"Unjustified", Part II

By Paula Scher

As promised, the following are my thoughts about future AIGA competitions (shows) and a response to the 160 plus posts to my recent article on Imprint “AIGA: Unjustified”.

1. Are Design Competitions an “elitist system”?

I owe my career to the AIGA. I am a beneficiary of the exposure that comes from winning competitions. I guess you could call it a “system”. Maybe it’s “elitist”.

In the early ’80s when AIGA chapters were first established, this competition “system” enabled unknown designers like Woody Pirtle to establish a national reputation out of Dallas, Texas, which was not previously perceived as a sophisticated market for design. The whole Texas design community was influenced and affected by it and it inspired the whole state to better design. Local clients came to accept the newly elevated state of design. It was quite amazing for a time, and then there was a recession.

In the early ’80s an AIGA competition — a five-year survey of California design — exposed the spectacular talents of the L.A. and San Francisco communities. The designers, Michael Vanderbyl, Jennifer Morla, Kit Hinrichs, and April Greiman among others were made visible and they built strong design communities that still exist now, by supporting each other in the eternal quest for raising design expectations. They are still passionate about that “system” today because it creates a community of supportive designers whose goal it is to raise the level of design in the US. That’s why they posted their support for my “Unjustified” article.

Whole communities emerged because of these imperfect competitions. In Minneapolis, Joe Duffy, Chuck Anderson, and Sharon Werner made that city a viable market for great design which continues today. I was really saddened that the current Minneapolis chapter President did not acknowledge that these dumb AIGA design competitions filled with design for designers, made so many design careers in Minneapolis possible, maybe even his own.

A lot of the work that was awarded then was personal: self promotion pieces, paper promotions, design for designers. There were complaints about it, even then. But young designers would steal the work out of the competitions and save them. I have a few things like this sitting by my desk at Pentagram. I’ll never throw them out. I still remember Rick Valicenti‘s work for Gilbert paper. God, it was great. Is Gilbert still in business? Thankfully, Rick is.

Rick Valicenti's work (with John Maeda) for Gilbert Paper

Charles S. Anderson's work for French Paper

Then there are other systems, ways designers get recognized. Some of them are even more elitist.

You can attend a good graduate school program in design, maybe teach there after you complete your thesis project, write on design related topics, and design for not-for profit organizations and cultural institutions, build a reputation in that milieu, and never even enter a design competition. That’s a system. I can name a lot of instances where that has worked wonderfully.

Then there’s the system where you intern and work for someone established and famous with serious practice in a specific arena, are mentored by them, go out on your own with their support and client recommendations and continue along on the same path. I don’t know how elitist that system is, but it’s a good one.

My new favorite is the fabulous Marian Bantjes system. Send every famous designer you know and admire a spectacular elaborate valentine that you have drawn by hand especially for them EVERY YEAR until they finally notice you. They’re generally nice folk and they will support you and recommend you to others. It worked for Marian.

2. This has been the worst economic period since the great depression. Now designers need proof of the value of the their work so they can demonstrate it to their clients.

Except, the AIGA can’t really prove to your clients that your work is valuable and we shouldn’t make the promise that we can. That’s not the job of the AIGA. The clients have to determine on their own that there is value in design. They mostly determine that by being influenced by their own milieu, meaning other businesses they compete with or admire. Every success of an individual designer who has persuaded a client to better design is a success for all of us. That’s how we raise the level. That’s what AIGA is about.

3. Then do we need design competitions at all? There are so many “curated” sites on the Internet.

This is really debatable.

I think the visually curated websites show cool stuff but show it totally out of context, with no overview. All types of work unrelated are bundled together. We need more perspective, because it becomes impossible to see what’s really going on. The last best annual in the U.S., comes from the Type Director’s Club. It consistently displays wonderful contemporary typographic design in all categories from Europe as well as the U.S. If you’ve looked at it over time you’ll notice that the European work is more innovative, vibrant and joyful than the American work, which has become, well, rather solemn. It’s been that way for over ten years, I think since 9/11. That’s alarming. Is anyone paying attention?

Since 2002, many writers as taste makers have emerged as leading voices from the blogs but very few brand name designers,— makers of stuff — have emerged (Marian Bantjes is a notable exception due to her spectacularly innovative “system”, and Jessica Hische, who learned how to operate Tumbler before anyone else got savvy.) The really surprising result of the digital age is that with the increased ease of communication it is more difficult to be noticed and remembered. Young, emerging designers are rendered invisible because of the overwhelming plethora of stuff on the Internet. Famous people get more famous because you already know who they are while newer voices are drowned out in the info-din. We need to see the work. We need to see the work together, as a community. It will bring emerging talent to the forefront. It will inspire us, make us more competitive and more connected, and there will be an indirect exponential effect of the resulting outburst of creativity on the business community. It has happened before.

