Awards Madness!
Are YOU an Award Winning Graphic Designer?

To be number one. The conquering champion. The winner. It’s just a natural human aspiration, an irresistible biological imperative that inevitably breeds competition. Consequently awards are epidemic, no less in the realm of graphic design. Even the competitions are competing, offering claims to be the ‘richest’, ‘world’s biggest’, ‘most prestigious’, or ‘longest running’. It’s an old joke to say we need an award for the best award.

There are thousands of design awards. Competitions such as the D&AD Awards, Annual Art Directors Club Awards, The One Show, The Webby Awards, Tokyo Type Directors Club Annual Awards, European Design Awards, Red Dot Award, Cannes Design Lions, American Graphic Design Awards, YoungGuns, Young Asian Designers Award, Type Directors Club Type Design Competition, even a Seoul Design Olympiad. There are competitions run by magazines – Communication Arts, Print, I.D. Magazine, IdN, Creative Review. Competitions from local and national associations such as the AIGA Annual Design Competitions. From paper companies such as the Mohawk Show and the Strathmore Letterhead Contest. From software companies such as the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. There are international Poster Annuals, Biennials and Triennials. Competitions for the design of t-shirts, logos, stickers, bank notes, flags and postal stamps. They have reached their perhaps predictable evolutionary phase in recent real-time gladiatorial contests between duelling designers such as The Cut&Paste Digital Design Tournament, and Layer Tennis, which pit designers against each other and the clock. If you’ve entered all these and you’re all designed out, you could write about your malaise and enter the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing and Criticism.

Design awards usually have a stated goal to raise standards and promote excellence. Part of D&AD’s mission is to “set creative standards, educate, inspire and promote good design and advertising.” The ADC “celebrates and inspires creative excellence… promoting the highest standards of excellence and integrity in visual communications”.

But is competition really unavoidable? Is it even desirable? Are awards really the most useful way to ‘bring out our best’? Even if we take a critical or cynical stance against awards, assumptions about the inevitability and value of competition, and the struggle to conquer each other generally, are rarely challenged. In Alfie Kohn’s book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, empirical research from fields including education, economy, sports, the arts, and psychology is surveyed to determine whether competition is better than co-operation. The results are counter-intuitive yet unequivocal: competition mostly results in poorer performance, reduced satisfaction, and less creativity.

All related research defies our assumption that competing leads to better work. Social researcher Morton Deutsch found in a series of experiments with university students for example, that not only does awarding victorious competitors have no effect on how well they performed, but for tasks that relied on working together it produced significantly poorer results.1 Almost all studies into the issue contradict our conviction that reserving a desirable reward for the winner (as apposed to everyone getting the same reward) provides incentive and boosts performance.2

If there has been an historical contest between co-operation and competition, competition whipped co-operation’s ass real good. It is the cornerstone of modern global economy and ideology. Competition is offered as an antidote to monopoly, mediocrity and even totalitarianism, though rarely as ingrained rivalry that manifests itself in our most destructive follies: war, poverty, environmental ruination. Anyway, could we even imagine a cultural landscape without it? Wouldn’t we all just be lazy and stupid? Wouldn’t all visual communication look predictable, disconnected and, well, like the content of a lot of design awards annuals?

The phenomenon of the cultural prize – the singling out of an artist, writer, architect, musician, actor or designer for award – goes back until at least the 6th Century BC with the Greek’s drama and arts competitions. In the West, the idea of competition itself was perhaps embedded by Aristotle with his advocacy of rhetoric and adversarial debate, institutionalised today in our democratic and legal systems. The phenomenon of the cultural prize slowly gathered momentum since the ancient Greeks through the classical, medieval, and renaissance periods, becoming more common in the last few centuries via academies and professional associations. But the turn of the 20th Century saw the explosion of creative competitions – what author James English calls the “cultural economy of prestige”. He laments the conflation of sport and art, demonstrating an argument that they are often contradictory facets of life: “cultural prizes represent an external imposition on the world of art rather than an expression of its own energies. The rise of prizes over the past century, and especially their feverish proliferation in recent decades, is widely seen as one of the more glaring symptoms of a consumer society run rampant… Prizes, from this vantage point, are not a celebration but a contamination of the most precious aspects of art”. 3

