Out of the Frying Pan

( or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fire.”)

About this time last year, AIGA announced its inaugural “Justified” competition. Replacing the long-running “365” competition, Justified proposed to make efficacy central to its judging criteria. No more popularity contests. No more predicable accolades for designers already standing naked on stack of award certificates. No more praise for esoteric projects by-and-for-designers. More metrics, less kerning, please. The change was initially met with the same skepticism that greets nearly all change, with designers grumbling about the de-emphasization of craft and the inordinate amount of paperwork that each entry required. Mostly, though, we grudgingly accepted it.

Then Paula Scher started a real conversation. Her excellent and incisive rant (and followup) for Imprint, aptly titled, AIGA: Unjustified, lamented the omission of “words like beauty, creativity, surprise, innovation, and inspiration” from the competition’s criteria for design excellence. Scher’s essay further contended that pro-bono work, personal projects, professional promotion, and other work without marketplace concerns allows for more risk taking. Designers, Scher argued, “should be encouraged to engage in these kinds of projects—to experiment, ask questions, fail, and “raise the expectation of what design can be.”

I wrote a response to Scher’s article on this blog, mostly supporting her position and offering some additional thoughts on the importance of AIGA’s role in the competitive competition landscape (and its relevance in general). I was nervous about writing it. Many of my friends are deeply involved in AIGA and as a former chapter president I had previously worked closely with many of the people involved in retooling the competition. Just a year earlier I participated as a judge for AIGA’s national 365 Competition. I was apprehensive of the prospect of taking a stand that might offend friends and colleagues, alienate myself from an organization that has been very supportive of me, or just make me come off like a sentimental reactionary entrenched in the status quo. But there can be no progress without critical dialogue (and no dialogue when everyone agrees). And so I posted it.

Then it came time to consider whether or not to enter the competition.

You Must Be Present to Win
The implications of participation were problematic. Entering would admit a kind of tacit defeat in the quest to hold the banner high for the role of design in culture rather than commerce. It would signal support for an idea that I had said (very publicly) said was the wrong idea. On the other hand, sulkily refusing to participate didn’t seem like a particularly constructive approach either. And so we entered. We submitted one entry, and documented the submission process online . It was, as Ric Grefe would later tell me backstage at a conference, “snarky.” I admit that. For questions about strategy we declared that “beauty was our strategy.” Asked to supply data, we stated simply, “We did no research. We have no data.” But other questions we answered more thoughtfully, providing the rationale behind our choices and anecdotal evidence that they were successful. In all, it was an act of protest. The project we submitted had received awards from nearly every other major competition. We knew it was good, but we couldn’t prove it. Without justification, we reasoned, it couldn’t win. But at least our point would be made—good design can’t always be quantified.

But it did win. Impossibly, unexpectedly, alongside just 17 other projects, it won.

Shit, I thought, now what? Was this outcome evidence that, despite all efforts, the final selections didn’t succeed solely on basis of metrics? Was it proof of the inevitable influence of basic good looks? Had we ‘justified’ more than we realized? A friend of mine quickly tweeted the answer: “And with that, the circle of hypocrisy and ambivalence continues. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.” I know, right? Snarky. Of course it’s worth noting that he won too. But circles complete and this story is about to spiral.

Like a Wheel Within a Wheel
After writing a lengthy critique of AIGA’s focus (evidenced by the judging criteria for Justified), after publishing our entry-form-as-critical-essay, after committing to not entering any competitions this year, AIGA invited me to judge this year’s justified competition.

Under the stewardship of Clement Mok, this year’s jurors include a strategist, a letterer, a media designer, a business consultant, an editor, a designer (that’s me), and a writer. What’s more, five of the seven are from the west coast. Three are under forty (one is under 30), and already the judging criteria have shifted a little from last year. They now encompass four categories:

  1. Strength of concept or idea
  2. Impact (on Culture, Economy, Environment and People)
  3. Process or methodology used
  4. Success of formal execution/aesthetics (yay! craft!)

These differences demonstrate that AIGA is not an unyielding or inflexible organization. It shows that they listen. It shows that they respond. For most of my career I’ve alternated between being a passionate evangelist for AIGA to being among its harshest critics. I expect that oscillation to continue. One thing that has remained constant, however, is AIGA’s willingness to embrace both challenge and dissent. It remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to be as transparent and vocal about the judging experience as I have been of Justified from the outside, but I promise to try.

Meanwhile, if you’ve been considering entering work this year, I say go for it. As John Bielenberg once explained, “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.”

In other words, you have to be in it to win it.