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Beautiful design is not enough – 2021 D&AD Judges on why design needs to go beyond the zeitgeist

Judges from across design categories unpack the learnings from this year's Pencil winners

The Pencil winners from this year’s Packaging Design, Typography, Type Design and Branding categories ran the gamut of subjects, addressing everything from climate change and gender neutral school uniforms, and reminding Judges of the power of a simple logo well designed, as well as highlighting the underused potential of packaging. 

In a panel hosted by Design Week Editor Tom Banks, Gush Mundae, Tarek Atrissi, Min-Young Kim, and Jack Renwick, came together to deliberate some of the pressing issues brand design faces. They debated the pros and cons of trend-led design, the need for designers to “divorce” themselves from the feel-good factor, and discussed why packaging isn’t being used to its full creative or eco-friendly potential.

Variable fonts are not a concept

Tarek Atrissi, founder and Creative Director at Tarek Atrissi Design, chose COLLINS’ San Francisco Symphony Dynamic Typography as a key project from this year’s winners, and praised it as a “brilliantly executed” piece of work that all the jury members loved. 

“Even if you see it in a static mode, it’s very dynamic, and when it’s dynamic it’s a brilliant use of technology,” he explained. “It’s the best I’ve seen in the use of variable type so far.”

Jack Renwick, founder and Creative Director at Jack Renwick Studio, said the project showed how to take variable font technology beyond just a “styling technique”. “Variable fonts is not a concept,” she said. “I think the San Francisco Symphony typography is done really beautifully, and there's a real idea behind the use of the variable font there. The variable font is making a sound in its use, it’s not just moving about for the sake of it. It’s got a real purpose that rises way above other things. Just using it because you can doesn’t really deliver the concept or the message very well.”

Packaging’s potential as a tool for communication is going underestimated – but brave brands can fix that

Bulletproof founder Gush Mondae chose BETC São Paulo’s HerShe project for Hershey – which celebrated International Women’s Day using packaging – as one of his favourite projects. More than that, he describes it as an example of packaging being used fully as a communication tool. ”What I loved about it was the simplistic boldness of it,” he explained. “The message was strong and they treated it all like a canvas.”

What set the project apart from others, according to Mondae, was Hershey’s commitment to the cause, which included working with a plethora of different women entrepreneurs, artists, dancers and musicians. More than that, the brand was bold in its approach. According to Mondae, projects like this often only receive a small part of the packaging, but BETC São Paulo convinced Hershey to do a full pack takeover. 

“You’ve got a very large corporation and you’re asking them to be very brave about something – this is their brand mark you’re basically dissecting and taking apart,” added Mondae. That takes a lot of convincing so hats off to the agency and definitely the client for allowing that to happen.These things are so often relegated to a third of the pack, or the back of the pack.”

Packaging designers need to think more about environmental impact

According to Mondae, this year’s packaging entries didn’t show “enough thought around sustainability” or the environmental impact that packaging has. While the broad aesthetic was strong, he said he was disappointed that designers aren’t engaging more with clients around conversations such as what sustainable substrate or ink to use. For Mondae, the idea of big, lavish, multi-layered pieces of packaging needs to be reconsidered, in favour of something “much smaller, more beautiful, and much more considered” that takes into account the footprint brands and designers are creating. 

“You have to think about the long term impact of the millions if not billions of cartons this is being printed on,” he said. Mondae also believes businesses need to have more faith in consumers going on the sustainability journey with them – and work with designers to use honesty and communication to ease the path. 

“It’s how you create that story, and tell it, and people will follow,” he added. “We didn’t see enough of that in the packaging category unfortunately.”

Divorce yourself from the feel-good factor

For Renwick, part of the challenge of judging work is putting aside the “feel-good factor” of a project. While a piece of work might have admirable aims, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subject to hard questions such as, “is it a breakthrough idea, is it beautifully executed, and is it totally fit for purpose”.

She chose Ogilvy Taiwan’s UNI-FORM – which tackled gender stereotypes around what students wear – as an example of a piece of work that does all three, while still embracing the feel-good factor. 

“The whole thing was beautifully executed,” she said. “Very on-trend colour palettes, typography and messaging, and the whole thing hung together like branded editorial… when you’re judging these things it’s so easy to be seduced by work that really makes a difference to society. You have to be judging things on the merit of the category it’s in, and the job it has to do. Beyond the fact that it’s addressing cultural change, it was a fantastic piece of branded content and looked stunning.”

Brands need to go beyond the zeitgeist and designers must hold them to account

According to Renwick, this year saw a lot of brands “making an attempt to look like they’re doing great”, whether addressing environmental or social issues. But the jury emphasised that these are hollow gestures if businesses don’t go beyond simply engaging with the zeitgeist. Designers also have a responsibility, according to Renwick. 

“When you’re tackling that, your duty as a designer is to make sure you’re doing your homework, and you’re aware of what is going in with the issue,” she explained. “Don’t look to design books for your inspiration. Look to the news if you want to know what’s going on in society and how you can help advise your clients. With every opportunity you’ve got – whether that's to be more sustainable, more supportive of issues – you can’t crowbar them in. As soon as you do and it doesn’t fit with what the brand sells, you can see it a mile away.” 

“There’s no point in a brand using slave labour, and then saying how fantastic they are in supporting gender neutral issues. It’s down to the designer and the team behind that not to be agreeing to projects like that. You have to stand your ground on that.”

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