The Competitive Landscape

by Michael Rock

The design competition has come under an increasing level of scrutiny over the past few years. It would be impossible to organize a show and publish another catalogue without at least acknowledging some of the contradictions inherent in such an activity. But this year (1994), competition chairman Michael Bierut and the American Center for Design have gone a step further, incorporating the debate surrounding the event into the official documentation. It is an attempt to transform the catalogue from an album of pretty objects into a collection of opinions, both verbal and visual. In this spirit, Michael invited me to Chicago to observe the observers and compose an opening essay. At the judging, I found myself looking as closely at the institution and process of the competition as I did at the winning entries. Only in the context of that process does the selection presented here have significance.  

At its best, ACD 100 celebrates those moments when the obstacles that litter the path between designer and solution momentarily clear and an inspired result slips through. Lord knows that in this profession these moments are rare enough to warrant a little celebration. At its weakest, the exhibition presents a skewed version of the profession and an illegible mishmash of supposedly representative work. Since the show attracts entries that mimic previous winners, the contest reconstitutes itself each year in the same self-perpetuating form. The entrants know what kind of work will or won’t win, and what won’t win is the majority of work that you or I (or Michael Bierut, Alex Isley, Jillie Simons, Erik Speikerman, for that matter) do almost every day. For this contest rewards the atypical, the entry that defies the conventions of its category.

Reviewing the entries, I formulated three basic questions: What is it I am looking at? What do the selections tell me about the profession? What is the meaning of the collection? What I was not looking at was a cross section of graphic design produced on planet Earth last year. The chance that I would actually run into one of these pieces in my daily routine is small. The work the jurors confront is the result of a long winnowing, a process of elimination. Most of that pre-selection process is invisible to the jury; it starts in the studio and is aided by unreasonable clients, tight budgets, ornery technology, insufficient time, and on and on. From all the work produced during the year, the entrant makes a decision about what to enter (speculating, of course, on what the judges might be incline to award). Finally the jurors try to balance their selections (taking into account whether their selection will be deemed fair, open-minded, significant).

Setting the tone for this year’s contest, Michael Bierut’s “Call for Entries” poster posited the rhetorical question “What is good design?” and followed with a litany of possible answers, each an ironic evocation of one of the tired clichés that passes for a definition. Surely we know good design is different from mere fashion or style, but we know just as certainly a few post-structuralist quips pasted onto the surface of some visually complex work isn’t going to convince anyone of that fact. And our favorite enigmatic answer, “problem solving,” — the final choice on Michael’s list of aphorisms — is notoriously difficult to tease out.

Problem solving is often bandied about as the ultimate description (or justification) of the design process. I have two difficulties with this notion. First of all in a competition where all the work is taken out of context, getting a clear idea of the problem at hand can be daunting. The jurors have to deduce the problem from the solution — which is often easier said than done — or rely on the short and often cryptic description on the entry ticket. Without a firm grasp of the problem, the jurors inevitably place an inordinate value on form.

The second difficulty lies in how one defines a ‘problem’. (For me ‘problem’ evokes a fox, a chicken, a bag of grain and a frustrated farmer trying to figure out how to cross the river with everything intact.) Like an architectural program that addresses a set of defined problems surrounding the projected function of a building, graphic design programs construct solutions but the problems may be highly abstract or even dubious. For instance, if the goal of a brochure is not only to display expensive men’s suits, but to convince an audience that shopping at an exclusive department store is an act of freedom and a cultural experience, is that a legitimate problem? In design many of our problems tend to be of our own manufacture, i.e., problems of signification that supplement or supplant actual pragmatic requirements. Because they involve issues of rhetoric and persuasion, design problems defy easy definition. It‘s sometimes difficult to tell if we solve more problems than we create.

