SND34: Of competitions and consequences

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I have a confession. I don’t believe everything I read from the media.

Does that make me a bad member of the media?

Here’s why I ask: I’m hearing from fellow journalists that SND has an infographics-and-illustration crisis on its hand, and the journalist in me can’t kick the skeptical habit that easily.

Full disclosure: I think the series from Dr. Mario Garcia is balanced, well-researched and written fairly. I am very glad the Best of News Design has generated some serious discussion this year. That’s exactly what it should be doing.

PART 1 of Dr. Garcia’s series explores whether it’s tougher today to win in the SND infographic category.

PART 2 talks about potential solutions to improve the infographics competition.

PART 3 looks at a winning and losing entry from this year’s competition.

My issue — and admittedly I don’t think anyone can be closer to the issue right now, as I was a judge at SND34, the competition coordinator for SND33, and I am a member of the competition committee responsible for the structure of the competition — is that I can’t make the immediate leap from “SND did not give out many graphics and illustration awards” to “SND has a major problem on its hands.”

The best I can offer is to examine the issue from all sides, and what follows is my best effort.

Let’s oversimplify the issue for the purpose of this discussion, and say this: The issue at hand is that SND34 judges awarded so few graphics and illustration entries that there is cause for concern over the viability and integrity of the competition. We know this based on public and private reaction to the announced results.

That’s our issue. Let’s take a look at all of the possibilities that arise in its wake.

Possibility No. 1: All of the above is absolutely true

If that’s true, then it has to be … TRUE: The results jeopardize the competition and call its integrity into question. But keep in mind, for that to be true, the graphics and illustration judges have to be wrong in their professional opinion. Let’s take a look at exactly who would have to be wrong, at a minimum. Friends, your SND34 visuals team judges:

Michael Whitley, AME, Los Angeles Times: For almost a decade, the Times’ visual work has led SND in awards, and has similarly been lauded by such competitions as Pictures of the Year International, Malofeij and the Best of Sports Design, among others. He’s a competition committee member and former coordinator.

Alex Fong, deputy design director, Bay Area News Group: He’s a member of Digital First Media’s print redesign team and has worked as a part of one of the most respected visual teams of the last 15 years.

Rob Schneider, SND president, Dallas Morning News presentation director: Because of what I’m about to say, it should be enough that he’s the elected leader of SND. His work, particularly in information layering, has consistently helped set the bar for excellence in print design since 2003.

Vanessa Wyse, creative director, The Grid: You may know her from the publication she oversees winning back-to-back World’s Best honors, or from the standing-room only session on creativity she presented at SND Cleveland.

Saulo Santana, art director, Bild am Sonntag: His previous work was at Correio Braziliense and Marca, a paper known for its infographic work. His information-heavy sports portfolio won an A of E in a different category this year.

All of those judges assign, coordinate and edit graphics as part of their jobs, and the work they have been a part of is evidence they do those jobs very well.

The conflict judges were Christobal Edwards and Paul Wallen. The coordinator was Melissa Angle. Three of the most respected individuals in the Society today, whose volunteerism and attention to SND’s best interests could by itself fill a large book.

If this year’s judging was negligently flawed, then it must be true that those people made it so.

And friends, enemies, and casual colleagues, that is one hell of an indictment to pin on those individuals.

But you can’t separate it. If you honestly, do not respect the SND results in those two categories, it is a representation of their collective opinions that you do not respect. When I see terms like “self-flagellation” thrown out, directed at a list of individuals whose track record and character indicate the exact polar opposite of self-flagellators, the first two words that spring to my little southern mind are not kind ones.

Possibility No. 2: None of the above is absolutely true

Statistically, the percentage of graphics winners versus graphics entries has changed very little over the years. But it hasn’t been that long ago that SND was giving 30-40 awards in categories that had 800-900 entries. Now we’re hovering around 15-20 in categories that have 400-500. Math says that nothing’s wrong there.

