“Unjustified”, Part II

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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

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

Charles S. Anderson's work for French 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 eff
ect 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.