The Practical Art Behind the Annual International Design Awards: Interview with Jill Grinda
“You know what they say: You have to know the rules to break them,” states Jill Grinda, the showrunner of the International Design Awards (IDA). Founded in 2007, the organization exists to “recognize, celebrate and promote exceptional design visionaries and discover emerging talent in Architecture, Interior, Product, Graphic and Fashion Design worldwide.”
One aspect of Grinda’s job is to pick a fresh jury to judge the awards each year; it must consist of people who know the rules better than anyone, in part because they are responsible for creating them, teaching them, and even breaking them — on occasion. At least 15 years of experience and an exceptional design portfolio are required to even be considered.
Generally, judges evaluate submissions based on the design’s innovation, aesthetics, functionality, ergonomics, durability, impact, utility, ecological compatibility, feasibility of production, and emotional quotient. But not all of the listed judging criteria is always applicable to every discipline, as such, each has its own subjective and ever-evolving metrics.
IDA uses a scoring scale that ranges between 1 and 100 points. “Jury members are assigned categories based on their specific backgrounds and design expertise. All projects are viewed and judged randomly and anonymously to ensure unbiased and fair judging.” And winners win big. But Grinda’s workload involves a lot more than the annual jury selection.
The Farmani Group created the IDA as a design sibling of their Annual Lucie Awards for Photography. Grinda joined the Farmani Group as the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for the IDA in 2020. Her extensive business development background involves senior roles working for major media groups including Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, and more.
The entrepreneurial media professional — with more than three decades of international experience in outperforming commercial sales, negotiating strategic partnerships and content distribution for media multinationals — is also an accomplished event designer. In the last 30 years, Grinda has participated in and/or led the creation of world-class events across the globe.
“Look, I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled because it was less crowded,” explains Grinda. “What always interested me were projects where I could make a difference.” And that is what she does best, starting with the events she designed for the Australian Wool Corporation throughout the 1980s to the work she’s doing for the IDA in her current role.
ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Jill Grinda to learn more about the International Design Awards as well as what it takes to become an in-demand business developer and event designer.
Where in Australia are you from?
I was born in Perth. Then I moved to Melbourne to study journalism, PR, and communications.
What did you decide to pursue?
I went down the PR route and started working for the Australian Wool Corporation, which was the Australian arm of the International Wool Secretariat. [Back then,] wool was Australia’s #1 export. It was frequently said that at the time the Australian economy was “riding on the sheep’s back.”
There was a woman I worked with, who I loved. She’s shaped my career in a lot of ways, and I actually started out as her assistant. I was in that role for about six months, when I got my big break [at the organization].
She was doing two big jobs. One was organizing the Wool Fashion Parades at the Royal Shows (which are the main agricultural shows in each state of Australia). These shows were a major showcase for Australian designers showing their collections made from Australian wool. The other major PR project was producing the Young Designer Awards, which was a competition for final year fashion design students.
My manager left for another role. So the head of the department split the job in two, giving a colleague the job producing the Royal Show Wool Fashion Parades and I got the Young Designer Awards. The awards were a big PR exercise for the Wool Corporation because we were working to encourage the use of wool in young, up and coming fashion designers.
What did you do differently from your predecessor?
I put a lot of my personality into the Young Designer Awards. Previously, these shows took place in hotel function rooms. I wanted to put them in cultural venues, so I staged them in art galleries, historic buildings and museums. I actually produced annual fashion shows in each of Australia’s capital cities; I set the theme each year; I found sponsors; I set the jury (the judging panel); I did all the media interviews and wrote the media releases. And it was a really, really successful project for the Wool Corporation. I did that for about five years.
What did you do after that?
On January 26 1988, the Wool Corporation organized a huge event at the Sydney Opera House — The Bicentennial Wool Collection [before an audience of 1,700] — for the Australian Bicentennial of the arrival of the First Fleet to Australia. The Wool Corporation invited nine of the world’s leading designers to create collections in wool, around the theme of Australia.
The designers were: Gianni Versace, Missoni, Claude Montana, Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo, Jean Muir, Bruce Oldfield, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta. The guests of honor were Princess Diana and Prince Charles. The show was produced by Ric Birch, who did the opening and closing ceremonies at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
My job for the ten days leading up to the show was managing the 25 international models who were flown in for the event. After working on such a big project, I said to myself: “Oh my God! There’s a world outside of Australia!” So I sent my CV to three leading fashion PR companies in London and when I heard back I quit my job at the Australian Wool Corporation and got on a plane to London to see each one of them.
