AIGA: Rejustified

I’ve gone from one of the most outspoken critics of AIGA’s Justified design competition, to an entrant, winner, judge and now competition chair. This article explains how the competition (and I) have changed, and why more designers should consider entering it. 

Conversation and controversy
On April 6, 2012 AIGA medalist and Pentagram partner Paula Scher published an editorial in PRINT’s online edition roundly criticizing AIGA’s new ‘Justified’ competition. That article began a nationwide conversation among designers about the nature of competitions and the direction of AIGA. The post garnered nearly 200 comments and prompted responses from Doug Powell (AIGA president at the time), AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefé, and designer Marc Levitt (whose firm designed the Justified identity and came up with the name). My own response wasn’t as uniformly critical as Paula’s, but it was pretty harsh. In it I echoed many of Paula’s sentiments with regard to the demise of creativity, experimentation, craft and inspiration as criteria for design excellence. I also questioned the role and relevance of AIGA. Paula and I have since endeavored to continue that dialogue—both publicly with followup articles and comments on each other’s writing, and privately via email and phone. I still agree with many of Paula’s criticisms, but I’ve also come to see Justified in a new light.

The first experiment
The deadline for the 2012 competition came just days after this initial flurry of articles. In an effort to underscore my criticisms of the new approach, my firm submitted a single entry to the inaugural Justified competition and documented the submission process online . The project had already received honors from almost every other major design competition, but it had never been subjected to the kind of rigor required by AIGA’s newly minted competition for design effectiveness. Most competitions only require entrants to submit the completed design (or images of it). Some ask for a brief description of the project. In contrast, Justified required completion of a laborious, multi-part questionnaire. 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. We knew the work 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.

The goal was to put Justified to the test: Would aesthetics alone be enough to evaluate the design? Would the absence of hard data undermine our claims of efficacy? Do good designers know good design when they see it, or is design only good when the ROI can be quantified? We reasoned that if we won it would expose Justified as merely presenting a veneer of analytical evaluation and that gut feelings and subjective tastes still played a significant role in evaluating the work. If we lost it would show that Justified had turned a blind eye to something everyone else could see. When we were notified months later that we had won, neither of these points were proven. Instead, a third answer emerged.

Justified is a work in progress
Like the design process itself, new initiatives—including competitions like Justified—rarely emerge fully realized or perfectly resolved.  They are works in progress. Progress requires testing, feedback and iteration. The first year was a kind of prototype, a working model from which to learn. In addition to streamlining some of the logistics, AIGA took notice of feedback from the judges, entrants and critics at large. The following year, 2012 Justified juror Clement Mok chaired the second iteration of the competition. Under his leadership AIGA broadened the criteria to include both process and craft, and expanded the jury from five to seven. Clement’s jury had diverse credentials; it included a strategist, a letterer, a media designer, a business consultant (Clement), an editor, a designer (me), and a writer. Five of the seven were from the west coast. Three were under forty. One was under 30.

How Justified is judged
Unlike most competitions—which are judged in a matter of hours—Justified is judged over a period of several months. Here’s how it worked last year: In the first round, each juror reviewed a randomly-assigned selection of entries online and flagged for advancement any he or she deemed worthy of further discussion. This review included reading the complete profile submitted by the entrant (usually between 1,200 and 2,000 words) as well as images of the completed project.

In the next round every juror reviewed all of the advanced entries and again flagged those they thought warranted broader discussion. At this stage a single vote moved an entry into to the final round.

In the final round, the jury convened in person for a full day of review. Each entry was presented one at a time. Jurors advocated for or against it based on their previous impressions, the submitted survey questions, independent research, and some degree of intuition. Some discussions took a few minutes, others the better part of an hour. Some came to unanimous resolution, others left us starkly divided. All, however, were thoughtful, open and remarkably apolitical. In contrast, most other competitions I’ve judged only require some variation of placing a colored marble in a cup.

At the conclusion of the judging, Clement asked if we had any suggestions to improve the competition. We all wanted the submission and review process to be easier. Jessica Hische had the idea of simplifying the initial submission to just a few photos and a very brief description (projects that piqued a juror’s interest would then be asked to complete the full questionnaire). I asked if AIGA would be willing to publish critical comments from the jurors (the way the Supreme Court also files dissenting opinions). Competitions don’t usually do that sort of thing, but AIGA embraced the idea (and Jessica’s) without hesitation.

That brings us to today.

Justified 2014
As chair of this year’s Justified competition I have three principal responsibilities: assemble a jury, help refine the focus of the competition, steward the judging process.

Like Clement, my goal was to assemble a diverse group of jurors. To do that I made lists of designers, writers and thinkers I admire. In addition to striving for a panel with diverse areas of authority, I strove for diversity in region, experience, gender and cultural background. Some names leapt to mind, while others I arrived at through discussions with my staff, Paula, and other respected colleagues. I categorized the lists by role (practitioner, critic, experimenter, etc.) then sorted those options by location and scale of practice. Finally, I tried to anticipate the alchemy of the mix—what combination of personalities and points of view would yield the most thoughtful and thorough discussions?