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Designers enter awards for all kinds of reasons. Of course we want acknowledgement and encouragement. “When I work I am often teetering between thinking that what I’m doing is really good or really awful,” says Martin Venezky from Appetite Engineers. “That uneasiness comes with the territory of experimentation… it suggests that I’m not repeating myself. So any form of external acceptance is very comforting.” We want our excellence rewarded. We want recognition personally, for our businesses, and also for our clients. After all, prizes are tangible when so much of what we achieve is slippery and unaccountable. David Palmer from LOVE said after winning at this year’s Design Week Awards “It’s great for our profile. But it’s also good to go back to our client and reward them for allowing us to do what we wanted with that job.” 4 Awards are perceived as a tool for attracting and flattering clients. Vince Frost, now of Frost Design in Sydney, began entering awards after observing in his last days at Pentagram that “the company was built on the reputation of its partners. Without a reputation people don’t know that you exist and therefore no work comes your way. I left to start my own company of one! And the realisation that design is a business hit me in the back of the head.”

We are fairly comfortable admitting to these mercantile manipulations, but less so to our own egocentric panderings. How often do you hear an acceptance speech that thanks everyone for making me feel like a big hero, for example? At the Design Week Awards Michael Johnson from Johnson Banks said, “It is always nice to win because you never want to feel like yesterday’s man”5. So we can sometimes be honest about wanting to feel relevant, even if competing for a trophy seems a fairly limited way to achieve this.

Awards can also be seen as a way to knock industry stasis. Jonathan Barnbrook says he wanted to prove “that actually a small design group could do much better work than the big design groups. Also of course I wanted a little bit of approval, but I am fine now thanks”. Frost remembers winning his first award: “I was totally excited. Me sitting working in my spare bedroom in my boxer shorts won against the big boys.”

A common reason given for not entering awards, and for keeping a certain kind of work lionised, is the expense involved. Competitions are often played as a gamble and therefore the more times a studio can afford to enter, the more often they are likely to win. “We entered awards very regularly until eight years ago”, says Erik Kessels from KesselsKramer. “Then we stopped, because… we felt that the amount of award shows were so rapidly growing that entering in them cost us a fortune. (We were spending up to €80,000 a year on fees.) If the money you pay for it would be spent by the organisation for educational proposes this would be no problem, but this isn’t the case. A lot of award shows are organised as commercial ventures.”

“It used to be that entering and winning these competitions was the only way to make a name for yourself,” claims Michael Bierut from Pentagram. “Now, in the age of blogs, etc, all bets are off.” But before awards were so prolific didn’t designers mostly make a name for themselves with work that fulfilled or even transcended social and cultural need? Is this a redundant aspiration in the age of competition and digital networking? Bierut believes that online exposure is satiating designers’ desire for profile, and diluting the lure of awards. How then to explain their ever increasing abundance?

Non-Format’s Jon Forss comes clean: “Awards are basically a drug: the first hit is amazing, which fuels a desire for more, but it all depends on the standard of the competition itself: the more  prestigious  the awards the bigger the buzz. There are a great many award schemes out there but we limit ourselves to only a select few. You could say we’re onto the hard stuff now.”

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As the competitor’s status is boosted by winning an award, so to the competition’s prestige is enhanced by its consecration of already culturally revered figures. Most major competitions in the broader cultural sphere, whether it’s the Nobel, The Pulitzer, the Pritzker or the Grammys are very safely ‘recognising’ already oft-awarded individuals. It’s only a matter of time before graphic design has its equivalent. The game is a climb up the hierarchy of prizes. Similarly, no creative competition can achieve much symbolic cultural value if the jurors are not at least near the top of their fields. And it’s increasingly difficult in turn, to imagine these figures achieving such esteem without the momentum of awards.

