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]!”
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 gmail.com, 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.