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AIGA: Unjustified

AIGA’s “Justified” competition will select examples of good design that are also described in terms of their effectiveness in meeting the client’s objectives. Entries will be judged based on their design attributes and also how well a short case is made on their effectiveness in a clear, compelling and accessible way. A discerning and qualified jury will identify submissions that serve as an effective tool to explain design’s value to clients, students, peers and the public in general.

The text above introduces a new annual design competition from the AIGA called “Justified.” It replaces AIGA’s previous annual competition, “365,” and means the elimination of its only other competition, the 90-year-old “50 Books/50 Covers.” Book design will become part of the new “Justified” competition, and like all other entries, will be judged on “effectiveness.”

How are entrants asked to present the case for effectiveness? They are required to present a “client brief and overview of market;” a description of “project challenges;” the project’s strategy, including “ideas and implementation for satisfying the brief within the context of the challenges and market demands;” and an assessment of the work’s effectiveness (“Why does your client consider the project a success? Why do you consider it successful? Include metrics and client quotes when possible.”) In the event that entrants find these demands daunting, they are further directed to “The Living Principles for Design,” the manifesto initiated by AIGA to encourage integrated sustainability in creative practices. There follow questions like, “Whether or not it was a client mandate, did you consider the environmental impact of your project?” and references to “ROI, increased sales or even money saved,” “households reached, page views, tweets, Facebook friends, strategic media placement, coupons redeemed,” “energy conservation or offsets, using recycled or otherwise sustainable materials, selecting an alternate delivery mechanism that removes the need for materials (i.e. a web banner instead of a direct mail campaign), or otherwise reducing, reusing and recycling.” Finally: “Can your solution extend beyond the target audience? Does it have an impact on the culture at large? This may mean broad media coverage, viral distribution, and even being admired and imitated.” Imagine that: being admired! Respondents are required to limit their answers to no more than 1,800 words for each entry. (By way of comparison, the Gettysburg Address is 270 words).

If you are still awake, did you notice that words like beauty, creativity, surprise, innovation, and inspiration are nowhere to be found?

This has been a long time in the making. Last year, AIGA attempted to cancel 50 Books/50 Covers. They were taken aback by the resulting protest and the 50 Books competition survived, barely, only to be mowed down again this year by the AIGA board, led by its new president Doug Powell. The major argument for canceling 50 Books seems to be that books are, or should be, an endangered species because the world is digital, and actual books, by their mere existence, encourage cutting down trees and are counter to “The Living Principles.” Also, presumably many board members felt that the endangered species of books was getting undue attention. 50 Books was, after all, the only other existing AIGA competition except for the all-inclusive 365, which has served for a number of years as the show for everything else that constitutes graphic design other than books. The 50 Books competition will now carry on under the auspices of Design Observer and Designers and Books continuing the on-going trend of the privatization of design competitions. (Can you imagine the AIA passing its most historic competition program over to, say, Metropolis?)


Based on the criteria of AIGA’s Justified competition, the posters of Armin Hofmann (above) and the jackets of  Push Pin Group’s Graphic (below) would not qualify



Push Pin Graphic covers


So AIGA approaches its one hundredth anniversary with a single, online competition, “Justified.” And I ask: what is the justification for this?

It used to be different. AIGA held many different competitions — large and small, general and specialized, annuals and one-offs — back in the day when its headquarters were in a modest windowless space on Third Avenue in Manhattan, and these continued when it moved to its current home on Fifth Avenue. For years there was an annual illustration competition called the Mental Picture; its goal was to demonstrate the power of illustrators as authors. There were shows that demonstrated album cover art and entertainment design, sports design, information design, design for issues and causes, and photography. In 1982, a landmark competition and exhibit called “Just Type” predicted trends in approaches to typography that would dominate the rest of the decade. And each year there was the big omnibus show called Communication Graphics that featured corporate and institutional design, logos and identities, promotion, annual reports, posters, and really everything not served in other competitions.

The CG show, as it was known, was the big moneymaking show for AIGA. But the 50 Books competition was in many ways the most esteemed of all. First held in 1923 when the organization itself was not yet ten years old, 50 Books has always been a direct link to the days of AIGA founder William A. Dwiggins, the pioneer of typography and master of book design who coined the term “graphic design” and argued passionately for the quest for excellence in the profession that he named. This was the soul of the AIGA.

The goal of all these AIGA competitions was to make visible the best and most innovative work in American graphic design. The audience for the competitions was designers and anyone else who might be interested. The goal was to raise the bar of the practice and to inspire designers to make better work through the examples of their peers. “Better work” here was not directly related to sales or a quantifiable success for the client. Better work meant the elevation of the expectation of what the design could be. That could encompass anything: intelligent messaging, beauty, wit, surprise, materials, stylistic breakthroughs, maximum impact from a minimal budget, social consciousness, environmental awareness. Ideally, each competition would highlight the best crafted, most intelligent, most innovative work in any given area, based on who entered the competition.

