Award winning design? You be the judge

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Award winning design? You be the judge

The Brand Agency’s Head of Design, Dan Agostino (pictured below), shares some quick learnings from judging the best design work at several recent creative award shows.


It has been a busy 18 months for judging design awards. Since mid-last year, I have had the privilege of being invited to judge design work nationally at the AGDA Awards, the Good Design Awards, AWARD Awards, the Australian Web Industry Awards, and most recently, the BADC Awards (Brisbane Advertising and Design Club) alongside some of Australia and New Zealand’s most celebrated designers and creatives.

Now, my team always tell me I’m a little judgemental. After all, I suppose it comes with the job. It isn’t a negative thing and, no they’re not slagging me off, but I actually think it forms part of what makes a good designer, a good designer. We are always busy observing the world around us in order to make things better, simpler and more effective. So, with thousands of design entries being assessed, critiqued and then reassessed across countless categories such as visual identity, packaging, motion graphics, digital design, and design effectiveness, this ‘skill’ has certainly come in handy.

After each session of judging, it got me thinking about what makes a piece of work stand out as award-worthy, from one that misses the mark. From my point-of-view, here are a few key take-outs.

Don’t design trendy wallpaper.
First and foremost, the idea is king. Designer Jeffrey Zeldman famously commented, “design in the absence of substance is not design, it’s just decoration.” This holds true now more than ever. As we’re continuously bombarded with an endless stream of marketing communications, design that holds no, or little, conceptual thought behind it can easily fall into the background and become wallpaper. Nowadays, there is a lot of work that is designed ‘on trend’, however, trends come and go and what looks great today can look very tired, very quickly. I see too much design that lacks a central idea, succumbing to the fashion of the day or the latest cool font (yes, there is such a thing). While being relevant to current marketing conditions is important, good design should go beyond this and be effective regardless of the latest trend. When we use design to solve a problem, you can end up with a highly effective creative solution. In addition, staying true to the idea creates longevity and timelessness in your work.

Fortune favours the brave.
As the old adage says, “no one ever got anywhere by playing it safe.” The one thing I did notice across all shows is that the work that rose to the top was brave. It pushed the boundaries of the brief, stood apart from market preconceptions, challenged the client, and certainly the style guide. I can only imagine the designer standing at the front of the boardroom presenting their idea and the reaction in the room. Creativity and bravery should go hand-in-hand. Our work continuously needs to stand apart from the crowd in an ever-increasing competitive landscape. Standing apart doesn’t come from bigger production budgets or media spends, it comes from bigger creative. It comes from the desire to push the limits of the brief, making the most of opportunities and bringing your client along on the journey. You can tell when a studio had put in the hard yards to make the most of a brief to get brave design work over the line.

Design for good.
I read an article recently that stated that the single thing most marketers really need to pay attention to in the future is Generation Z. This demographic’s desire for design for a cause will play a larger role in the designs we create for the future. They place tremendous value on purpose over product and standing up for a cause. As this generation grows and becomes more active in the workforce, it will place more pressure on companies to make ethical and environmentally friendly decisions. Victor Papanek, regarded as one of the forefathers of modern industrial, social and sustainable design, repeatedly emphasised that “design is a responsibility.” He argued, “design is the most powerful tool with which man shapes his environment, and by extension, society and himself”. I believe we all have a responsibility to try and improve the social fabric around us, and as designers, use our unique way of thinking to help influence and create change for good.

Get crafty.
Don’t pull out your knitting needles or DIY macrame sets just yet, but one thing in common across all of the award winners was their commitment to craft. Good design has always been about striking the right balance between function and form. It’s not about making things look ‘pretty’, but rather considering the role of the product or piece versus its aesthetic quality. Sometimes we spend more time rushing towards a deadline instead of spending the time to craft the execution correctly. Knowing the difference between hand crafted type that has actually been made ‘by hand’ rather than downloading the latest cool font (there’s that font again!) can elevate a piece of communication from the everyday to, ‘I wish I did that’. We need get back to being makers and creators, letting our ideas come to life through well-considered execution.

The importance of the brand.
It’s comforting to see more and more organisations recognising the importance of their brand. I’m not talking about how they’ve applied their logo, or selected the right colours from their style guide, and no, I won’t mention font choice. As I stated earlier, good design is not about creating a single piece of pretty wallpaper. I believe strength in design comes when it ladders back up to an overarching brand strategy and continues to deliver on that core promise. This is when sophisticated marketing and creative design work best, becoming a powerful piece in an organisation’s marketing artillery. It helps organisations stay relevant, steer clear from their competitors, and stay front of mind with their audience. There was a clear standout with work that was trying to answer a bigger brand objective, rather than just create a one-off catchy campaign. Design work that delivers over time and continually helps grow and strengthen a brand will always achieve more. The best design work I had judged helped to answer a creative problem and continued to deliver on organisational challenges.

One thing is clear – the sheer calibre of work being produced around Australasian design studios is extraordinarily high, with the quality of work continually being raised higher and higher. At The Brand Agency, we were successful in some of these award shows and looking at the depth and quality of work listed as finalist alone, it’s a privilege to have been given such an accolade. More importantly, it’s comforting to know that our industry is growing strong, regardless of however many cheaper online alternatives are on offer. Moving forward, we need to continually try and raise the bar in how design is embraced and respected, not only amongst marketing, creative or even client circles, but within the wider community. The more we can tap into this unique level of thinking, the more we could all benefit.

Award winning design? You be the judge