Rob Giampietro | Essays

What Design Really Needs is a Good Scandal

Detail, I.D. January/February 2006 cover

Last year's I.D. Forty was a controversial affair. In Julie Lasky's editorial note preceding this ranking of design's movers and shakers, she observes that its "most important value is that it offers perspective, to us editors as well as to you." Backpedaling from a critical stance, she asks rhetorically, "Why do I feel so defensive about the I.D. Forty? Is it that best-of lists, with their peppy exhortations of confident attitudes, look easy, when in fact they're wrenchingly difficult?" To allay her anxiety, I.D.'s editors went for hard data, polling 800 "experts." The result was a list of the 40 knee-jerkiest names in the design biz. In closing, Lasky quips, "The I.D. Forty grabs the zeitgeist - I have no doubt about that. As for seizing your attention, I can only hope." (She needn't have worried: Rick Poynor and the design community did take notice.)

This year's I.D. Forty opens with an editorial note titled "The Fickle Finger of Fame." In it, Lasky explains that during the process of compiling design's most powerful, the editors uncovered some of design's most undersung. The cover line asks, "Who deserves more attention?" If last year's list rankled the masses by perpetuating what everyone in the design community already knew but didn't want to talk about, this list, with its confident swagger of conferring not just affirmation but merit, seems aimed squarely at stirring the pot. Lasky admits as much: "We expect this issue to raise hackles. We hope it inspires debate about the relationship between talent, eminence, and publicity."

But while the last list provoked outrage, this new list has scarcely gotten a mention. Why?

For answers, I turned to a book that turned up on a number of best-of lists that came out as I.D.'s editors were compiling theirs: James English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. English devotes his stellar book to a sociological study of a wide range of cultural prizes and awards. In so doing, he surveys the dynamics of our current cultural marketplace and evaluates the behavior of the individuals involved in that system when prizes are given, and — sometimes more interestingly — when they're not received.

With any cultural prize, whether it's the Nobel for Literature or the AIGA 365 Design Competition, there is a claim being made by the prizegivers on several levels. They claim, for example, that they are the ones who should be giving such a prize. They also claim that the prize is being given to the "genuine article," a true example of what the prize stands for. Finally, they claim that a prize itself is possible to give in the arena of cultural endeavors. (All of these claims, of course, are frequently contested.)

English cites a breakdown of the first claim in the case of Beloved, Toni Morrison's 1987 novel that failed to win both the National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. In response, 48 black critics and writers drafted a letter to The New York Times Book Review questioning the "oversight and harmful whimsy" on the part of the two award committees who'd failed to recognize Morrison's book. The result? Beloved went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and, several years later, Morrison herself won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (As an aside, I've often wondered what the "Nobel" for design might be. For years, it was the Chrysler Design Awards; today, it's undoubtedly the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards..)

In the end, were the National Book Awards or the National Book Critics Circle Awards harmed by their oversight? No. Was Toni Morrison a beneficiary, in some way, of this oversight? Absolutely. As English points out, "The threat of scandal is constitutive of the cultural prize." This means that we can't have prizes without scandals, and we can't have others winning awards without complaining that the awards don't mean anything in the first place. The first claim - "What gives you people the right to give an award?" - is followed by the third - "How can you give awards to art, anyway?"

In recent weeks, we've witnessed a similar breakdown with the popular book A Million Little Pieces (whose AIGA award-winning cover, by Rodrigo Corral, I've always admired). Should James Frey's embellished memoir have received Oprah's coveted stamp of approval? Perhaps not. But Frey will almost certainly sell more copies, and Oprah's future choices will almost certainly come with greater anticipation and scrutiny; the prize of being a part of Oprah's Book Club is precisely the instrument used to engineer this in both cases. (Frey's book shot to #1 on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list; Oprah's new selection, Night by Elie Wiesel, shot to #1 earlier this week on Amazon's sales rankings.)

Prizes that engender scandal routinely become more significant as prizes. First, who really wants to win a prize that no one really cares about? Further, as the brilliant Louis Menand writes in his New Yorker review of English's book, "Accusations of inauthenticity shore up our faith that there is such a thing as authenticity." In the case of the I.D. Forty this year, the reverse of this statement may also be true. Advertisements of scandal shore up our faith that there is no scandal to be found.

