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Why design awards judges should be nicer

Earlier in 2015, DB’s Asa Cook spent a day judging this year’s Pentawards. Having judged several creative awards in the past, Asa wrote an article for Design Week on the generosity of his fellow judges. Design Week have kindly let us reproduce it below.

“It takes more bravery to be generous” – why design awards judges should be nicer

Design Bridge Creative Director Asa Cook says that instead of sniping at each other during judging, consultancies and creatives should celebrate great work.

I’m going to come straight out with it: I think ad agencies are more generous to one another when it comes to handing out creative awards than design consultancies. When you flick through many an awards annual these days you’ll find its pages thick with advertising examples, indicating that judges are not shy about giving an award to a good idea that’s well executed. One campaign idea will sometimes receive an award in numerous different categories. And why shouldn’t it? A good idea is a good idea. And the creators of the idea should be applauded for it.

Having judged a few professional design awards, I’ve noticed a lack of generosity of spirit when it comes to praising the work of “rival” design agencies. During the judging process I’ve seen boards turned over in search of the name of the consultancy responsible before any real, unbiased judgment of the actual work is made. Perhaps judges want reassurance that an agency with a strong creative reputation did the work? Perhaps they’re checking that they are not applauding the work of a consultancy they are currently pitching against? Perhaps it’s just snobbery, or bitterness?

When judging awards there’s a feeling that your choices will be judged by the wider industry – and perhaps that explains the occasional reluctance to award anything at all. We all remember awards annuals in which very few designs (sometimes none at all) are awarded in a particular category. Maybe the judges think that not considering anything worthy of merit imbues them with an aura of creative superiority? “I’m so creative that none of this work was creative enough for me.” I think it takes more bravery to be generous than it does to be mean.

At the other end of the awards process – the ceremony – I have noticed some people directing their negativity towards the shortlisted designs. I once had a designer approach me and say: “That agency is crap, why did you shortlist them?” We work in this industry because we love design. We all know how hard it can be to see a good idea right through to the moment when it becomes a physical reality without the original concept becoming lost along the way. So when we see a great piece of design we should celebrate it. We should applaud it without any feeling of resentment or disappointment that it was the work of someone else.

Positive PR for great work within our design discipline elevates our industry as a whole. Celebrating creativity encourages all of our clients to aspire to be better: to commission the design ideas for their brands that are the most creative. So there is a benefit to all of us in being more generous to each other.

That’s one reason why I’m a fan of the awards that celebrate good design through multiple, more specific categories. Because this serves to celebrate the different challenges that working within different categories presents. After all, how do you compare the success of a design that works consistently across 10,000 budget pack formats for an own label redesign, against doing a minuscule number of limited-edition £10,000 whisky bottles? The answer is to celebrate great work that smartly solves both of these challenges. The result should be a ceremony or annual that is a celebration of all of the best solutions that we create around the world.

I’ve been asked to judge the Pentawards this year, and my colleague Holly Kielty will be on the Jury for Writing for Design at D&AD, and we can’t wait to see the great work that is entered by agencies all over the world, whether our “rivals” or not. I hope that the other judges in other awards will feel a similar generosity of spirit, refraining from allowing another “lean” year in a small slice of a big book. Our whole industry will be stronger for it. Let’s not undersell ourselves.

Asa Cook is Creative Director at Design Bridge.

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