This year marked the second time I had the honor of joining the judges' panel for this prestigious competition among Northern California designers. The current advanced state of design software tools and designer fluency with these tools brings to mind recent judging experiences in the ACADIA International Design Competition, Bentley's 2002 Success Awards, and the last two iterations of the annual Graphisoft Prize. What are today's cross-platform, cross-cultural, and crossover issues in design representation?
Once upon a time, but within the last twenty years, hidden-line rendering and Phong shading were considered technical "hot stuff" in computer graphics for AEC, plant/process and infrastructure projects (and they were, indeed, major advances over the wireframes and flat shading that preceded them). Today, sophisticated modeling of complex surfaces and photo-realistic global illumination solutions represent the technological threshold, the entry point if you will, to any self-respecting presentation or representation. In all the design competitions I've helped to judge during the past few years, a number of recurring issues stand out:
> Even among vendor-specific competitions, such as the Graphisoft Prize, the Bentley Success Awards, and (I would expect) the upcoming Autodesk iDesign competition, the underlying software platform no longer seems to offer any clear-cut distinguishing qualities. Although designers who allow their work to be limited by the easiest path provided by their tools do tend to expose their lack of skill or ambition, few entries in any of these competitions could easily be identified as the distinct product of any specific modeling, rendering, or animation tool (or underlying hardware and operating system platform). This leads to a kind of platform capability compression, in which the tools are no longer the limiting factor on the expression of the work, and many different tools enable the production of high-quality results.
> Just within the last two or three years there has been a parallel development in skills compression: the average or mean level of technical mastery displayed by competition entrants has steadily risen, and the range between the very best presentations and the middling or median presentation has decreased. More people are capable of producing more technically competent work, and the "spread" between the technically most proficient and the technically weakest entries has grown very tight.
> Closely related to the tools-capability compression and entrant skills compression trends is the vanishing difference between the best student work and the best professional work, as well as between the best large-firm work and that of the most sophisticated small firms. Given the continuing pace of development in the underlying tools, the necessity for constant upgrading of personal skills tends to reduce barriers to entry for new players (such as students and solo practitioners).
> Another related phenomenon is the geographic dispersion of these skills and tools. A geographically-limited competition, such as the Bay Area Exhibit, reveals uniform levels of achievement as advanced as those to be found in any truly international competition (it should be noted, however, that the Northern California territory of this competition likely does not represent a truly random sample of the global graphics population).
> Among entries judged by 2-D boards or screen images, both the average entry and the top-level contenders embodied very sophisticated integration of 3-D modeled design elements into the 2-D graphical layout. Among the best entries, the ability to judge fine distinctions between "best 2-D presentation" versus "best 3-D representation" has become problematic.
> Similarly, the degrees of difference among multi-media, web-based, and animated entries—while still more diverse than the board/screen submissions—have narrowed as well. A potentially troubling side effect in judging such presentations is the subliminal influence of their soundtracks (just as evidence of drawing skill once enabled weak design to "show" better, the most appealing multi-media presentations now "sound" better—independent of their design merit).
There also is increasing diversity in the way competitions like this are juried. Every time that I've participated in the Bay Area Exhibit or in the Graphisoft Prize, the process has involved "traditional" juries meeting in the same room for a day or two to view and review entries—with all the collegial give and take that this Face2Face process has always entailed. F2F juries develop their own dynamics based on the interaction among the personalities involved (hopefully only one personality per juror ), which may occasionally lead to results for the group that differ from the simple sum of the individual choices. A further complicating factor is the now-mandatory presence of non-jury technical folks in the jury room in order to run the multi-media and/or web entries.
For the most recent Bentley Success Awards and for the first ACADIA Design Competition (1998, in which I was one of the organizers and preliminary screening jurors), all judging was done individually and remotely by jurors basking in the solitary glow of their own monitors whilst perusing anonymized entries posted as websites. Combined with a strictly arithmetic scoring system, this eliminates all the drawbacks, as well as many of the advantages, of F2F juries.
The 2001 ACADIA Competition introduced a new approach in which "...each entrant was also a juror, with the winners determined through a process of online discussion and voting among the participants." This approach puts the judging in the hands of those best able to assess achievements with respect to the competition brief: the competitors themselves. It also exploits and ultimately is consonant with the democratizing, virtual community spirit on which the Internet was founded.
Thus, we have a classic technology adoption cycle:
> First, the old technology (the F2F jury) is infiltrated by newer technology (digitally produced boards and on-screen displays of stills and animation)
> Next, new technology is implemented in the context of the old system (online judging, but conducted by a "professional" jury)
> Finally, the emergence of a new form that is derived from and adapted to the new technology (online judging, conducted democratically and collaboratively, by the competitors).