When the jurors met to review the entries for this year’s business graphics competition, economic indicators were pointing to a downturn. The meltdown in the mortgage industry had begun to extend beyond the subprime markets, the stock market was dropping precipitously, and consumer spending was declining—all while oil prices continued to rise. Add to that the continuing dangerous imbalance in the ratio of working people to retired people, and the glaring possibility of the first recession in six years. While it was unlikely that the competition entries would directly reflect this, since many of these pieces had been produced in early 2007, it was still possible to spot the seeds of economic instability. And as always in this competition, jurors were on the alert for how design could reflect and influence business strategy.
The evidence seemed to suggest that in an increasingly uncertain economy, the decisions tend to be made by marketing departments. The result, our jurors lamented, was often a lack of authenticity, or originality giving way to imitation. This was most apparent in promotions for luxury real estate—the bigger the budget, the more diminished the sense of genuineness. How can a designer convey that quality? “It’s a lived-in aesthetic,” suggested juror Richard Christiansen. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, nor overly thought out, just quirky—less, not more.”
One might also think that by now, sustainable design would have a greater presence. Not so: Soy-based inks and uncoated papers were in short supply. Excess usually makes a strong showing in business graphics, and this year was no exception. Coated papers, elaborate packaging, and exotic materials made many appearances.
In digital entries, judge Mike Essl was intrigued by the continued appetite for Flash: “With Flash you can do anything, which means there are more ways to go wrong than ever.” Added Christine Mau, “Flash is being overused now the same way designers overused Photoshop when it was first introduced.” Christiansen summed up the result of such overreaching: “The unexpected delight is missing here.” Essl voiced a popular mantra in business graphics design: “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.”
What the jurors sought was a sense of originality. Christiansen noted “an apprehension about risk-taking. Going forward 10 percent is quite different from fresh thinking.” Or as Mau put it, “We’ve all become so good at exchanging information. The formula has been executed and perfected. It’s all been done well so many times. Now the question is how to stand out, how to look at things in a fresh way.” And the argument could be made that dire times are precisely when risks should be taken.
As the war continues and the economy worsens, said Christiansen, it would be nice to see more of a human element in design for business. And some projects delivered: An annual report’s bar graphics hand-painted in watercolor, a sportswear catalog with unflagging retro humor, a compelling story of one person’s fortitude in an annual report for a rehabilitation hospital—these were not business as usual. They embodied moments defined by a sense of pleasure, fun, need, and vulnerability. That sense of humanity can inform unstable times. Or, for that matter, any other time.
Gail Anderson is a creative director at SpotCo, a New York City–based ad agency and design studio that specializes in artwork and campaigns for Broadway theater. Anderson’s work has received awards from the Society of Publication Designers, the Type Directors Club, AIGA, the Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, Graphis, and PRINT, and is in the collections of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, as well as the Library of Congress. She is the co-author, with Steven Heller, of Graphic Wit, New Vintage Type and several other books. Anderson teaches in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design program. She is the recipient of the 2008 AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement.
Richard Christiansen is the founder of Chandelier Creative, an agency with offices in New York, London, and Hong Kong. His team specializes in advertising and branding for fashion and luxury goods companies, and his work encompasses television, new media, film, and print. Clients include Lane Crawford, M Missoni, Old Navy, W Hotels, and Langham Hotels. Previously, Christiansen was the creative editor of Benetton’s Colors magazine, the creative director of Suede Magazine, and the founder of Milk Magazine. He is also the founder of Commonwealth, a bespoke menswear line.
Mike Essl founded the design studio The Chopping Block. During his six years with the firm, Essl’s clients included National Geographic, MTV, and the band They Might Be Giants. A graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art’s MFA program for 2-D design, Essl has worked for Chronicle Books, DC Comics, and Rizzoli. He has taught at Parsons The New School for Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts, and is now an assistant professor at The Cooper Union. In 2003, his work was featured in Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Triennial.
Christine Mau is the associate director of packaging graphics at Kimberly-Clark. She leads the team responsible for the branding and packaging of the company’s consumer portfolio, including the Kleenex and Huggies brands. Mau is passionate about exploring the power of design and applying it strategically to forward business objectives, an approach she put into practice with the Kleenex oval-carton design and patent. Her work has been recognized by the American Advertising Federation, Brand Packaging Design Galleries, and HOW.