Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Beauty pageant

Beauty pageant
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Last night, ideasonideas was the recipient of a Merit award at Vancouver’s Lotus Awards. This was a nice surprise for us, and certainly made us happy. Frankly, it’s a blog—the idea of it even winning an award seemed pretty unlikely. Regardless, we sat, met some people, enjoyed a little conversation, and watched the show. It was pretty cool too. The voice-overs were very MTV awards-esque, and the presenter said “fuck” in a darned funny way. There was, however, a bit of a stink that arose through the evening.

Something was amiss

The Lotus awards are intended to celebrate both advertising and design; however, the pecking-order between the two seemed rather clear. I believe it would be fair to say that it was an ad show. First of all, the people were just too good looking. I know, it sounds odd, but ad people are “L.A.” and designers are, well… “Cleveland”. (No offense to those designers who are more “L.A.”—you are still looking fine. This reference only applies to the rest of us.)

Admittedly, this is a most superficial observation; nevertheless, it was clear who was hosting the party. For those of you who have no idea as to how the Lotus Awards work, I’ll summarize it as such: The show awards many winners with honourable mentions, called “Merits”, followed by a much smaller number of “Lotuses”, which are intended to acknowledge the most exemplary work.

The show is hosted by the Advertising Agency Association of British Columbia. As such, their strong representation makes some deal of sense. Heck, it’s their party–they should be allowed to come out on top. I think that’s why most would look past the fact that there were 29 advertising categories and 15 in total for both the design and interactive segments.

At the end of the night however, almost all of the advertising categories were awarded Lotuses, with multiple awards in some; whereas only one third of the design categories received such recognition. This equaled a total of 28 Lotuses for advertising categories, and only 5 for both of the design disciplines. Hmmm…

Talk at the “outside” tables

Now, from this sort of an imbalance, one could infer that the advertising people in Vancouver are simply brilliant, but the designers here? Well… not so much. My opinion? I don’t know—it just doesn’t seem as though our communities are really that far apart. Many of us cross these boundaries or straddle these worlds. This in my mind brings the above numbers into question.

How did this discrepancy come into being? Most of the small studios were seated at the perimeter of the room. Although I can’t confirm this, I tend to believe that the discussion at these tables was mildly different from that found at the centre of the room. As I looked to the tables around us, there was a bit of a bewildered sensation on many of the faces, followed by a couple of tables clearing out completely about two-thirds of the way into the ceremony.

As I listened to the discussion that ensued, a couple of people wondered out loud if the whole thing had to do with a bit of a silent turf-war. The general question went as such: Are the big, traditional agencies getting a little territorial, given that their large-budgets now have to compete more with the likes of new media companies and small brand firms, who produce strong work without the exorbitant rates?

The question I asked on the drive home, however, was a different one.

How the hell do you judge design anyway?

Ads are relatively easy to understand. They have to be. As a rule, most advertising must reach the lowest common denominator with some kind of value proposition as rapidly as possible. This makes sense. As Peter noted in the office this morning, the brilliance in some of the winning ads last night was that anyone could see them at the transit station and walk away with a smile.

Design however is different. It’s more layered and complex. It rarely takes the form of a one-liner or a quick joke. Design systems often have to address more specific issues and psychological motivators, not to mention the need to remain relevant in years to come. A corporate identity system for example needs to be built around more than securing a moment of attention from a passerby.

The question that I continue to ponder is how any committee can accurately judge the effectiveness of design, without adequate understanding of the design problem. If design and ads were people, good ads would generally be extroverts. They stand up and command attention. Design however would sometimes be more of an introvert. It is often supposed to be transparent, as it takes the back-seat to the purpose it serves. As such, design solutions require closer inspection in order to fully appreciate.

Should design awards require client feedback on the effectiveness of a solution, or are we just making pretty things for our friends to smile and nod over?


My second question – which is more personal in nature – is centered around whether design awards matter to me. Upon reflection, I have to admit that they sort of do. Shit; that’s embarrassing to say, but I have to admit that I appreciate accolades for our work as much as hearing that I don’t look as fat as usual.

As much as I believe the notion of design awards to be pretty silly, we’ll likely try to go for some of them in the future. I also keep hearing that they are good for connecting with new clients, which is something that we’re always happy to do. Perhaps they are a necessary evil, as we all work to gain awareness for our work, in order to continue leveraging interesting projects.

