Type design competitions
Last autumn I was in Buenos Aires, where I sat on the jury for Letter2, a type design competition. Just like bukva:raz!, the first AtypI competition in 2001, Letter2 celebrates the best typefaces produced over the past decade. Out of 561 submitted entries the jury selected 53 that represent the previous decade based on their design excellence.
No sooner had the results been announced than the wheels of the font marketing machine rolled into action as some of the selected designers and foundries began to trumpet that their typefaces were among ‘the best of the decade’.
But ‘best of the decade’ is a somewhat problematic assertion because not all designers have an equal appetite for competitions. While some award-hungry designers actively seek out all kinds of contests and prizes, others simply ignore them. So the promise of ‘best of the decade’ is reduced to ‘best of the submissions’. And very often the submissions don’t include the highest quality work. For example, renowned author and type designer Fred Smeijers hasn't participated in type competitions for almost 20 years. Gerard Unger, another celebrated Dutch type designer, enters competitions only rarely. Unger says, ‘I want younger designers to have a chance.’ And in fact these events typically include a disproportionately high number of young designers looking for recognition of their work.
Matthew Carter is designer whose work has received numerous awards, and FontBureau, the foundry which has released most of his fonts, sometimes submits them to competitions. But Carter himself says, ‘I have become less interested in competing with other type designers and more concerned with helping the acceptance of type design as something on a par with other forms of graphic and industrial design.’[signup]
František Štorm, an established Czech type designer gives a more pragmatic reason for avoiding competitions: ‘I simply have no time for it.’ But then he adds, ‘I do however feel that contests are for the young designers. Older designers that otherwise might clearly win them should find something more worthwhile to do.’
And finally, Peter Verheul, a Dutch designer of high profile typefaces, never sends his work to competitions, one reason being that the judging criteria are inherently vague. ‘There is no explanation why a typeface has been picked to become a winner,’ says Verheul. ‘I don’t really believe that a fair judgement is possible, given the different nature and diversity of the material to judge.’
Of course, one might say it is easy for recognised designers not to participate in contests; they have won them all already. However while the stated aim of the contest is to recognise type design professionals, almost a third of the selected projects are by non-professional designers entering their student projects.
So what is the value of these competitions? Do they recognise talent and stimulate creation? Or is it just cheap marketing? And is there a viable alternative? Borrowing inspiration from such prestigious awards as the Turner Prize or the Nobel Prize, one could imagine replacing the call for entries with a committee of experts who would nominate the best work. But the type design profession is so small and insular, with no outside critics or curators, that assembling a committee of recognised experts would necessarily exclude a large percentage of possible contenders.
Type design competitions will likely remain problematic as long as the type design community remains so small. Perhaps organisers should accept the fact that such competitions often fail to attract well-established professionals, and focus their events on younger designers. Perhaps this emphasis on younger designers could include making the judging public, so that all can benefit from the jurors’ feedback. And perhaps we should all learn to take the publicised results of such competitions with a grain of salt.