Over at Print, Steven Heller tells the story of how graphic design annuals, those yearly compilations of the best work in various niches of the profession, came to be. He applies his customarily thorough historical knowledge in tracing the form’s evolution, and dates the prestige that annuals bestowed upon featured designers to as far back as the 1920s.
The annual tome or brochure was a sample book of current trends, and selection was an honor but also served as a calling card for more (and hopefully higher-priced) assignments. Although the annuals were primarily used within the profession to showcase old and new designers, they were increasingly used as validation for clients, too.
In the late 1920s, certificates were bestowed on ‘winners’ of the competitions, which were framed on walls of honor in most agencies and studios. The annual show and its offshoots became so prestigious that medals and ribbons were soon created to distinguish the good from the better from the best.
However, the article only tells part of the story, in my opinion. By the late 20th Century, annuals were a kind of business to themselves—several design magazines made as much money off of the enormous fees that entrants would pay for consideration in an annual as they did off of subscriptions and advertisements. What’s more, the judging process for entries, at least in my experience as a sometime judge, was often less than rigorous, perhaps as a function of also being incredibly laborious—imagine how difficult it can be to maintain high levels of scrutiny when you’re faced with manually evaluating hundreds if not thousands of design samples, most of which are depressingly trite. Design annuals persist today, but thankfully they seem well past their peak in terms of influence, thanks in no small part to the Internet. I stopped reading them many years ago, and don’t miss them.