While an unprecedented six Golds were handed out at last night’s D&AD awards, the Graphic Design section produced just two nominations and no pencils. We asked former D&AD President, Michael Johnson, and Sean Perkins of North why they think graphics was so under-represented (last year seven Silvers and four nominations were awarded in the section) and what D&AD – and indeed the wider design community – should do to change this situation in the future…
(The following discussion appears in the Crit section of the June issue of CR, out next week)
Creative Review: There are 39 projects from the graphic design categories in this year’s Annual, two nominations but, for the first time that we can remember, no Silvers or Golds. Judges have told us that the standard of work entered was “appalling” and that good work featured in other schemes was missing from D&AD, so it doesn’t seem to be simply a case of the graphics sector in general having had a poor year creatively. Does this mean that d&ad is failing to engage the design community? If so, how does it need to change?
Michael Johnson: I’ve been trying to change it for years with varying degrees of success. Last year I helped pick the juries: there were 80 pieces of graphic design in the book and 11 nominations. This year: half the amount in and two nominations. I don’t know what happened with graphics this time.
Sean Perkins: It’s a problem if you get like-minded designers together to judge work – they have to put their name to something. I judged an awards in Spain with Wendelin Hess [of Swiss studio Müller +Hess] and the organisers were complaining there was no packaging in there and we needed to boost the Spanish work. Wendelin said, ‘this is rubbish – if you put this in I’ll go outside and set fire to myself’. He felt that if he had to put his name to the results he wouldn’t choose work just for political reasons. But if you know something is great, you should put it in, even if it’s not to your taste.
MJ: I made a real point of putting contemporary designers on the design jury this time – Philippe Apeloig, Michael C Place, MadeThought….
SP: But on the whole, I’d be surprised if they actually entered work.
MJ: Well, I wanted to say, ‘look, these are the people judging the work’ but something got lost in translation in that the judges – while being recent graduates’ ‘functional heroes’ if you like – didn’t necessarily enter any work themselves. When it got to looking at the work on the tables, some people had very strong opinions about it all. When you raise the bar that high – inadvertently by inviting some of the current ‘superstars’ of design to judge – this can then backfire on you.
SP: But then there are the people who enter everything! There isn’t a discerning ability to self-edit the great work, they’re just hoping to win something. So they just send in lots of average work.
MJ: Yes, some people’s business models are certainly just based on winning awards…. Packaging is pretty good [at D&AD], branding is getting better, but what seems to have happened is that graphics has been slightly sidelined. Perhaps things are going in different directions. Ask most people and they’re not doing many brochures anymore. I’ve done thousands of posters: I did 12 last year. It’s a bit sad isn’t it? But there’s something, and it’s a helicopter view, that maybe feels like a decline [in traditional graphic design]. From emails with some of the judges, some are taking the view that the standard wasn’t good enough this year and that they weren’t prepared to put 16 things in instead of eight even if that meant being perceived as being a bit mean.
SP: The other problem is that the Awards doesn’t make you want to belong. I wish it did, that there was something valuable about it to push us, to make us feel threatened or excited, something that cuts through all the politics and averageness…. We all go to websites and see work that we wished we’d done and get inspired. You want to be threatened and inspired like that….
MJ: I think what’s happening is that a certain type of graphic designer isn’t entering D&AD.
MJ: No, I didn’t look at you at that point because you’re a representative of that! It’s just honest. But there is this horrid historical thing about d&ad being seen as having an advertising bias. You can try all you like to fix it….
SP: But then it is wonderful for advertising – as a representation of what’s going on.
MJ: But people blanket bomb the design section, spend thousands and thousands of pounds entering and it’s now become part of their raison d’être. The Partners won a Gold this year – but not in design. They had to do it by entering into an advertising category. That says it all. They played the system because they probably knew if they entered The Grand Tour into graphic design it wouldn’t get in. But it got into ambient, integrated [and won in poster advertising]. They probably entered that work six times across d&ad. They know what we know: that it’s a lottery when you get work in front of a jury. It’s a great project and deserved to get a Gold – so you can kind of understand their approach. On the other hand, we did some nice stamps last year but could only enter them into one sub-category.
