And the winner is….

I may well drive the meat cleaver of division between my readership in this post. Stand well back as I am about to tackle the touchy and opinionated topic of awards. Bear with me though as whilst I will initially dissect the subject matter with the aplomb of a prop forward wielding a sledge hammer on an ice rink, I hope to make amends towards the end.

When I was deciding what to write about, I threw a few choice questions out to twitter and LinkedIn to see what the reactions were. True to form, you did not disappoint. Whilst many are taken with a heavy pinch of salt and fortunately limited to 140 characters, there are some consistencies of opinion that cannot be ignored.

Before I wield the knife though, I thought I’d set the scene. Cue wobbly scene transition…we’re going back in time…

As a wannabe designer, learning my trade initially at school, then at university and in the very early days of my design career, awards were the bomb. I don’t mean simply a ‘nice to have’. If you won an award you were ‘it’. King of the hill. The cat ‘wot got the cream. It was almost an impossible dream to even consider that you might actually be considered for one, let alone win one. It became the de-facto response for any design careerist…a measure of your ultimate career success in this industry being the recognition of your unbelievable design talents through the peer acknowledgement and shiny receipt of any one of a handful of noted awards. Red Dot, IF, IDEA, DesignWeek, DBA Design Effectiveness. That was about it, but it was enough. Anyone who managed to get one of these was showered with rose petals and bathed in swedish donkey’s milk…or something like that.

I digress somewhat, but my point is still valid. These awards were bona fide aspirational and – secretly – you never really expected to *actually* win one. It simply became a target to aim for. Each and every year, the submission dates came and went and if the studio you were in ever won such an award, or featured in the lavishly published directory, you walked with a swagger and the studio felt alive and vindicated.

It’s a bit like the dream bubble of consultancy. As a young designer (and I can hear the same answer being issued like hallucinatory ammunition throughout the land right now at every degree show) all graduating product designers wanted “to work in a consultancy”. These were places where mythical beings sat and crafted beautiful objects for us all to fawn over. No consultancy can ever live up to the expectations of a shiny new, eager designer…and never will. As soon as you get to work in one of these ‘consultancies’ you soon realise that reality, and gravity, and smelly toilets do in fact exist in these places just as they do in the real world and whilst they are indeed a hot bed of fantastical things, these very things come to life in a fairly pragmatic and ‘elbow grease’ heavy way.

The same can be said of awards. They are things of brilliant shiny beauty, right up to the point when you actually win one. I’m not sure quite what I expected to happen when I won an award for my design work. Trumpets? Leprechauns? People turning to stare at me in the street? Maybe it was because the design that actually won the award was something I wasn’t particularly proud of and very rarely speak of since. Or that I started to see the less than pure design logic for selecting something as a ‘deserving’ winner. Could it be that those awards that I held oh-so-dear to my very core beliefs as a designer-at-large, were not the ultimate accolade I thought they were? Naîvety and innocence can be cruel cousins can’t they?

However, despite the maturing cynicism I still think that the major awards I mentioned earlier were – in crude terms – a great benchmark for measuring the calibre of a design studio. Because there were only a handful to be had, and they had notable and well announced submissions, most ‘studios’ tended to submit entries, resulting in a fairly decent spread of entries and a competitive playing field.

In stark contrast, and rather timely given that I’ve been considering this post for some weeks now, recently my twitter feed has simply been rammed with announcements of forthcoming awards, ‘last day to enter’ calls, judging panel PR slots and the ultimate roll-call of those ‘lucky sods’ fortunate enough to win an award. The problem is, I simply can’t keep up. I don’t follow *that* many people and I’ve already lost count. And that’s just the awards that are relevant to my industry. If I include apprenticeships, food, hospitality, tourism, enterprise and so-called entrepreneurialism, I could probably knit a scarf for a sizeable llama with all the threads dedicated to award announcements.

I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old sod (although to many I have probably proved this to be true already), but it’s all just a load of white noise now. If – nowadays – someone tells me they have won an award, it doesn’t make me any more inclined to a) be impressed or b) respect their abilities. And that is a crying shame. The very thing that used to be the separator between designers, has now consumed itself and destroyed the very foundations upon which it was built. I guess we can blame the very mechanism by which you are reading this…the internet and social media. In an ever more fragmented society with thousands more channels through which to consume information and express opinion, we have demanded our industry be ever more segmented and analysed to the point of destruction. And to each of these segments, we need an award to determine the ‘best’ – well at least the best for the next few days – until another ‘best in class’ is crowned. Ho hum.