In addition to the claims above, each new prizegiver enters the cultural marketplace needing to make an additional claim: the claim that the new prize addresses something that is not being addressed elsewhere. Often this "something" comes out of Claim #1 (who's giving the prize) or Claim #2 (what the prize awards). In recent years, design, like film and writing, has seen an increase in the number of prizes offered to its practioners.

As English points out, the film industry now issues more new awards than films. Yet, when anyone browses the year's best-of lists, they can't help but note the lists' selfsameness. This is because in the awards economy, the rich get richer. Prizes beget more prizes. Attention begets more attention. This accrual of prizes results, ultimately, in value for their recipients. Once anointed, these high priests of an artform can then confer this value on less-acknowledged practitioners. (Stefan Sagmeister, #9 on I.D.'s power list last year, did precisely this, and graciously, during his presentation at last year's AIGA conference in Boston.) This also is what this year's I.D. Forty aspires to — the role of anointer.

What makes design financially valuable, despite all this talk of "innovation," is the recognition of its value by a wide range of audiences. Prizes are a primary mode of recognition, used widely by designers (including this one) in their own marketing and self-promotion. Am I saying that winning prizes can result in financial gain? You bet.

This makes prizes valuable in and of themselves. So not only do scandalous prizes reinforce their importance, they also help to pay their own bills. The more you want a prize, the more you'll pay to be considered for it or others will pay to have it continue to exist. But talk like this in the prize world is, of course, very hush-hush: most design magazines would not exist without the revenues from their highly-profitable awards.

As a result, English might accuse me (and perhaps himself) of breaking an implicit taboo for what I've written here. He observes, "As we lose our ability or our willingness to see the prize as a fundamentally scandalous institution, there is bound to be a period of painful contraction in the awards industry." Fewer awards? I certainly hope so. But what I really hope for are awards that get us talking, get us debating, get us passionate about what our profession's doing, where it's going, and who's leading it. There are many who've said privately to me that this year's I.D. Forty was their bravest yet, and, with a few reservations, I agree. But how come no one out there seems to care?

There are good scandals and there are bad scandals. Bad scandals ruin careers and embarass institutions. Good scandals get us talking about our most deeply-held convictions and beliefs. Every scandal surroundng a prize is ultimately a collaboration between its issuers and its audience.

What design needs right now is precisely a really good scandal.

Rob Giampietro is a principal at Giampietro+Smith, a design firm based in New York City. Rob is also an adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design and a regular columnist for BusinessWeek Online.

Comments [10]

On the opposite end of all of this is a agency like Gyro in Philadelphia which as part of its driving force (which it highlights all over its website) is that they don't do prizes. Thus, implying that they are too good to rumble with the masses. The backlash against elitism is just more elitism. No?

#10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
Michael Surtees

I would say that Toni Morrison was a "beneficiary" not of the National Book Awards but of the community that came forward in her support. Let's not imagine that those other prizes would have come to her had her fellow authors stayed quietly in the background.
Ellen Lupton

the worst was the fellow who works for hadid, the right hand man. why should someone who works in someone's shadow, doing the boss' work, be known and recognized as an ID forty? if it was something worth recognizing, shouldn't he or she step out and her or his own, with a real independent vision?

a similar scenario with c.j. lim in london, whose works blatantly followed zaha's. but nobody at the time, and even now, think anything is wrong with this copycat.

so fame is bollocks, and the ID forty (and the magazine itself) is promotion at its worst, and at best an advertisement in print.
blake m

how is it promotion at its worst just because you disagree with one entry on the list? i'd like to hear you qualify that opinion; seems rather sweeping to me.

Dear Mr. m.

I'm not sure I understand why you refer to ID as 'promotion at its worst', ID magazine has the responsibility to inform its readers about recent developments in the design world and what is coming up. They take very interesting angles in their stories and their featured subjects are not your usual design magazine stories.

