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?
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