Open Letter to my Friend Zeldman

November 22, 2010

After an anecdotal back and forth with Zeldman about the .Net awards where he was co-organiser sponsor, judge, and recipient of three medals, someone asked me later whether I was against prizes in general or just the “circle jerk” prizes, I answered that “All awards should go from old uncles (like me or @zeldman or whoever) to young people. They need it.”

Zeldman wrote an interesting reply, arguing among other that…

“…we don’t need no awards, we need good awards”

Because…

“When a client said make the logo bigger, a creative director could turn quietly to his or her wall of awards, and the client would back down.”
  1. Every time someone claims UX authority through an award, a kitty dies. Awards are not how we argue.
  2. You are bigger than this. You don’t need medals to convince clients. Your word is the goddamn medal.
  3. Awards are nice stickers on boxes in shops, and that’s cool, but that’s all. So, if we really need those stickers for our boxed products (posters, books, templates, iPad apps) they need to be given in a way that reflects the way we want this industry to work (hint: user feedback, analytics).

How we argue

Anyone that follows our business knows that there is no such thing as an agency, designer or site “of the year”. So many people in our field do amazing things every single day that putting anyone on top of all others for 12 months just doesn’t make sense. But mainly, the awards now happen every day. Getting 1,000 retweets or thumbs ups from real customers is much more efficient than any trophy. And the true value of digital products shows in analytics, not in carat.

Of course, people with a bigger presence have an unfair advantage there. Twitter doesn’t solve all problems, it amplifies it. So, let’s dig deeper…

Your word is the medal

What’s not so random in the institutionalized honor system is the authority that honors. In reality these awards are not about who received them, but who gave them. They are the ones that get the biggest honors. You don’t need them. You are already there. You or Tim O’Reilly or Jared Spool — you guys don’t need any of this. Now, when you say that

“We were nominated for them by the community. Accepting the nominations was like accepting a compliment — the gracious thing to do. Not that I’m apologizing.”

Here is where it gets difficult

Here is where things get difficult for both of us: “the community” is not really changing the game. iA was nominated by the same community for “Mobile Site of the Year” and .Net encouraged us to promote the online voting (which I didn’t because I didn’t see the point). “What a silly process”, I thought. If iA were nominated somewhere else I would have joined in — because I expected the sword of justice to put things in place in the end. The reason why I believed that was because I saw your name on the panel.

We all know that if you occupy the center of attention you have a higher chance to win that vote, no matter whether you deserve it or not. Our stuff gets much more attention than other people’s stuff, not because it’s so much better, but because we get the attention. That’s how the game works. I guess that’s just part of the new attention capitalism or however you want to call it. I can’t blame anyone for that, I play the game. And I love it.

And while I think that iA does its best in terms of work, I’m pretty sure that we are not as good as some might believe just from the exposure we get. Being good at self promotion is and always was part of a designer’s job (after all our job is to communicate), but there is also the danger to lose perspective. That’s exactly what I dislike about the advertisement/branding industry.

How we want our industry to work

When judges win awards we look like the ADC club. And the good work gets hit by attention inflation. No matter whether it’s “common practice”, or systemically unavoidable, or labelled “not such a big problem”, judges must be impartial.

“Standards Champion for the third year in a row”

You are the standards champion, Zeldman. Not just for three years in a row but for as long as I have known the phrase. But if anyone gets any award for the third time in a row he gets labeled, and the seed of probable doubt starts to grow. The effect feels somewhat like this:

“Is he really that much of a standards champion? Are there no other standard champions? What if there is a bigger standard champion? I don’t know who, but.. there must be a bigger standard champion!”

Which is why I said:

“Just so you know: I don’t think you don’t deserve awards, I think awards don’t deserve you.”

I was just astonished to find you there. I’ve looked at the event out of the corner of my eye; pretty much the only thing I knew about the organisation was that you are one of the judges (I didn’t even realize that ALA co-organized co-sponsored it). And then you win stuff.

The world is not black and white. What matters is in which direction we move within the shades of grey. And I felt that the old-school ADC award system is the wrong direction for one of the main voices of open standards. But let’s get to the main question that I have avoided so far:

Do we need “Good awards”?

What is a good award? Who hands it out? Who receives it? We know what bad awards look like. Bad awards are those received through influence, nepotism, money, manipulation, power. And good awards? When Paul McCartney gets knighted? Medals of war? Oscars? An invitation to the Académie Française? The Nobel Prize?

I’m not completely sure about this, but the only good awards that came to my mind were awards handed out by the silverbacks to the young badasses — and anti-awards, like the Golden Raspberry.

Now that would be something: if people that respect each other gave each other anti-awards if they mess up! We all do sooner or later, and we all surely do praise each other often enough. Khoi has said it before. What’s missing in our funny little circle of web designer sausage prominence (if you will allow me that Swiss expression) is not open mutual praise, it’s open mutual critique. Which is sort of what I did here without planning to.

In short

An award system where judges win prizes is a dysfunctional practice that makes us look like the dysfunctional ad industry. I think that in the age of Twitter we don’t need awards to create awareness. Instead of reconstructing a fame-based honor system focused on cementing the current order of things, we should encourage evolution.

***

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