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Printing Contests — Judging is Art and Science

September 2007 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
EVERY YEAR, hundreds of printing companies around North America—indeed, around the world—confer with customers and designers on which pieces should be entered in the scores of contests held each year by industry associations, publications and manufacturers, just to name a few.

Undoubtedly, more than one contest entrant has been left shaking his or her head as to why a given submission did not garner a greater prize or even any recognition at all. After all, the customer, designer and printer took great efforts in making the final product a smashing success.

So why does a printed piece fall short, while another cops the blue ribbon? Well, when the art of subjective design quality collides with the science of objectively analyzing print production, the final judgment is often rendered over the most subtle of differences.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind is: What is the tipping factor in the decision-making process? Is it supposed to be a printing contest or a design competition? Often times, it’s both, which is where the process becomes clouded.

Despite what the entrant wants or thinks it should be, a majority of “printing contests” fall back on design quality.

“As much as you want to ignore it, the design of the piece influences, to some degree, your decision,” notes Harris Fogel, an associate professor of photography at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who has helped judge various print contests. “(Design) sets the tone and expectations for the piece. In theory, you want to try to push the design of the piece out of your consideration but, in reality, design does have an impact on judging.”

Design can be a double-edged sword, however, diminishing an entry’s prospects as easily as pushing it over the top. Greg Captain, manager of the New Yorker imaging center for Condé Nast Publications who is also called upon to judge contests, believes there is value in the understated design effort.

“A simple design that’s executed well could be better than something that has all the bells and whistles attached to it,” Captain says. “In years past, some contestants from Asia could really grab your eye. But when you look at it closely, sometimes the printing isn’t there. What attracts you is if the piece has some aqueous coating, spot varnish or foil stamping.”

The first criterion Captain uses in assessing an entry is the objective of the piece, the point of its creation and its effectiveness in delivering on expectations. The functionality of design and its ability to grab the judges’ attention is also pivotal. But a well-designed piece cannot, in the course of its evaluation, mask the printing flaws, and vice versa.
 

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