Design awards season is upon us: that strange time of year where people usually clad in Uniqlo sweaters suddenly swan about in suits like it’s perfectly normal; entire agencies join in a collective game of pretending not to be so hungover they can’t see; and perhaps most importantly, our eyes are opened to just how damn hard it is to judge what makes a creative project “good,” “bad,” or “award-winning.”

The problem is, of course, that this sort of categorization is only possible through a tricky blend of measuring the appropriateness of image to brief, certain clear-cut statistics like increased sales or visibility, assessing technical ability, and a far less tangible sense of whether or not the work is objectively good.

Thomas Hedger, Petrol Station, nominated for V&A Illustration Awards Student category

This final subjectivity question is the spanner in the works. Yet for all the opportunities for disagreement when judging such awards, it’s surprising to see how easily consensuses are formed—we’ll often see one agency or project celebrated multiple times across numerous award schemes.

Judging panels are (quite rightly) a varied bunch: so what might seem technically impressive and original for the television personality may seem like old hat for the seasoned book jacket illustrator, or twee for the jaded editor. So I was surprised to learn that the jury for the 2017 V&A (Victoria and Albert  Museum) Illustration Awards is made up of just three: former V&A head of design Jane Scherbaum; former Through the Keyhole and Masterchef presenter Loyd Grossman (who also has a keen interest in art history, we’re told); and author Beryl Kingston.

Blood Antiquities, Emily Evans

Illustrator Emily Evans is among those nominated for the 2017 Student Illustrator of the Year award, and is recognized for Blood Antiquities, created as part of her MA Visual Communication course at London’s Royal College of Art. Outside of her studies, Evans also lectures on illustration on the Visual Communication course at the Cass School of Design at London Metropolitan University. Her students often enter competitions as part of the live brief element of their courses, and she feels the discipline of working to external deadlines and “actively putting your work out there” is invaluable. Coupled with “the exposure” that being shortlisted or winning such competitions can give, she sees them as a useful vehicle for young creatives. What’s less clear is why and when such work is deemed potentially award-winning.

For the V&A awards, each judge was first presented with 20 to 30 pieces of work for each category, selecting just two potential winners to discuss with the rest of the trio. With so little margin for error of judgement, Scherbaum is clear in what she looks for: “mastery of the technique, and a richness. Particularly with illustration, it’s that tactile quality—I want to see the illustrator’s hand, in a way.”

Another key quality for Scherbaum is that the image should “stand alone—it shouldn’t need explanation or any words. I do look for a distinctive style. I see so much work every day that it needs to have some sort of originality and freshness of approach.

“I think illustration can create an atmosphere, so I want to feel something when I look at it. I think the less successful illustrations are probably the opposite of that; maybe derivative, cold, clinical… and I guess if it doesn’t immediately say something I feel it’s failing as a piece of work. But a lot of it comes down to personal preference.”

How to plan a good date night illustration for GQ, by Andrea Chronopoulos

Over at the D&AD Awards, Greek/Italian illustrator Andrea Chronopoulos found his experience on the Crafts for Design Jury taught him the importance of context in judging an illustration. “If that illustration was part of a poster, was it helping that poster communicate? Is it adding something to the project? For it to be successful, it must be an illustration that works with that assignment. If you use your own style without having to change it for the project, to add something more, then that’s very important.”

When looking at others’ work, Evans deems a great illustrated image to work within its context. “Of course, it’s really subjective, but it’s about a combination of the style—maybe it’s doing something a bit new—and talking about a topic or story with a response that’s quite different to what we’ve seen before,” she says. “When I’m looking at students’ projects or thinking about when I was at uni, you see the same themes that roll around again and again. For me there has to be a narrative to it rather than being a purely aesthetic piece of work. There has to be some context rather than just being a really technically beautiful thing.”

Chronopoulos says that in weighing up a piece of work on the jury, the range of backgrounds across panel members was invaluable in reaching a fair conclusion. “I think that while illustration can be easier to judge for someone of a different design field, because of its visual aspect (compared to other fields like typography for example), an illustrator or an art director that works with illustrators can see the quality in more ‘unusual’ styles, and recognize more easily the originality of a work or its stylistic references,” he says.

“This was my first time as a judge and it was something completely new for me—I was really curious to see how it was from the other side and to talk with people from different fields to my own. I work in a studio with other illustrators, but I only talk with them about illustration. It was nice to see how people from different fields worked.”

Life is Electric campaign by Dentsu, illustrations by Blexbolex

One of the D&AD pieces that unanimously stood out for Chronopoulos and the rest of his panel were the Life is Electric campaign for Panasonic, by the agency Dentsu, with beautiful illustrations by French comics artist and illustrator Blexbolex. “His work is very unique and original, and I think he used his style brilliantly for this,” says Chronopoulos. “I don’t think the project would have been nearly as successful if it didn’t have that.”

The other was the East of Eden poster for  Steppenwolf Theatre by Ogilvy & Mather, which commissioned illustrator Christopher Delorenzo. “It was pretty minimal but very strong and effective,” says Chronopoulos. “What worked very well was that it didn’t use many elements, only what was essential to the message.”

East of Eden poster, Ogilvy & Mather, illustrations by Christopher Delorenzo.

During the D&AD Festival I spoke with judges from across the various subcategories that made up the Crafts strand, and this idea of skillful technique complementing alignment with the brief and context of a project was paramount. What was just as important though, was that the work possessed some less tangible qualities: Did it resonate emotionally? How did it make people feel? Finally, was the work doing something good? For D&AD CEO Tim Lindsay, what made the winners of the prestigious Black Pencil stand out was their demonstration of  “a clear desire to create a better world, whether it’s promoting diversity, safety, or inclusivity. Proof that creativity as a force for good lives outside of a single category but has become an all-encompassing theme.”