A triumph for writing

Mike Reed
13 June 2013

Something rather magnificent happened last night. Something I never really thought would, or perhaps even could, happen.

A Writing for Design entry won a Black Pencil at D&AD.

Not only that, but this historic winner was not some flashy, self–conscious, bells–and–whistles piece of work, but a quiet, meticulous, finely honed and glorious example of the copywriting craft: GOV.UK.


Ben sums up the achievement in a tweet: very apt.

That puts the UK Government website in the same company as the Heatherwick cauldron, the Channel 4 Superhumans film and the all–consuming Dumb Ways to Die campaign. Which is exactly where it deserves to be.

I’ve gone on about this ad nauseam since it launched, I know. But only because I’m so deeply impressed with the achievement, and so concerned it might be overlooked.

What a happy accident, then, that I should find myself Foreman of the Writing for Design jury this year, when GOV.UK came up for judging.

Here’s me talking about it: (I know I’m holding a beer, but I wasn’t drunk, although I seem it. It had just been a very long week.)

I’ve already written about the judging process, but it’s worth remembering that GOV.UK vanished in the first cull of entries.

That staggered me. I could see how non–writers might miss the achievement — the writing cleaves beautifully to Orwell’s dictum that ‘good prose is like a windowpane’, never drawing attention to itself.

But I went into a sort of panic when I realised that even other copywriters might let this stupendous achievement pass them by. It was like watching Federer go out to a 15 year–old in the first round of Wimbledon.

It came back in, of course — thanks in part to my flustered suggestion that we revisit it, but also to Joe Weir’s eloquent enthusiasm for it. And all it took was a second, slightly longer look for everyone on the jury to be won over.

Even that, I think, speaks to the success of GOV.UK. To transform bafflingly complex bureaucratic verbiage into writing so crisp, simple and clear that you don’t give it a second thought — that’s extraordinary.

All this meant I was concerned for the project all over again when the Black Pencil judging came around. As the only writer in the room, could I convince my fellow Fore(wo)men that this apparently plain, unsensational piece of work was worthy of the highest accolade in the creative world?

I came away worried that I hadn’t managed it. There were murmurs of approval and enthusiasm, but had I really reached them? As ever, I thought of several precise, brilliant arguments I could have made a day or two after the fact, and kicked myself about it.

I needn’t have worried, or underestimated the Black Pencil jurors. They’re pretty seasoned operators, after all, as well as considerable talents in their own rights. They know quality when they see it.

I could not be more thrilled by the result. It was such a pleasure to see the GDS team at D&AD last night, and to congratulate Ben Terrett (Head of Design) and Sarah Richards (Content Design Lead) in person.

Here’s Sarah introducing the project back in 2012:

You don’t often meet people to whom you feel like genuflecting, but these two are among them. (I resisted, you’ll be happy to learn.)

They seemed rather amazed they won the Yellow Pencil, let alone the Black. They shouldn’t be. They deserve both, ten times over.

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