D&AD And Graphic Design: What Next?

While the advertising community was celebrating at this year’s D&AD Awards and rightly so (see results here), many designers looked on aghast. The reason? There are no D&AD awards in graphic design this year. Not one. Not a single yellow pencil was awarded in any of the graphics categories. Now what?

While the advertising community was celebrating at this year’s D&AD Awards and rightly so (see results here), many designers looked on aghast. The reason? There are no D&AD awards in graphic design this year. Not one. Not a single yellow pencil was awarded in any of the graphics categories. Now what?

It’s been coming for some time. Despite the efforts of D&AD itself, successive graphics juries over a number of years were, I believe, excessively mean. Entrants became discouraged, it seems, and now, by all accounts, some leading graphics studios have given up on entering entirely. Judges this year tell us that the standard of work was “appalling”.

And now here we are. It bears repeating because it is scarcely believable, but there is not one graphics pencil at D&AD this year. Which isn’t to say that graphic design or designers were totally absent from the stage. There are some graphics-related winners – in magazine design, books, packaging and even a coveted Gold award for The Partners’ Grand Tour project. The latter (below) was entered into an advertising category. It was also entered into graphics, where it only managed an In-Book. Go, as they say, figure.


We invited Michael Johnson and Sean Perkins to discuss what the organisation needs to do in order to win back graphic designers (which you can read here). Perkins’ North is one of those leading design studios that no longer sees a reason for entering D&AD. Johnson, on the other hand, is an ex-D&AD President and has been one of the organisation’s greatest advocates for many years. If even he is losing faith in the awards, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Yes, there are other contributing factors beyond D&AD’s control. The nature of graphic design is changing with many studios engaged on projects that do not fit comfortably into D&AD’s graphics categories or judging methods. Music, so long a rich source of the kind of aesthetically pleasing work that juries have long favoured is no longer providing the opportunities it once did. And now that nearly all design studios have websites, there are other ways of showcasing work and reaching potential clients than winning awards. Plus the trend in graphic design is toward smaller studios for whom entry fees put considerable pressure on finances. But there is great work out there, as exhibited in CR’s own Annual.

Should we care? We should because this is about more than just a few bruised egos. Yes, awards are an imperfect measure of worth in a field as complex as design, but they have their place. If leading graphic designers are turning away from the D&AD awards, they are turning away from D&AD itself and the educational activities that are at the heart of what D&AD stands for. One goes hand-in-hand with the other. If you believe in D&AD’s mission, as I do, then you enter the awards in order to fund that important mission, with the added bonus that, should you win, it will help your business. D&AD’s charitable activities are immensely valuable and it deserves the support of everyone in the creative industries.

Somehow, D&AD has failed to get this message across to the graphic design community. It has failed to make the link between entering the awards and ensuring the long-term health of the design profession by both honouring excellence and nurturing the next generation of designers. Instead, designers are looking at an increasingly expensive awards scheme, being increasingly dominated by advertising and saying ‘no thanks’.

So, what to do?

Entry Fees
Every year someone pipes up that awards should be free to enter and that they can be financed by sponsors. Having worked on a few, that’s just unrealistic. There aren’t enough sponsors with deep enough pockets in this sector to make that even a remote possibility for something on the scale of D&AD: this is about fund-raising for a charity, don’t forget. Entry fees will have to stay in some form, but why not make them cheaper for design? It may seem unfair on other categories, but there is a precedent with the magazine category where prices were lowered in order to increase entries. Ninety percent of design studios in the UK have 5 people or less. They don’t have the self-promotional budgets that ad agencies do and there isn’t such a direct link between winning awards and getting work, retaining staff and so on to make the case for those budgets.

Change the categories
The dismal showing for graphics this year is made to look worse by the category system. There are no winners in Graphics – that just sounds awful. But it doesn’t mean that no graphic designers won awards. Graphic designers produced the Gold-winning work from The Partners and worked on Projector’s Uniqlock blog part. Graphic designers made the Sara Fanelli book, Carl’s Cars and Fantastic Man (all Silver winners, shown below). It’s far from a total wash out for graphic design.

Carl's Cars
Fantastic Man

There are reasons why awards shows have categories and not all of them are altruistic. Sure, they help judge like with like and they help organise books or exhibitions. But they are also there to maximise income: 25 categories means 25 opportunities to sell a sponsorship. And they lead to carpet-bombing – people entering the same work across a number of different categories which, of course, is great for the finances of the organisers.

Maybe it’s time to drop the categories and just pick the good stuff no matter where it comes from. In our own Annual we have no categories. To make judging easier, we split the work into disciplines so that we can view all the commercials together rather than watching one, then walking over to look at a poster, then onto a computer. It just makes sense. But the work is not judged in terms of its appropriateness for a category. It’s judged on its own terms as a piece of communication.

Scale down judging and the awards night
Cheaper entry fees and fewer categories mean less revenue, so how would D&AD cope? First, it could introduce a sift – a pre-judging with a different jury to weed out the real no-hopers. We do this on The Annual. In my experience, when judges are faced with a mass of work, nearly all of which, inevitably, is not going to meet their standards, it brings the whole mood down and makes them feel far less positive about the whole experience. Present them with a smaller amount of better quality work and they are more likely to be generous.

A sift would allow D&AD to do the judging in a smaller space and with fewer judges flying in from around the world, thus cutting costs.

Tonight’s awards ceremony broke with tradition by doing away with the sit-down dinner. Instead, the awards were presented in the auditorium at the Royal Festival Hall, with a party afterwards. This allowed D&AD to bring the price of tickets down. Hopefully, the response will be positive. If so, D&AD can perhaps continue down this road and open up the night to those who previously found the cost prohibitive. Two weeks ago I was at the Art Directors Club awards in New York. Winners got a free ticket, extra tickets cost just $50. There was a free bar, food and DJs. OK, so it wasn’t a glitzy production, but there were plenty of designers there.

Re-connect with its audience
The beauty of the ADC is that it has its own, relatively modest, space where not just the awards are held but also a variety of activities throughout the year including talks, conferences, portfolio reviews and so on. This means that every week people are literally coming into contact with the organisation. It has a constant presence in their lives, even if they are only going past it in a cab. Something similar happens at the ICA in London. The idea of having such a venue has been talked about at D&AD – in my opinion, it’s a must.

Explain itself
D&AD is a charity. Its mission is to support and aid the creative industries through promoting excellence and by educating current and future practitioners. It relies on awards entries in order to do this – I’ve always thought of the awards as a levy on the egos of the creative industries. Like the tithe that Christians pay to the church, entering should be seen as an obligation, there to provide for the continued good health of something you believe in. D&AD needs to convince people of this.

Apparently, D&AD was waiting until after the awards to start the process of finding its new chief executive. Whoever is appointed has a lot of work to do.

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Senior Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency

Head of Digital Content

Red Sofa London