Three Questions: Alisa Wolfson, Design Juror
Our Cannes team caught up with Alisa Wolfson (SVP, Group Design Director from LB Chicago) to hear what it's like to have one of the hottest tickets at Cannes - a seat at the jury's table. Below, Alisa gives us the inside scoop of what the design jury experience is like and weighs in on the importance of diversity, wildcards and how a big yellow book set the standard for the week.
Can you tell us a little about how the jury worked and how it differed from judging at other shows?
There were more than 2,600 pieces (of work) and they ranged across all mediums — from small-form logos to large scale branding systems. And the process was very interesting; I’d never done this sort of thing before. I’m used to seeing everything as a whole, or what we call it the ‘lasagna style,’ where it’s page after page flipping through a book.
But here they broke us up into four teams of five people, each from different regions and with different design perspectives. And they changed the teams daily so you were never really with the same people.
This did two things: One is that it gave you a very specific thing to think about. Instead of looking at design en masse, you got to concentrate on specific categories that perhaps maybe one had more expertise in. For instance, the first day I judged sound design, and I think I was slated to judge it during the first round because of my experience in sound and media. So I think they were strategically getting people involved in the kind of projects that they could best judge.
The other thing that happened — for me, at least — was that I didn’t see a lot of my own work. There was only one time that I saw something we entered, so to come up with the shortlist was actually quite mysterious, because I didn’t see a lot of the work that we entered until I was done with my stuff and got to meander around and see things in other groups.
So the interesting thing about that is, knowing what did make the shortlist from those groups, you kind of got a sense of the collective standards were for each of those different teams. And then once those things were shortlisted, we, as a group, spent two days talking about them and making sure our shortlist was sound. And then we went through and started to award prizes.
And then everybody at the end was able to nominate a piece — and this is what I loved about this most of all — from the shortlist (or not, even) that they could bring back and resurrect that they’d remembered from their earlier reviews.
There was one campaign called “Cleft to Smile” from India. It’s a beautiful logo, and we all loved it, but it just didn’t make it through to the shortlist because it might have been too hard to understand from just looking at the board. But someone raised her hand and wanted to bring that one back in, and it wound up — and I’m actually getting chills — coming from not making the shortlist to winning Gold. At that point, people are standing up and clapping — it was really cool to understand the impact that we would have on other people’s ideas and lives.
You’re making somebody’s career and you’re validating their ideas and talent, but you’re also collectively resetting what people are inspired by out in the world, which is more of a responsibility than a right, actually.
And we all felt that. We all felt tremendously responsible for a measured set of awards that represented not only the kind of work that we respected and loved, but the kind of work that we believe designers should be doing in the world.
The jury was geographically very diverse. Were you guys all on the same page?
There were variances. There were some struggles to understand, culturally, how certain pieces would be best translated, not from a language standpoint, but how impactful they would be.
For instance, a Japanese poster is something that people in America and the western world absolutely covet — and we were very lucky to have a number of people qualified to validate whether that was indeed an object that we should be looking at, and whether it meant something culturally or not.
And then there were some differences. There were a couple pieces that made the shortlist that personally I wasn’t drawn to aesthetically, but culturally meant so much to other people on the jury that after you kind of “become one” with your design jury family, you just have to take a step back and respect other people’s viewpoints and opinions and understand that this person has a lovely insight as to why this is good for them and their market.
Were there any themes or trends that emerged this year?
Everybody is craving work with purpose, although a better way of saying it might be work that’s intended for the world in a way that we’re not expecting.
What I mean is, often times when we when we make things, they’re not memorable. Whether it’s a campaign or an act or a poster or a book, that artifact has really got to mean something, and I found that those things that actually took you to a different place for that idea had the most permanence in our minds.
It was the work that changed our way of thinking about a particular medium that was really the most influential.
For instance, there’s this piece for Nelson Mandela, and it’s this yellow poster that folds down into a booklet format. When you open it, it doesn’t fold out into a traditional book, it instead folds out into an eight by seven foot poster. And the poster is printed only on one side in black, so you’ll be able to read it in the same way you would a book, but when it opens up you discover that it was actually designed to show you the exact size of Nelson Mandela’s cell that he was in for 27 years of his life.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye because it wasn’t in my judging category on the first day, but you see this big yellow book and you just want to go pick it up. When I first picked it up, I didn’t know what to do with it and I kind of walked away from it for a while. But when someone who was judging it opened it up and put it on the floor, everybody went up to it — it was like a magnet pulling us in, asking “what is this?”
And then we all got “in” it, and stood on it, and wanted to take pictures of it and then some people started laying down in it… this was the cell that this man was in for the better part of his life. By bringing the physical poster off the wall and to the floor was really special and just reinforced the power that design has.
It was a big yellow sheet of paper, it wasn’t black, it wasn’t dirty, it didn’t make you feel angry or unhappy for him, it just had this really weird pull.
How do you embody the man’s (Nelson Mandella’s) spirit? It’s an installation… it’s like what we (Leo Burnett) talk about Acts. It’s not trite, it’s like, above where it should be. Not where it should be.
Once we saw that, if it didn’t measure that standard, it wasn’t something anyone wanted to talk about.
This is the kind of work that resets your view on what you want to do with your space in the world. This was one that I was happy not just to be able to experience, but also reward and bring to other people.