Comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld accepted an award in 2007 with a speech that made its rounds on the internet. He spent five minutes denouncing awards and their perceived value. His speech can be summed up with one sentence: “Awards are stupid!”
I can’t argue with that. I imagine many of us within the design community feel that way as well. Design can be a highly subjective field. What is aesthetically pleasing to one person might be misunderstood or repulsive to another. On top of the subjectivity of aesthetics, the judging process seems to be very shallow for practical reasons like time and/or understanding the goals of the project. Save a few competitions, I would imagine most of the time, judging happens on a hasty, visual level.
In Michael Bierut’s Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design, Bierut explains (almost tongue in cheek) that becoming famous as a designer is as easy as following a few easy guidelines. He writes:
Enter only the kind of pieces that win in design competitions. For the record, the kinds of things that win in design competitions are cool-looking projects that solve easily understandable problems… Don’t be tempted by competitions that invite you to fill out long forms describing the problem, the client, the market situation, the strategy, and so forth. Very few of the judges read them.
Beirut’s first rule is sadly a very practical argument for submitting work into competitions despite the design actually addressing the problems that it was intended to in the first place because in most cases, it does not matter.
Design is not always quantifiable. As a teacher, I often find one of the most challenging aspects of the job to be grading. Distilling something that is abstract and visual into something that is as precise as a number is quite difficult. Unfortunately good grades and winning awards can be a litmus test for a lot students and/or designers.
There are negative side effects to producing work with the wrong purpose. Designing for an award or a grade can turn our work for a particular audience into work for our peers. This practice often times leads to work that constantly borrows from other contemporary designers which turns our industry into a mechanism that churns out sameness. What a boring world!
Interestingly enough in Seinfeld’s speech, he goes on to say what I think is the funniest bit in the whole speech: “…if I hadn’t already won all of these awards, I would not be talking like this.” This is extremely funny because it is true. I follow many designers who I look up to denounce awards as pointless, incestous and a waste of money. I agree with that to a certain degree, but they are a necessary evil for many (including myself). In an increasingly competitive field, anything to separate you from others becomes imperative. As a tenure-track professor, one of the areas of where I can prove my worth to the school is peer review. One of the most common ways to do this as a designer is to enter competitions — and win.
A few months back I entered into Print’s competition the Regional Design Awards. I forgot about it for the longest time and then out of the blue received an email in my inbox. I immediately smiled because the subject line read “Congratulations…” There is something quite intoxicating when other designers, especially those that you look up to, approve your work.
This got me thinking.
As a designer, as a human, we crave approval and affirmation — especially from our peers. Is there a way that this can look different than how it looks now? Does it have to be a formal and gimmicky competition with exorbitant entry fees? Or is there another way that we can affirm one another in what we do? On the flip side of that, does it have to be through an often shallow platform like Instagram or Dribbble where the only discourse happens in a tap of the heart icon?
Is there a place in the middle where the dialogue of making meaningful work can happen? Where feedback elevates the work and the profession as a whole?
If not, let’s build one.