So here’s what I propose:

The AIGA creates a series of shows that are 5-year retrospectives on individual topics. For example, the past five years of data visualization, or typography and font design, or environmental graphics, or identity design, web design, or book design (electronic or otherwise), or whatever is a viable and interesting category.

The shows are free to entrants and the judges are required to know about and recommend relevant work that wasn’t entered. The show then becomes a fair survey of what is going on in a given area. There would be an exhibition at national headquarters, it would travel and there would be a beautifully designed catalog of the show. (The catalogs are for sale, and are not given away for free to AIGA members. There can also be an app for sale as well.)

The best shows AIGA ever held were all 5-year surveys. A different topic can be selected each year, and if they are successful perhaps there can be two or more accomplished in a year. These surveys can be inspiring, show us what is going on, provoke discussion and help raise the expectation of what design can be. They will also provide an opportunity for new talent to emerge. That’s what a show and catalog can do. I think it’s worth it. You pick the topics.

Paula Scher is a partner at Pentagram and a member of the AIGA.

[Editor’s note: to properly format paragraphs in the comments below, please use two hard returns]

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24 thoughts on “"Unjustified", Part II

  1. Pingback: Encouraging Bullshit - Ethics in Graphic Design | Ethics in Graphic Design

  2. Charles Hively

    The issue of competitions is an interesting one and I for one am enjoying the spirited debate. If you’ve ever judged a show you know that the “cream always comes to the top” and that’s the best work that should be recognized above all else. It’s not to say that the remaining entries are not valid or even impressive but just as a curator at a museum or gallery, judges are charged with defining what is above the norm and in the process hopefully we’re finding not only new, undiscovered talent but new trends in design. 
    I myself find it near impossible to scour the many web sites out there to discover new talent; I wade through a whole lot of crap to find someone interesting–pretty much the same experience I had as a judge though in some sense worse as people are not that concerned about what they post. So I appreciate curated shows that select the top work being done today. Certainly a jury can only judge what’s entered but I’ve found that the truly remarkable designers are actively participating in shows with one caveat, I find the 20-somethings more reluctant to enter. I surmise the reason is being voiced throughout the many comments I’ve seen in relation to Paula’s two posts, but I would question how new talent is going to emerge without competitions that are curated?
    Anyone can post a piece of design or art online, on Facebook, Tumblr, but when you look at the number of “Likes” or comments it’s in small numbers. Compare that to an annual where the press run is 5,000 or 10,000 or more, the reach for that winning piece is far greater than a blog or any form of social media. Truth is we need it all in order to promote the value of design, blogs, social media and yes, shows.

  3. Howard Stein

    As to proving the value of design, I should point to one company where design causes barely a ripple: Google.
    And, as to five year surveys, I think they have had their day. Three years might be a little more to our speed in 2012. To a twenty-one year old, two years is an eternity.
    @Julio, great Picasso quote and good post.
    @Paula, marvelous authority and loyalty along with a dash of intimidation. Good for you! Keep dancing.

  4. Frances Yllana

    Topic-based 5 year retrospectives could be a viable instrument for local chapters to distribute to their business communities. The local chapters could produce the books using the local relationships with local vendors. The local businesses would then see who the experts within reach would be, and design could grow stronger from the grassroots level, where local design communities are challenging each other internally, to produce the best work.  
    Then nationally, AIGA could aggregate the work from each chapter into a master catalog online.  

  5. Steven Heller

    While an advocate for AIGA competitions that promote and document significant work, I am impressed by Core77’s Design Award methology. It is a smart and viable approach to integrated and cross disciplinary recognition. http://www.core77designawards.com/2012/
    Last year I was a team captain. Despite my original skepticism that we needed another competitive forum, I was won over.

