Thursday, February 15th, 2007

In defense of the ADC

In defense of the ADC
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The ADC sent us a poster. It contains an apocalyptic scene of gluttony, violence, greed, nuclear holocaust, crippling tidal waves and gas-guzzling Humvees. The fiasco is peppered with paparazzi, whilst the four horsemen of the apocalypse fly in on flaming horses. Some designers are aghast by it and have posted their disapproval to the ADC.

I love a good argument, so when I found this post at Be A Design Group . I thought I was up for some good fun. However, I was surprised to find that SpeakUp‘s Armin Vit seemed alone in defending the piece. Additionally, while some arguments were substantial, many were poorly articulated. I groaned aloud as I read “This ADC poster = crap!” and “this poster just plain sucks” As such, Id like to offer a defense for the 2007 ADC Show poster.

Some history

Many are familiar with the the 85th Annual Call for Entries poster and the discussion that ensued. When Steven Heller criticized that piece he seriously contemplated how it missed the mark. He also explored the hazards of attempting satire, particularly in referencing ethnicity.

This year’s piece however is quite radically different. Admittedly, it warranted some discussion; however, my concern is the nature of the criticism. In my readings, the two key arguments centered on the notions of quality and morality.

Good is not a relevant measure

“Is it good?” is an impossible question; yet, it was used by many in objection to the poster. The concept of good however is rooted in the subjective and carries little weight in critical argument. Was Duchamp’s urinal good? Was Warhol’s Disaster Series good? How about grunge type or David Carson’s aesthetic? All of these have been argued at length and will continue to be.

Good is a construct for which we cannot establish a relevant metric, and therefore remains a debate without the possibility of intelligent resolve. I would argue that as visual communicators, we are wiser to focus on whether a piece is effective. This discussion allows us to consider measurable results instead of falling in to the quagmire of subjective or emotional response and bickering.

Was it effective?

This question was in fact raised by some of the poster’s critics. I (unfortunately) am unable to answer the question as I was not informed of the project’s directives. I can, however, consider the reaction we had to the piece at our studio.

Upon receiving the mailer from the ADC, I called the others at smashLAB over for a look. We were all amused and found ourselves caught up in the small vignettes scattered throughout the piece. In our minds, it was nice to see a relatively serious organization having a little fun, instead of just falling in to the old ways of promoting an awards show.

Although we rarely post mailers in our studio, we hung the piece above our fridge. The next day we once again discussed the piece. Who did it? What were they saying? Was this an indictment of contemporary culture or a send-up of the news-media’s hyperbole of any situation for increased audience? This curiosity extended our experience with the piece.

Was it effective? Yes, in our studio it was. We engaged in it, in a way we rarely do. Was it effective in the public sphere? Perhaps; it did elicit interest, discussion and debate.

Whether you love or hate Eminem, it’s fair to say that by flirting with taboo subject matter he has cemented himself as an icon. This piece uses similar tactics to create brand awareness.

A case for social commentary

Some argue that this poster is in bad taste. I argue that these detractors are in fact less offended by the subject matter, and more so by its ambiguity. Responses such as, “I just don’t get it” evidenced how perplexed they were.

I have to wonder if these same critics ever watch South Park or the Daily Show. Are they familiar with such notions as farce and satire? What of the notable works of art that either critique or protest the state of affairs? Consider Francisco Goya‘s commentary in the brutal Disasters of War, the controversial satire of comic book artist R. Crumb, or the social protest in some of the work of Pieter Bruegel?

Would the ADC poster be more palatable if it came bundled with a statement from the art director explaining her/his intent? I have to ask if the people at TBWA\Chiat\Day felt that they didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator with this one. It would also be fair to presume that this audience could handle an illustration without every corner smoothed off.

I fear that as designers, we’ve all been ridiculously chasing a kind of “slick-ness”. Perhaps our corporate work lends us to do so. We are rewarded for focusing on style instead of substance. This is sometimes necessary in our work; nevertheless, our preoccupation with “professional” design shouldn’t limit us from appreciating work that falls outside of these boundaries.

Let’s have good debate

When Tibor modified images of pop-culture icons to augment their ethnicities, he was bombarded by mail-bags of outraged letters. It’s a pity that these people missed the point. His experiment forced us to confront our own stereotypes and he did so without uttering one sanctimonious or cliché word.

Tibor had the attention of the world, as his photo-manipulations were brought in to question by the media. He commanded sensationalism and thrust us in to discussion. That’s design at its best, and such efforts should be defended.

Think, argue, discuss, fight, whatever. I’m all for a good pissing-match. But let’s debate intelligently and remain open to work that doesn’t fit in to our constructs of quality or morality. Comments like, “this just sucks” simply weaken the level of discourse amongst designers.

