A Behind-The-Scenes Look at How Communication Arts Annuals Are Judged

Communication Arts magazine is a pinnacle of creative excellence in the advertising, design, illustration, photography, typography and web design communities.

In fact, most Creatives will measure their professional success, wholly or in part, by how often they appear within the hallowed pages of Communication Arts.

I remember being introduced to the publication for the first time by my advertising/design professor, Jon Anderson, during the first advertising course I took in college. He ripped out all the pages of the magazine and hung them up with thumbtacks all around the cork board walls of the room. He said that we should study the ads that were awarded in each annual so we could recognize what really made a great ad. And because they were hung up all over the room, we had plenty of time to study them. I remember feeling very inadequate and intimidated as I saw the amazing ideas that were awarded a place within the magazine. It was then that I realized that I would judge every ad I created from that point on by one thing: whether it was good enough to be in Communication Arts or not.

Shortly after I graduated — armed with a B.A. in Advertising Design — I received my first real job in an agency. I quickly found out that creating ads that are good enough to be featured in Communication Arts are even more difficult to craft than I had originally thought. It was always disheartening to enter work that I had pored over, meticulously tweaked and loved only to find out that the judges had not seen the same beauty in it that I had. Many times, after not receiving the “congratulations, your work has been awarded” letter, I wondered, “what really goes on during the judging process at Communication Arts? Just how difficult is it to get in the publication?” Even when I did receive notification that my work had been awarded a place in the magazine, I still wondered what had gone on during the judging process.

I’d heard the rumors about the judges dropping small colored tiles into red and white cups to indicate whether a piece deserved consideration or not. But I still wanted to know specifics. And a few months ago, I received an email that gave me hope that my questions about the CA judging process may finally be answered.

This is the email I received.


Hi Ryan,


This is an invitation to judge the 2017 Communication Arts illustration competition. You will be one of five judges. The dates are January 28, 29, 30 — Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We will be staying at the Stanford Park Hotel, 100 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California. We have a prepaid room for you at the hotel. Dress for judging is very casual.


Our travel agent at Little World Travel, will handle the flight reservations. Our budget allotment for judges travel is non-refundable, round trip, economy class. She will book your prepaid arrival flight for Saturday, January 28, to arrive at the San Francisco airport between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.. This will give us enough time to pick you up and get you checked into your room at the hotel and we will have a get-acquainted dinner that evening in the hotel dining room.


Screening of the pieces will start at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning in our office and, depending on the number of entries, we will finish the final judging late afternoon on Monday. We dont award medals so that cuts down on the time. You may decide to stay overnight and go home Tuesday morning. Some of the judges plan side trips or visits with friends either before or after the judging. During the judging, our evenings are taken up with special dinners at selected restaurants in the immediate area.


Please let me know by Friday, September 23. We would be honored to have you participate.


Best regards, Jean


Needless to say, I was excited and humbled about the opportunity. I checked my schedule and sent an email in reply that I would love to come. They sent another email asking me for a headshot and short bio that they could use on their website to announce the judges. Shortly after that, I received an email with my flight plans, information about the hotel I would be staying in and a short description of what the judging process would entail. They also sent information about meeting them in the airport on the day I was scheduled to arrive. They told me that after I got off the plane, I was to look for someone holding a Communication Arts magazine. I thought that was a nice touch.

On January 28, I arrived in San Francisco and just as they had promised, I found someone holding a Communication Arts magazine. Her name was Marti Coyne (more about the Coynes later). After quick introductions, we made the easy drive to the Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park.

For many years, the judges for every issue of Communication Arts have stayed in the Stanford Park Hotel. The hotel is situated in Menlo Park, close to Stanford University. I like to run in the mornings so I ran through Stanford’s beautiful campus each day I was there.

The Stanford Park Hotel Courtyard. This was the view from my window.

