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Forget social media likes, great work goes beyond visual "garnish" – Editorial Design insights

2021 D&AD Award Judges discuss book and magazine design, illustration, photography and more

Editorial design is a hugely evocative category, whether it’s printed books and magazines that celebrate the power of tactile connection, or a cover illustration that’s a gut-punch reminder of some of the biggest issues society faces. 

In a panel hosted by Bonita Darkoh, Arts and Culture Editor at Large at GUAP, Marssaié Jordan, Susana Albuquerque, Qian Jiang and Darren Smith – judges from the Illustration, Photography and Book Design categories – discuss the current state of the disciplines. Together, they debated the importance of context and whether the pressure to claim social media likes is affecting today’s creative work, and made a plea for editorial images to go beyond visual ‘garnish’. 

Brilliant editorial work creates an instinctive connection

Illustration holds an important role in the world of editorial design, adding depth and meaning to stories in publications. But every now and then a cover image comes along that is so artfully executed it stops you in your tracks from the newstands. For Susana Albuquerque, Creative Director at Uzina, that image was Vanity Fair's September 2020 cover illustration of Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police in her Kentucky apartment in March the same year.

“The piece made me stop,” explained Albuquerque, of her immediate, visceral reaction. “In the jury session we started to discuss the work, and it was a bit like a religious portrait, and that’s very strong visually. Maybe because you are used to seeing photographs on the cover of Vanity Fair, illustration has a strong power here. We are always looking for that piece of surprise, and something that strikes you.”

The IRL experience is still king

Despite much hand-wringing about the supposed ‘death of print’, books and magazines have endured, and one winner in particular showed how effective the tactile experience still is. Knights Of Creative Director Marssaié Jordan chose Practice Theory's When Cooking was a Crime: Masak in the Singapore Prisons, 1970s-80s as a standout piece of editorial design, particularly for its clever use of the print format. 

“From the colour to the folding technique to the cover design, everything was just so well-considered,” said Jordan, who praised the book’s use of “secret folds” to represent the illicit nature of prison cooking. She also chose handmade picture book Boy Who Could Not Wait as another example of the appeal of print design, praising its use of layered paper and embedded cress seeds.

“I think that’s one of the beautiful things about design, where it’s not just how beautiful something is, but does it do what it’s supposed to do?” added Jordan. “And how are you engaging with people beyond just the story?”

Some of the best editorial commissions of today are preserving history for tomorrow

Powerful photography and illustration is often a central part of great editorial design, and Darren Smith, Content Director of Bridge Studio at News UK, chose Dove’s Courage Is Beautiful as an example of this. While he admitted that similar selfies of nurses have circulated widely on social media in the last 18 months, he emphasised the long-term potential for this kind of campaign. 

“The execution is flawless, and when you think of the logistics of taking someone who’s been working for 14 hours … and they’ve managed to capture the energy and life in each of their subjects so they’re wonderfully done and beautifully executed,” he explained. “But the most important thing is these will become totemic images of our time. When we look back in five years on this mad world we’re in right now … these images will stand as a testament to what it was really like."

Curiosity needs to come back

While beautiful execution and craft is great to look at, Jordan emphasised that it left some of the work feeling “very expected”. 

“It’s very nice to look and engage with, but I think that one of the things that makes design a truly necessary and profound thing is curiosity,” she said. “I found that a lot of curiosity was missing. I felt like people were doing very safe things – things that they knew would stand out because of the craft that had gone into it or the story that was being told.”

Albuquerque agreed, mentioning #wombstories as something with great communication and illustration, taken to a higher level because of the story it tells. “It’s using different techniques to make the story bigger,” she said. “Even in a craft category, it makes all the difference if you have a strong story to tell. It’s a means to touch and communicate with people, not just a technique exhibition."

Creatives should be wary of social media creating increasingly homogenised work

Smith sounded a note of warning around brands and creatives chasing approval on social media, emphasising that this shouldn’t be the ultimate metric for editorial work. 

He said he’d noticed an “increasing homogenisation of what works and what doesn’t”, meaning creative work sometimes falls into the trap of ticking off whatever’s needed to satisfy the algorithm. “We’re in a world where it’s binary – you do that and it works, or you don’t do it and nobody sees it,” he said. “We have so many artists growing up in a world where there are rules. That flare, that creativity and that freedom of expression is being lost because there’s so much other stuff that gets prominence.” 

“People want to be liked, you want your work to be validated and approved, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re great at what you do – it means you’re liked,” agreed Jordan.

Editorial images are in danger of becoming visual ‘garnish’

Smith also emphasised that artists have potential that goes far beyond being a “fulfilment house”, and that images can be a pivotal part of telling a story. But this risks being lost amongst editorial design that uses photography and illustration as “just garnish to help ram home the point the headline is making”. 

“If it doesn’t say something, it shouldn’t be there,” he said. “Craft is important, but you have to work until you’ve got something to say, and only produce the work that says something.”

“Does it say something I believe  or care about? As long as it says something, and it communicates, that’s the whole job,” he continued. “I think if we don’t do that, and if we allow this route of being garnish and making the words more pretty or palatable to continue, then it becomes a medium no-one respects.”

It’s been a tough year but judges have to consider work in a much bigger context

It might have been a particularly challenging year, but Smith explained that juries had to look beyond this, and avoid the temptation to award work simply because it was made in a very difficult period. 

“The biggest debate we had was so many judges fell into the trap of going, 'It’s amazing what they’ve achieved given the world and the way things are going. They’ve managed to do something really well’,” he explained. “A D&AD Pencil is about removing that context. The bottom line is, will we remember it in five years time? Are we giving them a pass because the world’s been terrible? So should we judge it on the merit of, is it beautiful, and will we remember?”

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