2007 Best Business Graphics
April 18, 2007, the day our jurors met at the Print offices to judge this year’s crop of business graphics competition entries, also happened 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 whole economic story. February had seen sharp market declines, and technology stocks were continuing to stall. There had been a fall in housing starts, and auto sales were down. Even gains seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty: Some consumer spending was up, yet those numbers included escalating gas prices, not a desirable indicator. The luxury market continued to grow—as did the number of foreclosures at the other end of the market.
As our jurors reviewed a representative array of the business world’s graphic output, the day’s news seemed to raise the question: How can design be a factor in these uncertain times? And how can a strong design strategy facilitate business in an unsure economy?
What jurors were looking for was a sense of clarity. Bill Darling, especially, prized that quality. “I’m drawn to those things that communicate clearly from the outset,” he said. “There has to be some level of transparency.” Stella Bugbee put it a little differently, asking simply, “Does it justify its existence?” Sometimes clarity was reflected in language; jurors commented repeatedly on the value of good writing, whether in an ad campaign, website, or marketing program. But usually it surfaced in a visual program that concisely and accurately reflected its product or content.
What surfaced as well was a sense of comfort with our times, thorny though they may be. Designers and clients alike seem to be looking backward a little less. In previous years, possibly as a backlash against the constant flood of new electronic technologies, a genuine interest in handwork was reflected in stamping, stenciling, silk-screening, and even embroidery. This year, such handcraft-influenced style seemed less ubiquitous, and less flagrant when used. When it did appear, it seemed better integrated with a broader strategy.
In a similar vein, nostalgia, a feature of so much work in recent years, also appeared only with good reason. Jurors were taken with a series of posters that teamed constructivist graphics with high-tech biking equipment for the Discovery Channel’s campaign for a race to find the next Lance Armstrong. The visual reference, with all its kinetic and futuristic associations, was entirely appropriate to the sports event. That such historic references were made so selectively may suggest that we no longer need to rely on nostalgia purely for the sense of gratuitous comfort it provides. Instead, we can use it as a graphic tool like any other.
Jurors also noted the growing tendency toward niche marketing, whether for a Martha Stewart product or a Super Bowl brand. “A lot of advertising is moving toward targeted marketing,” Bugbee observed. This put jurors in a tough spot at imes: If the promotional material left jurors cold, they often suspected it was because they were outside the target demographic. In such cases, they gave the program the benefit of the doubt, while Agnieszka Gasparska asked, “Is it original?”
One of the main rewards in reviewing the entries for this area of graphics has always been finding good design in unexpected places. Jurors made the annual lament that while retailers know the value of good design because they have to, educators, health-care administrators, and financial service managers often don’t have a clue. So the high level of design in the elegant silk-screened posters for the Columbus Bank and Trust company, and in an annual report for a wood products and paper concern sensibly printed on newsprint, came as a pleasant surprise. Perhaps most refreshing were the standout graphics for a political campaign: The letterhead, signage, and stickers for Jim Esch, a 2006 Democratic congressional candidate from Nebraska, were elegant and reserved. Admittedly, it does appear that the pieces may not have been sufficiently effective; Esch lost narrowly to his Republican incumbent opponent.
Looking over the packaging submissions, the jurors singled out pieces that made a genuine effort to evince a feeling for the products they contained. The Sweets Candy packaging for its gourmet toffee line was cited for the way the twist box evoked the classic shape of a hard-candy wrapper. “It’s surprising,” said Bugbee. “And it has a great self-awareness to it.” Similarly, the clear case for TUL gel retractable pens for OfficeMax seems an apt reference to the pens’ efficiency, and, one hopes, to the ideas they will document. As Ryan Vanderbilt said, “It’s simple and reflects the product.”
Invariably, reviewing the several thousand entries that are submitted each year brings to light a recurring image or motif. One year, strangely, it was pizza boxes. This year, it was passports. Whether it was part of a program for season tickets for a sports team or an export trade council, the blue pamphlet made an appearance several times. Credit it to globalization. Certainly, this year’s pool of entries suggested there was less of a divide between the work from the U.S. and that from abroad.
The idea that environmental responsibility—and thus sustainable design—is the way for American business to maintain its current status in the global order of things was represented here more by omission than by commission. Recycled papers and non-toxic inks emerged occasionally, but more apparent was a general sensitivity to overdesign. Packaging finally seemed to be more appropriately modest, with fewer cases of gratuitous use of materials and superfluous layering. Bugbee suggested that “just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,” a phrase that has relevance for every choice in the design process, including whether or not to do a project at all. It could become the designer’s mantra of sustainability. And this strange moment, when we are caught between market optimism and pervasive economic instability, may just be the perfect time for businesses to actually hear such a message, and to understand that green solutions can be smart business strategies too.
STELLA BUGBEE is a creative director who specializes in branding and publication design. Prior to establishing her own company in 2005, she founded Honest with Cary Murnion and Jon Milott while the three were attending Parsons the New School for Design. After five years at Honest, she worked at The New York Times Magazine, then as a design director with Ogilvy and Mather’s Brand Integration Group. Her work has been featured in PRINT, HOW, Step, BlackBook, Nylon, and Eye. Bugbee is currently the design director at Domino agazine.
BILL DARLING is a design director at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins; he has worked for a spectrum of industries, from the nonprofit sector to entertainment and consumer goods. His past clients include the New Museum, EMI, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and (RED), and he is currently working on a project for Frito-Lay. Darling is a graduate of the design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
AGNIESZKA GASPARSKA is the founder of the New York City studio Kiss Me I’m Polish. After graduating with a B.F.A. from the Cooper Union School of Art, she worked for five years as a senior art director at the interactive agency Funny Garbage. She has received recognition from PRINT, Time, and Taschen, and her clients have included the National Recording Academy, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Experience Music Project, and Bloomberg. She is currently developing kiosks for Lincoln Center’s Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, and her new bath brand for Blue Q, “Cute As Hell,” launched this past spring.
RYAN VANDERBILT has worked as a designer at G2 and Landor Associates and is currently a design director at the branding and advertising agency Anomaly. He has worked on projects for a variety of clients, including Virgin America, Altoids, Gatorade, psfk, Diageo, Beverage Partners Worldwide, The Effies, Dasani, Pepsi, and Bath & Body Works. He has a B.F.A. in communication design from Syracuse University.