Read Time: 7 minutes
In early March, nine professionals embarked on a multifaceted journey to define excellence in the experiential graphic design field. The international jury for the 2020 Awards traveled from as near as New York and as far as Riga, Latvia to convene in Washington, D.C. last Thursday through Saturday: This is the story of their multi-day process.
But first, the obligatory background on the awards: Since 1987, the SEGD Global Design Awards have honored Experiential Graphic Design work that connects people to place by providing direction, content and compelling user experiences in the places where they work, play, learn, travel, shop and connect. Past winners of the SEGD Global Design Awards have ranged from media-rich interactive installations to contemplative public art, complex wayfinding systems, retail environments, museum exhibitions, branded environments, design research and architectural signage.
Spoiler alert: There won’t be any spoilers. If you’re reading to find some carpet fiber or shred of DNA evidence of your project, quit while you’re ahead, friend.
The jury arrived at the restaurant as a group, bright-eyed and chicly dressed despite most of them arriving from the airport or train station mere moments before. Sat around a large square table, SEGD Board President Anna Crider welcomed them before handing off to longtime staff leaders Interim CEO Ann Makowski and Director of Events Jennette Foreman.
The duo has kept the awards process running smoothly for upward of 15 years. (I’m fairly certain Jennette could arrange and run a design awards jury in her sleep by now.) She explained the process and opened for questions. Almost every year, the jury starts by asking why we don't run our judging online like so many other associations do, Ann told them with a smile. “By the time they leave, they get it—and tell us to keep the process in person and on paper!”
It’s true. At the end of the last day, jurors give feedback that overwhelmingly reinforces the current process as-is.
Over an impossible amount of food—including, but not overshadowed by four whole fried fish—Jury Chair Traci Sym, founding principal at plus & greater than (+&>) and a member of the SEGD Board, introduced herself and background. Jurors went around the table: Chad Hutson, Co-founder and CEO of Leviathan and 2020 SEGD Board Member from Chicago; Darlene van Uden, Design Director at Infinite Scale in Salt Lake City; Inguna Elere, Co-founder and Lead Designer at Design Studio H2E in Riga, Latvia (and Best of Show winner in the 2019 SEGD Global Design Awards); Nadia Tran, Graphic Designer at CORE Design Studio in Houston (a student winner in 2019); Jonathan Jackson, Partner and Designer at WSDIA | WeShouldDoItAll from Brooklyn; Cynthia Jones Parks, President and CEO of Jones Worley Design in Atlanta; Bosco Hernandez, Design Director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and finally the always exuberant Joe Lawton, Managing Director of Media Objectives, based in Chicago.
Knowing the breadth and depth of their firms’ work, I was struck by the profound range in the group, but also the little synchronicities and similarities. Three had founded their current practice with a spouse. Two live in Chicago. Several were educated as architects. Three were born outside the US. No one was exceptionally tall in this group. True to the stereotype, there was a lot of black clothing worn among the group.
A discussion about what defines excellence in EGD was prompted. The group was straightforward and quick to consensus—a good omen.
When the slideshow of “hero shots” (the first image of each project, chosen by the submitter) began, most of the table were at least one Pisco Sour in and the occasional “ooh” or “uh-huh” of approval could be heard, even over the clinking murmuring din of the bustling restaurant. Sometimes, this is the precise moment when you can see a designer morph into juror-mode—the eyelids and brows tighten, the lips purse and part slightly in preparation to deliver critique—and speculation about the projects ensues. This group held fast to polite, get-to-know-you chit-chat as the images finished; if I hadn’t known several of them, this might have worried me.
Then, they were full. Stuffed with Peruvian food and filled with eager anticipation, all but the Jury Chair were unaware of the exact intensity of focus required starting the next morning, promptly at nine.
Friday morning, 8:30: With coffee in hand, elegant in a long black velvet jacket, Inguna Elere seemed impervious to jet lag. I was jealous of how easy she made it look. The group made the quick trip to the newly renovated offices of CRTKL to begin personally reviewing each and every entry by hand. Thankfully, caffeinated beverages and delicious food was abundantly within reach.
The numbered entries (consisting of up to eight images with captions and one longer description page) are painstakingly printed, quality-checked, collated and assembled into folios, then grouped in the categories entered before a juror ever sees them. This allows the jurors to be present in the moment, put away phones and laptops, focus on the images in front of them, preserving anonymity, while creating consistency for optimal review.
Just as thorough is the individual review of each and every project, description and image. Believe it—no stone is left unturned over the bulk of the first day, inclusive of watching the videos that accompany the entries together as a group. From this point, the jury comes back together for discussion and review as a group.
This part is fascinating, but I can’t disclose much without spoilers, so you’ll have to imagine the group deep in thought, huddled around a table discussing one project at a time over the printed images. Some years there has been a single juror who takes it upon themselves to lead every conversation—again, this group was respectful and considerate; it was clear that even the quietest jurors weren’t uncomfortable speaking their mind. The atmosphere in the room was evenly and keenly focused, without being tense.
Conversations didn’t stray. There were a few meaningful dives into the merits of materiality, inclusivity and alignment of communicated intent with design. Seemingly derivative work was deeply probed, maximalism for maximalism’s sake, questioned. At one point, I heard someone loudly break a long silence with: “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should!” The silence was further punctuated by a burst of cathartic laughs.
Darlene Van Uden mentioned how nice it was to physically stop and be there with just with one thing to focus on. Others agreed: the lack of screens or any need for multitasking was paramount to giving the entries the attention they deserved.
By the time the group left for dinner, they seemed like they’d been colleagues for ages. Over drinks and dinner, the convivial mood remained, talk of the day’s work was absent. The group was right on track in their quest to bring the best of the best to recognition. No one lingered after—time to rest up!
And on the third day, more coffee. The jurors began by reviewing the previous day’s work before further narrowing the pool of entries.
Well rested and adequately caffeinated, the jurors applied the requisite clarity and decisiveness vigilantly, one project at a time. Eventually, they reached their ultimate and final conclusions unanimously—Finalists, Merit Awards, Honor Awards, the Sylvia Harris Award and Best of Show.
It should cease to amaze me that year after year, by the end of the process, nine very different people with very different bodies of work, communication styles and aesthetic preferences come to function as one—collectively reaching their last series of decisions with such precision, because it has happened that way every year that I’ve observed. Even with juries that you could honestly mistake for some sort of design debate team a few hours earlier.
All this to say, the process really works. Remarkably, with zero requirement or restriction on how many winners or in what category, the margin for SEGD Global Design Awards-defined excellence hovers around 10 percent. And, true to Ann’s prediction, the feedback from jurors was to preserve the in-person, on-paper process. It’s a special experience because it fittingly educates, connects and inspires, while achieving the larger goal of recognizing the work of our community.
As the rolling suitcases, coats came out and “thank you so much” started to ripple through the room, something transpired. Pretty banal a month ago, it seemed like a grand gesture of human unity when the jurors hugged each other goodbye, promising to reunite in Portland in the spring.
Why Portland, you ask? Because the Global Design Award-winning projects will be revealed at the SEGD Conference Experience Portland this June, along with an inspiring, fun and informative lineup of speakers, sessions, tours and workshops.