carrots & creatives*

carrot seeds poster

 Image via Flickr user Nullalux

A five-star furore erupted a couple of weeks ago in the US as the AIGA added ‘justified’ (effectiveness) criteria to its its established graphic design awards. Stoked by a passionate plea from Pentagram’s Paula Scher the dust is still in the air. Crudely reduced, the argument is about art vs. commerce. Beauty, exploration and inspiration vs. quantifiable outcomes and the somewhat true suggestion that the two are forever opposed.

Product designs must function yet fashion design takes liberties with practicality. Graphic designers – working on apps & apple juice, brands & bus timetables, ebooks & exhibitions, websites & wayfinding – juggle widely varying blends of function and aesthestics. Some good graphic design contributes enduringly to our visual culture, but a great deal of it has a mayfly lifespan shifting sandwiches before being binned. Really good graphic design looks upliftingly great and fulfils an useful function.

Defining awards criteria is as challenging as agreeing on what meets them. Arriving at aesthetic design criteria is fraught and sometimes subjective, but establishing commercial criteria is at best uneven (is this local bakery’s brand identity better that that airline’s…?). Intertwining the two is asking for trouble. All awards thrive on debate – who would notice them if they were not controversial (I have to agree with Johnson Banks on this year’s D&AD annual: how did The Comedy Carpet not get in?).

Awards – who needs ’em? Carrots for ‘creatives’ and clients alike, awards provide an ego-boost rarely denied by winners whose hard-working colleagues get a good excuse to party. For designers, ‘creative awards’ set a standard to aspire to or be inspired by. Clients love the apparent reassurance that their suppliers know what they are doing. The ‘justified’ / effectiveness awards component (best served by a separate competition as in the UK) might reassure designers that their work ‘makes a difference’ but its real value is in convincing the less confident / imaginative client budget holder – and ‘business’ at large – that design investment ‘works’.

I have done some awards development and judging and have been an author / contributor for some award-winning work (nothing major), but I continue to – feebly – assert that I’m not fussed about them, expensive & time-consuming as they are to enter. The only pencils with my name on are the ones my Gran used to give us all at Christmas and I still like those.


*Logical, but inexplicably hateful term.


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