344 FAQ 01

A JURY OF YOUR PEERS (Judging the STEP 100 competition)


A lovely gesture on a store marquee at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Sadly, the store itself had nothing to do with graphic design. It was just one more snackatorium. Still, thank you for the salute, City of Chicago.

Good afternoon. I'm coming to you live and in at least partial effect from seat 23H on flight UA85 from Chicago to Los Angeles. I spent the past day and a half judging the STEP 100 competition at the Grand Lodge in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Word has it that it was, in a prior life, one of the original Playboy Clubs, though you certainly couldn't tell now. It's just lots of brass, flowery carpets, and exposed flagstone. But maybe the ghosts of the Bunnies are still present.

What kind of movie would "The Shining" have been, had it been set here, instead of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. Less work and more Bunnies makes Jack a happy boy! Alas, instead of spending time with Bunnies we shared the hotel with hundreds of sailors. Step occupied the conference rooms Gaelwood B and C, the Navy occupied everything else. Never have I been in one hotel with so many shiny black shoes and well-pressed uniforms.

The STEP 100 is my second favorite design competition (after the D&AD), because it picks up the torch of the dearly departed ACD 100 Show. The more extensive annuals serve their own purpose, giving a broader impression of the industry, but they necessarily shrink most individual entries to postage stamp size in the resulting annual. This show has the space and ambition to show every piece in detail and that's just very nice to see.

New STEP editor Tom Biederbeck, art director Michael Ulrich and new Dynamic Graphics editor Tami Terrell (along with STEP circulations manager Mary Schmidt) laid out over 3000 pieces for us to judge. Even with their efficient set-up it took us 14 hours to make our way through every piece and cull the field to the final 100.

"Us" being the jury of five designers: Modern Dog's Robynne Raye, Bart Crosby, Sam Shelton of Kinetic and Armin Vit of Speak Up and Pentagram NY fame. I've been on a couple of juries at this point, so I can say this with some confidence: This was a friendly bunch. We had a nice variety of opinions on the pieces to keep it interesting, and enough overlap to have a good time (and get our job done in the available time.)

The overall quality of the submissions was high, and it was great to see what you've all been up to. I'm not allowed to tell you any of the actual winners, but I can tell you some general observations.

Being on juries has given me a certain calm about entering shows that I'm not judging. Other judges have talked about this before, but this is my little blog, so here it goes:

1. Every jury is different every day. It's just a couple of people who pick things they like and respect. If there are any personal agendas being pushed they are of a philosophical nature. Yes, some jurors may push for more books, or more posters, or fewer ornamental work, or have certain pet peeves, but I've never seen things get rejected for personal reasons. And that's pretty cool.

2. Even really nicely designed things DO get rejected all the time, because some element fell short. Usually it's the cover. So much client attention is focused on the cover that it can be hard to get a great design approved and a lot of times it just won't happen. If the cover isn't great, your piece doesn't make the show. (Or my piece, for that matter. Of course, you can't enter shows that you're judging, but I scratched out plenty in the past, because a lot of my pieces had less than great covers.)

3. Cheesy photography can sink even the best typography. Sometimes bad stock photography and/or CEO portraits are unavoidable, and sometimes you just can't get out from under that weight. We've all been there. It may keep you from winning an award with that particular piece, but you'll live to fight another day.

4. If it's not getting in with four varnishes, it ain't getting in with five.
Same goes for sparkly paper, or Curious Touch paper, or die cuts.

5. If you're ripping off somebody else's style, you'll get vetoed and ridiculed.

6. If you're producing a poster-size brochure, make it count! In other words, if you're using up a whole stand of trees for your project, you have to please make sure that you've got enough content to justify that kind of sacrifice.

We saw some pieces that did warrant the expense and others that didn't. Doing a commercial piece with giant photos and minimal typography is theoretically aesthetically attractive, but ultimately frivolous. Treat your resources with respect. Some pieces that I thought were over the top still made the show, because a few of the judges just loved them, and I'm sure a few pieces are in there because I championed them despite certain idiosyncracies. That's life. But I'm saying: If you're using lots of nice paper or special inks or any of the stuff in Number 5, please use them on something that matters.

6. There isn't any font or color that will keep you from winning. We saw some very nice pieces using Trixie. I still haven't seen a good use of Remedy, but I stand ready to be amazed.

8. Swiss design is alive and well, as is just about any other style. I didn't see anything truly new that blew me away, but I saw a lot of really nice work that adds to the canon.

9. Oversize brackets and parentheses don't bother me, but boy, some jurors really hate'em. So... heads up.

10. Finally, my one big, trump-all rule for design competition success:
It's that simple. Going through 3000 pieces of design in a day is hard, often tedious work. If you can make a juror pick up a piece and say "Hey guys! You've got to check this thing out!" you're pretty much in.

Overall, I wish more pieces had made me laugh. Humor is hard and maybe it's wise that so many people are staying away from it. Then again, I wish more people would try. Only 2 out of the 3000 pieces made me laugh and they're both in the show. In fact, the one that made me laugh more will be my "Judge's Choice" in the awards issue of STEP.

One thing I wonder about is the lack of conflict between the judges. Despite differences, we all got along well and could always reach a compromise in the end. Should we have fought like lions for each choice? Defending our personal taste at all cost? Maybe. But the STEP team put together a good group of jurors that reflected a range of ages and work situations and, hey, we're all professionals. I didn't agree with the other four at all times, but I always respected their reasons for chosing a piece.

But maybe we're all wrong. And this year you can judge for yourself. STEP is opening up the field for the Readers Choice Award.

We've begun our final descent and I must wrap it up. So, in closing, if you submitted anything, I hope your work got in the show. If it didn't, I'm truly sorry, and I hope you won't take it personally---because it wasn't. Either way, please remember 344 LOVES YOU