Winning, Losing and Judging

Originally published in the May, 2008 issue of STEP Magazine


As a younger designer, competitions meant a lot to me. The firm that I worked for would frame their awards and hang them in the conference room. One of the partners referred to it as the “I Love Me Wall.” who doesn’t want to be loved? I did, and I desperately wanted to be up on that wall. The patchwork mosaic of (mostly poorly designed) award certificates seemed the ultimate pantheon of design achievement. Everyone in the firm had their name up there somewhere and if you looked closely you could find the names of former employees who had gone on to work for some of the most celebrated firms of the day. This was the way up. Clearly.

I’m a driver, I’m a winner…
The studio entered design competitions with ritualistic pragmatism. A “competition binder” recorded every submission to every competition the studio had ever entered. At our Monday morning job meeting the intern would present the upcoming competition deadlines — detailing what had been entered in the past, which of those entries had won, and which of our current work was eligible for consideration. Of course, I’d lobby for the projects I’d worked on, trying to seem very casual in my recommendations. “What about that employee newsletter for the bank?” I’d suggest, certain that the judges would recognize my deft handling of Rotis or my ironic use of stock imagery. Ultimately my boss approved the short list of entries, calculating the chances of each submission based on some alchemic blend of precedent and intuition. He viewed competitions as “cheap advertising” which is not to say that he was cheap, just that he considered awards programs primarily as a means of self promotion. Being published maintained our profile within the design community, and copies of the awards certificates were framed and sent with a congratulatory note to our client. Clients, it turns out, love to win design awards; in a soft sense it validates their investment (or at least their choice of design firm). I, of course, saw them as a way of promoting myself by affirming my value to the firm.

The first award I ever won was from the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. It was for an illustration that my other boss created, and on which I had minimal input. When it came time to list the creative credits she put me down as “Art Director” and herself as “Designer” which meant I received top billing on the certificate. She even ordered a duplicate for me to keep. I was elated. I was an award-winning designer. I was about to have a place on that wall. I had arrived. But just as I thought I had reached my destiny, the destination changed. The studio was going through some transition and as part of that redefinition I wrote a five-point manifesto which I posted on the wall. The third point was titled, “Thou Shalt Not Come Home Unless Tho Art A Winner.” It went on to state simply, “Every project can be a win. If the design isn’t destined to sweep the award annuals, it is still a win if it succeeds for the client and results in new skills attained, new territory explored, new bridges built.” By redefining success in this way we re-calibrated our value system to focus more on the effectiveness of our work and working process. We packed up our awards and put them in storage. I never did see my name added to that wall, but I love me just the same.

Soy un perdedor…
SpeakUp founder Armin Vit, was similarly impatient for affirmation of his talents. In fact, he entered his first competition while we has still a student — a logo for an imaginary festival in Mexico City. The mark won a design award in the student category of HOW’s International Design Annual. Although in retrospect Vit says it really wasn’t very good, he was nonetheless thrilled by this early validation. A year later in 1999 Vit designed an experimental typeface as part of his Bachelor’s Degree Thesis. He was sure it was a winner. “I’d seen crazier, weirder typefaces in the Type Director’s Club typeface competition,” he recalls, “It was a pretty expensive competition to enter, but I thought I would definitely win.” He didn’t. “I was really disappointed,” admits Vit, “At the time I thought, here’s a weird typeface from a Mexican designer, how could it not win?” Now having judged the TDC competition he sees his work with new perspective; “It was pretty bad, actually. It had serifs where they didn’t belong. The italic version was simply a slanted version of the roman. The judges must have been snickering!”

Vit hasn’t actually won many design awards, due largely to the fact that he very rarely enters competitions. “For me, it’s just not a priority any more,” he explains, “Maybe I needed that validation early on, but now I’d rather spend that $35 entry fee on ink cartridges for my printer.” This doesn’t mean the designer, judge and design critic doesn’t value competitions. On the contrary, he describes awards annuals as “a great way of tracking the work, themes, sensibilities, client types and designers that were popular at a particular time.” While some designers proudly claim not to read annuals, Vit has always enjoyed looking at as many as possible and making his own assumptions and judgments about the work. These days he just has a different relationship to competitions and the records they produce.

