An Industry Awards Night

Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images for AGDA

 

Late last year I, my partner, and our one staff member attended a design industry awards night, the AGDA Awards for 2019. It’s only the second time in a career spanning nearly 30 years that I have been, the first was the year before. (It’s also only about the fifth time we have ever entered work.)

I find awards nights to be a strange affair. They are a mixture of excitement and a kind of tedium, in reality watching other people getting awards in categories other than those of your own entries is actually not that interesting, especially when no speeches are involved. The hopeful finalists, that is, almost everyone in the room, listen and applaud attentively at first and then gradually the chatter rises. And there is an impatience—will they just get on with the ‘prizes’ for ‘my’ category.

You are in a room full of people who you kind of understand, because they are designers like you, but generally are strangers. True, it’s a chance to make new connections with a few, usually those sitting next to you—unless you have booked a whole table, which we didn’t—and catch up with a few people you know. It’s how I imagine a singles dating night might feel like, which kind of adds to the surreal nature of the night.

This awards night was sold out, every seat was taken, everyone there on the night is a competitor. Almost everyone attending is, or is related to a finalist. Hundreds of finalists and their partners, vying for a much, much smaller number of awards. Being a finalist is reaching the quarter finals, you’ve made it onto centre court. It is an achievement and a win of sorts, even if might not feel like it at the end of the night without a further win. The semi-finals, for AGDA, is getting a category award—a polished wooden pyramid, and the finals, a pinnacle award of frosted glass, which are pretty rare, there is no guarantee that a pinnacle award will be handed out in each category. In a world in which too often everyone’s a winner and gets an award this actually quite refreshing.

Ambivalence to the idea of the Awards Night

I have long been ambivalent about the concept of industry awards. As I said I have entered work only a few times. Why, I think mostly because I didn’t believe my work was good enough, and often it wasn’t, but probably less often that I thought. Perhaps I was afraid of the rejection, fearful of it being confirmation that maybe I wasn’t a real designer. And to justify my non-participation I would use the excuses that I heard from so many others, and not just designers. These excuses were mostly around the idea that the same studios won awards year after year and that they were mates with ‘the hierarchy’.

In the two consecutive years that I have attended there was not a lot of overlap of winning studios. The big name, long established studios did not ‘clean up’ so to speak and a lot of smaller studios did very well. There were some studios that did very well picking up lots of awards, having had a very creative year. Which leads to another oft heard criticism which is that awards such as these are based purely on aesthetics with no thought given to actual effectiveness.

To some extent this may be true, we do not have to submit any analysis of how effective with our entries were for our clients, however, we do submit a description of the brief and outline of why the work was the best solution. And let’s face it, the judges are all professionals with many, many years experience, so they will be able to see beyond the ‘pretty pictures’ and look to coherence of message, at least.

Many creatives/designers/studios swear that awards are crucial for winning client work. External validation proving that ‘they know their shit’ and all. And you can tell which studios do believe this by the fact that you will find somewhere on their website a list of awards/acknowledgements of the quality their work. And yet, AGDA has many more members than entrants, which suggests to me that many members do not see the value in awards. I am not going to take a side here, it is just the way it is.

So why did I start entering work?

There are a number of reasons why I have started to enter work. To start with, I finally decided that ignoring the awards out of fear or that it was a ‘clique’ of established designers patting each other on the back year after year, was just stupid. Attending an awards night is not cheap, especially if it is outside ones home town, which is true for most attendees, and you can quickly top $1,000 and that’s not including the cost of entering the work. However, if the work is good enough and you make the ‘quarter-finals’ it is worth it.

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