Look back in awe

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Last night the education and award organisation D&AD held a huge bash in Battersea in commemoration of 50 years at the forefront of creative excellence.

What would the organisation’s founding fathers have made of last night? Well, a few of them, such as Bob Gill and Derek Birdsall were there to see it (Birdsall himself collected a long-overdue President’s award). They might have been slightly confounded by the early part, which was a quick and cursory zip through this year’s winners. But when we got to the main event, we’d imagine they’d be pretty pleased.

Begun as a UK based echo of the long-standing Art Directors Club of New York, D&AD has had a sometimes turbulent time over 5 decades, but only the most hardened of cynics after too many chardonnays would have viewed the middle part of last night’s event with anything but awe.

Awe? Well, that’s a strong word, but, as the names making up the specially formulated ‘most awarded’ lists were read out, you realised that here on screen, and usually on stage, were the heavy hitters of 20th century British talent.

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D&AD based the lists on yellow and black pencils won, so periods of huge success for particular individuals clearly stood out – Tony Kaye’s stretch as the commercials director of choice for Volvo, Dunlop et al won multiple gongs at a certain point and lifted him high into several lists.

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A long-standing partnership between Tony Brignull and Neil Godfrey that, for a decade or so won them countless pencils was duly awarded in both copywriting and art direction.

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Conversely it was almost a shock to see David Abbott only recognised as the 8th most awarded copywriter of all time (there’s one of his Economist classics above), perhaps a reflection of his early elevation to ‘creative director’, a title more suited to steering rather than creating the work.

In ‘most awarded design studios’ and individual designers, the Fletcher Forbes Gill/Pentagram axis was duly acknowledged, along with what began as an offshoot, The Partners. Pentagram individuals such as John McConnell also made it through, but one of his key partners in the 70s and 80s heyday of the London office was reflected in the individual designer category, topped by David Hillman.

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Hillman had already made his mark with his ground-breaking design work on Nova magazine in the late sixties, and when invited by McConnell to join Pentagram continued his purple patch, winning again and again in editorial, book and graphic categories, culminating in his redesign of The Guardian in 1988.

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Other individual designers made it into the ‘top three’ – Michel de Boer for his role at the vanguard of a particularly avant garde brand of Dutch design at Studio Dumbar, and Mike Dempsey for an amazing career spanning four decades, encompassing countless graphic styles and approaches along the way.

By virtue of almost complete dominance of the product design and design studio categories since the release of the iMac, Jonathan Ive, Apple and what seemed like his entire design team scooped both most awarded brand and design studio (and probably by a huge margin, considering how many black pencils they have won since 1998). Equally dominant in the ad agency category was CDP, which for decades stood as the ultimate training ground for generations of the best talent of the UK advertising industry.

A few people might quibble with some of the results. Yes, they are very British biased lists (especially in design). No, there were virtually no women. There’s a significant ‘hole’ in the designer lists where one would have placed the likes of Saville and Brody (paradoxically next year’s President elect). Because the lists go back fifty years, longevity is clearly a virtue (and a significant hurdle to any design or advertising start-up of the last decade or so).

In response, the awards can only reflect who entered, and what won, and many of the winners reflect the ‘boom’ period from 1970 to the late nineties. From the millennium onwards, the organisation has become far more global, so dominance by any one agency, studio or even country has now become virtually impossible.

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The lists reflect an age where white, middle-class men put their heads down, determined to change the face of design and advertising in this country, and by and large they succeeded. Twice, the daughters of the late John Webster came to the stage to gather awards reflecting their father’s creative legacy borne from decades working really, really hard in a solitary office at BMP.

Perhaps Brody’s impending Presidency will come just at the right time to propel the industry forwards to future challenges. But, just for a moment, it’s great to celebrate this work, slightly hungover, and look back in awe, not anger.

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D&AD’s final ranked list of who came where can be viewed here. If you’re interested, johnson banks’ Creative Director Michael Johnson was seventh in the ‘most awarded designer’ list.