I don’t want to demean awards. It’s my observation that they have done this to themselves (if ‘they’ are indeed a sentient organism capable of such a thing)!

Which is why I can’t help but feel like my Dad when I start to hear myself saying “It’s not how it used to be.”

A good example came to my attention recently. Nathan Pollock is a very close friend and director of a small, but growing product design consultancy in Australia called Katapult Design. We were colleagues for a time and I respect his abilities wholeheartedly as only a choice few people I would ever consider going into business with – a true measure of trust if ever there was one. He and his team have recently won a Red Dot award and Australian Design Award for a TENS machine they designed for a client of theirs (you can view it here). In fact, they also managed to bag the ‘Best of the Best‘ at the Red Dot, which for a consultancy outwith the usual suspects is quite something. Nathan and I recently had a conversation about his approach to entering these awards and if you total up the financial commitment Nathan and Katapult has to make, simply to prepare, enter, attend, receive and promote these awards (particularly a European award for an Australian company….tot up those airmiles!) it quite makes your eyes water. That award will *really* have to do its stuff to ensure that Nathan breaks even, but he has made a calculated judgement about the risk to reward ratio associated with it.

Having worked – albeit briefly – in Australia, I can vouch for the fact that most established Aussie design agencies are hell bent on awards and it becomes akin to tribalism (that’s not to say that the same tribalism does not exist elsewhere…I’ve noticed it in many different parts of the world). Agencies pit their trophy cabinets up against each other in the ultimate contest of virility, and the opening gambit at new business meetings is the rather comedic town-crier-esque splurge of award credentials. I can also vouch for the fact that the more forward thinking, nimble agencies look to be bucking this trend and are being more tactical and strategic with their thinking…and I have no doubt that in a few years, the good ones will be stealing our clients with aplomb 😉

In weighing up the risk vs. reward for entering the Red Dot, Nathan has been clever enough to focus on European design accolades. Regional and national awards tend only to be inward looking (despite the blurb on their websites to the contrary), particularly for such far away places as Australia, but the established, wider European awards (like the ones mentioned earlier) do still hold some stock and can bring extremely valuable exposure to consultancies like Katapult. Exposure they could never achieve without either spending a LOT of money or seriously pissing someone off!

So, much as Nathan has decided that his award strategy is about global exposure for a ‘remotely located’ agency, it seems that transitory, grass roots PR is just about the only benefit an award can really bring nowadays. Many of those I canvassed on LinkedIn and Twitter, having already vented their spleen lamenting the ‘down sides’ to awards, did acknowledge that awards – if publicised correctly – can bring much needed positive PR and in turn, lingering awareness in a fickle, transient business world filled with 3 second attention-bites. But it also strikes me that if you look at the sheer effort and cost involved in securing an award (not to mention the risks of not winning), I would argue that some clever bit of attention seeking (like a contentious blog post or internal, conceptual studio project) might well be better received by potential clients. I certainly feel utter apathy to any statement resembling “we’ve won an award” and view such things with an unhealthy dose of ‘smoke and mirrors’ scepticism. As I mentioned earlier, with so many bloody awards swimming in the same pond, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that those judging the awards may not always be the people suited to such judging or completely aligned with your discipline. If I won an award, I’d want to know that the people who have deemed that my work was deserving were those I respected and utterly admired.

We don’t ‘do’ awards, as you may have gathered. I have a slightly jaded view of them and have boiled our reasons ‘not to enter’ down to a few key points;
1. They are too expensive (entry + awards dinner + travel etc.)
2. I wouldn’t know which ones to apply for (there are simply too many to know which carry the right level of klout in the industries in which we operate – which is a considerable number)
3. I don’t trust them (I want to be judged on design merit and I don’t believe this is the case for most awards…in some cases I might arrogantly argue that I’m more qualified to judge the work than the judges…I did say ‘arrogantly’!).
4. Application of effort elsewhere (I reckon the same level of PR and brand penetration *could* be achieved with other, more interesting and less conventional methods)

I had considered including the comments received from others in this post, but I’m worried I may completely nail the coffin shut on this if I fill even more of this post with some of the slightly less-than-gracious opinions of my peers. I’ll leave it for them to add a comment at the end, or you can see a few of the contributions here.

