Applied Arts—Spring 2018

Judged and juried: It’s time to take a more holistic look at design awards


Recently, I was discouraged when reviewing the fine print of a graphic design competition entry form, not entirely for what I read, but because I could not decipher the type. My current pair of glasses did not pass muster. (A trip to the optometrist confirmed that multi-vision lenses would aid in seeing different views.)

For over 25 years, I have been scrutinizing everything from interpretive planning documents to location plans, message schedules and construction drawings. The type of work I do—experiential graphic design—has been partially responsible for a shift in my vision.

Perhaps the close read of the entry requirements only enhanced some of the issues I have with design competitions. While new lenses helped to better understand the scope of each classification, better sight did not improve my ability to discern the correct category for our work. For a designer who operates on the periphery of many design disciplines—branded environments, signage and wayfinding, and design for narrative environments—I can rarely find a category that is a best fit.

Full disclosure: I have juried and I have been judged. So too have Edmund Li and Udo Schliemann of branding and environmental commmunications firm Entro, both of whom I spoke to regarding this opinion piece. I am currently a judge for the RGD, and a past juror for Applied Arts; I do hope this column does not preclude me from any future opportunities to appraise design work.

Competition season is upon us, and so this year I have an opportunity to take a critical look. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in competitions. They are important for our clients, for the industry and for the individuals who contributed to the project.

Certainly I cannot be alone in questioning competitions. Aside from what category best relates to our work—or if categorization is even necessary—I have other questions. Why are we submitting? Are competitions the best way to recognize work? Is it even worth it?

The close view: most typical brand categories include visual identity and related material, usually print. But if brand is about a promise and aligning expectation with experience, then why not enter an interior design or even a civic park into a branding competition? The issue then is in communicating how that project supports the brand.

One problem: the requirements. For example, “If you have a wayfinding project, and only eight images,” says Schliemann, “and you produced 20 sign types and 1,000 signs, you can’t describe your project properly with those limitations.” Udo, Edmund and I agree. It is difficult to communicate complexity, as Schliemann notes, “with a short text and the visual repertoire that we are asked to provide.” Personally, I prefer competitions that accept longer texts and supporting images that illustrate the depth of the solution.

As an entrant, you must anticipate for juror fatigue, Edmund and Udo reminded me. Perhaps this gets to the core of what we do, you and I. We are communicators. The audience for the products we create is different than jurors and industry readership. We must, as designers, tailor the message to the audience.

What should the juror focus on? As much as we want to document every detail, we can’t. Therefore review, remind yourself of the big picture and refine. Regardless of the complexity of the project, there is a way to communicate the submission’s core idea within the requirements, such as a video or a great copy editor.

A benefit of competitions is the process. “There is a moment of reflection when you look at your work,” says Li, and, “during your own selection process, you may realize the things you could have improved. When you see a very strong entry, there is a reminder about why the project is working.”

Recently, I entered a project in a competition. I found it interesting that when viewed through the individual lenses of graphic design, architecture and landscape architecture, the design was good, possibly very good. However, when the “design” solution was viewed as a whole, I thought it was “awardworthy.” But would others? Does it even matter?

From another perspective—the long view—the main issue I struggle with is choosing a category—or using the intradisciplinary lens to evaluate a multidisciplinary project. Applied Arts and Azure have introduced new categories—like experiential graphic design—into their programs for a broadening design field. Thanks, we EGDers appreciate this!

Perhaps the shift to multi-vision progressive lenses gave me a new perspective after all. Udo suggests more categories are required to capture the periphery of communication design. This is where he and I do not see eye to eye. While intradisciplinary judging levels the playing field, I believe industry as a whole is moving towards a more multidisciplinary approach to design. So too should competitions.

Edmund, Udo and I do agree on many points: we enter awards to thank our clients for considering design, as a sign of appreciation for staff and to push the envelope of the design fields. Udo laments, however, that those things “always used to be part of our profession—the social impact, the social-political impact of what we do. That has somehow gotten lost. It’s really more about things of beauty, or the latest tools.” I could not agree more.

What competitions would I like to see? To enter? I want to judge and be judged on good, not just good-looking, design. I believe in high standards and positive outcomes, and I care less about beauty. I would like to believe the industry shares some of my opinions, as we witness design organizations recognizing how positive action through design can meaningfully impact how we live. (Kudos RGD and its So(cial) Good Design Awards.)

Ultimately, I envision a competition that is less intradisciplinary in evaluation, and more focussed on how we solve problems through design to benefit society. GDC, RGD, RAIC, IDC and CSLA: it’s time to take a more holistic approach to design awards. Let’s collaborate, in an interdisciplinary way, to envision competitions that celebrate outcome and process, regardless of discipline. That’s a vision of the future I see.


time, vol 18, no 4

Applied Arts is Canada's premier magazine of visual communications. Applied Arts explores the strategic and cultural forces driving creativity in Canada and features the resulting work—whether groundbreaking, unusual or otherwise exceptional. Printed quarterly, the magazine is written for, and by, thought leaders and emerging talents in the visual communications field. Since 1986, Applied Arts has delivered gorgeous imagery, strong opinion, timely information and essential industry insight to a readership of 46,000 creative and marketing professionals.


Inaugural Issue This is the first of what I hope to be many opinion pieces for Applied Arts Magazine