesn't make sense.

In past comments it was put forth by Andy(am I correct?) that good design meets the clients criteria and communicates successfully by current standards. That is all fine and dandy, but that only earns a C average in my book.

Even though I have not been in the design community for very long, I would like to think that the winning designs or the competitions somehow push the medium or ideas contained and communicated within. What visual metaphor is innovative and what new production techniques may have been created in the process. Perhaps a new printing experiment that paid off?

Does anyone else believe this, or do I have stars in my young "naive" eyes? I just think that good designers are more than good communicators and client wish-granters. I apologize for not knowing my "award show winners" history of design.
Derek Munn

I just feel that some design books are much better than competition type design catalogs. It covers many undiscovered talent that have amazing work that don't neccessarily would "win" a competition, many are based on the size of the client. Creativity should not be favored on how good the client is, but how difficult the problem of the project is in order to be solved.

It's interesting to bring up the dialogue my colleagues or clients tend to talk about. To use "Personally" and "Professionally" in one sentence keeps popping up when looking at layouts - the term mostly used for clients who say "Your design I love personally, but professionally I don't think our audience would like it" ... is this thread really about personal and professional opinions, like no and yes to competitions...?

Just a thought...
Calvin Ho

"Does anyone else believe this, or do I have stars in my young "naive" eyes? I just think that good designers are more than good communicators and client wish-granters".

No, My SON perhaps JAUNDICED and MYOPIC and ROMANTICIZING for Days Long Gone when Designers were Designers and Creative Genius was the Catalyst of Marketing Campaigns. And Marketing Professionals (Bean Counters) were only confined to analysis and crunching numbers.

The Big Boys, The Few The Proud Elite Designers Walked on Water and had Direct Access to the CEO.

Those were the Days when Dinosaurs Truly Roamed the Earth.

Marketing has Destroyed any pre-conceived notion of Creative Work and Direct Access ever happening again.



I didn't ask for a reality check. I asked "if anyone BELIEVES?" I could care less about the reality of the situation. Who is stopping designers from producing great work outside the confines of a cubical and client guidelines? I guess what I meant to ask is "doesn't anyone play anymore? Experiment for fun? Anything? And if some seem fed up with cooperate identity and such winning design competitions, why doesn't that change? Again, please excuse my "award show history" ignorance.
Derek Munn

"I didn't ask for a reality check. I asked "if anyone BELIEVES?" I could care less about the reality of the situation. Who is stopping designers from producing great work outside the confines of a cubical and client guidelines"?

It' wasn't a REALITY CHECK. It was an attempt at HUMOR. I GUESS that was over your HEAD as well.

If you'e not concerned with who is stopping DesignerS from producing great work. You should ultimately not be concerned if Designers Play anymore. Deslgners are not PAID to PLAY. That is a REALITY CHECK.

An attempt indeed. Your choice of typographic embellishment on several words suggested a rather aggressive tone. Perhaps my discussion is not fit for such cubical confines. Money, Money, Money, Money.

No one paid Edison to invent the light-bulb.

No one has yet answered my questions.
Derek Munn

"If you'e not concerned with who is stopping DesignerS from producing great work. You should ultimately not be concerned if Designers Play anymore. Deslgners are not PAID to PLAY. That is a REALITY CHECK."

No one can stop anyone from creating whether it is a money issue or not.
Calvin Ho

Do you think Web sites like Deviant Art are now taking the place of formal competitions?

Do professional designers and headhunters pay attention to artist posting work on such sites?
Stephen Larrick

I have access to a large selection of old Graphis Annuals going back to the sixties, they are a fantastic resource that I use often (apart from the 80's). From conversations with my teacher while at University I came to understand how Graphis was the measure of a fledgling industry world wide and a way for smaller design communities (in this case Australia) to have a voice internationally.

Today, Graphis is one of many, in an over saturated market. The web has allowed everyone and anyone to have a voice. I can tell you who are my favorite designers in Iceland and I live in Sydney. I don't need an Awards book to tell me who is 'the best', I can, in most cases find out myself. 

Though in saying that I do still feel some competitions are valuable.
Poster competitions like Russia's Golden Bee and the Festival d'Affiches de Chaumont have for years been an essential alternate to corporate design. The TDC tokyo awards have always been a doorway to the stunning and original Japanese design scene (Japanese design is still strangely hard to track down on the web). The Tehran-poster-biennial allows some of the talented design work from Iran and the Middle East to be seen. Honestly, could you see CA doing a Tehran design special issue? I doubt it. (though Eye would)

Personally, right now I don't feel the need to enter competitions. When I first started in the industry, I entered a few competitions (2) and had my work published, I half believed in doing this I might get some recognition and perhaps a job offer from Pentagram. The reality was apart from emptying my wallet (at that time it was pretty empty anyway) and the warm fuzzy feeling my ego got, nothing changed. When the opportunity arose to enter another competition, I couldn't come up with a good enough reason why. 

I still like to look as some design award books (like D&AD and tdc tokyo) after all I am a sponge like the rest of you, though I don't for a second believe being given an award has any true value. It's not that I don't respect other designers opinions, in most cases I certainly do, its just I have always felt a twinge of mad desperation around competitions, which to be honest is a bit ugly.

I think in the 60s and 70s when Graphis represented the world of graphic arts, competitions did have value, but today that value has been diminished and dilluted. For example, did the team at Apple really need a gold D&AD pencil to feel acknowledged and respected, god I hope not.

Considering all of the above, how do you guys feel about things like Sappi's 'Ideas that matter'

Geeeeeez - long time to make your point!

But an excellent point.

Jobs | July 18