Eat My Words: May the best design win?

When I got the missive from newly-named owner-editor John L. Walters about writing my very first piece for Eye, I was taken a bit aback. The subject, awards, didn’t faze me as much as the fact that John was looking for designers who liked them. “I’m looking,” he wrote, in a British accent, “for a positive outcome.”

Designers? Awards? Positive outcome? Everyone knows it’s much cooler to complain about how awards are rigged/racist/sexist/a rip-off/judged while drunk/just plain wrong.

Fresh from my first major judging experience for Print’s Regional Design Annual I can assure you great pains are taken to avoid such issues. For one, we drank only vodka, in very small glasses, and even then, only before noon.

Luckily, when it came down to researching my Eye piece, it wasn’t that hard to find several brilliant designers (most of them young and largely unscathed by the widespread corruption of the awards industry) who still had fairly good attitudes about the power of entering competitions. A few of them even had wonderful things happen to their careers as a result. In fact, I found the whole thing rather inspiring. My piece is in Issue 69 and it’s named “Mad About Awards.” In the same issue, Jason Grant has the slightly-more-cynical counterpoint, “Awards Madness.” Nick Bell’s “Confessions of an Awards Juror” can be found on the Eye blog.

Of all the awards you could win, a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award is probably as good as you’re gonna get. The juried awards are given to around ten people every October, and the people they’re honoring this year are fantastic. Like my friend Scott Stowell, who designs Good; or my architectural hero Tom Kundig; or my old blog foil Michael Bierut.

But for the last three years, the Cooper-Hewitt has added a twist: the People’s Design Award. The premise is this: “Every year, Cooper-Hewitt gives out design awards chosen by a jury of distinguished design gurus—but do you agree with the experts?” The audience is asked to nominate examples of “good design,” whether “handmade or mass produced, high end or low brow.” You can vote on your favorite and see who’s received the most votes. The winner gets announced at the annual gala.

I know the Cooper-Hewitt is just trying to be all cute and open-sourcey, stir up some debate, get itself some press (~wink~). But looking back through the years, you’ll notice more insightful nominees like the escalator and the ball point pen have been replaced with Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster Gold (to be fair, it firms and tones).

And now the designers who are nominated manage to spin this “honor” into a promotional opportunity, so October transforms them into a vote-crazy, foaming-at-the-mouse, online popularity posse. For three weeks. Meaning all us poor unsuspecting FOD (friends-of-design) spend our Octobers being assaulted with emails, blog posts, press releases and Facebook alerts: “We have been nominated [mock surprise] for this great honor [hold for applause] please support our cause by voting for us [now]!”

Nail clippers don’t have publicists; but the Zon Hearing Aid just surged rather rapidly to #3.

This year, the top vote-getter is currently Design Observer. Of course they deserve to win, and here’s why they will: 1) They are a website, which is the equivalent of a 24/7 stump speech. 2) They have a lot of Facebook friends (just topped 4000). 3) And co-founder Bill Drenttel has the campaign skills of a young Karl Rove (Bill knows it is this quality I adore about him the most).

I wrote my Eye piece in relative serenity, but such October Madness has poisoned my mind. That’s why when I saw this email from someone called commercialart45 AT, I almost deleted it. Glad I didn’t:

We at CommercialArt have design award fatigue. We’re tired of all the insular backslapping. We’re tired of the pitching work to the judges rather than the people that might actually use it. We’re tired of the entry fees. We’re just tired of it all.

This isn’t a stunt. We’re not mad because we’ve never won awards, because we’ve won plenty of them. Instead, it’s a call for some discussion around design, its motivations, and its future. Or to simply acknowledge that maybe we just need to reconsider our reasons for making design in the first place. That the glut of awards and competitions aren’t necessarily helping design (or even the world) in the big picture.

Register your feelings by voting for “Design Awards Are So Over” in the People’s Choice National Design Awards and/or posting a comment (pro or con) at:

Also forward this email along to anybody you think would want to join in on the discussion.

With that, CommercialArt smacked the awards paradigm upside the head. And during this month of October no-surprises…well, I think they pretty much nailed it.

In fact, I’m thinking of setting up a phone bank to help get the word out.

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  • William Drenttel


    Calling me the Carl Rove of the design world is wicked. I’m not sure I will ever recover from this compliment.