SP: When we entered the Yauatcha work, it didn’t even get in the book. And – without blowing my own trumpet – I thought it was a nice piece of work!
MJ: If you had called me I’d have told you to enter it into this, this and this category….
SP: But we didn’t do it strategically: I thought ‘packaging’ was the right place to put it – people buy a cake and they get it in a box!
CR: So do you think there is a problem with the way the judging works?
MJ: Yes: the underlying problem is that the judges are reflected in the work that gets through. If you pick a set of – for want of a better word – ‘ideas’ based jurors, you know what you’re going to get. If you pick ‘functionally’ biased ones you’ll get a different set of results. You get better ‘curated’ shows with smaller judging panels. With three or four people you don’t get the warfare. At d&ad there can be nine judges, with huge splits.
SP: And then you also only get average work: you give something an average score and it’s then the work that doesn’t really offend either party that gets through.
MJ: There are some who’ve really benefited from this ‘compromised candidate’ kind of thing – the work that sits in the middle ground.
SP: But then going round the advertising, it does seem very indicative of the year’s work. Maybe that’s because it’s all ‘advertising’ and that’s as complicated as it gets? With our work, you can be designing packaging for a supermarket, a high-end boutique, or you do a corporate identity that isn’t about ‘now’ but about the future, where the brand will be. Advertising is more of a level playing field while design is probably more complex.
MJ: Also, designers are much worse at picking the best work. The ad community – with all their wars, politics, hatred, jealousy and egos in the industry – are still able to sit there and say, ‘he’s a wanker, but that’s a great piece of work’. The design community is useless at doing that and is getting worse…. An interesting phenomenon is that the international work often looks fresher. Blogs mean you’ve seen a lot of the work before – so you lose an aspect of it when you encounter it again. You have to be on your game to say, ‘I’ve seen that before and I still think it’s good’ – compared to something from Japan that knocks your socks off immediately but might not look as good in six months. And that’s where the ad industry is better – their work is in the public domain: they all read the same mags, all watch the telly, they don’t fast forward the ads, and they make judgements as they go along. They would have decided at the end of last year that Gorilla is a killer ad and, lo and behold, it wins a Gold. They’d already come to that conclusion.
SP: Yes, every year you know what’s best – like with the Sony Balls commercial.
MJ: Ask graphic designers what the best bit of work from last year was?! But people say that advertising’s in decline: yet they’ll give out 35 pencils. Which is like saying ‘we’re sinking guys, but we’ll still give each other pencils’! Design doesn’t seem to be in decline: product and environmental designers seem to be ok with saying, ‘nice bit of work’ – but the graphic designers have gone back into their shells. Again. And I’ve never worked out why they do it.
CR: What about the fact that there are more pieces of work from overseas in D&AD than from the UK?
MJ: If you’re going to sell yourself as the Oscars of advertising and design then this will happen.
SP: I think it’s great, there’s some examples of exciting work. I’m just amazed that they spend that amount of money, that they think it’s a platform that they want to be seen on.
MJ: I think they do what I might do with international schemes, where you’re much tougher on yourself and just enter two things, like to the Tokyo Type Directors Club.
SP: Well, you’re only as good as your worst piece of work – you should just have a bit of self-discipline.
CR: Is the entry fee a big barrier for a lot of studios? Should that be altered at all?
MJ: I think they should halve the entry fee, or make the fee nonexistent. They won’t do it – but make it something like 40 quid? The trouble is the usual suspects will then enter 400 things!
SP: It does all sound so old-fashioned. Take blogs: kids put the work up instantly, they’re not going to wait for somebody to look at it, make an opinion on it, put it into a book eight months, a year after they’ve done it, compared to getting it on the web and celebrating it.
CR: But isn’t the filtration process of an awards important, in that it gives work a value, a stamp? Do designers think differently about that now?
