Open Letter to my Friend Zeldman

After an anecdotal back and forth with Zeldman about the .Net awards where he was sponsor, judge, and recipient of three medals, @jobgold asked 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.

Every time someone claims UX authority through an award, a kitty dies. Awards are not how we argue. You don’t need medals to convince clients. Your word is the medal. Awards are nice stickers on boxes in shops, and that’s cool, but that’s all. If we 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).

The Whatever “Of The Year”

Anyone that follows our business knows that there is no such thing as an agency, designer or site “of the year”. Many people in our field do great things every day that putting anyone on top of all others for 12 months doesn’t make sense. The real awards are handed out differently. Getting 1,000 retweets or thumbs ups from real customers is more sensible than any trophy. The value of digital products shows in analytics, not in carat.

People with a strong presence have an advantage. Twitter doesn’t solve all problems, it amplifies. Let’s dig deeper…

Your Word is the Medal

What is less 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. 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 things get difficult: “the community” is not 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 we didn’t). “What a silly process”, I thought. If iA were nominated somewhere else I might have joined in and used the leverage we have—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 work gets more attention than other people’s work, not because our work is so much better, but because we are good at getting attention. This is how the game works. I guess that’s part of the new attention economy or however you want to call it. I can’t blame anyone for that, I play the game.

While I think that iA does its best in terms of work, I know that we are not as good as one might believe just from the exposure we get. Being great at self promotion is part of a designer’s job (after all our job is to communicate), but there is the danger to lose perspective. That’s what I dislike about how the advertisement/branding industry handles awards.

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”, 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 we have known standards. If anyone gets any award for the third time in a row he gets labeled, and the seed of probable doubt starts to grow. Which is why I underlined:

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

I was 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 organization was that you are one of the judges (I didn’t even realize that ALA co-organized co-sponsored it). And then you win.

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 ADC award system is the wrong direction for one of the main voices of open standards. But let’s get to the key question:

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 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.