    Bill Drenttel

  • Jason Grant

    Hey Gelatobaby – there’s a real big difference btw critical and cynical. And it wouldn’t it have been more interesting if you had responded to some of the genuine criticism, rather than rehearsing industry justifications?

    I’m not sure that it is so cool to be down on awards since almost everyone enters them (I really struggled to find a designer who doesn’t) – and they are only becoming more and more rampant.

    It just doesn’t occur to us that there might be something fundamentally wrong with competing, since much of our wider world feeds on it. Although who knows, the Wall St fall-out may eventually dent these sacred assurances?

    When my studio is asked to participate in awards we like to quote Nick Cave: ‘My muse is not a race horse’

    all the best, Jason

  • minus five

    i have to have that shirt.

    i’m a designer who doesn’t like design competitions or design awards, but not because i think it’s wrong or unfair–i just think it’s a waste of time and has nothing at all to do with the purpose of design.

  • Panasit Ch

    I like design awards for students though. I really learn a lot from those. I won some, lose to most. But even if the award was rigged, you still learn something.

    I think design students should submit their works to as many competition as possible, and learn to do the most difficult task: try not to take it personally.

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  • jean

    Bill, get a grip. You’re not being compared by politic, just your campaign skills. And on that front, Rove’s actually more accomplished at getting people in office. I’d take it as a compliment.

    “It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.” Peter Ustinov

    Are awards really that important Bill?

  • jean

    I voted for the t-shirt, not the puffy website.

  • cchs

    I have to say that I agree on many levels (and I say that as someone who has also assaulted you with a vote-groveling email). In fairness though, it’s pretty clear that we nominated our own project and I feign no surprise at the so-called “honor.” We know its not an honor. It’s an opportunity.

    With that in mind, here are two thoughts to consider: 1) As someone who as organized, judged, entered, won, lost and written critically about design competitions, I can tell you that the real winner is always the organizer. Competitions are money in the bank and they generate legions of evangelists to promote organizing body. I’m looking forward to your Eye article and those that accompany it. I hope this aspect is addressed.

    2) Isn’t your email from “CommercialArt45” for the requisitely ironic un-designed t-shirt design commenting on how design is “so over” just another “look at me” self-congratulatory entry? Does the “anonymous” contributor of the design not hope to gain notoriety for their entry, and are they not using the same methods as everyone else to promote themselves? I kind of get that this is the point of the whole thing, but if they win do we really expect these “bad-boy” outsider cynics to keep mum about how they exposed awards for what they really are. News flash: we know.

  • cchs

    Wow. That sounded really angry. All those quotes make me sound like a sarcastic prick who makes little quotation gestures in the air. Sorry about that (and the typos). Don’t take it the wrong way.

  • Alissa

    Actually, cchs, I think your entry is one of the most subversive pieces of design nominated because it’s so darn positive. You also represented the sole email I got where you were totally straightforward in nominating yourself, and I think that’s also not the norm for this thing—being proud of your work, imagine that! It seems like if something like this won you’d surely get a rise out of those “bad-boy outsider cynics” (who, by the way, I was referencing by calling Jason’s article “cynical,” not Jason’s writing itself).

    Obviously the real winners are always the organizers and that’s a great point. I would love to know what the Cooper-Hewitt is getting out of this in the way of traffic and/or publicity. Because personally, I think discussing the merits of the Desperate Housewives set actually takes attention away from the great honor of the National Design Awards.

    And no offense taken, because as you can see, I love air quotes!

  • Alissa

    Also: a few people just sent me the emails stumping for Strida, which has made an impressive rally to #3! Go figure!

  • Gunnar Swanson

    A couple of possibilities worth considering:

    If you look at design competitions one-by-one, they will inevitable be ultra subjective nonsense based on viewing work in the wrong context. Success in a single competition is an honor but ultimately doesn’t mean anything on a cosmic scale. It is the aggregate of many such successes that adds up to something meaningful. Both continued success and the averaging effect of multiple judging panels favor accepting a record of many competitions even if one rejects the significance of each of them.

    Alternatively, one could get over the whole “competition” part of competitions and see it all as a sort of conversation where designers put forth visual ideas and judges respond, with the annuals books or websites bringing the conversation to a broader group who, in turn, join the conversation by entering their work. In this sense, competitions are to visual ideas what blogs are to another sort of ideas. Neither is a full explanation of design or any individual designed object.

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