The Advertising & Design Club of Canada’s annual awards bash on October 26[, 1995] was a night of choking smoky air and ear-splitting designothèque music-- but those burdens were leavened by unexpectedly few eyesores among the graphic works on display.
Hundreds of dressed-to-impress designers, “creatives,” and habitués of the graphics and advertising demimondes were forced to schlep down to the gig’s location on secluded Polson St.-- in a J.G. Ballard-esque waterfront neighbourhood of barbed-wire fences, rusty oil tanks, recycling plants, and other artifacts of industrial devastation. Upon arrival, these very classy attendees mostly ignored the year’s best graphic design, preferring to smoke, get tanked, schmooze, and yammer loudly through the awards presentation. (“All right, I want you to shut up back there! Come on! Have some respect!” bellowed Club president Carmen Dunjko, to no avail.)
The work this year was far less derivative and reliant on desktop-publishing clichés (typewriter fonts, overlapping type, goliath single photograph alongside undifferentiated clump of body copy) than last year’s low-water mark, where Red Dog beer ads were unaccountably deemed crème de la crème. That same yawn- and bile-provoking campaign was back for another round of awards this year, presumably because the campaign, still alive in Canada, has now spread its tedious, low-concept tendrils into the U.S., source of all but one of the judges for the competition.
An undue gold award leads to a philosophical query. Art director Peter Knight’s newspaper ads for Calderone shoes (photo of retro canvas platform shoe next to headline in scrunched New Caledonia type reading “Nobody thought John Travolta would come back either”) inexplicably raked in the gold award in the category of retail newspaper ad. Um, why, exactly? Because the ads are “clever”?
I know I’m hopelessly idealistic and unfashionably puritan, but one questions the propriety of dishing out awards for high advertising concepts unaccompanied by high graphic art. Could it be that the very name of the organization putting on the show, the Advertising & Design Club of Canada, illegitimately weds two Romulus/Remus-like siblings (one more elegant than base, the other the converse), thus tempting judges to deem pure advertising no less important than pure design?
I’m not knocking the Club alone; in the ‘90s it’s hard to find a graphic-arts awards event that actually focuses on graphics rather than promotion. The ad industry already has enough incestuous awards extravaganzas for its queens and worker bees (think of ad nabobs storming the stage for Clios a few years back); will someone give us an awards show just for designers?
End of rant.
The journal of the more-intellectual-than-thou, Toronto’s C magazine, raked in a gold in the category of magazine page or spread with Claude Martel and Susan McCallum’s subtle and apropos greyscale treatment of a story on a painter’s self-effacing self-portraits. C covers are notorious for their wilfully recherché, confusing, semilegible type overlappings (two of which won silvers), but this gold-winning layout, with its luminous headline and surprisingly legible block of light-on-dark type, shows how far a little restraint can take you.
While typography relies on an accumulation of details for its power, it certainly helps for the text to be worth reading. That is often beyond the control of the designer, but not always, and designers need to learn the alchemist’s lesson that lead cannot be converted to gold. Art director Roland Yves Carignan was apparently absent from art school that day, as attested by a layout for a superficial Le Devoir article on the topic-- irony alert!-- of typography (silver award for newspaper page). Lots of distressed letters, words randomly underlined and outlined, and hackneyed blurry Neville Brody fonts here. Looks lovely, reads horribly.
Ditto for creative director Lucie Lacava’s spread (also silver award, same category) for Le Soleil, with distressed letters and body copy set in the lowest common denominator of desktop typography, the typewriter face Courier. Gag. (It’s not even a nice Courier-- the ubiquitous Adobe PostScript version is inferior to the one installed on millions of neglected IBM Selectrics worldwide.) Big computer monitors make it too tempting to look at “the big picture” instead of massaging the text itself to make it beautiful-- yes, daring, even-- but worth the effort to read. In other words, designers, writers, and editors need to work better together.
The design trend of the mid-’90s, fuzzy/sharp combinations, was much in evidence-- e.g., in a beautiful layout of sun-drenched photo (by Ron Fehling) and charming typography (using the anachronistic Weiss font, now more than 70 years old) for the official clothier of private-school brats partout, Roots. Edward Gajdel’s sepiatone fisheye shots for a Lotus Notes campaign (gold in ad photography) were marred only by the product’s logo. (Go figure.) The Metro Toronto Zoo’s campaign for its white-lion exhibit (Frank Lepre, art director), deploying a lion-matching colour palette of cream and burnt orange, was a highlight of my subway escalator trips while they were up; the double gold awards in advertising transit ads were deserved.
I reserve a final complaint for the award annual itself. Last year’s spiral binding was a great idea even if the book’s typewriter fonts weren’t. This year’s perfect binding is anything but, the ink and paper stink, there’s no index or table of contents, colour layouts are reproduced in B&W, and-- most heinously-- too many of the designs depicted in the book are fuzzy, wee, or otherwise adulterated. Come on! Have some respect!