The Les Usherwood Award: turning the ephemeral into the indelible

The concept of creative legacy can be tricky to grasp, but the best work remains timeless, says Agency59’s chief creative officer, Brian Howlett—

Advertising and design want to reflect the popular culture at a given moment in time. What we create—whether it’s an ad campaign, packaging, a piece of music, or an editorial spread—is, more often than not, ephemeral; we’re all trying to catch fireflies. We get paid to look ahead, not back.

I was thinking about this last week while judging this year’s Les Usherwood Award. The Usherwood recognizes someone who has made a major contribution to the quality of Canadian creative. Someone whose consistency of craft and talent has influenced others. But in our business, when so much of what we produce has a built-in expiry date, what does that mean, exactly? And how is it possible to create a legacy?

It’s been my privilege to chair the selection committee over the past several years now, and one thing has become clear—it depends upon who you ask.

The jury includes designers, ad creatives, past Usherwood winners, and artists ranging from illustrators, photographers, musicians and film directors—conditions laid down when the Advertising & Design Club of Canada was entrusted with the award in 1983. The candidates represent the same cross-section of disciplines.

A jurist with a design background might make an impassioned plea for an illustrator or typographer who had a profound effect on their own work early on. Someone else might point out the global commercial success another candidate has enjoyed, until they’re reminded that the Usherwood is about craft, not business success.

The debate continues around the boardroom table. What, exactly, is influence? Does it have to touch the many, or just a few? What about mentoring? Can you be a jerk and still win? What if you are leading other creatives by a certain point in your career, and not doing the creating yourself any longer?

Underlining the questions is a realization: how the hell can anyone create something that will last?

You get the idea. It’s not a perfect process. And when the sandwiches are trolleyed into the boardroom, they often go untouched.

Arguments are made, and then finally, votes are taken. And for one more year, the jury leaves the room feeling that they have found a worthy winner.

Past Usherwood recipients include Barry Blitt, an illustrator whose iconic work has graced countless covers of The New Yorker; Burton Kramer, who designed the CBC logo; Heather Cooper, who designed the Roots logo, and writer Ian Mirlin, who remains a copy hero to so many creative directors today.

Advertising stalwarts include Michael McLaughlin, Allan Kazmer, Terry Iles, Paul Lavoie, Geoffrey Roche, and Terry O’Reilly, who turned comedic radio into an art form.

There are illustrators. Photographers. Art directors. Editors. Designers. Typographers. Bert Bell. Diti Katona. Shin Sugino. Stuart Ash. Bill Irish. Heather Cooper. Anita Kunz.

Check out their portfolios on Sure, some of the work may seem dated. Quaint, even. Because all those years ago, they, too, were trying to catch fireflies. But look again; the craft shines through. And somehow, against all odds, you’ll see work that remains timeless.

And when the Usherwood recipient is named at the ADCC Show this fall, I’ll find myself once again wondering what the 27 year old art director in the audience —so wedded to the here and now —is thinking about such a tribute. About this whole ‘looking back’ thing.

Perhaps they can consider what Brian Harrod said when introducing artist Roger Hill as the Usherwood winner in 1995: “Roger’s talent, work habits, integrity and humility has set a standard for all to follow.”

Legacy, indeed.

Brian Howlett, CCO Agency59, is Chair of the Usherwood Selection Committee. He thanks this year’s jury: Jane Hope, Philip Rostron, Scott Christie, Jordan Poirier, Emily Tu, Alan Madill, Nellie Kim, Natalie Armata, Hesty Leibtag, and Michelle Ovcaric, Executive Director of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada. They invite you to this year’s show to see who will receive the 2019 Award.