Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Judging Design

Bronze statuette of justice, with focus on the blindfolded faceI recently returned from Nashville, where I was honored to serve as a judge for this year’s UCDA design show. The conversations between the judges and show facilitators prompted me to think a lot about how we evaluate – and value – design. What is design excellence?

Since 1970, the University & College Designers Association (UCDA) has served as an advocate for designers working in academia in North America and around the world by delivering relevant programming, benefits, and inspiration.

We saw a lot of good work across all categories among the nearly 1,100 entries in this year’s show. We also saw a lot of professionally-executed work that begins to blend together when it’s covering a table thirty yards long.

Making the cut
For this show, we didn’t choose the good work. We didn’t choose the professional work. There are a lot of good designers and a lot of really good work that never makes it into a design show.

The work we honored for excellence stood out from the crowd because it was conceptually strong, visually fresh, with flawless typography and evocative imagery. Additionally, the award-winning designers possessed both the vision and skill to get that work approved by whomever was signing the checks. That’s a high bar to clear. Around 170 pieces were selected for the show, roughly 16% of those submitted.

Best in show
One piece, a fundraising brochure, was awarded the “best in show” designation. When I opened this piece, my heart fluttered just a little. It’s the kind of reaction most designers have when they see something unexpected – unlike anything else, yet completely appropriate for the task at hand. The perfect fit.

The blessedly brief copy played off the vibrant photo-collaged images to create a rhythm and pace that draws the reader in and pulls them through. Instead of the usual blah, blah, blah and numbers everywhere, this piece was designed to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience of donors. It said, “You’re valued.”

Judge’s choice
Each judge was also asked to highlight an entry that was a personal favorite. Mine was a collection of work from the in-house team at a university in the Western United States.

I admired this entry for the variety of high-quality work submitted and the number of people who contributed. From a trade show booth to a strategic plan to publications and simple icons, every last pixel was treated with exquisite attention to detail.

More than the consistent use of a typeface or colors, it was this refusal to settle that made each piece stand out on its own, yet hold together as a consistent and engaging “look.” To pull that off across such an array of work is incredibly difficult, and well worth celebrating.

Aesthetics versus outcomes
For me and my fellow judges, the difficulty in reviewing so much work in a single day was one part stamina and two parts context. The UCDA design show is similar to almost all others in that there is no good way to fully understand how well a piece or campaign fulfilled its objectives. We are confined to judging the aesthetics of the design.

Design is an integrated discipline. No matter how thoughtfully a designer attends to even the smallest details, the work doesn’t live in a vacuum. Its success relies on a host of collaborators, clients, and audience response.

A successful outcome is only marginally influenced by the aesthetics. A lunar module may look wicked cool, but if it doesn’t get off the launching pad, burns up in re-entry, or the mission doesn’t deliver enough knowledge to justify the cost, the designers aren’t going to win any awards.

Move people to action
The inability to separate a designer’s contribution from the myriad other factors and people involved leaves us at a disadvantage. Instead of focusing on successful outcomes, we end up citing things like building “awareness” and increasing “engagement.”

Designers consider the value of good design to be a self-evident truth, kind of like it’s better to be rich than poor. I would certainly rather see more beauty in the world than less, and aesthetically pleasing design is worth celebrating. But the more relevant question is: What did this cause people to do?

Design is most powerful as a verb – an action word. Did the design help put butts in the seats, increase donations, or change behavior? At the end of the day, that’s the measure of design excellence.