It sure would be nice however, if each design award out there demanded a brief paragraph describing the specific challenge, and how the design solution managed to address these challenges.

Sour grapes?

I write this article half-heartedly, as it could seem like an inappropriate reaction to the fact that our award wasn’t quite as nice as that shiny, glass thing that some took home. I’m happy with our award for Merit and I don’t believe that a blog had any right to win one of the higher honors. That said, I was disappointed to see the entire design community treated as a less-relevant cousin of the ad industry. (Regardless of how “Cleveland” we may look.)

Either way, we’ll probably be there next year. It was a fun night out, and the salmon was really good. Although, next year I will drink more.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Sounds like nothing has changed at Lotusland. What you need to keep in mind is that the Lotus Awards are first and foremost an advertising awards show. Knowing this, you should only enter design projects that will appeal to advertising folks. Strong concept. Simple design. Clean layout. Strong concept. Or if you don't have that, make sure the client is some sort of fringe industry like a snowboard company, tatoo parlour or a condom manufacturer.

    I totally agree with the need for documentation of the requirements of the project, and more importantly, the success of the project. The GDC Graphex awards have been doing this for 10 years or so, and the Design Exchange Awards or the IABC take it even further, requiring documentation and polled statistics from the client.

    And yes, always drink lots at Lotus Awards! The black dresses look even slinkier...

  2. Chris Gee says:

    Great article, Peter. I think great minds think alike, as I just recently posted an entry along similar lines myself.


  3. Judd says:

    Looking California...Feeling Minnesota...oh yeah...

  4. Great article but I think that you do not give ads the justice they deserve. Speaking from a design background, ads need to be extroverted to compete with each other for the public's attention. People are becoming more and more desensortised, and ads (the good ones anyway) are becoming more sophisticated and smarter. They are a different beast, and there's the problem, perhaps design and advertising shouldn't compete with each other at award shows.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, Chris. Though I'd like to note that Eric Karjaluoto is the author of this article.

  6. I appreciate the tone and your thoughts and questions expressed in this article. All perfectly understandable. But I wouldn't suggest spending too much time worrying about popularity disparity in this context.

    I'm not familiar with these awards, but unless they're about awarding the most effective, results-generating marketing efforts for their clients, they're nothing more than a self-congratulatory circle jerk: masturbation en mass. My suspicion, however, is that they've got nothing to do with results and everything to do with intra-industry popularity and feel good therapy.

    Freed from the constraints and expectations of those pesky clients, we gather together to celebrate how clever we are - regardless of how our work did or did not impact the client's bottom line?? Escapism, I think. No, don't spend too much time trying to fit in with that crowd. Win an award from your client for a genuine feel-good session.

  7. As Matt noted. The Graphex awards do require a brief paragraph describing the specific challenge, and how the design solution managed to address these challenges.

    However, having organized the awards last year, I was surprised by how many people/firms are completely incapable of articulating anything meaningful about their own work. So let's say you have 400 entries (and that's a fairly small number: many of the American awards shows have thousands of entries), and let's say 30% of them actually manage to communicate the design challenge and the solution. And then let's say you're a judge, and you have to view 400 entries and read 800 paragraphs, and 560 of those paragraphs are meaningless to borderline illiterate.

    Unfortunately, to judge something like this in context just becomes untenable. In order to effectively judge design, the number of entries must be quite small, which means either a very high entry fee ( a very exclusive award) or an obscure little awards show (an unknown and little-valued award).

    I have also judged for the IABC (International Association for Business Communicators / or something), and it was the complete opposite experience. Each entrant had to fill out reams of forms, talk about budgets and goals and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their [in this case] trade business magazines. Each entry came in a binder, with all the forms and data and written documents and several issues of the magazine. Only 30% of the marks went to the actual look of the publication, and each judge judged only 3 entries, spending an *hour* on each one, and each entry was looked at by 3 judges (only one of whom was a designer). So one entry: 3 judges, 3 hours.

    None of them had stellar design. A couple were decently designed, but those that were chosen were, presumably "successful" designs and effective communication pieces. But this is a little-known award—in our industry, anyway.

    Let's just suppose that you wanted to enter an awards show that would be looked at that carefully by the judges, and really talked about between them on that level. How much would you pay to have, say Bruce Mau, Rick Poynor and Paula Scher analyze your work in that depth? $1,000? $2,000? If you thought your work was *that good*, and you joined the few other people who were that confident about their own work ... well, that would be a pretty elite and prestigious award. But guess what? It would *still* be skewed to the bigger firms who could afford to pay the fees.

