Katie Ewer
Jun 26, 2015

Are the Design Lions badly designed?

The industry doesn't fully appreciate the commercial value of design, and the vague, all-inclusive Design Lions category isn't helping.

Volvo's reflective paint by Grey London
Volvo's reflective paint by Grey London

The Cannes Design Lions is now in its 7th year. Yet on the whole, the design industry seems to be either blissfully unaware of the entire event, or just strangely apathetic. Of all the shortlisted entries this year, only a meagre handful were submitted by design or branding agencies. Why?

Perhaps it has something to do with the vague category definitions within the Design Lions category. Design is a loosely defined craft, after all, rather than a tangible and specific medium. So if you ‘design’ a great audio piece, for example, you can enter it for a Design Lion. As a result, this nebulous category encompasses a vast and eclectic range of disciplines—from logos to websites, from brand voice to emojis and from TV title sequences to brochures and books. That’s before you count things like ceramic envelopes, holographic crowds and glow in the dark paint (Grey London didn’t design the paint by the way, but they did design the awards entry video for Cannes). I’ve worked in design for 17 years, but I still found myself reaching for the dictionary to remind myself what ‘design’ actually means.

What I do know is that our industry suffers from perceptions that design is synonymous with mere aesthetics. As a result, clients often fail to appreciate its commercial value. The Cannes Festival offers a chance for the design industry to demonstrate that design is about ideas and effectiveness, as well as about craft. 

There are some wonderful examples of work that delivers both this year. Mill+’s title sequence for the D&AD, Publicis London’s clever and engaging work for homeless charity DePaul and a really simple and effective website for Virgin America by Work & Co, to name but a few. Work from Japan once again dominated Asian entries, displaying that distinctive aesthetic that shows Japanese designers respect the big idea, but they always deliver it with immense artistry. Check out work for Issey Miyake, Hibiki whisky or Keio University for instance. And of course, the insanely brilliant Sonos logo by Bruce Mau Design, which seamlessly fuses a product feature (sound waves) with possibly the world’s first kinetic identity. Talk about the perfect marriage of idea and execution.

In a few cases, though, it feels like craft has been chucked out of the window, sometimes along with reason itself. Sending bonsai trees into space, or creating typefaces that sacrifice legibility at the altar of a concept, for instance. One of the key differences between design and art is that design exists within the context of a commercial or social need. When design cuts itself adrift from those contextual moorings, it doesn’t become art. It just becomes bad design, floating down the river of marketing nonsense. Whatever, the entry videos are cool, right?

There’s some fantastic and charismatic work that’s entered for the Cannes Lions this year. But I know that there’s loads more in the portfolios of design agencies around the world that just isn’t being submitted. I think it’s time that the festival refocused this category, so that designers around the world show the world that design is about ideas and craft, not just videos.

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.


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