I acknowledge that, yes, it does look rather jarring to pick up an SND book and see 17 graphics winners when you’re used to seeing 34. To onlookers, that inherently has to raise red flags.

But the larger point is, there’s a side to this discussion that says there’s not a great statistical difference this year, and would we really want there to be one?

Possibility No. 3: Entries that did not win could have been better

One of the things that makes winning an Award of Excellence an honor is that it’s really, really hard to win Awards of Excellence. Others can break out the numbers, but my experience is that graphics and illustrations are awarded at about the same percentage that features entries are awarded, which is just under three percent, annually.

The reason for that is, there’s often a lot of truly great work entered in the competition. Winning requires rising above truly great work. It takes refining details and editing beyond greatness. Here are some things that separate “great” from “excellent” at SND:

• Use of the space. Was your entry a full-page graphic with a quarter-page of information?

• Originality. Were you the first to do something or did you expound on an idea that had been done before? Even if you did it better, it’s not a guarantee that it’s so much better that it deserves the same honor.

• Stopping a judge. Did you have a clear lead visual or a clean concept, or maybe a well-written headline? If you want a “yes” vote, you have to stop a judge who will look at thousands of entries and make that judge want to consider yours. (A great test would be to look at your work while you have a headache. Does looking at it make your headache worse or does it make you want to fight through it and pore over it anyway?)

All of the above are just a handful of the reasons a chip can fall into a “yes” or “no” cup.

If you’re really angry about your SND result, I would implore you to ask yourself, “What could we have done to make that better?” And then, “Why didn’t we do it?” If there’s really no answer, then you absolutely have a valid point of contention.

At the heart of all competitions is this, and it’s a cold hard fact: They exist to set the bar.

Did your work set the bar this year? If it didn’t, are you willing to double down on your efforts next year? Those are personal questions. Greatness can’t be lectured.

By that same standard, this is important too: If you believe your work is already great, setting the bar and cannot be better, and you’re looking to SND to validate it, you’re looking at SND completely wrong. It’s OK to be comfortable in your knowledge of how good your work is. Competitions don’t exist to validate. They’re there to collectively set a bar. You have every right to differ in your opinion.

Possibility No. 4: The statement’s not true, but SND exists to evolve, and it should

We learn things every year. Speaking strictly as a competition committee member, I fully understand how this looks to a great many people. Moreover, I understand that the consequences of looking a certain way can affect whether someone continues to enter the competition. I would never look at it as “taking a ball and going home.” If the competition isn’t viable, people don’t participate, and viability is influenced by perception.

There can be no ambiguity if this is true, and neither can this: The stated concerns have been heard clearly and emphatically. Every part of the print competition will be scrutinized this year, nothing more so than graphics and illustrations. The competition committee will look at category breakdowns, whether it’s fair to have certain graphics judged against other types. Or whether news illustrations should be on the table next to sports illustrations.

And we’re not going to look at it with the purpose of doubling or tripling the number of winners. We are going to look at it from the perspective of fairness. Everybody who enters the competition has the right to expect that their work will be treated fairly, and there is nothing the competition committee values above that.

If you’re angry about this year, I hope you’ll treat next year the way we do as journalists. Be skeptical, but thorough. Examine the changes and decide for yourself if it’s taken a step forward. If you do that and feel otherwise, at least you did that. That’s vastly different from stonewalling SND out of anger.

We exist to set the bar. That’s all we tried to do in three frigid February days. And nothing and nobody whose eyes fall upon this sentence deserved less.

(Josh Crutchmer is the news design director at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.)

About Josh Crutchmer

is design and graphics editor at The Plain Dealer.

17 comments

Very good discussion. This is why SND exist!
I would love to be there to meet these Judges and their thoughts. The work of those names has inspired me in the last 10 years (at least) and I respect this result as I respect more the pieces that won.
I also had some pages that didnt win, but all this made me think a lot about all that I did, and Im more happy with the conclusions I took for my own, than any award I could have got.