Because one fashion PR firm saw that I had experience in Bicentennial event planning, I ended up getting a job on a big event for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, produced by the French Ministry of Culture. That’s what brought me to Paris; to work on that event, for which I produced the British section of the parade.
What interested you in PR?
At that time, PR was a lot about writing (media releases, annual reports, etc.) and I loved writing. And in my early career I worked in fashion, I was a model, actually, so I think the PR aspect [of fashion] was something I understood very well.
I’ve always loved fashion. I grew up in a very working class family. My mom used to make clothes on our sewing machine, and so from an early age I would design and sew my own clothes. I guess that’s sort of what took me to the Wool Corporation. For me, it was such a perfect job, because I was combining many things that I loved — the creative and design aspect of it. I also got to produce the fashion shows, meaning I’d hire the choreographers, pick the sound tracks, and choose the models. It was a combination of all these things.
So, what was involved working on the French Bicentennial?
La Marseillaise was a huge parade on the Champs-Élysées. [For it,] they brought in Jean-Paul Goude, who was married to Grace Jones; he found her as a model and “created” her public persona through quite unique photography at the time. If you remember some of the Grace Jones photographs and film clips, he produced and directed many of them.
I was engaged to work on this huge, huge show, [and] I didn’t speak French. But I had to find 200 contemporary dancers, work with the choreographers and the costume designers, and then get them to Paris.
There were 8,000 participants in the show. Some of the rehearsals took place on an airstrip at a military airport and there was a night time dress rehearsal on the Champs-Élysées. The show was on the 14th of July, 1989. It was a really, really successful event with several hundred thousand spectators watching on the Champs-Elysees and a television audience of well into tens of millions, but it was a really stressful project to work on.
I remember that afterwards I went down to the south of France for 10 days to stay with my cousin and I pretty much slept that entire time because I was so exhausted. But I met my husband who I was married to for 27 years as a consequence of that show, and that’s why I stayed in France.
What are some of the secrets you can share about putting on an event like that?
My experience in working on the French Revolution Bicentennial event wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t remained curious and allowed myself to be open to opportunities. I got paid very little for doing that job, but I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime. So, to answer your question, I think it’s to be open to opportunities, to remain curious, and to do your research.
Did you experience excitement at trying new things or feelings of imposter syndrome and fear of failure?
It’s always excited me, because I’ve worked on projects that felt like we were doing something new and building something from scratch. Many people experience imposter syndrome or fear of failure, and I’ve lived with that my entire career. But when we say, “fear of failure,” I think we have to define failure.
When you have to deliver, you just do what needs to be done. My mantra is always: “Under promise and over deliver.” Like with Al Jazeera, I was on the launch team of Al Jazeera (English). We promised our board we’d deliver 40 million households on launch day, but we overshot the target and delivered 80 million.
So, you were working on the French Bicentennial, what happened next?
Well, I met my husband when we worked together on this project and I ended up moving to Paris. I didn’t speak French. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a work permit. So, I fell back on my journalistic roots and corresponded for Australian newspapers and magazines, writing about fashion, actually. I was just trying to make a living, I was also teaching English and learning French. And, in the meantime, I got married and had my first child.
My husband was an advertising TV producer and director, and he ended up being transferred to Australia. We moved to Sydney for six years, and that’s where I got my big break in television. I ended up getting a job at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which is similar to the BBC, where I was doing TV publicity, placing stories about ABC’s TV programming in the media and organizing interviews for TV personalities. I did that for a couple of years, and then I ended up getting a job at Bloomberg producing interviews.
These were the early days of Bloomberg, and they wanted someone with a PR background because we were producing interviews with CEOs and fund managers and analysts and economists. To get those interviews you normally had to go through the PR people, so they wanted someone who understood it. I went to Bloomberg and I was contacting the PR companies handling major banks, fund managers, economists, CEO’s etc.
Did you have to bring your work home?
If you’re part of a major multinational company and based anywhere in Asia, you’re on conference calls pretty much several times a week, and because our calls were frequently between Sydney, London and New York, someone was always at a disadvantage.
How did you find time to decompress and find time for yourself?
I do a lot of sports. I’m a yoga teacher now, I do yoga everyday.
How did you end up launching Bloomberg TV in Asia?
It was a deal I did by accident. We invited a CEO in for an interview, and his team was launching the first cable TV platform in Australia called FOXTEL. “Have you seen Bloomberg television?” I asked him. “We have!” he said. “We should get it out on your new platform,” I suggested. They were launching in two weeks time and were looking for content.