Besides, flaming horses and swords are funny.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. I think the cost of entering award shows is far more offensive actually.

    I read Mad. I ‘get’ it. End of world is near and what should you do? Enter the show. Yatta. I get it. And it's a tough call to say the illustration sucks. Let’s step back from the brink as it where though. Looking at the some of Kox's other work, he's obviously got the chops. If they were going for religious visions + doom, Kox was their guy. I wish this execution was tighter compared to some of that, but still, not one creative here looking at his other work wouldn't think twice about using him to do a CD cover or editorial piece.

    Now, is it because it depicts a priest with a kid? Or is it the political themes? Do we want our end-of-world messages song to us by Bono holding hands with Oprah instead? Seems the exectuion of the medium is confusing the message.

    But still, you know that going in when you hire any illustrator for their style. Was he given total control to draw whatever theme? Did the CD tell him to add the Axis of Bush prayer circle? Who knows.

    Nothing in this content-wise shocks me since we're exposed to this stuff constantly on Fox or Drudge. Maybe he should have just drawn happy designer tools on a desk, or maybe the world of advertising and design as it currently stands. He couldn't though because that truth would be worse than the current poster.

    Actually, wait, he did. Got rid of those pesky African Americans from last year, just like most agencies. I figured maybe there might be one or two Katrina victims bobbing around the coastline, no?

  2. Clayton Misura says:

    In my opinion, the true controversy lies, not with the exectution or depection of the subject matter, but with the ethos of the design community. If the ADC poster was intend for the "Art" community, I am sure the response garnered would be quite different.

  3. Adrian says:

    "I have to wonder if these same critics ever watch South Park or the Daily Show."

    Actually, I think both those shows are hilarious and think this poster is an embarassment to our profession (as I said already in the critique at Be A Design Group." I am still waiting for somebody to tell me why this is funny? It is just trying too hard to be controversial, and that's not funny. It is just bad. Where is the wit? I am still waiting for what makes this clever, or funny, or any other redeeming quality. "Besides, flaming horses and swords are funny" isn't a mech better justification than "this just sucks." Also, I think you are misrepresenting the discussion on our site by summing it up as "weaken(ing) the level of discourse amongst designers." There was plenty of intelligent debate - you just happen to disagree with the consensus.

  4. Hi Adrian,

    I wanted to respond personally to your comment, and must note that I did hesitate somewhat before posting. I visit your site regularly and like what you folks are doing. As such, I didn't want you to feel as though it was an attack on your site.

    I acknowledge your opinion of the poster and I appreciate your argument. At the same time, I was a little perplexed by the responses to your post, which felt more like a group indictment than a balanced discussion.

    As such, I decided to respond on your blog, but somehow it turned in to a whole post. In fact, it resulted in some discussion between my wife and I, as we wrestled with our own thoughts around the notion of "good." Which I feel can be quite effectively argued either way.

    Thanks for posting and for visiting our blog as well. And one other thing: you're right, "Flaming horses and swords are funny" isn't a better justification. It was intended to be tongue in cheek. ;-)

  5. John Forward says:

    Interesting post, Eric. I remember receiving the ADC poster in the mail and was so very disappointed. To paraphrase the young John Kerry "How do you ask a tree to be the last tree to die for a mistake?" This poster... what a terrible waste of natural resources.

    First off, I'll say that the style of the illustration isn't for me. On purely formal terms, the quality of the drawing seems lacking. It doesn't please me aesthetically. But that's alright. You can't please everybody and I know from experience that I'm hard to please.

    But there are some things fundamentally wrong with the thing that make me think that the thread on Beadesigngroup has it right in declaring "This ADC poster = crap!"

    First and foremost, the joke is lame and ineffective. "Final Call for Entries"? If I am to believe the conceit that it's the end of the world, I'd be more worried about packing my flame-retardant undies than about entering a design competition. Which sounds pedantic, I know, but if you're going to make a joke, make it a joke that works.

    The thing that REALLY annoyed me about this poster is the unbelievably poor quality of the typography on the back of the poster, where all the real communication is supposed to go down. As somebody who loves organizing great big gobs of information, I find the front of the poster annoyingly boring, but the back just pisses me off.

    This is the Art Directors Club. They hand out awards for excellence in design. And yet they approved for print this glorified Word document? What the hell? Considering the aesthetic tightrope walk of the illustration, a beautifully structured back would've put the whole piece into a different category. Now it's middle school all the way.