I would really like to see this same team of Judges in the next years competition.

It was high level Judging and it should be always like this.

I posted the comment below over on the final blog entry of Mario Garcia’s series about the competition. I thought it might have some relevance to this post as well. Here it is:

First let me say how much I appreciate the way Dr. Garcia has approached and structured this series of blog posts. They are frank, open and most importantly CONSTRUCTIVE conversations.

Second, it seems the infographics category has frequently been at the center of controversy as far as the SND competition goes.

I had the honor of being a judge in the infographics category for the 27th edition. As pointed out in a previous blog post, that was the group of infographics judges who gave out “the last highest percentage of infographic winners” at 9%, and it was also, as Stephen Komives pointed out above, the infamous no-gold edition. Back then, the infographics category also played a role in the no-gold controversy, as there was one entry that had a legitimate shot of getting a gold medal, but it ended up falling short because one member of the judging team cast a no vote during the medal discussion. I was the person who cast the lone no vote. I had my reasons for voting no, and I felt they were legitimate, and though there were equally legitimate reasons the other judges had for voting yes, the result was that no gold medals were given out. Of course, no gold medals were given out in any of the other categories either.

I also remember that, in SND26, there was another controversy involving the infographics category. An entry (NASCAR Haulers) by the Dallas Morning News was disqualified for reasons that some felt were legitimate, while others felt there were equally legitimate reasons that should allow it to remain eligible for consideration in the competition.

My point in re-hashing ancient history is this: There’s alwsys been controversy, and there always will be controversy. Judging this competition is subjective, and until the process of giving out awards doesn’t involve judges, it’s always going to be subjective. Legitimate reasons exist on both sides of these arguments, and believe me, no one takes the responsibility of judging the competition lightly. Every judge is passionate about being there, and passion breeds controversy sometimes.

As far as the current issue, I wasn’t there, and, in fact, I’m not even a member of SND any longer. I haven’t been since I left journalism back in 2008 to start my own business. However, I will say that, having the experience of winning a few awards in the category and having judged the category, I think what fuels part of this controversy is that there was, in years past, a kind of undercurrent of feelings among graphic artists, news artists, infographics specialists (or whatever term is being used these days), that SND pays short shrift to information graphics and to the people who create them. I think the feeling was (and maybe still is) that the membership is mostly news designers, therefore the leadership mostly represents news designers, and the competition focuses on news designers more than anyone else. Conferences, speakers, quick courses, activities, etc. are more about, and geared toward, designers than they were/are to information graphic artists.

I’m not saying that’s accurate, but I can tell you lots of artists felt that way (personally, I never did). So I’m not at all surprised that infographics are again at the heart of a competition controversy.

One thing I will say that popped into my head while following the SND blog posts during the competition was that none of the judges who judged infographics come from an infographics background (unless I am overlooking something). I understand that they all deal with infographics in their jobs, but none of them on a day in, day out basis, create information graphics (again, unless I am mistaken). So taken with the possible idea that there are already some negative feelings among artists about how SND deals with them and their work, it’s possible that not having a “true” infographic journalist on the judging team would only add fuel to the fire.

Please understand that I have nothing but respect for the judges in that category. I’m familiar with the majority of their work, met a couple of them, and even worked with Rob Schneider for a few years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. What I said above was only to foster discussion about the makeup of future judging panels.

Finally, I’ll end this lengthy comment by saying that Jeff Goertzen’s takeaways, above, are spot on. Two that resonated particularly for me, were standards I always tried to hold my work to.

1. Put the readers first by making sure the complex idea you’re trying to explain to them is as simple and easy to understand as possible.

2. Am I pleased with the end result? If I am, then I know I did my best work. Knowing I did the best job I could and being pleased with the finished product is extremely satisfying and, for me, outweighs any award because I’m usually my own harshest critic.

