Gordon Kaye: Our 2023 Inhouse Design Awards

Gordon Kaye has been editor and publisher of GDUSA (Graphic Design USA) for more than three decades. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, Princeton University’s School of Public Affairs, and Columbia Law School. This comment, connected to our 60th anniversary American Inhouse Design Awards™, first appeared in GDUSA’s August 2023 print and digital magazines. He is shown here with Website Editor Sasha Kaye-Walsh. Comments, suggestions and letters are welcome at editorial @ gdusa.com



The Onion, the satirical newspaper, once published a feature that has stuck with me: “The 100 Worst Senators.” The humor reflects a deeply embedded national suspicion of elites and institutions that goes back to the founding. A more recent Onion feature captures a broadening distrust, citing fictional research revealing that “the growing divide in political attitudes has been entirely caused by the dipsh*ts in the other party” and “the ignorant idiots on the other side” who stubbornly refuse “to disregard their life experiences and change everything about the way they think.”

It’s funny but it’s dark.



A degree of cynicism is healthy and, given the wrenching experience of the past few years, none of us is naïve anymore. But the implosion of trust in our laws, customs, practices, institutions, myths — frankly, in each other — is dangerous. Trust underpins the social fabric, provides the space and resilience and forgiveness that allows for compromise in a pluralistic society, and lets us continue to strive for a common purpose and a more perfect union. Facing an autumn of Biden and Trump, Musk and Zuckerberg, Barbie and Weird Barbie, there is no apparent relief from our collective inner critic and our existential crisis.

Back in 2021, I wrote about a talk I attended at Chautauqua Institution by Richard Edelman. The Edelman firm, a 6,000-strong global communications consultant on brands and reputations, conducts a “Trust Barometer” study each year. The results mid-pandemic revealed a spreading “infodemic” — the collapse of faith in traditional sources of reliable information — government, media, academia and big business — leading to a widespread distrust of even the most basic communications. Edelman argued that without a sense of unity and a shared national conversation, Americans were starting to fear an unraveling.



That was then. And today?

The 2023 report reveals the situation has metastasized: “A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today – deeply and dangerously polarized.” Potential solutions are varied and complex but one sure way to halt the downward spiral, contends Edelman (and many others), is for private and public institutions to lead a return to civil discourse, to be consistent sources of reliable and fact-based information, to hold those who lie accountable, and to communicate in a way that is credible and transparent, authentic and empathetic, engaging and meaningful. That, the argument goes, is a vital step toward a restorative vision for the future.



What does all this have to do with our 2023 inhouse awards annual? More later. Meanwhile, on a cheerier note, let’s celebrate today’s winners for their accomplishment. The projects and campaigns showcased in our August 2023 gallery are selected from more than 6,000 entries — a near record — touching every region of the country and every segment of the private, public and non-profit sectors. This is graphic design for commerce and culture at its best executed by creative professionals who ably advance their clients objectives and build meaningful value for their organizations, products, services, causes, ideas. The design is smart, appealing, strategic, and savvy in the use of the full range of available media.

Receiving this recognition is a triumph in many respects: a personal feat of talent and hard work, a collaborative effort for a team working to advance an organization’s goals, a victory for those who toil inhouse and may not always receive the recognition, the resources and the rewards they deserve, and a chance to remind everyone that design adds value and that everyone gains if designers are in the room where it happens. Moreover, for many the win is especially sweet since the path to successful design solutions is often steeper than for counterparts at creative firms and agencies. Suffice it to say that working in an institutional setting can raise challenges — to explain and measure the added value of effective design to a lay senior management, to fight for the resources needed to do the job right, to overcome the inherent conservatism (small “c”) of organizations, to gain deserved credit and recognition inside and out, and to have the opportunity to grow and upskill as a professional.

These constraints are loosening as inhouse departments — and design in general in the sweep of history — is increasingly recognized for its role in the success of products, services, information and ideas. But a challenge remains. Our American Inhouse Design Awards program was born to turn conventional wisdom on its head, to declare that the best work done inhouse is the stuff of annuals and — more important — a fundamental contribution to the organizational mission and to the audiences served. A win here is a statement that stands on its own.



Nonetheless, at the risk of going over the top, let’s circle back to the matter of trust. In this regard, I would suggest that effective inhouse design can contribute to the mending of the social fabric.

An inhouse designer’s true value is an intimate knowledge of institutional identity, corporate culture, and organizational objectives. The best are keepers of the torch, in a unique position to crystallize the essence, the credibility and character of an organization, its products and services and traditions and ideas — and more so post-pandemic — its values, ethics and behaviors. To express the truth of the thing, to be transparent and authentic and empathetic, to project and even shape a positive message, and to use design to help solve as well as explain. A necessary step in rebuilding social trust and restoring civil discourse is to elevate communications. For public and private institutions be sources of trustworthy and reliable information, and to present it in an engaging way that is credible, clear, consistent, convincing.

Inhouse designers are up to the task because, in a sense, the good and great ones have long been preparing for this challenge by doing what they do and being who they are. It’s not everything, but it is a way forward and an example for others.