Designers judge awards for many of the same reasons they enter them. It’s rarely for direct financial benefit. If payment is offered it’s generally a token relative to the juror’s usual income. So it is the cultural capital that is most valuable – a status that can’t be bought. Jurors’ aims are also often ethical and philanthropic. They champion the various stated aims of the competition: to reward excellence; publicise worthy projects and organisations; assist marginal designers; celebrate a creative community; or honour the memory of the deceased.

For some, the jury process is a disillusioning revelation of corruption and incompetence – Stephen Banham from Letterbox in Melbourne claims that “an awards enthusiast is somebody who hasn’t been on a jury yet”. He remembers one occasion when “we had a juror vigorously lobbying for his own work to get an award – call me naive, but shouldn’t jurors not be able to enter their own work into awards that they are judging? Or at least declare their conflict of interest and bow out of the proceedings?”

However most designers say that the first-hand exposure to a diversity of work, and the interactions with other jurors often justify the whole event. Barnbrook occasionally judges awards and finds some very enjoyable, “but usually it’s because of the other jury members, not the work”. Ralph Schraivogel says: “it is interesting to see design with the eyes of others”. And Amy Franceschini from Futurefarmers agrees: “the most exciting part is the conversation and debate among jurors. Just think what we could learn from this closed door process if it were made more transparent” and adds that there could be real benefit in entrants themselves choosing the jury: “Who would YOU want to judge your work?”

Designers who avoid awards will sometimes make an exception for a particular event. John Warwicker from Tomato judges the only award that he will now enter: “The Tokyo Type Directors Club is the only one that has a sensibility and spirit that I can relate to… a student doing an experimental piece of work has as much chance as a super-produced 12 poster series printed in 7 colours for a prestigious client. What they look for is the eye, the brain, the hand and the heart connected. I am honoured to be a (foreign) member of the Tokyo TDC and judge it every year, which is inspirational on every level.”

One of the most interesting visual communication competitions, The American Centre for Design’s ‘The 100 Show’, had a relatively ambitious curatorial agenda. Instead of attempting consensus, the invited jurors independently selected work from the submissions and then not only commented on their selections, but also wrote an essay about their judging experience for publication in their annual book. Here the jurors consistently protest that there’s not enough time for thoroughness. That better work existed to their knowledge and wasn’t entered. They wonder, removed from its context and severed from its audience, how can the work be judged effectively? Can it be any more than a beauty pageant? So what emerges over the years is a recurring list of complaints and concerns about the legitimacy and value of awards, but again, never with the idea of competition itself.

Jurors tell the same stories today. Stephan Sagmiester believes that, “by and large, they are judged to the best of the judges’ ability. In the case where judges have to go through vast amounts for entries like at the NY Art Directors Club or CA, subtle work is at a severe disadvantage, only the bold and big really gets noticed.”

Anja Lutz from Shift judged the ADC last year: “the amount of work was so overwhelming that we were judging 8 hours straight for three days in a row. I doubt that after the first hour any of us were seriously able to judge any work beyond the initial visual impact and surprise factor. But we had a good time.”

“I believe there’s an enormous amount of luck involved in getting a piece of work through to the final rounds of the judging process” says Forss who sat on the 2007 D&AD awards jury. “The really unlucky people have their work judged first, when the utopian ideals of the judges have yet to be beaten down by the rigors of the day. One of the major quandaries that crops up when judging, is whether to judge a piece of work on show by one’s own standards of good or bad, or by the standard of the rest of the work on show. At the beginning of the judging process it’s easy to set a high standard by which to measure the work, but by the end of the process one tends to be more and more lenient, compassionate and merciful.”

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The refusal of the judges at this year’s D&AD awards to give any prizes in the graphic design category caused what passes in the industry for outrage, allegations of irrelevance, as well as plenty of advice about how to fix the problem. However these gripes have always been as much a part of awards events as backslapping, drinks parties, and phallic trophies. Meanwhile, competition itself is so deeply engrained in every aspect of our lives – indeed as a lens through which we filter our lives – it escapes scrutiny. We just assume it’s a natural rather than cultural condition. But of course we’re taught to compete as soon as we’re taught anything. John Holt in his book How Children Fail, writes: “We destroy the… love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards – gold stars, or honour rolls, or dean’s lists… – in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.” 6

My studio, Inkahoots, likes to quote Nick Cave when invited to participate in competitions, awards and prizes: “My muse is not a race horse.”7 In spite of our misgivings about competitions, we sit on the jury of Memefest: the Slovenian based ‘International festival of radical communication’. But our doubts persist – are competitions inevitably undermining, rather than fostering, critical alternatives?