    You mention South Park, the Daily Show, Mad Magazine, R. Crumb, Tibor and Warhol. All these people had and have something to say and show incredible dedication to their craft. This does not. I recognize half an ass from a whole mile away and this is very definitely half ass!

    I become aware of the various competitions by e-mail and I enter online. If somebody's going to chop down a half acre of beautiful trees to double up with a big old poster, they had damn well better make sure it's worth the sacrifice. This poster is badly executed on every level, and when students tell me of their own work "I KNOW it looks crappy. It's SUPPOSED to look crappy! That's the joke!" I roll up a newspaper and smack them upside the head until they apologize for cluttering up the planet with yet another single, shivering butt cheek of "meta humor." Ironic mimicry is one of the most difficult things to pull off, and these guys failed all around.

    I still entered the competition, because the ADC's online presence is beautifully thought out and very nicely put together and I'm a whore for awards show metal. Hope springs eternal.

  6. (I need to clarify that my comment here was in response to the BADG post over there.)

  7. Greg Scraper says:

    I kinda like the illustration. It reminds me of the "Where's Waldo?" books I used to read (ok, not so much "read" as "stare at") as a kid. You get engrossed in the minutiae. The subject matter is fine, and either represents the majority viewpoint of its target audience, or lampoons it, depending on who you are and how you look at it (though I fully admit hardcore conservatives aren't notoriously known for their parodic abilities). The illustration, for all the talk about it, isn't why this poster is bad.

    Why this poster is bad can be summed up in a few words: Bad Type Choices. Seriously? Red and yellow gradient blackletter on a brown background? I agree with Mr. Forward above that trying to make something look bad on purpose is a faulty design premise, and I'd expound on his argument to say that when you only have a few words to work with, there's not really enough there to even make it look like that's what you're trying to do. The type looks like it was chosen by a middle schooler who idolizes an older brother who details hot rods for a living.

    What you need there is a simple, clean sans-serif (possibly even rounded) in white to balance out the chaos of the illustration and call attention to the type. I think the whole piece would have benefitted from a typographer's steadying hand.

  8. Greg: I think that the type is suitably garish. Employing a sophisticated type treatment would be like wearing a tuxedo to a Superbowl party.

    Regarding "faux naive" design: It communicates a quality of crudeness and ignorance, traits which are certainly not out of place considering the subject matter. The style serves the concept, therefore it "works". "Good", "bad" and "ugly" are subjective arguments and should be removed from the equation.

  9. Shane says:

    I'm a very religous person and I think the poster is funny, clever, and a good concept. The illustration, well not my style, and I'm not sure that I would want to hang it up, but it definetly doesn't offend me.

  10. Shane says:

    Well maybe not clever, or a good concept, maybe just a decent concept...

    How bout we will jsut leave my opinion on the subject as,"It didn't offend me."

    I would tend to agree taht it isn't the greatest poster in the world. I can't give to indepth of a critique because I've only seen what you've shown on this blog.

  11. Greg Scraper says:


    I think that in this instance there isn't enough copy to justify what's being said stylistically. If what you're looking for is to destroy legibility for the sake of style, you really have to "Carson it up." I'm not necessarily looking for a tuxedo, to continue your analogy, but maybe a white t-shirt wouldn't be wholly inappropriate. There are plenty of ways to keep the postmodern style without beating it into submission.

    As far as "faux naive" as a concept, there are two reasons that I think that it's out of place on this poster (and in general use):

    1) Design as a profession still isn't fully embraced by the general populace, which is in evidence on all those really crappy billboards and signs you see on your drive to work (and, if you're like me, frequently redesign in your mind) every morning. Therefore, to represent design by its lowest common denominator is to denegrate it, and honestly it hasn't been elevated yet. You have to create the rules and follow them a while before you can break them, and even then you have to break them in a way that raises them up conceptually or you've failed. I realize the audience is designers, but as designers we're the most susceptible to the nuances of design, which leads me to number two.

    2) This poster is for a contest that is supposed to represent the best in design, and a style that denegrates it (even in jest) just doesn't represent the best in design. Even conceptually it falls short. Are they the first to think of "bad design" as a concept? Obviously not, as Mr. Forward's students prove. With a contest that isn't necessarily the top tier, you need to represent it as best you can. I'm not saying that you can't make a splash, but you have to make the right splash.

    And I'm still not saying that the problem is with the illustration. It's with the design. To mix in another metaphor, this poster is like an archer shooting from a long distance. A millimeter off to begin with can mean being two meters off from the target. If you're going to take on that kind of challenge, you have to be sure you can do it right.

  12. On a long run, we need a solid moral foundation. Morality doesn't limit the creativity, in fact, it offers a healthy environment for it.

    Let's keep it clean!

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