Art or design? D&AD rejects then reinstates Sagmeister film

Sagmeister Walsh’s film Now is Better won a Yellow Pencil for Typography for Design at this year’s D&AD Awards, but only after it had first been rejected by the organisers for being art rather than design

Sagmeister & Walsh’s film Now is Better won a Yellow Pencil for Typography for Design at this year’s D&AD Awards, but only after it had first been rejected by the organisers for being art rather than design

To many, Stefan Sagmeister’s work has often blurred the distinction between art and design. This ambiguity was the cause of concern at the D&AD Awards this week. Jurors in the Craft for Design category had given the film, which was originally commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia as part of Sagmeister & Walsh’s Happy Show, a Yellow Pencil.

However, D&AD management subsequently declared the film to be ineligible as, they argued, it fell foul of their terms and conditions by which entries must be “a work of advertising or design, produced in response to a genuine brief composed in the ordinary course of a legal entity’s activities for the purpose of seeking an advertising or design solution” and “have been made available to the public through any medium which is legally permitted in a way that has been approved by the entity or person receiving the benefit of the advertising or design (the client)”. D&AD, CR understands, further argued that the distinction between art and design partially rested on whether the work was seeking an ‘outcome’ of some sort, usually commercial in nature.



Sagmeister & Walsh, however, argued that the film was created in response to a design brief from the ICA and was part of the design of the exhibition (above, image: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media). Furthermore, Sagmeister said “Our piece Now is Better IS seeking (and) achieving ‘an outcome of some sort’. I received an SMS from an 16 year old boy who, after seeing Now is Better and the Happy Show, found the guts in himself to ask out and ultimately kiss the girl he had a crush on for a long time. It was his first kiss. I’d say that’s a behavioural change and an outcome worth bragging about. Preferable to a sale.”

“I myself only mildly care about a wooden pencil,” Sagmeister told CR, “but I do care when one of the foremost design organisations in the world thinks that what we do in our design studio is not design. Even though the exhibition in question took place in a Center for Contemporary Art, it was clearly designed and labelled as a design exhibit.”

After some back and forth, the work was reinstated, although not before CR’s D&AD Awards supplement, produced to coincide with the event, had gone to press.

D&AD CEO Tim Lindsay acknowledged that the work highlighted some ambiguity in the Awards’ terms: “In order to be eligible, design or advertising work entered into D&AD must have been created in response to a client brief and have been made available to the public. Because Now is Better was a gallery commission, it falls into a grey area but is actually eligible according to the current criteria,” he told CR. “It was entered into a craft category and was felt by the highly esteemed jury to be an outstanding piece of typography, so an excellent piece of work has rightly received its just reward.”

Disputes of this nature are surely only going to get more commonplace. Gordon Young and Why Not Associates’ Comedy Carpet, for example, missed out at D&AD last year. We don’t know why that was, but we do know that it won at other ‘design’ shows, including CR’s Annual. Despite this, Gordon Young is adamant that the Comedy Carpet be referred to as a work of art.

The difficulty seems to be when work crosses over from being the design of an exhibition or installation into being part of the content of the exhibition itself. A tricky line to draw and one that evidently caused a good deal of debate at D&AD this year.



Pink Floyd fans may recognise the cover of our June issue. It’s the original marked-up artwork for Dark Side of the Moon: one of a number of treasures from the archive of design studio Hipgnosis featured in the issue, along with an interview with Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Hipgnosis with the late, great Storm Thorgerson. Elsewhere in the issue we take a first look at The Purple Book: Symbolism and Sensuality in Contemporary Illustration, hear from the curators of a fascinating new V&A show conceived as a ‘walk-in book’ plus we have all the regular debate and analysis on the world of visual communications.

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