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A Year with the ADAA, Part 1: Judging the Adobe Design Achievement Awards

Posted by Rebecca Blake on June 24, 2017

Over the past year, Guild member and designer Theresa Whitehill of Colored Horse Studio has had a unusual relationship with software giant Adobe: that of both judge and mentor in their 2016 student Adobe Design Achievement Awards. As judge, Whitehill had the opportunity to review work by design, illustration, and film production students from around the world, working last August in tandem with a team of peers.

Q: How did you decide to take on the judging gig?

I looked into the ADAA program, and was really flattered to be asked. The commitment didn’t seem to be too much— only one weekend. Also I’ve been immersed in Adobe products since Photoshop 2.5, but never had the opportunity to interact with the company on a personal level, so I was thrilled to do so and see Adobe campus.

But although the commitment is for one weekend at the Adobe campus, it’s a long schedule – 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a couple breaks, lunch, and dinner. It meant traveling for two hours from my rural studio and overnighting with family. So it wasn’t a light commitment; I had to really want to do it.

Q: What was it like arriving for the first day of judging?

I had to leave my studio in St. Helena at 4:30 a.m. to get to the Adobe campus on time, and was greeted with coffee and pastry in the kitchen. I was overawed to meet the other judges. These were people like art directors with major companies, video producers who worked with MTV in its inception, people who worked in conceptual development. But I realized coming from a book design and book arts background that I brought a unique perspective. Additionally everyone was really generous—that healthy ego you find with creative, talented people. 


Once the judging got started, it was like jumping off a ski jump. But there was so much great discussion during the judging process... Anytime you’re put into an environment with like minded people, you get to bond and know each other’s mind.


Q: Was there good communication between the judges while reviewing the student work?

When you combine the breadth of experience of all the judges, the judging becomes very comprehensive. Judging makes you articulate things you may not have realized you know. But at the same time, having other judges with different experience helped me check my reactions. For example, sometimes I’d be blown away by a student’s work, and another judge would point out that it’s actually quite derivative.

Q: What was the judging process like?

On the first day, the 14 judges were split into groups to judge in our own areas of expertise. In my group, we evaluated submissions in photography, illustration, and graphic design (fine art and commercial) I initially picked my top three candidates for each area, and later in the day, met with the other judges in my group. At that point, we started comparing each others’ choices, and selecting the group’s top three choices. 

On the second day, we continued evaluating the submissions to select the winners and honorable mentions. We also had discretion to address submissions which didn’t seem to fit a particular category, and could make recommendations to Adobe to add categories of work. The award process is very much a living being; as technology and schools develop and abandon disciplines, the categories of work can change. The result is the ico-D and Adobe are learning as much from the judges as the judges are about the work. (Note: ico-D, the International Council of Design, co-produces the ADAA with Adobe.)

By Sunday afternoon, we had made our final choices, and the groups met to review the winners of each category. That meant groups which were still questioning a choice could ask the entire body of judges to weigh in on the selection. Ico-D was great to work with; they were present to ensure that the judging adhered to standards for best practices, followed guidelines, and was fair.


I said to another judge that sometimes I felt professional jealousy because the presentation quality was so high.  I was also amazed at the extraordinary illustration talent—it felt like a privilege to view it.


Q: Were you impressed by the student work? What surprised you the most?

Overall the work was really impressive. Some projects were clearly underdeveloped but others were so professional. In fact, I said to another judge that sometimes I felt professional jealousy because the presentation quality was so high.  I was also amazed at the extraordinary illustration talent—it felt like a privilege to view it.

I was struck by how about 85% of the projects seemed to assume a limitless budget for printing, etc. I ended up gravitating to the projects that assumed that a client (fictional or otherwise) might also have a budget, so that the project was developed with limits in mind.

Q: What do you think was the best takeaway for the student winners?

The students who put together almost seamless projects may not have the ability to show their work to someone who can help them. This awards process can give recognition to students who may not have the time, opportunity, connections, or resources to promote themselves. On top of that, there are the tangible benefits, such as the trip to the AdobeMax conference, or the mentoring opportunities.

Q: And what did you get out of the process?

Once the judging got started, it was like jumping off a ski jump. But there was so much great discussion during the judging process. Even judges who didn't talk much would speak up and pull us back to the core mission. Anytime you’re put into an environment with like minded people, you get to bond and know each other’s mind. I also learned a lot about myself. It gave me the opportunity to step outside of my environment and look back at my career. And I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to contribute.

Below: Teresa Whitehill in her studio.

photo © Adrienne Simpson. Used with permission.

Teresa Whitehill in her studio

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