“When I started SpeakUp I was an outsider,” he says, “I was challenging everything that was happening within the design establishment. I was looking at all kinds of work and giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down — but I was also articulating my opinions and backing up my reasoning. It was like practicing to be judge, but in my own little world. So when I was first asked to judge an established competition [the 2007 STEP 100] I thought, It’s about damn time someone asked me! And of course I was very excited and very honored.” But by then Vit was solidly a part of the design establishment. SpeakUp had become part of design’s terra firma, and he was working as a senior designer at Pentagram New York, a credential he says gave him instant credibility. “That’s why judges are always the celebrities. People like being selected by people or firms they respect and recognize.” As a design celebrity and “insider” Vit says he’s able to apply his outsider experiences from within the design establishment and perhaps break the cycle predicability that accompanies many competitions. “All my experience with SpeakUp really helped me look at what my role as a judge really should be,” he says, “Now I have an opportunity for me to apply all of the questions I’ve been asking all these years to the judging process — to not just pick the pretty stuff of look at the credits and pick your friends or the people whose work you know, but to really focus on the work.”

Things are going to change I can feel it…
For Eric Heiman, a founding principal of Volume Inc. in San Francisco and an assistant professor of design at the California College of the Arts (CCA), a change in the way design work is evaluated and recognized can’t come soon enough. “When I first got out of school I was really against competitions,” he says, “I didn’t see then as elevating the profession in anyone’s eyes except those of other designers, and there’s very limited value in that.” As he gained working experience Heiman says he began to understand how design functions outside of the academic context he been exposed to in college, and instead began considering design for its further reaching functional and cultural implications. It also became clear to him that many competitions weren’t taking those contexts into consideration at all. “It’s fine to recognize someone for doing great packaging for really crappy cola that never actually made it to market,” he concedes, acerbically, “But that’s evaluating design in a formal vacuum. It doesn’t take into consideration the role that it plays in the broader culture.”

Another disturbing limitation he noticed was that the tendency of judges to reward work from a familiar school of thought or area of practice. He recalls an incident in which one judge announced to the committee, “I don’t do annual reports. I don’t do packaging. I don’t do brochures. I don’t do corporate work. None of that’s getting in.”

“You can’t always separate yourself from your biases,” admits Heiman, “But that’s just obnoxious.” Fortunately, Heiman’s judging experiences have been far more positive. He recently judged work for the Mohawk Show and AIGA San Francisco’s Cause and Affect. “Because the the Cause and Affect show was focused on what good the work was able to achieve, it really required us to consider the entries on a deeper level,” he says, “It completely shifted the criteria by which the work was evaluated; we had to look at design in a much fuller context.” Heiman suggests that the focus and integrity of that evaluation process helped mitigate any lingering biases for or against a particular style, client type or designer. Eliminating those biases is critical to ensuring the relevance not just of the contemporary and historical archives we are creating, it also has implications for the future of design. But how do we make that change?

“John Bielenberg once shared a great insight with me,” recalls Heiman, “He said, ‘If you enter stuff in competitions and you win, you’ll be asked to judge, and judging competitions is one of the only ways you have to direct where you want design to go.’ What we, as judges, choose to include does in many ways shape what comes next.” For a sense of what may be next for design, consider an innovative shift from an unlikely source: AIGA’s upcoming 365 competition. Long criticized for it’s New York-centrism and perceived elitism, the judges this year include a remarkable cross section of judges including recent STEP emerging talent cover girl Nichelle Narcisi, first-time judge Andrew Sloat, and the hyper-critical Eric Heiman. Other jurors include educators from Cranbrook and CCA, AIGA President (and STEP columnist) Sean Adams, and variety of west coast and midwest-based judges. There are as many women as men, and there’s even one Canadian. All of this is encouraging to Heiman. “I think it’s great and tremendously responsive,” he praises, “the young people don’t have any inherent biases established yet, and the more experienced judges come form a great variety of backgrounds than we’ve seen in the past. I’m not sure where I fit into all that or what’s going to happen, but I think its a good sign for the profession and I’m looking forward to it.”