That’s a fantastic point about controversy. Let’s not forget that in the heyday of VizEds, we had these sort of outcries annually for several years. It’s just been a long time that these discussions have made their way back into a public forum. So what may come across as “boiling over” is actually a resumption of the sorts of discussions that follow judging every year.

I think it’s better for SND and for us as designers when it’s happening. For those who have said the society has lost its engagement and passion, I would present these recent discussions, because the opposite is pretty clear.

Just wondering…
How informative/original is to do a graphic about James Bond movies? (i like the presentation, but i find difficult to justify the journalistic value)
Why graphics should limit their use of space, but not so the categories of photography, illustrations or page design-usually quite big?

James, I won’t attempt to speak for the judges (as I was not one this year), or to the value of that James Bond graphic.

But I will say this: I believe it’s important to think about the play any visual element — photo, illustration, infographic — deserves based on its value to the reader. Folks are making arguments about infographics in particular because that’s the way Dr. Garcia has framed this important discussion. And the judges on that team have pulled back the curtain on their way of thinking when judging them.

I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn if I speculate that every judge on each of the four teams at this year’s competition took this into consideration, regardless of which category was in front of them. “Here’s a full-page infographic, but there’s only a quarter-page worth of information here.” “Here’s a page with a photo played six columns, and the page is well-designed, but the content of the photo really only deserves three or four columns.” “Here’s a page with a beautiful illustration carrying it, but what other information does it give me?”

The argument isn’t a blanket statement that infographics (or any other element) should get less space on our pages. It’s that we, as designers and as artists and as photo editors and most importantly, as journalists, have to look at everything in front of us with a critical eye and weigh its value on the printed page.

James.

I concur in Tim’s opinion. Nobody’s saying there should be fewer or smaller infographics. My opinion, and one that the judging reflected, was that infographics, whether they’re a column wide or two pages wide, should back up their space with information. If a graphic tries to tell in half a page what it needed a full page to tell, that’s a strike against it just as putting a quarter-page worth of information into a full page graphic is. It works both ways.

I should also point out that in the SND competition this year, all three gold medal winners had very heavy graphical components. In addition to the Bond page, the Washington Post’s election coverage was VERY information-heavy, full of balanced and well-played graphics of various paces. And it was the use of graphics and approach to information that made Eureka stand out over and over again.

I would like to point out that the entire panel of judges voted to give special recognition to both of those entries by a unanimous vote, which is extremely rare.

I maintain my position that the competition values graphics to their fullest, and I still think the results reflect that.

Hi James, I was a judge on the visuals team.

I can say that, for me, the size of a photo, illustration or infographic was immaterial to my vote unless the entry’s size was its MOST distinguishing feature. What I mean is, if all I can think about after looking at an entry is how big it is, then it’s clear that entry, as a piece of visual journalism, has missed the mark.

When we discussed medals, my general guiding principles were:

1. Does it tell a great story and provide great information?
2. Is the technical execution at a high enough level?
3. Is it of great visual impact?
4. Is it layered (that is, does it go beyond mere representation to provide readers with context and analysis visually and/or textually)?
5. Is it innovative? Have we seen it before?

Josh, Francesco, John: Thanks for the great, thoughtful posts. I appreciate it.

Hello SND folks, yes, it’s me again. And I hope we can continue with that conversation that started in the Mario Garcia’s blog a few days ago. I think there are some things that need to evolve in SND to build a stronger organization, and by consequence, to increase the reach and prestige of the annual competition even more.
For those of us who love soccer, we see this creative competition each year with the same expectation and passion that we see the World Cup. All soccer fans always expect to see their National team advancing to the finals. And once there, everyone wants to win the championship. I think there are some similarities between this sport and our annual contest. Every designer wants to be awarded. Every designer wants to be working for that publication named the “World’s Best-Designed Newspaper.”
Soccer always is very polemic. The annual competition, too. But in both cases, you need to learn to live with the results.