  6. Julio Martinez

    The debate of justification versus inspiration as the founding criteria for a competition brings to mind a quote by Picasso about what should come first, the art or the selling: “A painter paints what he sells; an artist sells what he paints.” Shouldn’t we, as designers, aspire to sell what we design, instead of settling for designing what we sell? This is the main issue—what should be our primary focus as a design community? Lost in the initial response to Paula’s first post was the simple idea of Justified being mostly offensive because it replaces all other competitions. If it was an additional effort, done on top of 365, 50/50 and 5-year retrospectives, it would perhaps not be as disconcerting. What we had shows about justification along with inspiration, instead of justification alone?Our studio considered entering work for Justified. For the project we had picked to enter, we started preparing our files. We contacted our client, sent her a link to the Justified site so she could see some reference as to how to answer those questions. After a few days, she just called us because she couldn’t really answer the “metrics” questions. A lot of the work we do for them is done to raise the profile of the brand, to get people internally excited about the organization, to help establish them as authorities in their field. But there are no metrics on that.  No sales are generated directly from core communications systems and collateral. But they see the work as immensely valuable to them, and have always been clear about communicating that to us. Through our four-year collaboration with them, we’ve proved the value of design. Our client just can’t put it in writing, and neither could we. We did not enter the work.Thanks Paula, for starting this discussion.

  7. Pete Bella

    I will comment here verbatim my comments to the AIGA article from Ric Grefé:
    As a design educator and professional I recall first seeing the Justified competition eligibility guidelines—I was shocked and discouraged to become involved. The fact that I could not encourage my design students to become involved was also discouraging. Young designers and student designers look to the AIGA as a role model and mentor as they continue their growth as professionals.
    Paula Scher gave us this to think about in her article AIGA: Unjustified — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers, “While clients enjoy finding out that something they were involved in won a competition, they never make business decisions based on that and will more often than not state that they are not in business to win awards. If the hope here is that a client will see actual proof that a specific design made money for a business, and if that client is, indeed, impressed by it, then the likely outcome is that the client will want to replicate the very same thing with adjustments to suit their particular circumstances.”
    The discussion thus far strikes a cord with the First Things First Manifesto from 1964. The first line from the manifesto reads as such, “We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents.” I would agree with Paula Scher that the idea of “justifying” design solutions that reflect successful profit for business/corporation does not reflect a professional understanding of great design.
    The same discourse is apparent in the First Things First Manifesto of 2000. It is discussed with additional purpose, “We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” We need to always be aware of our intent and how we communicate our intent. After all communication is at the heart of our profession as much as the visual.
    With that said I feel the “Justified” concept has concerns that start simply with the name itself and further complicates its intent with the criteria. Here’s what I do know. The AIGA has some of the most creative and brillant minds in our industry and we will come to a resolution. My favorite thing about being a member of AIGA is that we’re able to speak freely about our perspectives and they’re recognized professionally. We discuss all concerns with pride and passion as our goal is to advance design as a professional craft, strategic tool and vital cultural force.

  8. David Cabianca


    To the notion that “designers need proof of the value of the their work so they can demonstrate it to their clients,” there already is such a thing. It’s called “repeat customers.” If the client thought you did a good job the first time and they got value for the fee, they will come back.

  9. Seth Johnson

    That I did not acknowledge in my posts the contributions of Joe Duffy, Charles S. Anderson, or Sharon Werner and the profound effect they have had on the profession certainly doesn’t mean that I’m unaware or unappreciative of them. I could name dozens more design leaders from Minnesota who are equally as important, but I won’t — and didn’t — because doing so (or not doing so) is and was irrelevant to my point.

    I do not and have not disputed the validity of this debate nor of Ms. Scher’s original post. How much more clear do I have to be that I’m merely suggesting that folks who are interested in seeing change actually volunteer to make it happen? That is it. I wasn’t aware that it was necessary to acknowledge the efforts of specific Minnesota design greats — or anyone, for that matter — in order to do so. Why would it be? Sheesh. 

    Ms. Scher’s follow-up post does what I have been advocating for: It offers a very constructive framework for next steps and I commend and thank her for doing so. I hope we see and hear many more ideas in addition to hers. 

  10. Chris Thompson

    Strawmen, Red Herrings and Fluff, oh my!
    Rather than address each one of those, it seems most fitting to apply Paula’s own style of debate (I’m using that term quite loosely) to twist one of her previous statements:
    “Famous people get more famous because…” they seem to have the loudest voice, even when they’re totally wrong.

  11. Andrew Twigg

    Brooks, I wanted to reply to your comment as well. I used to feel this way. After joining the board of AIGA Pittsburgh in 2007, I came to see the value of competitions reaching beyond self-promtion. I do believe that these competitions serve to show the work being done; the immense historical and “sociological” value of the work is too important to ignore. I’m guessing the loss of this visibility and the historical and socliological element of competitions is the deepest concern of the loss of 365 and 50 Books/50 Covers on the part of many designers.
    Entering a contest doesn’t take long. Cost, of course, varies. But entering a contest doesn’t mean that one cannot also “design for good” (another AIGA initiative). One is not exclusive of the other. Nor does it mean we have to choose betweeen being an artist or a designer. Some choose, some do both. What does it matter? How boring design would be if we were all the same.

