The Core77 Design Awards poster has always been a staple of the program. Each year, a unique visual identity is given to the Awards program as a way to stimulate designers and encourage participation. Typically, in line with most promotional tools, these posters feature an array of colors and images assembled in an aesthetically arresting or pleasing way, which draw the eye and induce it to linger.
This year's poster is different.
Designed by Brendan Griffiths and Frank DeRose of Zut Alors! Studio, on first glance it feels like a reversal, an inversion of what is expected. Instead of a pleasant union of vibrant colors, the poster is printed in stark black and white tones. Replacing explicitly motivational words and a call to action is the seemingly upbeat phrase "It's all good." This sentiment is then turned upside down, however, with the insertion of the word "not" literally hand-drawn onto the paper.
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It's a curious phrase to represent a design award competition. At face value, those four words feel inherently negative, almost discouraging. A declaration that failure is unavoidable. A raincloud reminding you to despair.
Yet, ultimately the poster's message is profoundly optimistic.
As with any piece of visual communication like this there are layers of meaning and understanding to the message. As Griffiths explains:
"the poster contains some kind of embedded ambiguity, and through this ambiguity it attempts to elicit a response. Is it all good, or is it not all good? We don't think the poster renders a verdict either way, instead it asks the recipient to answer with their submission."
The most deliberately ambiguous element of the piece is the identity of the "It". What, exactly, is the pronoun referring to? There is no clear answer, and this lack of clarity is what makes the reader stop and think, and to render their own conclusions.
(Everything)'s Not All Good
The "It" as a manifestation of design on a conceptual level resonates particularly deeply, as the underlying sentiment of that phrase, despite the ostensible pessimism, speaks to the central pillar of the industry.
Design was born out of a need to solve problems. In large part, design exists because what surrounds us is not all good. The nature of the field is dependent on this perennial truism. Should the world transcend into utopia, there would no longer be a need for designers, for change makers, as any alteration to a product, service, structure, would be implicitly negative. At the mantel of perfection there is only a downward slope.
The fact that everything in the world is not all good implies there is room to improve, that there's a capacity for positive change. This is the essence of the design process—explore, understand, ideate, prototype, fail, learn, repeat, and, ultimately, achieve. Find what's not good and strive to make it better.
(Your Work)'s Not All Good
On a more individual level, the phrase communicates that not every finished design is going to be successful—just as not every entry into the Core77 Design Awards is going to be honored. This understanding is not meant to demoralize, but to galvanize, as the nature of competition is such that there is no achievement without simultaneous failure. There's a bluntness to it that is refreshingly realist.
The message taps into that core trait that binds all designers—persistent self-doubt. Designers toil in the studio until their eyes bleed, resisting the urge to settle for mediocrity, to accept anything less than their best. They brood over that small, nagging "not" until they feel a semblance of satisfaction. Indeed, the majority of effort expended on any given design project ends up in the dustbin, as they move through prototypes and drafts toward a final product.
Even when a finished product is seemingly perfect, designers fight complacency as if it is a poison, refusing to accept that anything is ever as good as it can possibly be. That is how the process works, and that is how great solutions are born. Interpreting the poster in this way celebrates that inexhaustible tenacity.
(The State of the World)'s Not All Good
On the most macro level, the poster refers to the global state of affairs. DeRose concedes that the current turmoil plaguing much of the world heavily informed their design.
"There was a very clear moment in the process of designing the poster, and the presentation that the poster was originally a part of, where it became obvious, to us at least, that making a typical design award poster just didn't make any sense given the state of the world."
It's a sentiment with which many of us can commiserate. Our world is in flux. Economically, politically, environmentally, things are not all good. Poverty and homelessness, though trending downward, are still a far too prevalent reality for many across the globe. Divisiveness and fear have risen exponentially in recent years, and mendacity has seemingly become subjective. Climate change threatens the future existence of the earth itself, and the life that resides upon it.
In truth, the world, at times, can feel like a gray place, and it would be easy to get lost in delusional contentment. Yet, rather than bury our heads in the sand and tell ourselves everything is fine, the hand-written "not" reminds us to avoid complacency, and that ongoing progress requires continual effort.
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The multiple interpretations of the message are reinforced by the graphic layout of the work. There is a complex narrative behind the finished form, which proves the poster is more than the sum of its words. The letters consume the frame aggressively, pushing even the punctuation off the page, as if making a brash, propagandist declaration. The severe black letters and forceful weight of the Zut Gothic typeface subvert the intended sentiment of this common phrase. What, on the surface, should be reassuring, is instead formidable. The period at the end forbids dissent, conveying the statement as a decree rather than a belief. The reader is led to infer that agreement is not necessary—only acceptance.
In this narrative the hand-written defacement of the poster becomes a rebellious voice for change. This defacer is not trying to shatter positivity, but to challenge false security and manufactured serenity. The "not" is small, but not meek. It is a rallying cry against blind acquiescence, and call for those who can to make it better.
It's Not All Good....so make it better
The "not", more than anything, is a call to action. Says Griffiths, "We think, particularly in a field like design, we have to start asking ourselves what the point or purpose is of the activities we are busy with. So in that regard, the poster could be seen as a kind of challenge or provocation toward making, or submitting, more engaged work."
Ultimately, on all levels, the poster serves as an incitement against passivity. It implores all of us to take what exists and refine it, indefinitely, because it's not all good. There is hate. There is hunger. There is hurt.
There is also hope, however. And it's that hope we latch onto, that gives us purpose. It may not all be good, but it can be improved, amended, rectified. And it's our responsibility as designers to do just that.