“Clever work wins awards; smart work wins clients.”
– Eric Karjuouto, founder, SmashLab
I recently had the distinct pleasure to judge two competitions that focused on printed and digital design that was moving towards sustainability and social responsibility. As the entries were stirring, I was, at times, a bit unsure about how to specifically judge the environmental and social sustainability of a given piece. To be as consistent as humanly possible, I relied heavily on the Re-nourish greener print and digital standards. These allowed me to use a baseline to compare and contrast entries. However, despite the use of the standards, I wondered if there was simply a better way to run design competitions in general? Was it possible to hold competitions that weren’t exclusive to “green” but instead included in a more general contest as an essential criterion? Moreover were design competitions even relevant? Faced with daunting economic and environmental dilemmas, it is imperative for future design competitions to create a more holistic form of critique to measure the merit and impact of submitted entries. Instead of a specific “green” entry or separate competition entirely, I argue instead that all competitions include the Quadruple Bottom Line (as defined by the Living Principles) as a foundation for critique.
Judging aesthetics, innovation, and technical expertise are the status quo for most call for entries, however contemporary design goes far deeper than just a focus on styling. Communication Design concentrates on impact. It centers on the creation of a clear and enticing message that creates positive economic outcomes. The Quadruple Bottom Line further argues that Communication Design must also forge a more balanced solution that is respectful of cultures, affordability, fairness, and the environment. How are these judged currently in design competitions? They’re not. However they should be.
In Paul Martin Lester’s book Visual Communication on design theory he argues that there are six perspectives of critique: personal, historical, technical, ethical, cultural, and critical. A cursory examination of recent winning entries in design competitions makes it abundantly clear that mostly elements of “personal” and “technical” are being scrutinized. I’ve seen printed ephemera win design competitions that generalized a specific culture while others were overly wasteful of materials in their implementation. Are these design decisions ethical? That is debatable of course, but seemingly ignored as a component of critique in most design competitions.
The visual impact of a print or digital piece stirs emotions and elicits a range of desired actions. Historically this has been one of the key components of success in a call for entry. It can also be said that brand recognition does play a role in judging, as the more prevalent in the cultural landscape could mean a successful design (or a client with a massive advertising budget). Author and provocateur John Thackara recently detailed methods to “redesign design competitions” where he made suggestions that I certainly agree with. Thackara argues in general that “(t)here is seldom enough time in the judging process to assess entries adequately.” I found this to be the case in my experience, as I wanted to understand how each “sustainable” entry made a vital impact on the economy and also prevented negative social and environmental problems from its printing and manufacture. However this data wasn’t asked for by the competition organizers, nor was probably easily accessible by the designer. It should be required to enter and be important for the designer to collect as data to retain and win new clients.
Thackara also feels that design competitions should “(f)ocus on ‘wicked’ challenges. Rather than solicit fully-formed design objects or ‘visions,’ ask entrants to create platforms and contexts in which diverse groups of people may co-design the systems, institutions and processes that shape our daily lives. ” Wicked challenges (or problems as defined by Horst and Rittel in 1973) are focused on pressing social, economic, and environmental issues instead of just helping corporation “A” battle corporation “B” for sales revenue and market clout. Sustainable design solutions realistically will have to do both. They must encourage intelligent decisions on consumption while also solve humanity’s issues with poverty, war, climate change, etc. It is difficult to compare these two solutions, as they are truly apples and oranges. However, consideration must be made in declaring winners of design competitions that do the most to solve these concerns. Thackara rightfully argues that design must “(i)nsist on external partners and a live context” to gain the best insight into the multi-faceted complexities of a sustainable entry. Specifically designers should be the only discipline judging design competitions. Design reaches too many audiences to only have their peers evaluate a project’s success or failure.
It is my opinion that to make design competitions more realistic in their outcomes, we must look at these additional criteria:
- A defined set of metrics detailing a project’s environmental impact. This should be mandated by the call for entry. (Similar to the Sustainable Packaging Metrics)
- A financial picture of the economic success from the project’s implementation
- Less stringent contest rules that define outcomes of design projects (print versus digital). Embracing systems design allow for interesting and impactful solutions that may change public policy or other less standard communication design outcomes. In many cases these solutions are neither strictly print nor digital but instead proposals and implementable strategies.
- A jury composed of different connected disciplines (business, social sciences, engineering, fine art, etc.)
- A mandatory listing of vendors and partners used in the project to allow a transparent look at the social and environmental impact
- Post project targeted user/audience feedback on communication of project
These additional but vital additions are challenging, however with a longer period for judging combined with a more holistic but detailed view of the project’s successes and impacts, the communication design industry will increase their visibility and positive impact on society. Encouraging more socially responsible design decisions across the board through competitions will only positively affect the profession, people and planet.