But back to the Coynes. Communication Arts Magazine was founded in 1959 by Richard Coyne. Unfortunately, Richard passed away in 1990. Today, the magazine continues to be edited and published under the guidance of Richard’s wife, Jean and their son Patrick Coyne. But many of the Coyne siblings help with each edition of the publication. Marti (the one that picked me up at the airport) lives nearby and helps out when she can, and a brother that lives in New York will fly to San Francisco to help from time to time. Patrick’s children will help out, as well. So Communication Arts is a family run magazine, which makes it even more impressive when you consider the bastion of creativity it has become.

After I was checked into the hotel I was told that I should meet in the restaurant located in the hotel lobby later that evening to meet all the judges and be treated to dinner by Patrick and Jean Coyne. I arrived a bit early and met Jean and Patrick and then soon after, the other judges. The other judges I would be working with throughout the judging would be, Chris Buzelli (an amazingly talented illustrator from New York), Kristen Nobles (an art director at Candlewick Press in Somerville, MA), Lesley Palmer (an art director at AARP Media in Washington DC) and Carolyn Perot (an art director at Mother Jones in San Francisco). It was great to get to know everyone in an informal setting over dinner before the judging started the next morning. Patrick and Jean talked to us about how the judging would be carried out over the next few days. It was a valuable part of the process because we were able to hit the ground running the next morning. Little did I know just how necessary it would be to have this little primer in advance. I was completely unprepared for the sheer magnitude of entries that we would be shown over the course of the judging.

The next morning Jean and Patrick picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the Communication Arts offices just a few miles away. The offices are situated in the same area as Facebook and Instagram. We pulled up in front of the offices and I immediately saw the Communication Arts logo emblazoned across the front of a nondescript single-story concrete building.

The offices of Communication Arts

As Patrick unlocked the door and welcomed us into the offices he started to tell about the years of welcoming judges to the CA offices and showed us the rooms where the judging would take place. As I entered, I noticed a long hallway leading to the back of the building. I walked down this hallway and saw several stands that looked like white painted music stands, each holding an historic issue of Communication Arts. Behind these stands were an infographic highlighting notable campaigns and occurrences relevant to the magazine from 1959 through the present day. The first stand had a copy of the first issue printed in August of 1959. You can see that it originally sold for $1.50. I was in awe looking at all the history that presented itself along this hallway that doubled as a museum of the magazine.

The Communication Arts hallway museum

The first issue of Communication Arts magazine.

Patrick then invited us to walk around the building. I noticed that it had all of the qualities of a standard agency or design shop complete with an inviting lobby, production room, kitchen, workspace, restrooms, etc. The main difference I saw in this building from the agencies and firms I had worked in was a few large rooms that felt as though they may be about half the size of a basketball court. In these rooms were several long tables and projectors. Patrick told us that we would be spending a considerable amount of time in these rooms. They were the rooms where all the judging would take place.

View of the lobby

Another view of the lobby 

View of the production room

But before the judging was set to start, they led us into the kitchen near the back of the building and fed us breakfast. I want to mention how hospitable and gracious the Coynes were while we were there. They made sure we were comfortable and well-fed throughout the whole process of judging. In fact, when it was time to fly back home I felt as though I was saying goodbye to old friends. They’ve been hosting judges for many years and you can tell that they’ve perfected it.

View of the kitchen

After breakfast, we were ushered into one of the large rooms with a projector. At this point, Patrick told us that we would be splitting up into two separate groups. Two judges would go into an adjacent room and three judges would remain in the other. He said we needed to do this because there are so many entries that needed to be judged that if we didn’t separate, there would be no way we would finish in time. There were several thousands of entries from all over the world. And there were more entries this year than there had been for several years. So we separated into two different groups. At that point, the rules of the first day were explained. We would see two types of entries— those that would be projected (which were uploaded online), and those that were actually physical pieces, which had been mailed. The vast majority of entries would be projected (projected entries made up probably 95% of the entries). We would view each entry on the projector until each judge had finished voting. And the voting process was a simple one. Each judge was given a clipboard with several pages that coincided with the entries we would be judging. For instance, we would view an entry projected on the screen and the voting page on the clipboard would say the title of the entry (so we knew we were judging the right piece). Then next to the title were two boxes. One that said YES and one that said NO. It was as simple as that. If I thought the piece deserved to be in the magazine, I checked the YES box. But that’s where the simplicity stopped. After viewing thousands of pieces I realized that there were many more YES votes than would fit in the magazine. Overall, I was impressed by how many amazingly good pieces had been entered. I quickly realized that narrowing down thousands of entries to about 150 pieces that would ultimately make it into the magazine would be much more difficult than I originally thought.

