Thoughts On Our 2021 Inhouse Design Awards
Some 250 years ago, John Adams observed: “One useless person is a shame, two is a law firm, and three are a Congress.” America has a long tradition of distrust of its institutions and elites, and a double serving of skepticism has always been part of our national psyche. But the full-on collapse of trust in our laws, customs, practices – the ripping of the social fabric in the wake of the pandemic and the great polarization – is downright terrifying and destabilizing. Not to mention potentially destructive to our precious experiment in democracy and its admittedly zigzaggy path to perfectability.
And, yes, zigzaggy is a real word.
As if I was not already losing sleep and hair over these concerns – okay, the hair loss may just be a functioning of aging – I attended a talk earlier this month by Richard Edelman, CEO of the Edelman global communications firm whose mission is “to evolve, promote and protect brands and reputations.” To that end, his company conducts a respected annual survey about trust and credibility in communications called the Edelman Trust Barometer. In his presentation, Mr. Edelman reported a deep – and deepening – lack of trust in government, business, NGO’s, academia and, of course, the media.
One of the most serious ramifications: we are suffering from an “infodemic,” his apt label for the loss of faith in traditional sources of reliable information and credible communications and, thus, in the content of the communications themselves. As he stated: “Trust remains the most important currency in lasting relationships between these institutions … and their various stakeholders. Particularly in times of turbulence and volatility, trust is what holds a society together, and where growth rebuilds and rebounds. Every institution must play its part in restoring society and emerging from information bankruptcy.”
Why is this relevant to the creative community and our 2021 Inhouse Design Awards? I will circle back to that in due time. Meanwhile…
WELCOME TO THE INHOUSE DESIGN SHOWCASE
Welcome to GDUSA’s 58th anniversary American Inhouse Design Awards edition. Ours is the original and premier showcase of inhouse design excellence, and the pieces this year were selected from more than 6,800 entries. Given all the uncertainties, the 2021 competition proved, remarkably, to be among the biggest, and arguably the best and brightest. As I have speculated before, this is likely evidence that inhouse people are vital, productive, resilient and future-oriented. Or crazy and stubborn. Or both. Whatever the motivation, the winning pieces span the country and touch every segment of the public, private and non-profit sectors. They display 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 I have written 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 — explaining and quantifying to senior management the immeasurable added-value of design and communications, justifying the resources and freedom required to do the job right, overcoming the inherent conservatism of organizations to creative risk, and growing and developing as a professional. Indeed, this awards program was founded for the very purpose of addressing these matters, to turn conventional wisdom on its head, to declare that the best inhouse work is the stuff of design annuals and – most importantly – that it makes a valuable contribution to the institutional mission and to the audiences served. In a four decade career, there are things of which I am not proud. Of this, I am proud.
In the sweep of design history, it is fair to say that inhouse departments are relatively better situated. Graphic design is understood to play a critical role in the success of products, services, information and ideas, and more creative, marketing and communciations 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 shines more often on inhouse accomplishments, and inhouse designers are winning a seat at the table if not always the boardroom.
PREPARING FOR THE CHALLENGE
The disruptive events of the past two years can only speed this upward trajectory. The recent AIGA POV Design Research Initiative: 2021, which looks at the impact of the pandemic on the creative marketplace, recently concluded that inhouse design teams have fared better than their counterparts in studios, agencies and freelance. From my perspective, there are three reasons for this.
First, inhouse departments have been agile 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 adaptability and productivity, an unexpectedly smooth transition to hybrid models, 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 workplace change and it’s sibling, work-life balance.
Second, inhouse departments, at their best, foster consistent collaboration, communications and trust between and among 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.
Finally, circling back to the very real threat of a spreading “infodemic,” inhouse departments can serve as a therapeutic.
The core value proposition of a first-rate inhouse department is its intimate knowledge of the organization’s identity, culture and organizational objectives. They are keepers and protectors of the torch, in a unique position to express the essence, the credibility and character of an institution, its products, services, mission. To communicate the truth, to be clear and transparent, to convey authenticity and empathy.
Not incidentally, they did all these things extremely well during the height of the pandemic: COVID-related health and safety communications were informational and useful, yes, but they also sent a message of institutional caring, calm, continuity and commitment.
At a time when organizations must dig deep to find their true voice, to reinvent or reaffirm their identities, and to meaningfully connect with a post-pandemic world forever changed, inhouse departments are proving up to the task because, in a sense, they have long been preparing for this challenge.
I hope you enjoy our 2021 American Inhouse Design Awards showcase as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to light.