Judging Writing for Design for D&AD

Mike Reed
6 May 2013

I’ve been lucky enough to be on the D&AD Writing for Design jury twice before. But this year was extra–special: I was asked to be Foreman.

It was as daunting a prospect as it was exciting. But as soon as I met the jury, I felt like I was the one in good hands, rather than vice versa.

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First port of call was a Foreman’s briefing with Tim Lindsay, CEO of D&AD, where I sneaked the pic above.

I sat amongst the luminaries — that’s the legendary David Hillman in the specs in front of me – and digested the rules of the game, then joined up with the other jurors and got first sight of the entries.

If I’m honest — and you have to be as a judge — the quality was patchy this year. There still seem to be a lot of people entering work that’s only OK, or adequate.

I always wonder whether the entrants really can’t see that the work isn’t strong enough for an award, or whether they just enter everything they can and hope for the best.

(Mind you, no one entered a howler like the one I saw the first time I judged: a strawberry dessert pack with ‘strawberry’ spelled wrong.)

Fortunately, though, there were also some absolute corkers in the mix. They all got nominated, I’m happy to say.

(Here’s a Vine that D&AD made of our jury: me, Keenon Daniels, Joe Weir, Simon Griffin, Elise Valmorbida and Claudia Ruane. Somehow Mike Rigby seems to have escaped.)

The first round of judging, when you get your first overview of the spread, is necessarily brutal. We went from a list of 95 to 20 in one sweep.

Is that fair? You bet. It took us quite a while to go round everything, and as ever the judges impressed me with their diligence. We took our time. Nothing got short shrift.

Having said that, there are some pieces that are instant hits or misses — quality, or lack of it, is often immediately obvious.

Horse to Water

The Disappointments Diary, written by Nick Asbury, has been making happy little ripples all year, and that didn’t stop with the jury. It’s a brilliant idea, followed through to perfection. (It could so easily have been a brilliant idea falling horribly short.)

This was also the first year I saw a single phrase – the Olympic volunteers’ name ‘Games Maker’ by McCann Worldgroup — go sailing all the way through to a nomination. Which is brilliant: it shows that the power of words is very rarely a function of volume. It’s all about quality and impact.

Most exciting of all for me was the inclusion of GOV.UK in the running. Mind you, something very odd happened here. In that initial cull, GOV.UK — which I imagined would be a shoo–in all the way — vanished.

It might have stayed that way, I was so dumbstruck by its loss. But the first thing you do after that first sweep is to argue for the reinstatement of anything you think deserves it.

As Foreman, I felt slightly conflicted: how strongly should I argue for this? Should I be circumspect, and simply invite people to look again? Or say exactly what I thought?

I decided that I was a judge as well as the Foreman, and that I loved this project far too much not to give it the best shot I could.

Luckily, I turned out not to be alone: Joe Weir felt the same way, and made the arguments more than forcefully enough on his own.

How_Govt_works

One thing Joe said really stuck with me: ‘This isn’t just writing,’ he said. ‘This is a whole philosophy at work.’ And so it is. As well as being a supreme example of how many individual writers can write to a single, consistent voice, GOV.UK feels like the realisation of an ideal: that critical civic information should be accessible to the widest possible spectrum of people.

Much of the information on the site really is vital stuff: taxes, benefits, voting. Criminal law. Understanding how Parliament works.

Making that information as widely accessible as possible, in language just about anyone can understand, isn’t just a practical challenge. It’s a vital plank in the working of democracy. Getting it right matters.

As we spoke about all this, it was easy to see the whole jury being quickly won over.

But there was another revealing moment when someone said something like, ‘But isn’t it just doing what it should do? Providing clear information on all this stuff?’

Absolutely: and that (I believe) is what makes GOV.UK so special. Because managing to ‘do what it should do’, when you consider the complexity and scale of that challenge, is truly a triumph.

So GOV.UK was saved, and ended up nominated — I’m thrilled to say.

IF_CR

(Image from Creative Review)

Also saved was the identity for the IF Istanbul festival of independent film. This vanished in the first cull too, but Elise Valmorbida of Word–Design snatched it back.

Elise argued passionately — and the more she did, the more lightbulbs went on around the jury. It’s such a simple idea: what if the mainstream film thing doesn’t happen? What if the bad guy wins? What if the folder is not Top Secret?

The trick of using a brand’s initials as a word might not be the most innovative. But what TBWA\Istanbul did with it is funny, smart, and perfect for the audience.

Some of the jury were unconvinced by the typography — those deliberately awkward hyphenations. That re–opened the debate that always arises on this jury: how much should we judge the writing by the way it’s designed?

But Elise argued effectively that the type was breaking convention in the same way that the lines were. The same way independent films do. The whole thing hangs together.

She won the day, and the IF identity also ended up nominated. I’m delighted: I was one of those unsure about it at first. But having your mind changed, as Tim Rich said on one of my previous judging excursions, is one of the pleasures of this process.

In the end, there was a happy unanimity about the in–book choices and nominations, I think. Yes, the quality of the initial batch had been patchy. But when you look at the ones that got through, it looks like a pretty good year for words.

As Foreman, I also got the chance to be part of the bonus round: Black Pencil judging. This brought all the Foremen (and women) together at the Hospital Club to review the cream of this year’s crop. And there was some truly wonderful stuff to look at.

I shan’t tell you any more about that day, because the chance of spoilers is too great. I imagine you can guess what I argued for from my own jury. But you’ll have to wait and see — as must I — whether any of our writing nominations got all the way to a Black.

Where are the women?

One last, but important, thing. As our jury started to come together, I noticed (how could one not?) that we only had one woman – Claudia Ruane of Abel & Cole.

When I raised this with Emilie Martin at D&AD, she agreed entirely that we needed more balance. And she revealed something I still find rather amazing: that it’s been a struggle for her to get female participation in judging to even its current level.

When Emilie took on the task of selecting juries, women made up just 5% of those involved. She made it her mission to improve that, and has clearly been doing well — the figure is now around 25%. This year was the second highest level so far, only just pipped by 2012.

Emilie and I worked together to identify some more women for my jury, and I was thrilled when Elise joined up. Not just because it helped the gender balance, but because Elise is an ideal judge: a writer and designer with long and varied experience. In the end, the fact that she’s also a woman comes as far down the list of reasons to include her as it ought to.

I’m still amazed at how difficult it clearly still is to get a more equal gender balance among the jurors. Is our industry still so male–dominated? I suppose it must be. I’d love to hear your views.

Anyway. Next stop, the ceremony, where we’ll get to find out once and for all who actually secured one of those coveted pencils. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

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