Gordon Kaye: What GDUSA’s 2020 Inhouse Awards Showcase Tells Us

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By GDUSA Publisher Gordon Kaye

 

At a time when organizations and brands must grapple with the realities and demands of the pandemic, with shifts in purchasing decisions and consumer behavior, with a reckoning with new perspectives on race and inequality, with a breakdown in social trust, inhouse departments are proving up to the task because, in a sense, they have long been preparing for this challenge.

 

Welcome to GDUSA’s 57th anniversary American Inhouse Design Awards edition. It features a showcase of winners of the original and premier competition for inhouse design departments.

This year’s competition began as the full impact of the pandemic began to be felt; continued through the national protests, the fraying of the social fabric and the early stages of a divisive election campaign; and, of course, managed to conclude during severe east coast storms and power outages.

Yet, it shapes up as among the biggest and certainly best of our Design Annuals. Which strongly suggests that inhouse people are vital, productive, resilient and future-oriented. Or, as is the case here at GDUSA, some mix of crazy and stubborn. I vote for vital, productive, resilient and future-oriented; more on this later.

Especially Sweet

As for the 2020 competition itself, the winning pieces were selected from more than 6,000 entries – just short of a record number – that span the country and touch every segment of the public, private and non-profit sectors. The winning pieces showcase graphic design for commerce and culture at its best by professionals who ably advance their client’s objectives and build meaningful value for their organizations, products, services, causes, ideas. The design is smart, it is appealing, it is strategic, it uses the full range of media available.

As we have noted before, receiving an American Inhouse Design Award is a triumph on many levels: a personal feat of talent and hard work; a collaborative accomplishment for a team working together to advance an organization’s goals; and a victory for all those who toil inhouse and may not garner the recognition and reward they deserve.

For our winners the moment is especially sweet, since the path to a successful design solution is often steeper than for their counterparts at independent agencies. Suffice it to say that working in a corporate setting can trigger existential challenges — measuring the immeasurable value that design and communications add, justifying one’s place to senior management in order to secure the resources and freedom to do the job right, overcome the inherent conservatism of institutions to creative risk, gaining credit and recognition inside and outside, and growing as a professional.

The American Inhouse Design Awards program addresses these matters, turns conventional wisdom on its head, declares that the best inhouse work is the stuff of design annuals and — most importantly — a fundamental contribution to the institutional mission and to the audiences served.

Paradise No. Progress Yes.

In the sweep of design history, it is fair to say that inhouse departments are better situated than ever. Graphic design is understood to play a critical role in the success of products, services, information and ideas, and it is clear that more and more design and marketing departments are successfully pushing against past constraints and converting upper management.

As a result, the contribution that design can make is better understood and respected, inhouse positions are considered more attractive, the light often shines on inhouse accomplishments, and inhouse designers are winning a seat at the table if not always the boardroom. Paradise, no. Progress, yes.

All In This Together

The unfortunate events of 2020 can only speed this upward trajectory.

First, inhouse departments have been remarkably agile and adaptable at mastering the technology, infrastructure and managerial resources to make remote working successful. On this, the experts all agree. This has led to surprising degree of productivity, an unexpectedly smooth transition, and a growing consensus that remote, or at least flexible, work is the wave of the future. Inhouse professionals find themselves at the cutting edge of radical workplace change.

Second, inhouse departments, at their best, foster consistent collaboration, communications and trust between and among inhouse creative professionals and upper management. These characteristics and practices – collaboration, communication, trust – have proven to be just the soft skill set necessary to promote efficiency and effectiveness at a moment of disruption and challenge.

Third, and perhaps most important, an inhouse department’s true value proposition is its intimate knowledge of the institutional identity, corporate culture and organizational objectives. At their best, they are keepers and protectors of the torch, in a unique position to express the essence, the authenticity, the credibilty and character of an institution, its products, services and ideas. At a time when organizations and brands must grapple with the realities and demands of the pandemic, with shifts in purchasing decisions and consumer behavior, with a reckoning with new perspectives on race and inequality, with a breakdown in social trust, inhouse departments are proving up to the task because, in a sense, they have long been preparing for this challenge.

COVID Communications

A related thought. It is no surprise that the largest number of entries in this year’s competition involve COVID-19 and related communications. On the surface, many of the designs address health and safety rules, issues and guidelines. Those projects and campaign make a crucial contribution to our collective well-being in and of themselves. But they often have a broader goal or subtext: an expression that the company, organization or institution cares about its employees, customers, the broader community; a declaration of hope and a reaffirmation of presence; a rallying cry that we are all in this together and will prevail.

How valuable are individuals and departments who can communicate clearly, credibly, authentically and compassionately at a moment when despair and distrust are running high? The correct answer: priceless.

 

Gordon Kaye has been Editor and Publisher of GDUSA for 30 years. He has a JD from Columbia Law School, a Masters in Public Policy from Princeton University and a BA from Hamilton College.