Great Design: Innovative Annual Report

Lights out. This decision’s over. After spending two long days poring over entry after entry, the judges made the final round of the 12th annual HOW International Design Competition an anticlimactic affair. There were no lengthy debates, dissenting voices or devil’s advocates.

The judges’ unanimous Best of Show verdict came down swiftly and confidently: Sagmeister Inc.’s annual report for Zumtobel AG, a top European lighting-systems manufacturer, literally and figuratively rose above the competition.

Judges Peter Borowski, Moira Cullen and Petrula Vrontikis gushed over the 3D piece from the famed New York City-based firm, deeming the work "ingenious," "innovative" and "wonderfully strange." They were initially attracted to the unique cover treatment, a heat-molded, white relief sculpture of five flowers in a vase, which art director Stefan Sagmeister used to represent the five sub-brands under the Zumtobel name. But it was the pictures inside that kept our panel hooked. Images in the book are photographs of the actual annual-report cover taken under various lighting conditions to demonstrate the incredible power of illumination.

"Not only was the concept light-years ahead—excuse the pun— but the craftsmanship and attention to detail were outstanding," Borowski says.

Cullen adds that the piece was brave and beautiful in its artful fusion of form, function and fabrication. "Sagmeister’s created a tactile business expression that’s both strategic and seductive," she says. "The perceived excess of the sculptural, injection-molded cover is transformed into a monumental symbol of the company’s bold commitment to enduring value in uncertain times. "Inside, a restrained yet lush minimalism traces the poetry of the product from shadow to light," Cullen continues. "It’s a masterful integration of concept, craft and communication."

Despite the glowing reviews and the many awards he’s won over the years, Sagmeister’s quick to credit his colleagues—especially Bela Borsodi. The New York City-based photographer shot all the images in his own living room. "Every morning, he thought of some other way to light (the cover) and photograph it," Sagmeister says.

"We had initially planned for only about 25 photo versions of the cover. Bela came back with more than 100, and we finally edited them down to under 60."

Sagmeister says another integral team member was CEO Jurg Zumtobel. "It’s great to work for a client who trusts his design company in such a way that he proclaims months before the presentation: ‘Chances we’ll print it exactly as you suggest are 95%,’" Sagmeister relates.

The dream client also provided the means to print the 16,000 atypical covers. "Zumtobel could produce the front cover and back cover themselves," Sagmeister says. "They’re a complex lighting-systems manufacturer, after all. "For them, it was a piece of cake."

Despite Sagmeister’s no-sweat mentality, Vrontikis says that there’s a lot of complex thought lurking under the aesthetically pleasing surface. "To photograph this image isn’t that difficult," Vrontikis notes. "So make one image represent many messages. It’s smart, economical and engaging. It really speaks not just to conceptual innovation, but to Sagmeister’s ability to understand what’s going on in the whole picture."