I submitted a list of sixteen names to AIGA, mostly in pairs (i.e. Person A or Person B) and recommended a ‘dream team’ of six. AIGA reviewed and approved four of the six on that short list, and requested alternates from the master list for the other two. Ironically enough, my list was too NYC-heavy; AIGA wanted it a little more balanced. I really wanted a critic or journalist on the jury. Alas schedules just didn’t work out. I also wanted one international judge, but logistics and expense made that impractical. In the end, though, I couldn’t be happier with the mix of practitioners, strategists, entrepreneurs and experimenters who have agreed to participate. I think you’ll find it an unconventional but indisputably qualified jury.

With regard to refining the focus of the competition, my contribution was fairly minimal. Basically it consisted of working with Heather Strelecki, AIGA’s director of the ‘Justified’ competition, to suggest the following edits (in red) to the official competition statement:

The most effective design combines craft, design thinking and passion to solve problems — both complex and simple. Creativity, innovation and inspiration are married with empathy, insight and systems thinking to achieve great results that meet clients’ objectives and assert design as a cultural force. “Justified: AIGA Design Competition” will collect and showcase the stories behind the best design, to demonstrate the success and impact of the design profession. 

AIGA seeks to demonstrate the value of design through narratives, or case studies, that explain the process of designing, as judged by the measures the designers and their clients determine to be relevant. The best examples will be those that make a project and its impact clear to the design profession, design clients, and society at large.

Though minor, I think these updates help make explicit that Justified seeks to include work that is effective, expressive and which is significant to culture and not just business. The goal of the competition remains to establish an archive of design case studies. Aesthetic excellence is a prerequisite, but a compelling story is also required.

Inspired by the many remarkable self-generated projects I’ve encountered in my writing, I also suggested the addition of “designer as author” to the roles listed on the entry form:

• Designer as activist
• Designer as brand steward
• Designer as craftsman
• Designer as change agent
• Designer as entrepreneur
Designer as author

This list replaces the ‘discipline’ category from previous years’ entry form. The suggestion to reframe the idea of design disciplines as designer roles came from 2013 juror Alina Wheeler. Clement Mok distilled this list from the post mortem discussion he lead following last year’s judging.

AIGA Justified

A new identity
At AIGA’s request, we also reimagined the identity. I say ‘we’ at this point because I worked closely with another designer in our office, Nathan Sharp, on the visual update for this year’s competition. The brief was simple: highlight that Justified is different from other competitions. Build on the legacy of the competition. Use AIGA’s official typeface(s).

AIGA Justified

The design concept is based on creating a contrast between information and expression (a conflict that speaks to the heart of Justified controversy). The facts, dates, logistics, etc. are all very plain spoken (black and white, centered, Interstate), whereas the “JUSTIFIED” text is color, intuitively typeset and free of constraint. The intent is to encourage designers to take a fresh look at the competition as one that is looking for compelling case studies that engage the full breadth of design practice. Though not part of the requested scope, we started by creating the 30-second promotional video that opened this article, then derived all of the other assets from it. The video attempts to address every criticism of the competition (and AIGA) head on—a signal that the organization is both self-aware and changing. I see it as candidly introspective, but also fearlessly assertive. I hope you will see it as an invitation to contribute to something new and exciting.

Still not perfect
Justified is still a work in progress. But where I was once skeptical of its relevance, I have become more and more convinced of its importance in establishing a thoughtful, meaningful record of design achievement. Each year the competition evolves and resolves a little more. I can attest to the changes Clement and his jury helped institute. I hope to honor his example during my year of stewardship and trust that next year someone new will do the same. I can also attest to the capability and openness of Heather Strelecki and Ric Grefé throughout this process. None of the new ideas I’ve mentioned were met with resistance. In fact, they were all embraced—and they have actively sought ways to improve their new competition model. When we first showed them the video they loved it, despite being a little uncomfortable with some of the more pointed phrases. “Should we take those out?” I asked. “No,” they replied, “Leave them in.”

It is still my personal belief that Justified alone cannot sufficiently represent the full breadth of what designers do. I still believe that AIGA should reinstate a broad-based competition (such as 365) alongside Justified—a competition that celebrates the intuitive, expressive, experimental facets of design. A competition that honors the beautiful failures and quirky misfits and shocking outliers that expand what we think of as design, making room for projects whose effectiveness may be more conventionally measured. But for the latter, Justified is not only appropriate but necessary. It stands apart from the vast proliferation of design competitions for its rigor and output. Where most other design competitions are judged primarily (sometimes solely) on the basis of visual excellence, Justified also considers the goals, parameters, process and outcome. Where the results of most competitions are commemorated by certificates and picture-book annuals, AIGA records the selected entries as design case studies, the sum of which will eventually be a meaningful archive of design history and achievement. (Though an annual sure would be nice).

The last piece of the puzzle is you
As this record is established, It’s important that the widest range of expressive, progressive, effective design be showcased. AIGA has built the framework and defined the criteria upon which these achievements may be evaluated. I’ve tried to assemble a jury whose points of view and expertise will yield a diverse and meaningful selection of finalists. The last piece of the puzzle is you. The fewer beautiful, intelligent, surprising and provocative projects we have to select from, the less beautiful, intelligent, surprising and provocative the results will be. John Bielenberg once said, “If you enter stuff in competitions and you win enough, eventually you may be asked to judge. Judging competitions is one of the only ways you have to direct where you want design to go.” You can change what the profession defines as ‘effective design’ just by entering your work. I hope that you will.

Enter today.