Oliver Vodeb established Memefest to nurture and reward innovative and socially responsible approaches to communication. Entrants in this year’s event responded to the theme ‘Radical Beauty’, and winners included a group calling themselves The Midnight Artists, whose work consists of scavenging garbage and sculpting it into genuinely affecting impromptu public art. While acknowledging that “competition, and dividing winners from losers, is a fundamental part of the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism and is also a result of market driven communication such as advertising”, he doesn’t agree that there’s a contradiction between the festival’s goals and it’s competitive context. “To say that the competition itself produces only winners and losers is an exaggeration that dismisses the complexity of the process that we are developing. There are no stars at Memefest and the whole process is open to critique and is inclusive instead of exclusive – as the star, capital, advertising and design driven competitions such as festivals or biennials are. The competition allows Memefest to establish a dynamic where skills and knowledge in the field of radical communication are rewarded and pushed to a higher level. Instead of ‘stardom’ the best ones get pedagogical feedback. This educational dimension, which is part of the competition (jurors write suggestions on how to improve the submissions and articulate their opinion on the submissions quality), is fundamental to Memefest’s philosophy. The whole process is much more formative than selective. Knowledge and ideas need to be shared, and the competition helps to share good quality works.”

What most competitions don’t share is equal billing for men and women. That so many awards trophies resemble badly costumed penises might not just be symbolic of a cocky (sorry) male prize entitlement, but of different male and female attitudes towards competition generally. Of the 22 names on the 2007 TDC2 winners list, only two are women. And since the first TDC medal in 1967, the organisation has awarded only one to a woman (Paula Scher in 2006). A casual browse through recent years’ design awards results will reveal a steadily increasing representation of women, some with a balanced mix. Although on average men still seem to account for roughly three quarters of the winners. But I don’t necessarily want to argue for greater participation by women in design competitions. Kohn claims that there are now only two positions possible: “either you agree that competition for women is desirable and long overdue or you are part of the patriarchal structure that believes only men have the right to be successful.” He believes that this kind of rhetoric, “combined with a legitimate impatience with sex-based discrimination, has led women to readjust not only their behaviour but their cognitive and emotional response to the idea of competing”.8 The culture that trained boys to be adversarial winners and girls to defer is changing. That many more women are now entering, judging and winning awards is a reflection of positive broader social and political forces, as well as a more dubious convergence of traditional male and female values regarding competition. The problem of course has never been with women, but with structural disadvantage and definitions of success that assume traditional male values of combatitive rivalry.

The diversity of a jury is now seen as an important requirement for achieving representative results. Sir Walter Scott, in an 1821 letter arguing against literary awards, claimed jurors would be “differing so widely in politics in taste in temper and in manners having no earthly thing in common except their general irritability of temper and a black speck on their middle finger, what can be expected but all sorts of quarrels fracasseries lampoons libels and duels?” In spite of the rise of pluralism it’s actually pretty difficult to imagine much brave and impassioned promotion of polarising visual communication amongst contemporary awards jurors. The consecration of prizewinners generally works to legitimise and indoctrinate dominant values. Awards are persuasive instruments of control. To enter a competition is to submit to authority, to concede bureaucratic command over a feral cultural terrain. Entering an award is to conform to an edifying hierarchy and to que for a revered place in history. Even if the cannon inevitably constricts and distorts that history. To misquote Chuck D from Public Enemy “Most of my heroes don’t enter no awards.”9 Many designers acknowledge this limitation. “Whatever wins” says Frost “is only the best of what is entered. So it can be a false representation of the best work from that year.” Forss remembers “years ago, the then art director of i-D magazine complaining, after having judged a major awards show, that many of the best pieces of design he’d seen that year were absent from the entries.” Rudy Vanderlands in his essay for the 100 Show’s The Seventeen Annual writes: “This show was marked by two things: the near total absence of magazine and music packaging, two areas where American graphic design pushes boundaries rigorously, and the staggering number of paper promotions and annual reports, two areas where American graphic design splurges. If it wasn’t for corporate annual reports and paper company promotions, I wonder if design competitions like this could even exist.”10

