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.)