    Alas, I think we're stuck with beauty contests.

    And for myself ... I don't enter awards shows. Not on principle. Just cuz I never win, and I've found other ways of getting into magazines etc.

  8. Mark Busse says:

    Sorry we didn't get to chat longer at Lotus, Eric. Sounds like you and I had virtually identical experiences. We sat at the front of the room with the gang from SubPlot Desig (an internationally awarded design team), who actually donate hours of effort to help the Lotus committee select design judges and set criteria for judging the design category. They worked their butt off and were rewarded with multiple merits in various categories that earned no Lotus Awards at all. Ouch! Needless to say, you could sense the growing tension in the air.

    This discussion closely parallels our thoughts posted over on our own Lotus 2005 Merit-winning blog, though I doubt anyone over at AAABC gives a flying fig. Do you realize how much money they make with this event? Have you seen their sponsor list? How is it that GDC can't produce that level of support yet? Oh we will...we will..

  9. I never post on these blog things. They always seem far too masturbatory and an excuse to waste time and not spend it on a client’s job to make it that much better. However, the Lotus awards is a topic that is always worth a good rant.

    And although the sentiments expressed so far and the gripe against advertising is a good one (albeit, a pretty easy one), the are many facts that need to be put straight about award shows and the Lotus Awards specifically. Here’s my attempt.

    1. I have been going to the Lotus Awards for 13 years. They were created by ad people, are largely run by ad industry volunteers, and are sponsored by the ad industry and ad media. They have always been about advertising ... but it’s changing. Many of the new leaders of the awards have expressed a need to bring design out to the forefront.

    2. It is no secret that the majority of the ad industry thinks of design as the retarded-artsy-pretty-decorating cousin of advertising. They are not threatened by designers; they think designers are art-school drop outs who like to make patterns. Sadly, this is fairly accurate if you look around at a lot of the work done by Vancouver design firms.

    3. Yes, ads are jokes, design is a conversation. Ads are a one-night-stand, design is a relationship. It’s true. But it’s that way for a reason. Always has been. So it’s no surprise that the funny and the rude and the silly often win ad awards. Although – I challenge you to look at the ad winners, particularly Rethink’s best of show winners for the Vancouver Sculpture Biennial and tell me that it’s not good design! None of the design winners were that “ad-like”, and there’s a reason for that.

    4. Lotus will never be about effectiveness or relevance. They are about “Creativity in BC”. And they believe in it passionately. They believe in the overwhelming power of creativity and bold ideas. And I respect this position, even though I don’t agree with it in my own business (as relevance and effectiveness are how good design should make a living…). That’s why we routinely enter the Design Exchange Awards, as they are based largely on effectiveness! But back to Lotus.

    5. The Lotus Awards WANT to include Design. Why? Some because they believe in the power of design and branding. Some because they know good design work is happening in the city and want it to be part of the awards show. And some because the more design entries, the more money comes in, the more tickets are sold, and the bigger and better party they can put on each year. All good reasons to me.

    6. Yes, award shows are self-congratulatory, but that does not mean they without merit (sorry for the pun) Think of it as the Stanley Cup of creative awards: best players of the year come out on top. How do you know who the best team is unless you have them play the final game? Conspiracy theorists can rest assured that the amount of money put into the awards or back-room deals have not swayed the results. Design awards are a good way to judge new ideas, to benchmark firms who are considered to be doing the best and most creative work in their fields, and help the design industry get into newspapers and media to help build the brand of “design”. Now, like the Stanley Sup, one game or one series does not the best team make: true. But you get my drift. They have their place in the pantheon, even though they might not be the be-all-end-all.

    7. Up to 2 years ago, the design section at Lotus had 4 categories – yes 4: Best ID, Product Brochure, Packaging and Annual report. I complained and whined about how unfair it was for 10 years. Best ID was routinely won by a jokey business card (like a sandpaper card for a carpenter, or a paint swatch business card for an interior designer. Ohh, how clever. I couldn’t stand it. Not only was that not good design, it certainly wasn’t an “Identity”!

