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Arts & Entertainment

Region's annual competition puts excellence on display

| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007

On display at the Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery, Downtown, "Context" is the result of American Institute of Graphic Arts Pittsburgh's annual design competition.

Formally known as the "Pittsburgh 100 Show," the competition is open to graphic artists, photographers and publishers, as well as students of those disciplines, throughout the Pittsburgh region.

This year, not only has the exhibition's name changed, but so has the competition's mission. As the prospective states: "It is a declaration of design excellence, because excellent design is effective design."

Founded in 1914, the institute is the country's oldest and largest membership association for professionals engaged in the discipline, practice and culture of design.

That used to mean graphic design. But in the context of today's high-tech world in which the related fields of design are constantly changing, the organization is focusing on communications in a broader sense.

"What AIGA at the national level is trying to do is go beyond just graphic design," says Greg Gibilisco, a board member for the Pittsburgh branch of the institute and an art director with Mellon Financial Corporation.

Thus, the disciplines represented in the profession today range from book and type design through the traditional communication design to interaction design, experience design and motion graphics.

That's reflected in this exhibition of more than 60 projects in which visitors will find everything from inspired interactive CD-ROM projects and Web site designs to posters, package designs and direct-mail pieces that really pack a punch.

Works in last year's exhibition, also displayed in Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery, were nearly all confined to the walls. But this year's presentation is different, thanks in part to undergraduates in Carnegie Mellon University's design department who, under the tutelage of assistant professor Kristin Hughes, were asked to rethink how the exhibition should be displayed.

The two most notable results are a lineup of mailboxes on one wall that are each filled with direct-mail pieces and a "book forest" made of 4-by-4 timbers, each standing on end in one corner of the gallery, that hold primarily books, booklets and annual reports on small shelves attached.

"The idea in getting some of the things off of the walls is to let people pick things up and thumb through them," Gibilisco says. "It's not fine art. It's work that's part of everyday living. So we're trying to put it a little more in context with that."

That's most obvious with the mailboxes, which, for the most part, are kept closed with the idea that visitors will be encouraged to open them up and reach inside.

Many of the designs inside are invitations. They range from the elaborate, such as the advertising agency Mullen's "20th Anniversary Invitation," for the advertising agency Mullen, which involved printing firms and invited nearly everyone involved with the advertising agency over the past 20 years to participate, to the more simple and immediate, such as "Molly Gene Meyers' swim/birthday party invitation," which was an invite to graphic designer Robert Meyers' daughter's pool party.

The latter is most notable for its ingenuity. Printed on a piece of transparent blue rubber, Meyers says of his design, "The main idea is to use nontraditional material to represent a swimming pool and the typography to represent a raft."

It was so successful that the mother of one of the children invited, the wife of an advertising agency owner, commented how she thought it was going to win an award.

It did -- an nonorable mention in this competition by the three judges involved: Laurie Churchman, principal of Designlore, a graphic design practice in Philadelphia, and assistant professor of fine arts and graphic design at the University of Pennsylvania; Bill Grant, president and creative director of Grant Design Collaborative, in Atlanta; and Amanda Otter, an art director and partner with Threespot Media, an interactive studio based in Washington, D.C.

In the competition's seven categories -- books, brand identity, corporate communications, editorial design, information design, packaging, and promotional design and advertising -- the trio granted a total of seven honorable mentions and eight "Awards of Excellence."

One humorous standout among the latter group was awarded to Dymun + Company for their redesign of a potato sack for Ken & Rick's Wholesome Vegetables. Dubbed "Tater Bags," the clever copy printed on the sacks comment on the contents inside, which are red skin potatoes: "Look through the little red window at their beautiful red skins."

It's worth noting that about half of the institute's Pittsburgh membership are students and there are a number of quality works by students on display, such as Linda Shin's poster from her "say something: flick." It features a cigarette butt turning into a green leaf on a bright scarlet background and is a comment on what's estimated to be the more than 4.5 trillion toxic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts that are flicked onto the ground annually.

A graphic statement that grabs attention, it's remarkable for how it holds its own amongst such a wide range of projects that each in their own way gives evidence of the remarkable talents behind them.

Additional Information:


What: American Institute of Graphic Arts Pittsburgh's annual design competition

When: Through Feb. 16. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery, 937 Liberty Ave., 2nd floor, Downtown

Details: 412-281-8723 or

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