So how can I balance this up a little? Well, I thought it might be interesting to create a set of judging criteria that I think reflects modern design practice and how I would want my work judged. I’m not saying that many of these criteria are not employed by some of the many awards out there, it’s simply my crudely thrown together ‘fantasy award criteria’. It’s not exhaustive, but here’s a few to be getting on with…

a) Budget magic (BM)
“A silk purse from a sow’s ear” is a good phrase. Compared to the pittance you got paid, what magic did you manage to weave? How did you make that original proposal budget stretch – without snapping – to the point where you were able to satisfy the client AND deliver a brilliant piece of work. But not pumping hours into it for the sake of it at the expense of profit. The real magic is when you can do all of this AND still make a profit. To coin Paul Daniels …”That’s Magic!”

b) Harry Hassle (HH)
We’ve all had them. The client that requires a LOT of expectation management and regular 20 minute updates. Where you spend more of the budget discussing how you’ve spent the budget than actually doing any work. This should be heavily factored in to any award criteria. How much of a pain in the arse was this to get through the approval channels, without the resultant design being stripped of anything noteworthy?

c) Under the bonnet (UtB)
Stop looking at the shiny stuff and get real. How the hell did they manage to reduce 73 over-engineered parts down to 12 beautifully simple components that are now cheaper than the 73 original ones. It might not look pretty but appreciate the ‘real’ beauty of the solution. Have a bloody good look at that split line and the clever way the designer has managed to squeeze it all in, keep the assembly costs to a pittance and allow it to be dis-assembled equally quickly, whilst ensuring no stupid people can sick their fingers where they might do themselves a disservice.

d) The ‘Nan’ Effect (tNE)
It’s all very well creating something that appeals to a bespectacled hipster with tweed pants and a patent leather sling bag made from free range Ecuadorian goats, but can my Nan use it? Does she ‘get’ it? More importantly, with a single sentence, could I explain it to her without her responding with “2 sugars please”?

e) Relevance (Re)
Similar to the above, but does the design actually fit the market it is designed for? Has it been designed to appeal and be affordable to the target market – which may well be janitors in Rhyl? (I’ve got nothing against janitors in Rhyl per se…I was just trying to find an example of someone we may not normally consider). It might be a design for a very ordinary looking dustpan, but that dustpan can now be purchased by everyone who so desires, not just those that shop in John Lewis who need it to match their avocado slicer colour scheme. The designer has bent over backwards to ensure that it does NOT look elitist and designery, is f**kin’ cheap and has a tiny carbon footprint. What do you mean you didn’t notice it? That’s the point Cletus!

So my equation, to rate the relevance of each of these would look like this…

(BM+UtB+tNE+Re).HH* = sheer bloody brilliance

*because we all know that ‘client politics’ is the biggest lion to tame!

I would be VERY happy to doff my hat to anyone who has won an award based on the above 5 judging criteria. In fact, I’d probably want to work for them. Whilst I’m aware that I am making light of much of this in my descriptions, there is a serious point to each of the above. They represent the ‘hidden realities’ of every client project. More importantly, they are the major components of the success of a project and of your abilities as a design consultant/provider. An award that acknowledges these skills would do more for the credibility of a designer and his/her reputation than anything else….in my humble opinion.

Well, here endeth another tome from the Square Banana soapbox. I would encourage anyone to suggest their own awards criteria and share good and bad experiences, as it helps to clarify the wider context. As with previous posts, if I’ve overstepped the mark and misrepresented the situation horribly, then I’m happy to adjust …within reason!

One thought on “And the winner is….

  1. I agree with a lot of your sentiment Russell, in particular to the way products are ‘judged’ and the rather steep costs involved.

    that said, I’ve observed companies growth in part (a large part) to the positive PR generated through winning of such awards… even to the point one company has received a number of offers to ‘buy out’.

    I met with Kenneth Grange a while back, and he advised I should pitch for awards, as his “income was transformed” when he won his first of many awards. I haven’t yet acquired the stomach for the costs yet, and besides, I’m always to critical of my work to think I should even be bold enough to try.

    That said, my young sidekick asked me if he could enter one of his personal projects (which has since received commercial interest) into a couple of awards and he’s been shortlisted for young designer of the year at the Plastics Industry Awards 2013.

    We’ll see if his career takes off for him afterwards.

    BTW, the table at the London hilton is costing me two hundred quid a seat!

    Bahhh…

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