So we looked at thousands of entries. At times, we would break from looking at entries on the projectors and move to the physical entries that had been mailed in. As we voted on these pieces, the process was a little different. Each judge was given a canister filled with different colored tile chips. Then, next to each physical entry were two cups — a red one and a white one. We were instructed to vote on each piece. If we liked the piece, we would drop our tile into the white cup. And if we didn’t want it to move on to the next round, we would drop our tile in the red cup. Before it was possible for entries to be entered online, this is how all of the judging would happen.

View of the tile canisters used for judging


Judging the physical entries

Another view of the judging process of the physical entries

Throughout the day, we would transition back and forth between the judging done with projectors and clipboards to the judging done with the physical pieces and the tile chips. At the end of this long day, we were taken to dinner by Jean and Patrick again. They told us that they would be sorting all of the entries that were selected to move on to the next round that evening. We later found out that we narrowed the field down considerably but we had still selected to include over 1,000 pieces into the shortlist. Every entrant that made it to the shortlist received a congratulatory email from Communication Arts stating that they had made it to the final round of judging. The problem was that only about 10% of the shortlist would make it into the magazine. The thing that I realized through judging CA is that it is very, very difficult to make it into the annual. There is so much competition — so many entries. Only the very best would make it through.

Having dinner with Patrick and the judges (left to right- Patrick Coyne, Chris Buzelli, Jean Coyne)

The next day, we went back to the Communication Arts offices and were told that the judging would be a little different than the day before. On this day, we would view all of the pieces that made it to the shortlist. Only this time, all five judges would be in the same room looking at the same pieces at the same time. Once again we had clipboards and tile chips. We found out that pieces that would make it into the magazine would need the votes of all five judges. If there was still room, then they would include pieces that only four judges had voted through. Then if there was any more space, they may move down to pieces that only three judges had voted through. They indicated that with the number of pieces on the shortlist, they didn’t think they would get down to pieces that only received three votes. It was another very long day. I found that I was a little pickier on this day. This was probably due to the fact that I knew the overall quality of the work having seen a lot of it the day before, and because I knew that we needed to narrow the field considerably — cutting 90% of the work we would see.

After a very long day, we finished the judging and once again, were treated to dinner with Jean and Patrick. They told us that when they had tallied all the votes, they would send us the winners list before they started to create the annual. They also gave us a list of questions they wanted us to answer. They said that our answers to these questions would be included in the judges section of the annual. These are the questions that they asked.


What were your overall impressions of the illustration entries?


Did anything surprise you about the entries?


What did you see that was new?


What was your biggest disappointment about the entries?


Where do you think the field of illustration is going?


What other profit centers could illustrators explore besides commissioned work?


They also said that they would send each judge an advance copy of the annual before they were available to sell. After dinner that evening, they drove us back to the hotel and thanked us for our work over the last few days. They said that they couldn’t put out any of their annuals without the hard work of their judges. It really was an overwhelming amount of work, but it was strangely satisfying. I really enjoyed everything about it. The thing that I realized (and was surprised about) was just how much quality work didn’t make it into the annual. Thousands of really good pieces didn’t make it. Only a very select few made it. Usually the difference between making it into the publication or not was a good concept or compelling story about the piece. It wasn’t enough to be good. Each winning piece had something extra that lifted it above the others.