There have always been many complaints about these kinds of competitions in general. Work that was awarded tended to be pro bono assignments, or personal promotion pieces, or in other areas where a client didn’t interfere much. There might be a lot of work that wouldn’t immediately — or perhaps ever — have a measurable effect in the marketplace. It could be dismissed as “design for designers.” But consider, for example, the posters of this year’s AIGA Medalist, Armin Hoffman; only initially seen by several hundred Swiss townspeople, they are still influential today. The same could be said for the Push Pin Graphic, a studio promotion piece that influenced three generations of illustrators and designers. Can one doubt the significance of these seemingly irrelevant pieces, which first gained wide exposure in competitions? So many of America’s most visible, successful, influential, and admired designers working today cut their teeth on dumb promotion pieces that they designed for designers, and that were first seen by their community at AIGA competitions.

Pro-bono work, personal projects, professional promotion, and any work without marketplace concerns always allows for more risk taking. That’s why so many of us with serious commercial design practices engage in this kind of work whenever we can. It gives us an opportunity to experiment, to ask questions, even to fail, but to raise the expectation of what design can be.

“Justified” changes the goals of AIGA’s only remaining competition. The goal of the new competition is not to inspire the design community to better design, but to “explain design’s value to clients, students, peers and the general public” by “justifying” the work. The justification is part of what is being judged.

I’ll just come straight out and say it: if educating clients is the goal here, this competition probably won’t achieve it’s goal, and moreover may have bad consequences for the designer who hopes to enlighten their clients about the “value” of design. While clients enjoy finding out that something they were involved in won a competition, they never make business decisions based 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. Should that be a desired outcome of a design competition? It simply reinforces design solutions that have already been proven successful. It promotes what already exists. It does not raise the expectation of what the design can be.

If the goal here is to educate students, peers, and the public about “design’s value,” we’d all be better off buying everyone a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. But if we want to educate people with a design competition, the criteria for this one is simply wrong-headed.

Let’s start with the “strategy” criteria. Relating a logical and productive strategy is important to persuading clients to do the right thing. It can help make a group of decision makers behave more constructively in the design process, but it doesn’t insure an interesting design result. Serious design, design that makes breakthroughs, design that inspires, is often a result of accidents, personal obsessions of the designer, and that designer’s intuition, determination, arrogance, and naivety. Great design solutions often fly in the face of logical explanations, even when the designer provides one.

The best article I’ve read on design rationale was published on Design Observer by my own partner Michael Bierut, and was aptly entitled, “On (Design) Bullshit.” I would never underestimate the benefits and import of bullshit — I sling it well myself — but judging design work by the quality of the designer’s bullshit as required in this criteria seems pointless. If the work is terrific the bullshit is irrelevant. If the work isn’t terrific, but the jury is moved by the entrant’s arguments, it demonstrates the dangers of bullshit. Is this something we want to encourage? If we want to educate students and peers shouldn’t the jury be writing why the design is terrific, not the entrant? If the AIGA wants to make a special competition on bullshit, I’d welcome it. The competitors could select one of three designs for three different companies and write a rationale for them. The most persuasive bullshit would win.

The “Effectiveness” criteria are scarier. It’s rare that clients and designers will totally agree on what makes a design successful. That’s because, for the most part, clients and their audiences are most comfortable with things that already exist. Relying on sales as a demonstration of success or popular response as a criteria ensures a predictable mediocrity. It’s counter to AIGA’s goals toward better design.

There is a form of design that I sometimes refer to as “solemn” as opposed to” serious.” It is work that is well-crafted, solves a problem, pleases a client and an audience, makes money or increases market share, but breaks absolutely no new ground. It’s not bad work, just expected work. I make it all the time because often it is the most responsible way to approach a design challenge. But I know when I’m doing it and why. Designing something that is comfortably recognizable for a client makes them feel secure enough to make an investment in it. It may even raise the bar a little bit in that the details are professionally achieved, or it pushes a category into a more visually sophisticated space. It’s incremental improvement. I am personally proud of this high level, professional, solemn work and respectful of others who accomplish it, especially in difficult markets. I will show it and I’ll talk about it. In fact, this sort of work fulfills all the criteria of the “Justified” competition to the letter. But it is mediocre work. It is excellently executed, expected work, not innovative work. There should be discussions about it, a maybe a special show for it, but not AIGA’s ONLY show. Because we, the design community, will learn absolutely nothing from the winners.

And this is what’s wrong with the premise and criteria of this show. It advocates for what already exists. It will demonstrate what we already know. It does not raise the expectation of what design can be. It is anti-creative, it is anti-innovative, and it is deliberately so. Innovative things are sometimes financial failures. Innovative things may miss their target audiences. They take time to become influential in the mainstream, just like Armin Hoffman’s posters did. Those posters couldn’t get into this show based on the criteria. And we, the members of AIGA, are the losers. We give up what makes us great.

The AIGA membership never believes that their clients respect them. Maybe they don’t. But it seems pointless to deny our own special irrational creativity and intuition in order to try to gain that respect. When we try to behave like our clients we give up our own special difference.  We give up the thing they admire us for and are often jealous of. We give up the reason they need to hire us. When we cut creativity, and innovation as a primary goal out of the criteria of AIGA’s last remaining competition, in order to prove our “value” to clients, we not only lose our opportunity to learn and our capacity to grow,  we also lose our souls.

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

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