Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

More of the same from the Advertising & Design Club of Canada, 1996

Well, it’s autumn again, and as we contend with rain and grey skies we also contend with an onslaught of what could ironically be called precious metals (viz., gold, silver, and bronze) dished out by the Advertising & Design Club of Canada (ADCC) in its annual incestuous, self-congratulatory awards.

Context and bellyaching

I have to apologize if I come off all cynical here. I like living in Toronto and now would not live anywhere else, but I am not in fact from this teeming megalopolis, whose citizens all too often write “Toronto, Ontario, Canada” with equal signs.

There is a tendency toward insularity, smugness, exclusion, and snobbishness in the design demimonde of Toronto. I know this, because I am outside the loop and the brunt of much of this egotism. I have been told to my face (actually, to my ear: it was on the phone) by an Important Toronto Design Leader that I don’t know much about Canadian design (funny, I write about it while she slaves away in a retail store); I’ve had person or persons unknown “warn” David Carson about me in the context of an interview for publication; my informed but genuinely critical articles about the ADCC awards (see 1994 and 1995 editions) have endeared me to few in the ADCC and have contributed to getting me fired from my former regular gig writing about graphic design for the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Unsurprisingly, I was thus specifically not granted superexclusive comp tickets to the ADCC’s annual love-in, held this year at the Design Exchange. But the award-winners were kept on display in the same Exchange for all to see. And now, dear reader, by the magic of online communications, you are there!

Sellout and shotgun marriages

First, though, my regular complaint about the ongoing sellout of the design profession. It seems that there is no such thing as design per se anymore, only advertising, marketing, and promotion. The graphic arts have always been an ineluctable servant of those fields; now, though, the occultation of design by advertising is becoming so pervasive it’s suffocating, and I’ve had enough. In photography and illustration, for example, we find well-established categories of personal work – that is, work intended not to sell you something (or even to put food on the designer’s table) but to explore artistic needs. I see a lot of experimentation and growth coming from design students, but little from actual designers, with the exception of self-promotion pieces, which by definition are advertising.

The entire category of logos and letterheads strikes me as a bit trite, though letterheads, given their broad range of ultimate media (paper, envelopes, disc labels, coffee cups, you name it), do offer a broader potential.

Now we get to the logos. I mean, yawn.

I must also voice curmudgeonliness about annual reports, which strike me as a less interesting read than even the most carelessly undesigned small-town newspaper. The YMCA of Metropolitan Toronto raked in yet another award in this category (Viva Dolan), as it does every year; considering the extensive promotional campaign this charity launches about its ambitious annual-report designs (I have a pile of them, plus breathless press releases, in my filing cabinet), you will forgive me for wondering if the YMCA’s goal is to inform its members or garner annual prizes.

Still, kudos to ADCC for recognizing the Progressive Corp.’s annual report, filled with the self-referential and extravagantly artificial photos by Teun Hocks (he’s the model in all his photos – see the October Photo District News), though I’m not sure even a word of that report is worth reading.

Type and printed ephemera

Back in the realm of pure typography, Rotis, Barmeno, Officina, and Triplex were everywhere. (Are they the official fonts of 1996?)

The photography category was also a mixed blessing. I have been trying to learn about photography over the last two years, a task that compares with trying to learn typography in so short a time. Still, I’m confident enough to say that it’s tricky to find a photographer whose style really consistently grabs you and speaks to you and seems invariably compatible. (In my books, Dan Winters comes closest.) If it’s tricky to identify with everything in, or even most of, a particular shooter’s repertoire, it’s even harder to expect the results of an awards show, based purely on what is actually entered, to grab you by the collar. I see this as intrinsically linked to the form of photography itself; illustration has a similar problem, though far less pronounced, and as we come closer and closer to creating actual graphic-design auteurs (Saville, Oliver, Carson, Brody, Makela), this phenomenon may manifest itself there too.

Given this, Ron Baxter Smith must wear the crown (the tiara) as star of the ADCC photography category. His photo, for a Mead promotion, of businessmen manipulating marionettes that are themselves the self-same businessmen, tinted in perverse shades of red-green-orange, was a stunner. (Perverse tints of that sort are an evolution of the fuzzy/sharp combinations that typify 1990s design. For some photographers, like Mark Wiens and Wayne Calabrese, such tints are their signature, and they jealously guard their modus operandi.)

Another Baxter Smith piece, an Appleton paper promotion entitled Larry Gaudet’s Utopia, superimposes somewhat overwrought musings on the zen of cycling atop four dramatically different photos, including the last, a head-on shot of someone (Gaudet?) balancing his bike on a snowy trail.

The lovely and talented Mr. Bryce Duffy finally got an award, too, for a quartet of photos of squeegee kids in Toronto Life, the most important magazine in the country and one that, like so many members of the Toronto media mafia, tends to treat people like me and Bryce like crud.

Concrete Design’s Canadian Folk Art calendar, with crudely-carved wood figurines of beavers and Mounties and other symbols of Canadian identity, struck me as more fun and engaging than its Keilhauer Kalendar; both won mentions. Everything Canada Post puts out seems to win an award, whether deserved (classically beautiful Migratory Wildlife illustrations; just-ironic-enough-to-be-enjoyable computer-drawn profiles of Classic Land Vehicles) or not (Reactor’s glitzy Canadian Animation stamps).

Student awards were hidden away in a crevice between other displays. Memo to ADCC: Show them respectfully or not at all.

Advertising campaigns proper took up an entire rank of display space and again showed nearly untrammeled Toronto insularity and, on the whole, mediocre design and copywriting.

Pure illustration

Canada’s standard in editorial and advertising illustration does seem remarkably high. The ever-dependable Miss Maurice Vellekoop’s cartoons won a couple of prizes, deservedly; Barry Blitt’s scratchy celebrity satires (strangely familiar-looking – have I been reading these since I was a kid without ever checking the byline?) remain fab. (“1993: Director Quentin Tarantino arranges to have a car alarm blaring outside his Four Seasons room window so he can fall asleep.” And that’s the nicest one.)

Biting the hand, or the tail

The continued awarding of accolades to the Toronto Star for newspaper design threatens to turn the category into a laughingstock. Perhaps no one else entered? Indeed, one notes also that the new ADCC logo itself won an award. So did an ADCC invitation (Ammirati Puris Lintas), a spoof of 1800s-era ad flyers. So did the call-for-entries poster by Viva Dolan entitled Re: Entry. One version of that poster included the telling subtitle “Come and see who entered.” Perhaps everyone who entered got a prize?

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