Printing Contests — Judging is Art and Science
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.
According to Fogel, the first step many judges take is to find any reason to exclude a piece from further judging. Early red flags include bad registration, incorrect folds, poor embossing or diecutting, and insufficient or excessive inking.
“In the second round, we look very critically at the work, and this is the point where the loupes come out, and we check for registration and laminate, the precision in which embossing, laminate and print come together,” Fogel says. “In the next round, we look at complexity. We’ll look at a job and say, ‘This piece is deceptively simple.’ Some of the projects we give the top awards to do not look complicated, when in fact they have a variety of very difficult printing tasks—the very fine ligatures, precise stampings, perfect registration and folds.”
But just when you think a piece is being judged on purely cold technical elements, along comes a panelist with a different perspective. Sam Ingram, a professor of graphic communications at Clemson University, evaluates not only the technical aspects but also what he terms the “emotional factor.”
“On the first look, I’m going to look at the technical things—the folios line up, the densities, all the usual suspects on our objective rating list to ensure they’re all in place,” he says. “Then, there’s that emotional piece where you say, ‘Wow, the printers, the designers, the client—look at what they did.’ It worked, which means there was a lot of effort that went behind the piece.”
The effectiveness of a piece and the printer’s ability to execute the expectations of the designer and client can enable a small-budget piece to tower over a multi-million dollar effort, Ingram stresses.
When the competition is whittled down to a small core of finalists in a given category, what are the subtle differences that can nudge the winner ahead of the rest of the pack? For Captain, the degree of difficulty in executing the final product is a telling sign, especially in a category such as fine art books.
“One year, there was a $500 book about Antarctica,” he says. “The photographs were taken by a husband and wife team, and they shot film instead of digital. You had to consider what it took to put that book out—the subject matter, planning, execution, printing and packaging. It came in a wooden case. It was really something to look at.”
According to Fogel, each judge tends to weigh heavily the execution of the production element that falls under his or her given area of expertise—in his case, photography and digital imaging on the prepress end. Thus, as the pool of entrants shrinks, he’ll become even more critical of areas including reproduction quality, contrast, shadow and highlight detail, the existence of banding and coverage consistency.
In fact, overall consistency helps establish an entry from the rest of the field. “It doesn’t represent a printer well if they have a great printing job but the binding is lousy, or the glue is sloppy, or the folds are in the wrong place,” Fogel says. “Those are the kinds of things that trip people up. We want to see a consistent level of detail, where every member of that print production team is holding up their end of the bargain.”
What helps produce a truly representative winner is a diverse judging panel, according to Fogel, which collectively represents the comprehensive elements of the print production process. “Everyone comes at this from different standpoints,” he says. “I’m very respectful of my fellow jurors that bring press experience. They’ll immediately pick up on press problems. I’ll pick up on prepress, contrast and saturation. Another judge will pick up on book finishing problems. For the most part, we’re pretty consistent and what we’re arguing about are really fine points.”
When it comes time to finding the very best, judges are very unforgiving regarding even the slightest flaws in what may ordinarily be considered a dazzling piece. “The real horror is when you know it’s a great, glorious piece, but maybe due to circumstances, (an entrant) did not look at page 250 and see the hickey there,” Ingram says. “To be the best, we obviously look for every little thing we can find—a change in density, register crossovers, looking at solid colors or built colors, where there may be a red, and it’s really tough to pull off. Those issues can often be a deciding factor.”
Though it should go without saying, Ingram stresses that entrants need to go over their prospective prize-winning pieces with a fine tooth comb. He’s often shocked at the common mistakes that are found on pieces, which would have been flagged had the submitting entrants taken the effort to pore over the samples ahead of time.
“In the world of manufacturing, the ‘uh-ohs’ are going to happen and you don’t know it. And you won’t know it unless you look piece by piece, page by page, square inch by square inch, to see what’s there. The people gathering submissions should use the same due diligence in making sure that they’ve selected the best out of the best that they did.
“Get a small group together within your company, have them look at it and battle it out internally on what they feel is the best. Any time you can use more than one set of eyes and one brain to make these kind of determinations, it’s going to improve your chances.”
And beware of hickeys! PI