  12. Andrew Twigg

    Paula, thanks for this. There are some great ideas here; even in our chapter we’ve wondered how to honor the “best” in design while also creating an exhaustive survey of work being done in our region. Our solution is that when we mount our annual competition, the judges’ entries are highlighted in the show, with their own special presentation while the non-selected entries are shown en masse in a “salon des refusés.” This allows us to see great design that didn’t make the cut and even design that many of us would not find particularly inspirational or well-designed. But it’s part of the field of design being done in our region in a year, and from a historical standpoint, we believe it’s important. It’s also inclusive which is an alternative of merit next the the exclusivity of selected entries.
    This is no comment against the judges for any competition, but at every competition the judges are different and their own biases and backgrounds show through when the work is eventually selected. I’m thankful for that, because it just furthers to demonstrate that no matter how objective we try to make things, there will always be a subjective element to what we do. Anything else is impossible.
    I think the point of these competitions giving life to design careers is an important one. I’ve personally benefitted from having my work shown as selected entries, “design excellence,”  and as “rejected” work in the salon. Designers and clients alike see something that resonates with them and a connection is made. I know my experience is not unique. And this value is one that I think is overlooked and one I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Thank you.
    From a cost perspective, a “free” entry system will be hard to make work. Even at the chapter level, our modest show mounted once a year, often in donated space, is the product of thousands and thousands of dollars of expenses and hundreds of hours on the part of our all-volunteer board and other volunteers from our community. But a low-cost entry system might make this something more manageable and provide AIGA with some cash resources to mount a show, even in simple form, as well as offset some of the other hard costs that come with mounting an exhibition.
    Another route to consider would be an all-virtual exhibition. The costs to mount a show are so much lower here. There’s no mailing, little-to-no waste. The barrier to submission would be low and the per-entry cost could possibly be nominal. What if suddenly a survey of design being done during a period of time on an actual topic _were_ actually an open survey? Judges or curators could call attention to pieces they thought were of particular value for whatever criteria they see fit. I know the community of print designers is sensitive to the decline of investment in their media but the benefit of showing your work online is that anyone, anywhere can see it.
    AIGA is making some big changes, many yet to come, which I believe will put this one change in context and will help clarify the context in which “we” are operating and where we think we can add value and continue to lead the design community. Thanks again for starting this conversation. 

  13. Brooks Hassig

    Maybe I’m just no good, but I’ve never felt drawn to enter a contest. They cost money, take time away from making real things, and I just don’t feel like I’d win. I’m pretty busy making things for people, learning to dance Swing, volunteering, having a social life and moving around the world. I’ve always both envied and sneered at designers with excellent websites and long lists of contest wins. Envied, becuase that shit looks cool, let’s be honest, but sneered because in the time it took you to win that contest, build that website, or whatever (looking at you, Frank Chimero), you could have contributed your skills to helping someone else. And that, at the end of the day, is what design is all about. I guess if you disagree you can go be an artist. Or enter a contest. Also, thanks for the great articles, Paula. I’m a big fan. 

  14. Pingback: » “Unjustified”, Part II — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers ://mooblog

  15. Ben Spear

    I applaud Paula Scher for this thoughtful follow-up to her first “Unjustified” editorial, but again, all she’s doing here is waxing nostalgic on the industry as it once was. Even her recommendation for the AIGA (to start holding five-year retrospectives on individual sub-disciplines) has more to do with history than with the present or the future. Who cares what was made five years ago? Our world is a world of change, and it is the designer—an arbiter of taste with a keen sesnsitivity to culture and technology—who helps the world deal with that change. Design, increasingly, describes what is happening now and in the neart-term. Get into it.

  16. Armin Vit

    > The shows are free to entrants
    A popular (and by that I mean “for the people”) solution but how does AIGA make any profit out of this model? One of the main reasons any organization does this is to make a profit. Sales of the beautiful catalogs may make a profit if paper, printing, and fulfillment are donated but in my experience this is harder to come by these days.
    In the current Justified model, the costs are almost minimal since the judges are judging the work online — which I find to be the worst affront of the Justified model, more so than the content needed to enter — so no need to fly them all to NY, put them in a hotel, and feed them, and all the winners are just added to the design archives online.
    The industry may have scoffed at the premise, but at least it won’t make the AIGA bleed money.
    Paula’s recommendation is a good alternative and a good complement to a yearly competition but does not really replace the annual survey that is more timely.