:: The “bad” perception ::
Is not new that there’s a perception in some people that the main activities of SND —like the contest—, has been handled for many years by “the same group of people”. During the last years I have heard that complaint from colleagues in the U.S. as well as from overseas.
Some members, especially those involved with these activities, affirm that there’s a bad perception of that, and actually, invites and welcomes every member that has the desire to participate as a volunteer. That sounds really good. But, is that it? I mean, can we at least try to make new and strong efforts to try to change that perception? I truly believe it’s possible.
As we already know, there’s a comittee that handles the contest. It’s a group of members who volunteer their time (and in some cases money) to make the contest possible. As I said before, I think everyone of us is grateful to have that group of people in Syracuse.
But, there’s a but… It is really necessary to keep year over year the same group of people involved in the competition? Some say yes, and other of us don’t agree.
I’m not saying that any previous experience as a volunteer on the contest doesn’t matter, but we should recognize that by keeping the same group of volunteers (year over year) does not help to build more credibility on the contest, specially between those people from outside of the U.S.
As Josh Crutchmer described before, most of us in this career has that journalist instict that comes in a combo with some skeptical thinking. He’s totally right.
So, here are some ideas to think about:
– What if for the next editions of the annual contest a volunteer can’t repeat as a volunteer 2 years in a row? or…
– What if a volunteer can repeat for 2 years in a row but then wait for 1 year before return to the competition?
– It is possible to do more genuine efforts to increase the number of international judges and facilitators?
I bet there are many journalism and design schools all over the world that currently doesn’t know anything about SND, and could be very interested to send some students or teachers to participate as volunteers.

:: Opportunity to grow ::
From many years ago, SND has been proclamed as an international organization. The earth icon on the current SND logo tries to reinforce that concept of a global community, as well as this statement on the home page of this website: “The mission of the Society for News Design is to enhance communication around the world through excellence in visual journalism”.
Neverthless, the vast majority of their members are from the U.S., so it’s clear that the real opportunity for growing is outside of this country. If you take a look at the composition and diversity of other international organizations, like the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross, you will know what exactly I’m talking about. But, OK. Let’s compare apples with apples. Or soccer balls with soccer balls. Please, I invite you to take a moment to look on this link at the huge diversity of nationalities of the InterAmerican Press Association comittees or leadership: http://sipiapa.org/v4/autoridades.php?idioma=us
It’s true, it requires a ton of work and dedication, volunteering a lot, a lot of time, but it’s possible. As a testimony of that, I can say —if my numbers don’t lie— that during those years I was regional director for SND in Mexico & Central America, we had the highest number of members for that region.
And the math is an exact science: The more international members on SND, the more chances to have international participation or volunteerism on any type of SND activities.
Finally, how can I not embrace or ask for having more diversity inside of the organization, if I have had the marvelous opportunity to work in different countries and know different cultures.
The soccer, as the design as well, are cultural expressions of the human beings. Let’s put the ball in play.

Adrian,

Anybody who wants to can join in.

Come on down.

There’s an overtone in your post that somehow different people would mean different results. And if that’s the case, we’re doing it wrong. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with the judges which are being selected and the outcomes which are being produced, I’d love to know what they are.

To use your analogy: It wouldn’t matter if the entire FIFA executive committee were made up of Americans, Spain would still win the World Cup.

And if we changed the rules merely because Xavi and Iniesta keep winning everything, in the name of change, then we’re doing it wrong.

To the question, “What if we told people who attend this year they can’t come next year?” and its variations.

The 20-30 (non-judging) people who attend represent everybody who volunteers to attend. Nobody who volunteers gets turned away. That has been the case each of the past five years, and that’s just what I can verify.

So if that trend continued, if we told those 20-30 people that they can’t come next year, there would be nobody at judging.

