April 18, 2007, the day our jurors met at the Print offices to judgethis year’s crop of business graphics competition entries, alsohappened 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 wholeeconomic story. February had seen sharp market declines, and technologystocks were continuing to stall. There had been a fall in housingstarts, and auto sales were down. Even gains seemed to be shrouded inuncertainty: Some consumer spending was up, yet those numbers includedescalating gas prices, not a desirable indicator. The luxury marketcontinued to grow—as did the number of foreclosures at the otherend of the market.
As our jurors reviewed a representative array ofthe business world’s graphic output, the day’s news seemedto raise the question: How can design be a factor in these uncertaintimes? And how can a strong design strategy facilitate business in anunsure economy?
What jurors were looking for was a sense of clarity.Bill Darling, especially, prized that quality. “I’m drawn tothose things that communicate clearly from the outset,” he said.“There has to be some level of transparency.” Stella Bugbeeput it a little differently, asking simply, “Does it justify itsexistence?” Sometimes clarity was reflected in language; jurorscommented repeatedly on the value of good writing, whether in an adcampaign, website, or marketing program. But usually it surfaced in avisual program that concisely and accurately reflected its product orcontent.
What surfaced as well was a sense of comfort with our times,thorny though they may be. Designers and clients alike seem to belooking backward a little less. In previous years, possibly as abacklash against the constant flood of new electronic technologies, agenuine interest in handwork was reflected in stamping, stenciling,silk-screening, and even embroidery. This year, suchhandcraft-influenced style seemed less ubiquitous, and less flagrantwhen used. When it did appear, it seemed better integrated with abroader strategy.
In a similar vein, nostalgia, a feature of so muchwork in recent years, also appeared only with good reason. Jurors weretaken with a series of posters that teamed constructivist graphics withhigh-tech biking equipment for the Discovery Channel’s campaignfor a race to find the next Lance Armstrong. The visual reference, withall its kinetic and futuristic associations, was entirely appropriate tothe sports event. That such historic references were made so selectivelymay suggest that we no longer need to rely on nostalgia purely for thesense of gratuitous comfort it provides. Instead, we can use it as agraphic tool like any other.
Jurors also noted the growing tendencytoward niche marketing, whether for a Martha Stewart product or a SuperBowl brand. “A lot of advertising is moving toward targetedmarketing,” Bugbee observed. This put jurors in a tough spot atimes: If the promotional material left jurors cold, they oftensuspected it was because they were outside the target demographic. Insuch cases, they gave the program the benefit of the doubt, whileAgnieszka Gasparska asked, “Is it original?”
One of the main rewards in reviewing the entries for this area of graphics hasalways been finding good design in unexpected places. Jurors made theannual lament that while retailers know the value of good design becausethey have to, educators, health-care administrators, and financialservice managers often don’t have a clue. So the high level ofdesign in the elegant silk-screened posters for the Columbus Bank andTrust company, and in an annual report for a wood products and paperconcern sensibly printed on newsprint, came as a pleasant surprise.Perhaps most refreshing were the standout graphics for a politicalcampaign: The letterhead, signage, and stickers for Jim Esch, a 2006Democratic congressional candidate from Nebraska, were elegant andreserved. Admittedly, it does appear that the pieces may not have beensufficiently effective; Esch lost narrowly to his Republican incumbentopponent.
Looking over the packaging submissions, the jurors singledout pieces that made a genuine effort to evince a feeling for theproducts they contained. The Sweets Candy packaging for its gourmettoffee line was cited for the way the twist box evoked the classic shapeof a hard-candy wrapper. “It’s surprising,” saidBugbee. “And it has a great self-awareness to it.”Similarly, the clear case for TUL gel retractable pens for OfficeMaxseems an apt reference to the pens’ efficiency, and, one hopes, tothe ideas they will document. As Ryan Vanderbilt said, “It’ssimple and reflects the product.”
Invariably, reviewing theseveral thousand entries that are submitted each year brings to light arecurring image or motif. One year, strangely, it was pizza boxes. Thisyear, it was passports. Whether it was part of a program for seasontickets for a sports team or an export trade council, the blue pamphletmade an appearance several times. Credit it to globalization. Certainly,this year’s pool of entries suggested there was less of a dividebetween the work from the U.S. and that from abroad.
The idea that environmental responsibility—and thus sustainable design—isthe way for American business to maintain its current status in theglobal order of things was represented here more by omission than bycommission. Recycled papers and non-toxic inks emerged occasionally, butmore apparent was a general sensitivity to overdesign. Packaging finallyseemed to be more appropriately modest, with fewer cases of gratuitoususe of materials and superfluous layering. Bugbee suggested that“just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,” aphrase that has relevance for every choice in the design process,including whether or not to do a project at all. It could become thedesigner’s mantra of sustainability. And this strange moment, whenwe are caught between market optimism and pervasive economicinstability, may just be the perfect time for businesses to actuallyhear such a message, and to understand that green solutions can be smartbusiness strategies too.
STELLA BUGBEE is a creative directorwho specializes in branding and publication design. Prior toestablishing her own company in 2005, she founded Honest with CaryMurnion and Jon Milott while the three were attending Parsons the NewSchool for Design. After five years at Honest, she worked at The NewYork Times Magazine, then as a design director with Ogilvy andMather’s Brand Integration Group. Her work has been featured inPRINT, HOW, Step, BlackBook, Nylon,and Eye. Bugbee is currently the design director at Dominoagazine.
BILL DARLING is a design director at the brandconsultancy Wolff Olins; he has worked for a spectrum of industries,from the nonprofit sector to entertainment and consumer goods. His pastclients include the New Museum, EMI, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and (RED),and he is currently working on a project for Frito-Lay. Darling is agraduate of the design program at the School of Visual Arts in NewYork.
AGNIESZKA GASPARSKA is the founder of the New York Citystudio Kiss Me I’m Polish. After graduating with a B.F.A. from theCooper Union School of Art, she worked for five years as a senior artdirector at the interactive agency Funny Garbage. She has receivedrecognition from PRINT, Time, and Taschen, and her clients have includedthe National Recording Academy, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the ExperienceMusic Project, and Bloomberg. She is currently developing kiosks forLincoln Center’s Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, and her newbath brand for Blue Q, “Cute As Hell,” launched this pastspring.
RYAN VANDERBILT has worked as a designer at G2 and LandorAssociates and is currently a design director at the branding andadvertising agency Anomaly. He has worked on projects for a variety ofclients, including Virgin America, Altoids, Gatorade, psfk, Diageo,Beverage Partners Worldwide, The Effies, Dasani, Pepsi, and Bath & BodyWorks. He has a B.F.A. in communication design from SyracuseUniversity.