The organisations that run awards can lack this sense of perspective, overstating and confusing their role. The Australian industry association (AGDA) promoting its biennial awards on their website, start with a claim of reasonable ambition: “the most important reason for the AGDA Awards is to document and celebrate Australian graphic design every two years. It is a pertinent snapshot of where our industry has been and where it is headed.” But ends with: “Without it there would be no dialogue, no history, no continuity, no critical analysis, no passing on of knowledge and no exchange of ideas.” So our whole history and critical capacity depends on designers vying for superiority and compliments?

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Maybe they should listen closer to designers who just don’t see the point. “It’s boring,” says Marco Fiedler from Vier5. “For us it is interesting to see how our projects work in life. It is not interesting what a jury thinks about our work. An award is something like winning a prize for the most beautiful cow.” Can we find new, more constructive ways to encourage and recognise great work? Although positive about many aspects of design awards, Nick Bell believes they can lead to an “over emphasis on the aesthetics of craft often to the detriment of the delivery of other benefits.” Vodeb agrees: “In the design world, competitions are an extremely important part of  how a designer gets recognition. Many designers are experts in decoding what kind of work will have a chance of winning at which competition. In general, the competitive context not only shapes the nature and quality of the outcome but it affects the whole philosophy of design. It creates a mindset of decontextualised design thinking and practice. It creates a design culture that stops at the appearance of design. It reduces design, design thinking and practicing to a self referential commodity.”

Why not accept that if awards are just a diversion, then what value they do have could be realised more effectively and with fewer negative consequences in other ways? Can we imagine these ways? Can we accept that awards are bred by, and feed a culture promoting individual heroics at the expense of co-operation and common interest – all the while failing on their own terms? Kohn writes that there is a “significant negative correlation between competition and achievement”.11 As philosopher John McMurtry said: “Presuming that the contest-for-prize framework and excellence of performance are somehow related as a unique cause and effect may be the deepest lying prejudice of civilised thought.”12 How else then do we achieve excellence? Well, when we focus on mastery rather than victory. When we are enthused and challenged and connected socially. Designers are increasingly realising the rewards and necessity of collaboration. We succeed more often when our motivation is intrinsic not extrinsic. And when we focus on what’s really at stake. No, we probably won’t all agree on what exactly this is, but we can stop kidding ourselves there’s not a compelling consensus that obligates urgent change. Pretending is a creative prerogative, and awards are an alluring fantasy. But a greater creative privilege is imagining a better future. This is a future of commonality and co-operation, not more distraction, division and competition.

Jason Grant 2008


All quotes from correspondence with author unless otherwise stated.
1. Morton Deutsch The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985
2. see David and Roger Johnson’s survey of 122 studies from 1924 to 1980 ”Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis”. Psychological Bulletin 89 (1981)
3. James F English The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Harvard University Press, 2005 p2.
4 & 5. Design Week podcast (www.designweekpodcast.co.uk/?podcast_id=2)
6. John Holt How Children Fail. Revised Edition. Delacorte, 1982
7. Nick Cave. Letter to MTV, 21 Oct 1996 (www.nick-cave.com)
8. Alfie Kohn No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Houghton Mifflin Company (revised edition), 1992 p174
Kohn’s book is highly recommended as a brilliant overview and introduction to the issues around competition.
9. ”Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”. Public Enemy Fight the Power on the album Fear of a Black Planet, 1990
10. Rudy Vanderlands ”Wonderful Wonderment”. The 100+2 Show: The Seventeenth Annual of the American Center for Design. Ed Rob Dewey. The American Center for Design, 1995 p25
11. ibid p53
12. quoted by William O. Johnson, ”From Here to 2000”, p446