And I do not understand why new people volunteering should mean that others have to STOP volunteering.

I have no idea if I’m part of the completely-non-existent “old guard” or not, but say I am. If 30 new people came next year, why would it be wrong of me to volunteer and make it 31?

I agree with the part where we would love new volunteers and a more diverse group, that’s what volunteer organizations are all about, and that’s what has built and sustained SND.

We don’t bring in a bunch of new people and then tell everyone who came before to get lost. That’s not volunteering at all.

The people who built SND and shaped design still have plenty to offer the society — case in point, Dr. Garcia’s well-done series that started this discussion. SND looks up to him and welcomes him with an open door.

Those same people exist in the competition too. They come back year after year to sort chips, to lead medal discussions, to show judges how to get from one room to another, to set individual entries out, to sweat over the call for entries and see that 10,000 entries are accounted for over three days.

Adrian, I know you and your work. You are able to rightfully call yourself an SND-winning designer. Nobody can take that away from you. that’s a rock you can lean on for the rest of your career, whether you’re looking for a job, for clout in your newsroom, a career reference or just acknowledgement that you are one of the best designers in the world.

And that very rock was put there with actual blood, actual sweat and actual tears of those “same old people” to whom you’re averse. They are the volunteers that keep SND going. They show up largely because nobody else will show up, and they go to work.

More volunteers, and a more diverse group of volunteers, would be more than welcome. Show up and wade through that swamp together.

But volunteering to be in charge, and volunteering to kick to the curb those people who have devoted large chunks of their LIVES to this organization, makes less than sense.

I also see the same group of papers winning every year.

The LA Times, National Post, Times of Oman, Excelsior, Politiken and Die Zeit do well every year. Throw in the Washington Post and Svenksa Dagbladet too.

(Only two US papers, btw).

Is that wrong, or is it possible the same people do the best work in the world year-after-year?

Do you think the contest is somehow rigged to favor them?

What would you like to see happen? SND gives out about 700 awards a year.

Would you like to see SND give out 700 awards, but to all different papers? That would mean believing that the National Post and Times of Oman don’t deserve their awards and someone else does.

That premise would have to be: “Let’s put together a competition that would mean Excelsior and the LA Times lose and some other papers win over them.”

Or would you like to see SND give out 700 MORE awards, for a total of 1400, so that more people besides “the same group” win?

I don’t understand the end game here.

Yes, more volunteers and more diverse voices are good. But I have a hard time believing that the competition is doing anything OTHER than awarding the best work in the world based on merit.

I’m just going to repeat here a message I just send to Rob:

To be honest with all of you, I really don’t care about how many awards are given to any specific country or publication, my only concern always has been those 2 things I was asking on all my past messages:
1) Let’s give the real opportunity to live that wonderful experience of learning (of being in the contest) to a different group of people, and please consider colleagues, teachers and students from outside of the U.S.
2) Let’s take a look of how other international organizations are formed, and let’s take the best from them. We can’t assume that we are doing everything right. Always, always everything can be improved.

And Steve, I can see the Mexican national team winning the World Cup (if not in Brazil), during the next few years 🙂

As someone who has volunteered at least four times for Syracuse (and had to miss this year), it’s a labor of love and money. I mean cash-ola … outta your own wallet. Let’s not knock on a group of dedicated SND members who probably spend $1,000 to be there.

If you want to know why more new people don’t flock there every year, that’s a big factor.

Anyhow, the most important thing is attracting a wide sample of judges. The facilitators are not an issue. Maybe we need to allow return judges more often, would that help?

There’s a well-known arabic proverb that says “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain”. Yeah, that’s a reality, not everybody can spend $1,000 to get there … So, maybe it needs to go into a depth rethinking the whole process of the contest. Could be a itinerant event, in where each year could go to a different city or country, in order to expand and share with others that amazing experience of learning.
Once more again: My whole point is about to let and make easier to other people to be there.

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