When they introduced you to a young brilliant Swiss computer engineernamed Jürg Lehni, who invented a poetic graphity machine, were they trying to promote him? Your approach is so commercial. When they did a story about a Mississippi-based simulation facility designed to study the behavior of water (I think it was last year), who were they trying to promote - they state of Mississippi? The US government? How about the story about a solution to airplanes noise, or all these project when they invite designers to try out new material? Who were those promoting?

Any design artifact begins with the people who designed it. Doesn't it make sense to give those people credit for what they are doing? I mean, if ID is not going to cover unfamiliar names - how are we going to learn about them?

So if ID has managed to turn your attention to 40 highly regarded people you've never heard about - they must be doing their job, don't they?

Isabel Finn

Here's the list from ID's website:

Jerome Caruso + Peter Marino + Errol Morris + James Hicks + Santiago Piedrafita + Martin Perrin + Marlon Blackwell + Ronen Kadushin + Chantal Hamaid + Jens Martin Skibsted + Leslie Buck + CatalogTree + Graham Rawle + Martí Guixé + Giorgio Baravalle + Robin Kinross + R. Craig Miller + FTL Design and Engineering + Tsé & Tsé + Patrik Schumacher + Gerard Minakawa + Gill Hicks + Cathy Leff + Most Beautiful Swiss Books + Swingline + Brian Tolle + Lyndon Neri + Jerszy Seymour + Lorraine Justice + Jan Van Mol + Mark Newgarden + Max Yoshimoto + Rafael Horzon + Strange Attractors + Puerto Rico Schwinn Club + Dick van Hoff + No Picnic + Design is Kinky + Susan Yelavich + Ze Frank

It seems like everyone is saying that the least imporant thing about getting a design award is the award. Meaning the respect from your peers. Maybe that is because award winners don't really get respect from their peers. Like aforementioned, it is really about fame and money. From potential clients and the awards programs themselves.

St. Lukes in London is also a great agency that shows no respect for awards.
Nathan Philpot

Mr. Giampietro,

I'd like to answer your call for a scandal and direct your attention to the incredible entry fees associated with most of the design prizes given out today. The Art Directors Club charges $75 per entry. The Type Directors Club asks for $65 per piece and Print magazine wants $75. The Art Directors Club Young Guns competition asks for the "best creatives under 30 in the world," but then charges a $150 entry fee. I'm a part of the Young Guns demographic and as much as I might want to apply this year, I can't. I've got a pile of school loans to pay and a fabulous design job with the not-so-fabulous designer's salary. According to the AIGA's salary guide, I'm making exactly what I should for a designer, but I can't afford the entry fees to be publicly promoted as one.

The scandal here is that the entry fees have reached a point where they are prohibiting some designers and firms from entering. At the same time, larger firms or those flush with cash routinely send out a glut of materials when a call for entries is announced. This buckshot method for competing can reap a worthwhile crop but it gives a deja-vu feeling while flipping through award catalogs ("Wasn't C. S. Anderson just on the previous page? Or was that Saatchi and Saatchi???")

I would like to take this moment to acknowledge that my point of view is not an original one. But I'm not a fan of gripping without offering an answer. The financial atrocities of some design awards could be de-scandalized if there were some changes implemented. A sliding fee scale based on the print run of a printed piece, the overall budget constraints, or the size of the studio could help. Those who regularly do non-profit or smaller client work could be offered a lower rate than those who do work for larger corporate clients. Or perhaps there could be different entry fee tiers based on the size of the studio (and by size I mean number of employees, although basing it on square footage would also work. And I'm only half kidding.) It seems unfair to me that a designer working alone at their kitchen table has to pay the same entry fee as Wieden + Kennedy.

I'm not even going to begin to address the additional costs that can creep in once you are given a prize (winners usually must pay for the printed annual and sometimes are even charged another "hanging fee" for exhibiting.) I'll leave that issue for another post or for another financially-challenged designer. In the meantime, I'd love some of my work to be considered by the design-world as being potentially noteworthy for 2005. You'll just have to come over to my kitchen table to see it.
Emily Lessard

"What design needs right now is precisely a really good scandal": I honestly don't think so. Some of the most successful pieces of furniture I created as a designer - a white bedroom furniture set and a red sofa set, just to name a few - were defintely plain and simple, no scandals involved.

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