    8. So, guess what – we stopped complaining and Roy White and I went on a mission:
    a. We convinced the Lotus Awards to go from 4 categories in 2004, to 7 in 2005 and 9 this year: Best Logomark, Stationery System, Complete Identity Program, Annual Report, Brochure/Catalogue, Packaging, Design Posters, Self-Promotion, Miscellaneous. It was not a hard sell, by the way.
    b. We wrote clear category entry rules to eliminate a sandpaper business card or any other one-off joke winning "ID". They can enter that stuff in Misc. but to win best ID you better actually be showing an identity system…
    c. We wrote clear criteria for judging the design (1-10 scale for unique, creative idea, 1-10 scale for craftsmanship, with relative benchmarks)
    d. We found 3 high-calibre design judges last year: Fernando Gutierrez (; Ron Dyer (D5C), and Jeremy Tankard ( And 3 this year: Steve Cornwell ( Ian Chilvers ( ), and Ann Willoughby ( These are very seasoned design professionals who love and live design.
    e. At no point did any evil ad-person (and yes, sure, they are evil) have anything to do with the judging criteria, the points system, or the awarding of any design lotus awards. That was all done by designers.

    9. So what happened this year? Last year, it worked out well -- good work won and there were lotuses in every design category. Good all around. This year, only 3 Lotus Awards were given in 9 design categories. Ouch. Now is that bad? From a PR point of view, clearly. Makes people think that the Lotus Awards is all about advertising, that design is not respected, etc. Not true. It means, given the criteria set out by designers, the design judges said, “sorry, not much of this work lives up to the standards set forth by the Lotus Awards”. Hey, we (Subplot) got 4 merits, and I think they should have been 4 Lotus Awards. So, we fell short of the criteria we helped to create! Again, is that bad? I kind of like the fact that these very experienced judges stood up and said, “nope, we’re sticking to our decisions”. So, good for them to have standards.

    10. Now, do I think 3 winners in 9 categories is an accurate reflection of the level of design talent in Vancouver, or the level that the Lotus Awards is expecting from design firms? No. And no. It is my belief that there is some very fine work in town. And that the judges did judge too harshly. And it is the Lotus Awards committee opinion that real fault may not be in the criteria, or the judging marking system, or even in selecting the judges, but the fact that, while all advertising judges are flown in to town to meet, discuss and judge the awards live ---- the design and interactive judges receive a kit from afar and judge with no interaction, only a score card. With no opportunity to discuss, and maybe talk a grumpy judge into not marking so harshly.

    11. And there is the insight -- why don't the design and interactive judges deserve to get flown into Vancouver to do the judging live? Too much money? Sure, very valid. But as design and interactive gains more weight in the show, they deserve this, too. Viktoriia (the Lotus co-chair) especially has voiced this concern, and i think they WILL do something about it and will look into flying all judges in. That's truly a huge step for an awards show, presented by an AD organization, staffed largely by AD people that, for 15 or more years has only flown in AD judges.

    12. And that’s why Roy and I got involved. To help make this change happen. The strength of Lotus is that it is the one show in town that gets so many creative professionals into one room. They bring their clients. They invite the media and the media shows up, cameras in hand. They get really good exposure after the big night. And it helps build the brand of advertising and design in our market. And we get to drink too much and pat each other on the back, too. Nothing wrong with that. That’s the point of any good awards show.

    So I say. Keep entering good work: it may not get a Lotus Award, but, if it’s good, it will be showcased. Get involved if you want to make change. And you can put down the conspiracy theory.

  10. arjan says:

    As a winner of quite a lot of creative accolades I can confirm that winning and awarding communication merits is nice - although it sometimes is indeed a intra-industry circle-wank.
    The awarding bodies are an industry in itself too. Most advertising festivals also created awards for design and websites just to increase revenue from entries. So don't expect a lot of the awards to have any meaning. It's sometimes just a way of saying "thank you for supporting our festival".

    I think you should always look for the kind of jury that reviews the work and awards the prizes. It makes a great difference if the jury consists of creative people or representatives from the client's side. Or if the jury is made up of journalists or the general public. Aim for festivals where you want appreciation from. You want the circle-jerk? Go for awards with creative juries. You want to impress (new) clients? Get your work rated by a client's or journalists jury.

    As far as I know there's is no award show without a call for entries. If you feel it's not worth winning or think it's all to self-congratulatory, I would recommend to simply not send in your work and look for an award show you think is appropriate.

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