2007 Best Business Graphics

April 18, 2007, the day our jurors met at the Print offices to judge
this year’s crop of business graphics competition entries, also
happened to be the day the Dow closed above 12,800 for the first time.
As a record high it was encouraging, but it hardly told the whole
economic story. February had seen sharp market declines, and technology
stocks were continuing to stall. There had been a fall in housing
starts, and auto sales were down. Even gains seemed to be shrouded in
uncertainty: Some consumer spending was up, yet those numbers included
escalating gas prices, not a desirable indicator. The luxury market
continued to grow—as did the number of foreclosures at the other
end of the market.

As our jurors reviewed a representative array of
the business world’s graphic output, the day’s news seemed
to raise the question: How can design be a factor in these uncertain
times? And how can a strong design strategy facilitate business in an
unsure economy?

What jurors were looking for was a sense of clarity.
Bill Darling, especially, prized that quality. “I’m drawn to
those things that communicate clearly from the outset,” he said.
“There has to be some level of transparency.” Stella Bugbee
put it a little differently, asking simply, “Does it justify its
existence?” Sometimes clarity was reflected in language; jurors
commented repeatedly on the value of good writing, whether in an ad
campaign, website, or marketing program. But usually it surfaced in a
visual program that concisely and accurately reflected its product or
content.

What surfaced as well was a sense of comfort with our times,
thorny though they may be. Designers and clients alike seem to be
looking backward a little less. In previous years, possibly as a
backlash against the constant flood of new electronic technologies, a
genuine interest in handwork was reflected in stamping, stenciling,
silk-screening, and even embroidery. This year, such
handcraft-influenced style seemed less ubiquitous, and less flagrant
when used. When it did appear, it seemed better integrated with a
broader strategy.

In a similar vein, nostalgia, a feature of so much
work in recent years, also appeared only with good reason. Jurors were
taken with a series of posters that teamed constructivist graphics with
high-tech biking equipment for the Discovery Channel’s campaign
for a race to find the next Lance Armstrong. The visual reference, with
all its kinetic and futuristic associations, was entirely appropriate to
the sports event. That such historic references were made so selectively
may suggest that we no longer need to rely on nostalgia purely for the
sense of gratuitous comfort it provides. Instead, we can use it as a
graphic tool like any other.

Jurors also noted the growing tendency
toward niche marketing, whether for a Martha Stewart product or a Super
Bowl brand. “A lot of advertising is moving toward targeted
marketing,” Bugbee observed. This put jurors in a tough spot at
times: If the promotional material left jurors cold, they often
suspected it was because they were outside the target demographic. In
such cases, they gave the program the benefit of the doubt, while
Agnieszka Gasparska asked, “Is it original?”

One of the
main rewards in reviewing the entries for this area of graphics has
always been finding good design in unexpected places. Jurors made the
annual lament that while retailers know the value of good design because
they have to, educators, health-care administrators, and financial
service managers often don’t have a clue. So the high level of
design in the elegant silk-screened posters for the Columbus Bank and
Trust company, and in an annual report for a wood products and paper
concern sensibly printed on newsprint, came as a pleasant surprise.
Perhaps most refreshing were the standout graphics for a political
campaign: The letterhead, signage, and stickers for Jim Esch, a 2006
Democratic congressional candidate from Nebraska, were elegant and
reserved. Admittedly, it does appear that the pieces may not have been
sufficiently effective; Esch lost narrowly to his Republican incumbent
opponent.

Looking over the packaging submissions, the jurors singled
out pieces that made a genuine effort to evince a feeling for the
products they contained. The Sweets Candy packaging for its gourmet
toffee line was cited for the way the twist box evoked the classic shape
of a hard-candy wrapper. “It’s surprising,” said
Bugbee. “And it has a great self-awareness to it.”
Similarly, the clear case for TUL gel retractable pens for OfficeMax
seems an apt reference to the pens’ efficiency, and, one hopes, to
the ideas they will document. As Ryan Vanderbilt said, “It’s
simple and reflects the product.”

Invariably, reviewing the
several thousand entries that are submitted each year brings to light a
recurring image or motif. One year, strangely, it was pizza boxes. This
year, it was passports. Whether it was part of a program for season
tickets for a sports team or an export trade council, the blue pamphlet
made an appearance several times. Credit it to globalization. Certainly,
this year’s pool of entries suggested there was less of a divide
between the work from the U.S. and that from abroad.

The idea that
environmental responsibility—and thus sustainable design—is
the way for American business to maintain its current status in the
global order of things was represented here more by omission than by
commission. Recycled papers and non-toxic inks emerged occasionally, but
more apparent was a general sensitivity to overdesign. Packaging finally
seemed to be more appropriately modest, with fewer cases of gratuitous
use of materials and superfluous layering. Bugbee suggested that
“just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,” a
phrase that has relevance for every choice in the design process,
including whether or not to do a project at all. It could become the
designer’s mantra of sustainability. And this strange moment, when
we are caught between market optimism and pervasive economic
instability, may just be the perfect time for businesses to actually
hear such a message, and to understand that green solutions can be smart
business strategies too.

THE JUDGES

STELLA BUGBEE is a creative director
who specializes in branding and publication design. Prior to
establishing her own company in 2005, she founded Honest with Cary
Murnion and Jon Milott while the three were attending Parsons the New
School for Design. After five years at Honest, she worked at The New
York Times Magazine
, then as a design director with Ogilvy and
Mather’s Brand Integration Group. Her work has been featured in
PRINT, HOW, Step, BlackBook, Nylon,
and Eye. Bugbee is currently the design director at Domino
magazine.

BILL DARLING is a design director at the brand
consultancy Wolff Olins; he has worked for a spectrum of industries,
from the nonprofit sector to entertainment and consumer goods. His past
clients include the New Museum, EMI, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and (RED),
and he is currently working on a project for Frito-Lay. Darling is a
graduate of the design program at the School of Visual Arts in New
York.

AGNIESZKA GASPARSKA is the founder of the New York City
studio Kiss Me I’m Polish. After graduating with a B.F.A. from the
Cooper Union School of Art, she worked for five years as a senior art
director at the interactive agency Funny Garbage. She has received
recognition from PRINT, Time, and Taschen, and her clients have included
the National Recording Academy, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Experience
Music Project, and Bloomberg. She is currently developing kiosks for
Lincoln Center’s Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, and her new
bath brand for Blue Q, “Cute As Hell,” launched this past
spring.

RYAN VANDERBILT has worked as a designer at G2 and Landor
Associates and is currently a design director at the branding and
advertising agency Anomaly. He has worked on projects for a variety of
clients, including Virgin America, Altoids, Gatorade, psfk, Diageo,
Beverage Partners Worldwide, The Effies, Dasani, Pepsi, and Bath & Body
Works. He has a B.F.A. in communication design from Syracuse
University.

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