How a group of designers took control of the Swiss Design Awards and used it for their own interest.
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In the small world of Swiss graphic design, federal prizes such as the Swiss Design Awards and the Most Beautiful Swiss Books are followed closely. The winners’ works are admired – sometimes envied – and frequently emulated. These prizes set the benchmark on the graphic design scene. Moreover, the Swiss Design Awards’ generous CHF25,000 prize allows practitioners to launch their careers, finance a personal project or focus on lesser paid, but critically recognised work. At the same time, discussions and criticisms inevitably arise after every award ceremony. Speaking in hushed tones and semi-formulated allegations, designers speculate as to why some of their colleagues were found deserving more than others. Rumours have it that jury members are embroiled in conspiracies, favour their social circles and exclude competitors. Analysing this universe in close detail, The Prize of Success retraces the recent history of the Swiss Design Awards and analyses how it enabled a new design culture to emerge in Switzerland. It uncovers the power dynamics behind the Swiss design scene and how these came to shape it until today.
Awards have always been complex tournaments where symbolic and economic capital are exchanged. As the country’s leading accolade for graphic design, the Swiss Design Awards offer a particularly rich case study to understand the graphic design scene in Switzerland. In 2002, the Federal Office of Culture relaunched the Awards to address critiques in the specialised press and a loss of interest from designers. This was the biggest reconfiguration of the Awards since their inception in 1917. Though the relaunch was successful in replacing the Swiss Design Awards at the centre of the design scene, it also came at a price. The Prize of Success outlines how a new generation of graphic designers took advantage of the Awards’ relaunch to take control of federal design promotion.
The newcomers were able to shift the Awards’ focus almost exclusively on cultural design, despite the latter representing only a fraction of the work created on a national level. This new generation of designers – most of whom were men born in the 1970s and early 1980s – sat on juries, awarded close colleagues and became the de facto kingmakers on the Swiss design scene. Their takeover automatically led to a series of blind spots. Designers working in the commercial sector were excluded from the Awards, as were women, those who had followed vocational training and anyone who did not belong to the scenes rooted in Zurich or at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne. As such, the Awards contributed to a restricted definition of “good” design, decreased the professional models promoted and caused the erasure of practices they deemed unworthy of praise. The absence of alternative narratives in design promotion contributed to the wider lack of diverse representation in design history.
By analysing the 2002 relaunch of the Swiss Design Awards and its impact on the Swiss design scene, The Prize of Success contributes to reframing the discourse on recent Swiss graphic design history. It adopts a sociological perspective to expand and question the linear narrative of success in typical graphics design careers. In doing so, it contributes to the demystification of design as the product of solitary “geniuses” and replaces it within wider, often systemic power hierarchies. More than a prize recognising the successful, the Awards are also evaluated in terms of the blind spots they create, including gender, class, education, and geographical scenes.
Gathered over four years, the evidence explored in the book includes oral history, close readings of graphic design artefacts and the analysis of administrative documents from the Federal Office of Culture archive and the Schweizer Werkbund archive. After conducting more than twenty interviews with designers, curators and educators both within and outside of the closely guarded inner circles of the Swiss design scene, the author reconstructed the power networks at play within the Swiss graphic design scene, which include practitioners, institutions, awards and clients.
The Prize of Success begins by retracing the power struggles that shaped the Swiss Design Awards since their inception in 1917. Initially destined to promote the commercial viability of designers, the Awards eventually shifted towards a definition of design as a cultural asset. It then focuses on the period that preceded the 2002 relaunch to analyse what impacted the Awards’ relaunch. This period saw a number of unprecedented changes in the graphic design profession, notably due to the emergence of digital tools, which played a determining role in the redefinition of the competition. The book then demonstrates how the new generation appropriated design promotion. It analyses how their perception of design influenced the Swiss Design Awards, up to the point where they took control of the competition.