Last Friday night was the Cincinnati ADDY's awards ceremony. I finally had a campaign I could enter for the professional competition and sat with some anticipation when they rattled off the gold and silver winners. Sadly, I did not win anything. Before they announced the Best of Show winner, I was already out the door and back at the bar to get my last free beverage. You might be thinking this is going to be that lamentation of a loser that didn't win anything because her work just sucked or didn't stack up to the big-boys. First off, false on all counts. Second, there's an obvious trend to who wins these awards, and it always comes back to money and hands on deck.

Head Count and Budget

I knew weeks ago that I wasn't going to win, but I wanted to try anyway. It might be some form of masochism that I took the time, effort, and money to enter my work into a contest that I knew I had very little chance in being noticed. I've already covered the subject of judged contests before, yet I wanted to try one more time. After seeing the winners and what projects actually won, I know it's a numbers game.

My business consists of a solitary person doing all the work: me. I design, edit, modify, upload, download, print, proof, and package all the pieces. The campaign I entered was the labor of 11 months and spanned from the web, to social media, to print, to a coloring book, to buttons, to in-person events, and to a hand-sewn puppet. Yes, a puppet. Budget wise I spent more on it than I earned from it. It was for a good cause, a non-profit fundraiser, so I felt good doing it.

The winners had many more people developing the concept and probably even more people involved executing the final product. With much higher budgets and access to skills and labor, my little one person work has no chance on the professional platform against established agencies. Does more money mean 'better' campaigns or just the kind of campaigns that win at peer-judged shows? More often than not, the answer is yes. Is that a solid measure of a successful campaign? Well, that feature was overlooked for this contest. From the impression I got it was just the best looking work, not a reflection of how well it did in the wild.

People's Choice = Judge's Choice

One aspect that I didn't participate in this year was the People's Choice (PC) voting. A total of 16 projects were presented as options for the PC, but there were many, MANY more entries available. Out of the 16 to pick from, two won gold in a different category and six won silver. Half of the entries already won something. That isn't to say they aren't worthy of being in the running for the PC award, but I don't understand how only these 16 were our options.
Being given only a selection of 16 to vote on didn't make sense. How is this the People's Choice if we're told which projects are up for the vote? This isn't the election folks; this is the People's Choice. Why not put numbers on all the projects that were on display and have the people pick from everything? That would actually be a choice. This is a lot like the Oscars where the films that are more often nominated are films that weren't seen by the mass public. It's an inside job by members of the Oscars, not by the box office success of a film. Which is a clear measure of how well, or poorly, received a film was. This is a favorites game played by a select few. This wasn't a reflection of the people at large, just the judges; both the Oscars and the ADDY's.

Looking to Future Awards

This experience isn't one that left me bitter, but has reaffirmed my feelings on judged competitions. If I made work that was only to satisfy a designer's eye, then maybe I'd have a better chance at notoriety among other designers. But I didn't get into this business to be rewarded for making work that only appeals to a specific demographic. I make work that best reflects the brands and businesses I work with. It isn't for me, it's for them. It's always been for them. If they are happy, then I'm happy. And they are not designers. If I make work with designers in mind, I've alienated my client and missed the mark on what really matters.

Maybe one day I'll enter a project that was just for the sake of winning an award. But until they reduce the cost of entry into the competition AND the ceremony, I'll give them a skip.

All fields of art have style. Whether it's fine art, crafts, posters, sculptures, film, or music; each outlet has niches and genres that make the various styles easy to identify and categorize. The same concept applies to design. Some designers have a specific style or look to their work, making them easy to recognize. But is this harmful to a freelancer? Well, that depends on the goal of the work being created and the designer creating it.

Dodging the Pigeon-Hole

While I was in college for graphic design, I was told repeatedly to not pigeon-hole myself into only one style. I was encouraged to push the boundaries of everything I did. Make cartoons and corporate looking logos. Layout computer themed magazines and children's birthday cards. Make medical manuals beside dog walker ads. Become a Swiss army knife of design and go in every direction but one. For a few years, it did help to some extent. My portfolio was full of examples of things I could make. I was trying to appeal to as many potential clients as I could. I knew at the time people would have their own taste and opinions to what was deemed "good" and I was just trying to satisfy what they wanted. This wasn't the fun part of my job.

Ugly Design Makes Designers Cry

I hated making logos and designs that weren't very aesthetic to the eye. Having a designer's eye, I focus on what's wrong and immediately want to correct it. It was my job to steer my clients into the light, into a design that still reflected what they wanted but wasn't alienating their target audience. In the end, there are logos that I will never display in public. Clients insist that they want what they want, and frankly it only appealed to them anyway, so I would make it and be done with it. I hate that part of the job; catering to the design aesthetics of someone who may have never experienced great design. But what can you do?

Just this past December, I entered a poster competition for an annual arts and crafts fair. I won't name the fair, as I'd like to stay on good terms if I enter their contest again for next year's poster. Having never been to the event, I could only speculate what kind of items they would have there. Fine arts and crafts seem to be the solid majority of items on display and for sale. While the poster I created met all their requirements for must-have content, I know I made it with more of a designer's appeal to the style. I am a fine artist, but I had less than a week to submit a concept. Being more comfortable using a computer, I made my poster completely digital. I used paper texture for all the surfaces, soft summer colors, clean edges, and lots of visual movement for the eye to circle around all the information. I was quite proud of it. Now, they have selected the winner and sent out rejection letters to all the losers. They seemed pleased that they received 19 entries for the contest. In my experience, that's pretty small. But I digress. My letter, which was generic with no name tied to it, told me when I could pick up my entry next week and shared the full name of the contest winner.

Scrapbook Explosion

Let's call her Ester. Well, I decided to look her up. I wanted to see what other work she had done to wow the judges in selecting her poster. No website, but she had an Etsy store so I went there. I won't voice my complete opinion on her "crafts" because I can tell you, most of those graphics are purchased from vector stock websites. I should know. My corporate clients have accounts and sometimes send me there to get graphics their sub-clients want for a project. All of Ester's work looked like the scrapbooking aisle of any crafting store. The curly default Word fonts that made copy difficult to read, colors that were too bold for the small space they occupied, text that wasn't aligned properly to anything (not even in the same paragraph), text that was inserted in any open space (even if it was vertical and impossible to read). The list of violations to design principles go on and on. I kept looking at her work, hoping there was one piece that had more forethought put into placement of graphic elements and text. Every single one was the same. And the only conclusion I could come to was she applied the same techniques to her poster submission.

THIS?!?! Was this the style that wooed the judges? Was this the style that was chosen? I won't know until the poster is revealed until April. I can only speculate that Ester's paper products reflect her overall artistic style.
Am I upset about it? Not really, more disappointed than anything else.

Drilling My Own Pigeon-Holes

I wanted my entry to stand out from the previous winners. Which I know for certain it did. But now that I know the style the judges picked, should I alter my style to something like that for next year? Simply put: hell no.

I'm comfortable creating work in a variety of different styles, but I stand firm on proper design principles. The fact Ester is making money and won a contest with work that violates many design rules, is no slight on my work.

Was Ester a friend to any of the judges or does she rent a booth every year at the fair? I honestly have no idea. Should I compromise my work for a contest with only a chance at winning? No way. If they were a paying client, well that's completely different.

I work for myself and contests come and go. If I were to win, I would want it to be with a piece of art that I am proud to display in my portfolio. If it doesn't win, then oh well. It doesn't mean what I made was terrible, it just didn't appeal to the judges or wasn't a good fit for the purpose.

And that's OK.

Maybe next time I'll find a happy blend of styles between what the judges like and what I want to create.