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Groucho Marx's quip that outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend (and that inside a dog, it's too dark to read), seemed to be proven correct at last week's Red Dot Communication Design awards. In a field filled with high-tech Web sites and sleek graphics from corporate Goliaths like Asian electronics makers Samsung and Sony (SNE), a small Swiss communications agency called Nestro and its colorful biography of a local geologist made the biggest impression on the international judges.
The Red Dot awards, held in Essen, Germany, are among Europe's most renowned creative events. Each year, a distinguished panel of 12 judges chooses two top-prize winners in the junior and senior category and recognizes several hundred more designs.
MAKING AN IMPACT. These real red dots are proudly displayed by competition winners throughout Europe, Asia, and increasingly the U.S., as a stamp of approval, much like America's Good Housekeeping Seal. This year's jury, which included Japanese optical-illusion artist Shigeo Fukuda, reviewed 3,094 entries from 26 countries before selecting two nonfiction titles as winners.
Nestro's intricately detailed biography of 100-year-old Swiss geologist Warda Bleser-Bircher, who is still alive today, scooped the $12,000 Grand Prix. Titled The Brave Pioneer, it comes in seven separate, vibrantly colored brochures, each filled with lively narrative and illustrations about her research, travels, and politics. The biography's surprising win is not a fluke, according to Red Dot President Peter Zec, but a sign that the design industry is rediscovering the value of a centuries-old medium.
"The new challenge for graphic designers is to make an impact on a world increasingly overloaded with information -- returning to the handicraft and humanity of books is the way," explains Zec, who is also head of the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, a nonprofit institution that aims to promote innovation and creativity. Its 43,000-square-meter Design Museum in Essen displays more than 1,000 Red Dot award-winning creations from around the world.
PERSONAL TOUCH. This year's Grand Prix choice marks quite a change from 2004's winner, a slick catalog from world-leading U.S. photography agency Corbis. Even the 2004 Junior Prize for students went to a modern, highly stylized short film imagined for the humanitarian agency Amnesty International, with images that resembled spray-painted graffiti.
By contrast, this year's $3,000 Junior Prize was scooped by the illustrator behind Miss Wow, an as-yet unpublished picture book depicting the various faces of modern women. German graphic artist Katja Schwalenberg, 30, beat a fellow finalist's ingenious weather Web site, thanks to her skillfully drawn portraits, pencil drawings, erotic sketches, and whimsical comic strips. Zec says, like the Grand Prix winner, Schwalenberg captivated the jury with her personal touch. She now plans to use the money to self-publish her creation.
While some of this year's 225 finalists, each of whom won a prestigious Red Dot award, already work within businesses, many are self-financed, like Schwalenberg. In the case of The Brave Pioneer, the Bleser-Bircher family commissioned Nestro to design the biography and paid Switzerland's leading publishing house, NZZ Buchverlag, to print 3,000 copies.
AMERICAN SHOWCASE. Encouraging businesses to hire Red Dot Communication Design finalists is Zec's next challenge. To do so, he plans to raise their profile in the U.S., where they are less well-known than in Europe and Asia.
Zec and his team are planning to open an office or showroom in New York City next spring, from where they'll solicit entries for both the communication awards and their siblings, the Red Dot Product Design awards, which take place every summer. After that, Zec hopes to open a design museum on the West Coast in the same style as Red Dot's gallery in Essen.