The originals of the species

It’s Judging Week at D&AD. And this year, the organisation is opening up its process for all to see. On Wednesday evening, Matt and Luke took a tour of the work entered into the 2013 judging sessions. Here, Luke tells us all about it:

There’s something biological in the order of proceedings at the D&AD Awards Judging sessions. Matt and I went to observe the deliberations of around 200 of the world’s creative dignitaries, as they cast their verdict on the year’s commercial art output.

At the vast Kensington Olympia glass house, thousands of hopeful creative specimens are lined up, displayed and labelled clinically for ease of consideration in their various kinds.

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The taxonomy of class presents a challenge to entrants before submitting their piece. What represents a purely digital campaign? At what point does it cross over into integrated? Will a novel type design fare better entered in the ‘Graphic Design’ or ‘Crafts for Design’ or ‘Art Direction’ category?

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The selection process represents a problematic intersection of art and science: the ‘wheat from chaff’ separation criteria are as follows:

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I pondered on the merits and challenges of assembling these international juries and posed the question to one judge: is it possible to come from various backgrounds and disciplines and in a few days ally your thinking completely? To what extent can a juror get beyond subjectivity? These are after all often products of brands to which all of us have many prior associations; positive or otherwise. The response I got was that there’s an inevitable hubbub of debate and deliberation, especially at the second, pencil-giving stage. So that’s a no to eliminating the influence of taste. It will always be a matter of context and comparison, knowing what’s gone before. It was made clear to me the benefit of the international melting pot in the juries – not just varied expertise in discipline, but also knowledge of the markets in which these projects run, of the social contexts in which the brief was set. The bulk of these projects are now sent in from overseas, from Sydney, Berlin, Cape Town, Amsterdam and San Francisco. London, like Cannes, is still considered a cool city to get a pat on the back from.

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Despite this being a free tour, which anyone can attend, there was a sense of privilege in being led around personally by a very enthusiastic member of D&AD staff. The atmosphere though, was one of careful study and discussion – various jurors perusing at length hundreds of entries in each genre. One juror told me: “My knees are killing me, I’m only at the end of day two.”

This was not quite an exhibition – no audience to speak of beyond tour goers like ourselves. Neither – yet – was it a celebration. The vast majority of entrants will go disappointed. I felt a little glum seeing pieces of mounted artwork being taken down from the wall. “They didn’t make it through.” Sad face. Or just survival of the fittest? Winning works are necessarily original, and contemporary. One piece of press advertising work I admired, I was informed was only admirable last year. It was still, completely original in the global marketplace, but a derivative of their own campaign last year. Tough.

Having always been aware of D&AD I’d previously had awkward feelings towards the organisation, somewhere between revering the awards as untouchable gold, and sneering at it as a closed world of elitism, with industry bigwigs canoodling behind closed doors. But as its turns out not all the wigs are that big. Many of the judges are young people who won an award themselves last year, or who teach and are recognised as contributing significantly in education.

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As a student, I’d never felt particularly inspired by the organisation, more often intimidated. But this visit changed my opinion. There’s no question that this scheme is anything other than big business. It can make or break careers and  studios, especially start-up agencies. Big agencies have departments and run bespoke campaigns dedicated to getting pencils. But it does seem to be meritocratic as far as it can be. Anyone can enter (providing they can afford the variably expensive entry fees). As a result there’s a hierarchy that’s evident to any visitor walking around. There’s lots of impressive work. And even more pants work. Whole rows of supermarket Y-fronts in some areas. The scheme’s credibility comes from the scale of the competition – award winning work pokes its nose out in front of literally hundreds of comparable efforts. And the judges use popularity as a measure of success. Winning work stands out as appealing to anyone and everyone (apart from those judges who whole-heartedly disagree). Maybe that’s a fair enough measure of goodness?

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