MJ: I think you should devote half of the next issue to asking recent graduates what they think – because I haven’t got a clue. In my late 20s I went along to a D&AD and thought, I’d like to win one of them, they’re clearly a sign of whether you’re any good. And I naively entered into my ‘D&AD life’ thinking one of those means you’re good. I thought that for a long time. But now you’ve got to wonder about that. Even I, as an ex-President of D&AD, am questioning what is the point? And this is partly annoyance at this year – but, also, part of me is thinking maybe I should just move on, just let it go. I like the tdc as well! That’s a beautiful scheme.
SP: Let it go Michael, let it go. We have all the TDC annuals and we still use them, for colour, type, style reference. But I’ve never seen anyone refer to a D&AD Annual.
MJ: Well, to be fair, they do look at them at college.
SP: The tutors should know better than that.
CR: So D&AD needs to address the fact that graphic design students, looking to see what the best design work is, won’t find it in its Annual?
MJ: If you had a million pounds you’d have an online archive and wouldn’t necessarily need a book. Gradually most of the world’s awards schemes are beginning to understand this.
SP: But it would be exciting for it to mean something. Not that I need an awards system to make me feel good. I suppose it’s our age that means we don’t feel we need to do this, but for the younger designers, they always enjoy it when work gets written about.
MJ: Yes, it does mean something. We might just be jaded middle-aged men. Designers in their mid-to-late 20s: you don’t have to scratch far to see that, yes, some would like to win a pencil.
CR: Isn’t D&AD important for other things outside the awards?
SP: It has an amazing educational programme and student awards; the lectures are inspiring – they do a lot of great things that we have to give them respect for. There’s some great ad work voted in and D&AD is the only place to go and see it. But when it comes to graphic design I just feel like I’d never ever look there.
CR: What do you think of the two pieces of work that were nominated in the graphics section this year? There was the stamp from Hat-Trick Design… (shown, top of page)
SP: The stamp is beautiful. So simple.
MJ: Yes it’s nice. I don’t think it’s worthy of an award though: it’s not doing enough things.
CR: And the Object bags for Vinçon by Ena Cardenal de la Nuez…
MJ: I think I’ve done this before, at least once. They’re kind of sweet but they’re still really just use-of-handle-in-bag-design.
CR: So what’s the way forward?
SP: They’ve got to wipe the slate clean, start again and build something completely different. Do something radical, exciting that we all want to belong to, so we’ll value its opinion and existence. I think let the ad world carry on with D&AD as it stands, just the design bit has to be separate. I love it that Wolff Olins or the Partners can enter into the advertising world – but for me the two worlds have just never been connected. Let’s focus on doing something about design – with a fixed judging panel maybe?
MJ: The only way that this judging system works at the moment is if you’re lucky and the judges get on and they’ve got a really strong foreman, who almost has a foreman’s override. At the moment they don’t have that – but you’ve got to wonder if something like that would be the way to make the system work when you get nine people all together.
SP: Kind of curated, where you have a foreman, like an Alice Rawsthorn, somebody who can override it….
MJ: The other thing to do is have less judges and to put those judges through hell and make them look at 2000 bits of work, which they do do on other schemes. You get your Sagmeister, Perkins, Farrow, and say: ‘you’re gonna come out of this with good work, your job is to find it.’
SP: There’s also that debate aspect: if the judging was a bit more like a discussion so that people could enlighten other people about the work. You’ve got to make people believe in it again – do something radical. Make a lot of noise about doing something different, then do it.
MJ: It’s interesting – he’s not entering and I’m just assuming I’m never going to win again: and what are we, 44? It’s a bit ridiculous. But rather than build from scratch, as the other areas of D&AD are healthy, you’d think there was another way to fix it. It doesn’t work for the designer – so change it. It’s just a bit sad: it stands for Design and Art Direction….
For the full results of the 2008 Awards, see D&AD’s website, dandad.org.
This article will appear in the June issue of CR, out 22 May. Other features in the June issue include:
Big Spaceship – an interview with Michael Lebowitz
The 2008 logo design trend report from LogoLounge