I went to my boss and said: “Hey, this guy in the studio is launching a pay TV platform in Australia and reckons we could include Bloomberg TV.” So, we inquired about getting a signal from New York to Australia and learned that it would cost “about a million dollars.” We called Mike Bloomberg. He asked: “How much is this going to cost me?” We told him and he told us to just do it. So we did, and we launched Bloomberg TV just two weeks later on FOXTEL.
After six years in Sydney, my husband wanted to move back to France. At that time, I was producing interviews. So I requested a transfer with Bloomberg to move back to the Paris office and they agreed.
But I couldn’t do the business development role in Paris, so I went back to producing interviews for the French Bloomberg channel. I eventually wanted to go back to doing the business development role, because I really enjoyed it. A colleague from Bloomberg had gone over to CNBC and told me that CNBC was looking for someone to handle distribution across Europe, so I applied for the job and I got it.
How did you prepare for these roles?
I love learning. Plus, I think I learned a strong work ethic from my parents.
Are you an only child?
No, I am the youngest. My brother is nine years older and my sister is seven years older than me. My brother was a nuclear engineer and my sister is a journalist.
What were your favorite subjects?
I actually liked science, but I am always drawn to creative people. I think in some ways I am a frustrated artist myself.
What was one of the most important lessons that you’ve learned as a producer?
How to conduct research; how to research a story.
What would you recommend for conducting quality research?
To get a good interview, you have to find the right questions to ask.
If you had to mentor someone to assist you or to take over your role, what kind of skills and qualities would you want in that person, aside from curiosity?
Look for the story behind the story. Look for the why, I think that’s important. And think outside the box.
A lot of people have trouble understanding what that means. How would you instruct someone to think outside the box?
Someone once said to me that I was very good at making connections between things that may initially seem unrelated. It’s only because I sit down and think about them. I don’t rush into them. So, to think outside the box, I [believe] you just need to sit on something for a little while and think it through, the answer usually comes.
Your job is very deadline driven. How do you meet deadlines and take time to think about things?
We are deadline driven, but a lot can be achieved just by sitting down and thinking something through for two minutes, we’re not talking about a half hour.
Then where did you go?
Then I went to CNBC and stayed there for five years, doing many of the distribution deals across Europe. News channels are very, very hard to sell because they don't drive subscriber acquisition, like sports channels and movies do. But, many people still want to see breaking news, so these channels are still good to have, but most are advertising revenue driven.
So how did you go from that to what you’re doing now?
From CNBC I went to Al Jazeera to launch the English channel. Then I went to EuroNews where I was the global distribution director.
[The original IDA concept was established by Hossein Farmani and Reto Eberle with the assistance of Jamie Waguh and Jules Janssen.]
I met Hossein Farmani through a friend about 15 years ago, and so we kept in touch all of that time. When Covid hit, I was in London, and he offered me a job with IDA. In a lot of ways this was me going back to my roots, which I really really enjoy doing. I’ve got my own consulting company now, so I work for him and still do some TV distribution negotiation work as well.
What made you do consulting on the side?
I think it’s a matter of capitalizing on the kind of experience that I have, and I like to work across a lot of different projects. The job that I do with International Design Awards is part of my consultancy, so it’s all part of that same business.
Out of all of the different disciplines that you examine and work within at IDA, which do you find the most challenging and interesting?
I am passionate about all of them; they are all interesting. But there are some disciplines for which we get more submissions than others. The one that we have the least submissions for is fashion design, but product and interior design have the most.
How do you think AI is going to influence art, literature, and design moving forward?
The world will look very different 20 years from now. Design experts predict that technology will integrate seamlessly into our homes and lives, changing how we live, work, and travel. We can’t deny the impact that AI is going to have, but AI is only as good as the data that goes into its program and we are already seeing the legal implications of that.
I can see that many jobs will be lost to AI. But we will always need design and creativity. I think also that we need to see an increase in open and green spaces which is what people will crave as our world gets ever busier and more crowded.
What kinds of music do you like?
I listen to everything, from Bach to Eminem. Both of my children are musicians and of course I love to listen to them. But my musical taste is really diverse. I like Drake, Post Malone, and I love Lady Gaga. I’m a fan of classical music, and I’m a big fan of music I listened to growing up, like The Cure and INXS.
What kind of art do you like?
I collect art. I like aboriginal art and I’ve got some of the work of a French graffiti artist. My taste in art is also very diverse.
What do you like to read?
There are some Australian authors who I really like such as Tim Winton who also comes from my hometown of Perth. I love Haruki Murakami. I love Oscar Wilde; The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s got a darkness to it.