Without having the luxury of examining an entire design process or any simple way to ascertain the “problem,” jurors comb through the work looking for some glimmer of inspiration. Since that inspiration is in the “eye of the beholder,” the attention shifts from the work to the juror, which in turn opens up the yearly juror/curator vs. jury/consensus debate. In the previous ACD competition each juror selected an individual collection, and jointly the jurors set aside a small group of work that represented the consensus. I think the first part of that approach constructed artificial differences among jurors. It treated the work too preciously, as if agreement necessarily meant compromise.

Design, as any form of language, requires consensus to communicate, to be effective. It is the consensual precision of a symbolic language (like English or Mandarin or ASL) that sets it apart from expressive forms (like Dance, Bongo Drumming, etc.) At the most basic level, we have to agree that something stands for something else for it to stand at all. Presumably, the blue ribbon panel chosen to do the judging is aware enough of visual possibility to at least understand each other’s selections if not agree with them. The kind of entries that a show like this attracts are never going to be so diverse that some level of consensus cannot be discovered. Furthermore it is in the areas of overlap, of agreement among disparate jurors, that the common goals we share become apparent.

The selection in this catalogue represents consensus and idiosyncrasy. The three jurors’ selections intersected allowing for both agreement and diversity. The overlapping choices reveal a glimpse of the jurors’ biases, “curatorial framework,” shared values and differences. While it was an interesting evolution of the judging problem, I am not sure what conclusions can be drawn from the results. (For instance, the three jurors agreed 20 times; Isley/Simons agreed 22 times; Isley/Speikerman, 17; and Simons/Speikerman, 1; Speikerman cast 26 solo votes, Isley 16, Simons 9. Is that significant? Does it tell us anything?) Perhaps what it does tell us is the relative nature of the jurors’ taste, although this year, as in years past, the jurors’ similarities far outweigh their differences. (All three deal primarily in print and run smaller studios known for experimental work. It is not as if one designs film titles in Hollywood, one runs a large corporate identity studio, and one art directs a major newspaper.)

This year’s show is a hybrid of the consensus jury and the curatorial juror. There is an inherent contradiction between the homogenizing vehicle, the catalogue, that appears to speak in one voice, and heterogeneous nature of the winning entries selected by diverse judges. Each juror’s critical position is made tangible in his or her collection of work. The juror develops a collage from the stack of materials at hand, the entries. This collage is a projection of the contemporary issues in graphic design as imagined by the juror and embodied in the selection. The overall significance of the show is inextricably linked to the history of the show, the expectation of the entrant, and the personal taste of the juror.

While such a system may allow for a more eclectic selection, it also implies hierarchy. Since each juror may choose as many pieces as he or she wishes, pieces chosen by only one juror were passed over by the other two. In this situation, it is difficult not to see the consensus pieces, the ones that garnered votes from all three, as the ‘grand prize winners’. While the organizers seem uncomfortable with that aspect of the system, I see that as one of its advantages. It is one of the few organizing structures of the show. The admittedly flawed system did yield many positive results. The selection was broad, the intersection among the jurors interesting, and iconoclastic work that may have been rejected by the group was supported by the individual.

The final selection is defined not only by the juror’s taste but also against the counterpoint of the excluded entries, which as I mentioned before includes a majority of the designed work we produce every day. The contest, like the elite club, is a function of the work it rejects, which comes to define its standards. This show is described as “highly selective” implying it rejects a great deal of work. Yet much of that work is highly competent professional work, a testament the growing basic standard of design skill. As Katherine McCoy wrote in her introductory essay to last year’s catalogue, “Professional competency is no longer a revelation.” A winning entry needs to be something more.

The selection thus tends to single out for distinction the graphically unusual — those things that rise above the standard level of competency. This criterion — how a work departs from others of the same species — is the one that can be efficiently applied at judging time, giving the show a predilection toward novelty. If several entries demonstrate a similar form language, that language diminishes in value; it becomes common or trendy. This ‘boundary-pushing’ aspect of competitions feeds into a field that defines value by singularity and newness.