Photo of the judges

Early the next day they drove us back to the airport and thanked us once again for our work. Fast forward several months — the winners book (Illustration Annual 2017) just came out and I am proud to have been a part of it. I feel that the best work is featured. I came to respect each of the other judges and hope to work with them again in some way in the future. And I admire Jean and Patrick not only for their gracious hospitality, but for creating a publication that highlights the very best work in our industry.

Cover of the 58th Illustration Annual


This is the editor’s column writeup within the annual describing the judging process and I’ll end with this.


This years Illustration competition received a slight bump in entries, mostly due to a significant increase in student participation. And, although the editorial category registered a notable decline in entries, the number of editorial projects selected for inclusion in this years Annual exceeded the last several years.


I was impressed with just how many great pieces had been entered,says juror Ryan Anderson. We saw everything from the completely abstract to very tight realism. Agencies, companies and publications are once again coming to appreciate the nuances of emotion that only illustration can provide.


There were tons of entries to choose from — especially from new talent,says juror Carolyn Perot. It was fantastic to see brilliant work from both the old guard and new and unknown illustrators. I was surprised and excited to see some established illustrators totally reinvent themselves.


The biggest surprise was the large amount of illustrators Id never seen before,juror Chris Buzelli says. It was a refreshing surprise, especially after my experience judging other illustration competitions.


Maybe whats old is new, but there were a lot of classically rendered pieces,juror Lesley Palmer says. I didnt see as many vectors or bold poppy colors as I thought I would, given current trends.


“I’m heartened to see that illustration is coming back to hand-drawn and painted styles and moving away from hard-edged computer or photo-realistic styles,says Perot. But contentwise, illustration is more heavy hitting, brash and irreverent than ever.


The ability of illustrators to communicate quickly, clearly and shockingly in one strong — often politically motivated — image was evident and on display in the entries,juror Kristen Nobles says.


Speaking of politics: Another surprise was the large amount of Trump illustrations,” Buzelli says. “Illustrators are having an important visual impact on our current political environment, and I can only imagine that number increasing for next years competition.


Though jurors had much to like among the submissions, they found several areas lacking.Coming from the world of childrens book art and young adult fiction covers, I was disappointed that not many entries were from my flourishing, diverse field,Nobles says.


My biggest disappointment was the lack of quality animation in the competition,says Anderson. Maybe animators and illustrators dont really think of animation when it comes to the Illustration Annual.


Several judges also provided advice for those illustrators whose entries were not accepted. There was a very fine line between some of the pieces that made it into the Annual and some that did not,says Anderson. “Generally, the pieces that made it had something that pushed the work to another level. It wasnt enough to be proficient — the work needed to tell a compelling story.


There were certain styles that dominated the new illustratorswork that didnt make it to the final round,Perot says. Art directors still favor punchy, conceptual work over complex work that doesnt have a clear, simple message.


While many images were strong in their statements, they also seemed a bit one note and lacked a broad spectrum of emotions,Nobles says.


Its important for artists to remember to steer clear of visual clichés — bird cages to represent entrapment is one example,says Palmer.


When the judges were asked to suggest other profit centers that illustrators could pursue, one direction dominated their responses.


Lots of publishers want animated GIFs and video content,Perot says. I hope illustrators can find ways to make these clever and simple — not merely distracting. If animation adds to the story or tells one of its own and entertains at the same time, Im all for it.


Palmer agrees. More and more companies are looking for short video opportunities, particularly for social media.


Technology has opened up new career possibilities for illustrators,” Buzelli says. “It is up to us to keep pushing for healthier budgets and educating for fair contracts so that more can enjoy working in this industry. I would like to extend our grateful appreciation to our jurors for their conscientious efforts in selecting our 58th Illustration Annual. —Patrick Coyne, ca


To see more from the Communication Arts Illustration Annual #58, follow this link. http://www.commarts.com/magazine/2017-illustration/jurors