Daily Annual: Making Graphic Design Annuals Useful for More Than Emulation

Graphic design annuals. They are, from what I can tell, a quick way to see what style is popular today, and a largely self-congratulatory resumé builder for design studios. They’re also considered by many to be a visual resource for graphic design professionals and students. However, since the annuals rarely contain any explanation of the project goals, purpose, or degree of success for the client, they’re mainly a style gallery. It always feels a bit like flying a plane over a city to find out about its citizens. And considering how much lip service is paid to ideas and concepts in our field, I’m always a bit surprised by this. Well, not that surprised. The annuals are also cash cows for the magazines, as entry typically requires an entry fee, so packing the magazine with winners increases the likelihood that others will enter for their chance to shine amongst the stars. This situation adds to the self-selecting nature of their showings, as well as the fact that a few judges have to sift through enormous piles of entries. (In fact, this process is so daunting we’re often told by the magazine about how hard it is multiple times.)

Do I sound a bit snarky and skeptical of design annuals? Well, I am. But a former co-worker friend and I figured out a way to make the most of these industry exercises and bring a degree of depth and exploration to the normally overwhelming and sometimes demoralizing experience of scanning design annuals. The topographic survey of the design annual took on the qualities of an archeological dig as we turned over the earth and held up each find, bringing both of our views to bear to divine something more.

It’s not that design annuals are worthless, but they are oddly skewed surveys and are hardly representative of the field. They’re more indicative of a subset of a subset. Ultimately, I’m interested in the work and the understanding and perspectives it can bring to my own mind and design process. But the whole thing is too one-way, uni-dimensional, and lacks any challenge. This is why I believe design annuals should not be skimmed alone. My former design cohort David and I created a little informal, enjoyable way to pull depth from the experience and also really allow for page-by-page examination that wouldn’t make our brains melt, which I’ve been missing recently (the examination, not the brain melting).

When the latest issue of Print magazine would arrive, I’d bring my copy in to work and keep it on our adjoining desktop. In the mornings over coffee or at lunch we’d open up to a spread and play a little creative guessing game. We would look over the pages for a while, then David would try to guess which piece I liked the most and I would do the same for him. Often this guess would involve more than one piece, but the trick is that each guess had to be accompanied by an explanation of what motivated the choice(s). Sometimes it was a stylistic decision, other times it was a conceptual one (as much as we could glean from the pictures and credits). Then, the other person would confirm or reject the guesses and explain either why they weren’t their favorites, or why they were. This would go on for a handful of spreads per sitting, the number usually depending on how much time we had. Unfortunately, our workloads didn’t always permit this kind of thing. But, I always enjoyed it a great deal and found it very fulfilling to comb through the annuals with someone whose critical eye was different than my own, but I still had a great respect for.

My favorite part: the challenge. Having to take on another designer’s perspective and see through their eyes is a great exercise for any designer, particularly since we’re often playing ESP games with clients and audiences in order to craft the best solution for them. It also created a fun, non-judgemental way to work out the whys behind the most interesting work in the annual. The work in graphic design annuals is typically attractive and visually provocative, as it had to make its way out of the mountains of submissions and into the magazine, but it’s not impervious to critique. And this was probably the most healthy part of the exercise. It’s very easy to become demoralized in the face of so much snappy work, particularly if you glance over at your desk and you happen to be working on a distinctly un-glamourous job for a difficult client. Or yet again applying house style to something, wishing you could change blue to orange, or Helvetica to…something else. These discussions helped keep the projects in the annuals on a human level and provided a way to see them as lessons about innovation, rather than edicts of the ‘now’ style. Plus, giving thought to what the project constraints helped to make potential strengths out of limitations in our own projects that at first glance seem to be barriers to success.

I miss this game, as we’ve both moved on to different jobs now, but sometimes on the train I try to play the guessing game by myself and imagine David’s wry smile as I explain to him why he likes something for its daring use of color or clean lines. Eventually, someday, I’d like to start a studio of my own and crack open a new design annual with a designer friend again and dig beneath the surface together.