Newness always implies visible change from the immediate past. The kind of work that caught the jurors’ attention this year shows a continuing move away from elaborate formal articulation, historical reference, and high production values prevalent in recent years. The two most pervasive forces shaping the work appear to be the economy and the environment rather than any particular aesthetic dogma. Plenty of work looked as if it were less expensive to produce and environmentally friendly. There were even discussions afterward about whether we were witness to real or false modesty. That may not be a fair question (Was the opulence of the late eighties real or faked?). In addition, if the formal qualities signifying “green” design are aestheticized, that is an encouraging sign. It suggests that aesthetics can successfully motivate social change.

The overriding conclusion I could glean from the work is how difficult it is to discern any overriding conclusion from it. Certainly a broad based pluralism is still in effect. Work was awarded that demonstrated principles that could be ascribed to a shopping list of recent trends and styles. There are examples that I would describe as modern as well as post-modern if those terms have any worth at all anymore. We still seem to be wrestling with some basic questions as to our role here at the end of the century. The environmental concern seems to be one of the few real defining features designers can enthusiastically support. Larger questions like: ‘what if none of this work was produced over the last year, would anything be any different?,’ are too big and dangerous to grapple.

So, besides the chance to admire individual designer’s work — and there is plenty to admire — what greater significance does the contest hold for us? In her especially insightful juror’s essay from last year’s catalogue, Lorraine Wilde encouraged designers to take the competitions seriously because they...“end up creating one of the few accessible historical records of the work that designers produce.” While I share her sentiment, I remain wary. As documents of synchronic moments (The Year in Review), these catalogues omit so much: there is no video, no film, no hypermedia, hardly any exhibition design or signing. These forms, either because they are too hard to document or they have been ignored in the past, are under-represented in this type of show. 

As vehicles of comparison, the catalogues are also of questionable historical interest because they are organized by visual rather than functional criteria. Can a diminutive one color flyer be usefully compared with a six volume annual report? Or an the elaborate poster with a studio Christmas card? In the ID article I compared the design competition catalogue to an intriguing but indecipherable museum because there is no way to judge how the work fits into the social structure from which it arose. But perhaps F.T. Marienetti’s metaphor is stronger

Museums, cemeteries!...Identical truly in the sinister promiscuousness of so many objects unknown to each other. Public dormitories, where one is forever slumbering besides hated and unknown beings. Reciprocal ferocity of painters and sculptors murdering each other with blows of form and color in the same museum.

Without an opportunity to compare on the grounds of functional, economic and semantic issues, we are condemning ourselves to producing ever more of these boarding houses full of strange bedfellows. 

Wilde ended her essay with a call for more thoughtful design exhibitions tempered with the realization that without an institutional support structure for the archival preservation of design, these catalogues necessarily become our museums and the juries our curators. The reason these collections are indecipherable, full of wildly divergent work, lies not in the work itself but in the selection process; it is not selected and organized under any particular precept. In the museum exhibition, specific works are chosen as points in an argument structured around an organizing principle (a certain period, medium, or common aesthetic). The selection supports the thesis. The design annual collects work randomly under the expansive heading “Graphic Design” and then asks the curators and viewers to make sense of it all. (Imagine organizing exhibition after exhibition, year after year, around the idea of “Art”, never getting any more specific.)

What we need are catalogues and papers and articles and exhibitions that tease out narrower, more specific ideas. Instead of organizing the competition under the worn out “Graphic Design” title each year, the competition might call for work on a specific theme; Uses of history, Redefining the Book, The Corporation as Benefactor, for example. The jury then could truly curate a show, advance ideas, compare work and issues. Through a comparison of the work and a clear thesis statement, the catalogue too could become a useful tool rather than a repository of select work. In this way, contests may help us begin to make progress in defining the project of Graphic Design. Perhaps then we may finally exchange the perennial question “What is good design” for more riveting ones.