Brands We Love – D&AD

Brands We Love – D&AD

Brilliant brands come in myriad different hues and inspire us for many reasons. D&AD (basically the Oscars for design and advertising if you are unfamiliar with it) has long held a place in our hearts at 32 Degrees South. Why? Our imaginations were caught, not just by the glamour of the awards, but by their long history and the organisation’s almost fabled beginnings in the creative explosion that was the sixties.

The image above is a painting by the design agency GBH.LONDON, commissioned by D&AD for its 50th anniversary showing the founders of the organisation.

How do you identify a great brand? Well, one method might be to see how many awards it has won for design, advertising or indeed, branding. As the most rigorous of creative awards D&AD is often used as such a benchmark. But the organisation itself is a brand and, with over 50 years of heritage behind it, not one to be sniffed at.

D&AD judging in 1963 juxtaposed with an image of judging now

D&AD Judging in 1963 and now

The Beginnings of a Brand

“To discuss the atmosphere of the UK and US creative scenes in the early 60’s with the people that were there was a joy.”

One of D&AD’s recent Presidents, Mark Bonner, co-creative Director at GBH.LONDON took on the task of untangling D&AD’s beginnings. He visited several surviving founders and recorded over twenty hours of interviews. Gradually he uncovered a rather complex story of chance meetings, transatlantic career moves, youthful frustration, and bloody-minded determination.

Mark Bonner, former president of D&AD and co-founder of GBH Design

“To discuss the atmosphere of the UK and US creative scenes in the early 60’s with the people that were there was a joy,” he says. “I talked to Bob Gill in his slippers from New York, Colin Forbes on his veranda in Connecticut, Bob Brooks from his apartment in Monaco, Malcolm Hart filming in Holland, Derek Birsdall from his studio in Islington and a host of others around the world. All united by their pivotal role in forming D&AD in 1962. Not for profit, for excellence, just as it is today.”

Excellence is the key word. Like many great heritage brands D&AD has a concept at its core that it has rarely wavered from. Expressed through its most famous programme, the Awards, and exemplified by its rigorous and demanding judging panels, ‘excellence’ is the value that has driven the brand forward through the decades and continues to drive it today. One way to experience the stability of that core concept is to look at the winning work of D&AD’s first decade and see just how well it has weathered. Many of the pieces would not look out of place on the winner’s podium now.

That ‘not for profit’ bit is important as well. For a brand that holds the integrity of its central product as sacrosanct, it isn’t really surprising that it is a charity. After all a desire for pure profit might affect the Awards relevance or sway the course of the judging.

Longevity of Purpose

Reading Mark’s account, it is striking to see just how much of the D&AD we know today was there at the beginning, albeit in a smaller and more parochial form. The first Awards took place in 1963, under the name DADA (Design and Art Directors Association of London). Their formidable reputation as the most difficult to win was established almost straight away. Similarly, it only took D&AD two years to start to push its education remit, with the first ever D&AD Workshops for aspiring creatives.

D&AD New Blood Awards Pencil trophies

D&AD New Blood Awards Pencils, coveted by students

The combination of design and advertising, which distinguished D&AD from many other similar organisations, was there in the beginning as well. The mix was powered by the design founder who would arguably become the most famous, Alan Fletcher. “Alan saw no division between skills,” says Mark. “Then 30, he was intuitively socialising with Art Directors in London’s advertising agencies and he discovered a shared impatience with the creative status quo in the UK.”

The brand’s marks and assets have changed remarkably little as well. The logo was designed by Colin Forbes. He stuck the four characters on adjacent sides of a cube of wood and then photographed the angulation. It has gone through a few iterations, but the essential form has remained the same. The trophies had a short lived run as beautiful, but far too delicate, life-sized pencils with a precious metal core in place of the lead – gold and silver obviously. They were redesigned by Lou Klein in 1964 into the familiar chunky wooden pencils that are still prized by creatives today.

The D&AD Pencils, part of the brand's heritage and the most difficult creative award to win in the worldIt’s the people that make it…

Such longevity of purpose doesn’t come without problems. The D&AD brand has had its fair share as it weathered huge changes in the industry. The story of its beginnings may seem irrelevant in the face of all those changes. Just faded photos of (all male) jurors wearing suits and smoking as they assess the work of their peers. But the sheer bloody-mindedness of the brand, sticking stubbornly to its idealistic principles of excellence and integrity, has proven to be its backbone.

“I don’t think that it could have been built by people who had purely professional instincts.”

And the people are its life-blood. What shines through in Mark Bonner’s account is the myriad of personalities that fuelled the ambition of the organisation and their commitment to it. He quotes Quentin Newark, designer at Atelier Works, who was Alan Fletcher’s assistant for a while, “I think that lay at the birth of D&AD. A mixture of ambition, trust and friendship. I don’t think that it could have been built by people who had purely professional instincts.” That one statement explains the brands slightly messy beginnings, and its success. The desire to do something that did not just serve ‘professional instincts’, that had purpose in the world beyond mere profit is what creates the brand’s attraction. Alan Fletcher remembered in ‘Rewind’ the effect of the early D&AD, “The sun shone, everyone could see what everyone else was doing. Standards were established. Clients became engaged. Creativity acquired value.”

D&AD as it is today – the D&AD Festival incorporating Professional Awards Judging
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