Five Truths About Design Awards

With the International Design Forum Hannover (iF), red dot Design Awards, I.D. Magazine's Annual Design Review, and the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) award winners released in the last few weeks, we have ended the industrial design award season for the year. It has been a good one for my studio as well as the industry as a whole--we have seen an amazing display of ingenuity and class by many designers and companies. It's tough to underestimate the impact these awards have on the design community, and yet it's easy to overestimate the accuracy of such judgments of quality and intent.

braviaThe design award scene is now an international affair celebrating the best-of-the-best and representing the quality achieved by a whole system around a designer, a design firm, and often a larger corporation. Such robustness of thinking, creativity and execution is the reason powerhouses like Apple or Samsung are leading among corporations for quite some time. But now those same qualities of those powerhouses are adapted by Dell and other corporations seeking to develop a genuine voice in a very crowded marketplace. Among studios another trend makes matters more complex: small and large design agencies share the stage regularly and for the untrained eye the picture is confusing. There are large design agencies such as IDEO or frog that perennially do well. Next to these you will find my NewDealDesign, Fuseproject and Astro performing on par with big guys while having organizations ten or twenty times smaller.

But that's exactly the thing about with design awards: love them or hate them, you'll always be puzzled by the results. With that in mind, here are five observations I had after watching this year's winners be declared.

awards1. Awards produce honest results--with a twist. A common theme among the disappointed is that design awards are a totally subjective business, if not political. I disagree. While each design could be measured differently by a different jury, over time, the picture is right. A good design may be a "finalist" in one program and a "gold" on the other, yet after a year or two of doing the rounds, its quite certain the best design will be rightly awarded. Same goes for design teams: if you're good, over time the results are there and consistency is rewarded. As design teams find their 'inner voice' they hone their ability to discuss their design and present it thoughtfully. The jury is actually awarding careful writing and solid presentation of process and goals. The results will reflect that.

2. The multidisciplinary approach doesn't work. One of the biggest problems with award programs is their tendency to mix it up. They seek to cover all bases and serve all constituencies, and the result is confusion. It is quite common for an interaction designer to be assigned an industrial design panel and vice versa. It is also common for writers and educators to be assigned to jury to spice up the scene... and they do. Industry wonks are added to bring in "the real world." As a result the last day is a full-contact fight for ideas, agendas and egos where the jury is engaged in a very interesting discussion about design, quality and intent. The end result is usually a direct testament to the strength and stamina of the head jurist.

awards3. Awards bring new business. Yes, they do, and for a good reason. For lack of other objective measurement of quality, awards are very influential in forming the designer's persona to the outer world. They expose clients to new and different facets of the designer's work and they introduce products that are hidden from view. Corporations can and will market the award-winning product differently and it does work to some degree. The bottom line is that for both the corporation and the design studio, an award is a good thing.

4. Marketability is not a priority. My other problem with award programs is that they are skewed against 'real market' physical products. The endeavor associated with creating a real physical product for mass market is so long and so complex that controlling the design quality through all the phases of development is next to impossible. Next to that, concepts and ideas requiring much less effort are presented on equal terms before the jury. As a result the chances of winning awards for concepts or boutique work is far higher than for mass market. I think there should be a serious discussion and revision of rules related to such phenomena. Plus, jurors should take note of such slant and form our opinions accordingly.

awards5. It's not all in the numbers. Both iF and IDEA have a tally of the awards per company and studio. These are important numbers that speak for overall award quantity and consistency over time. Yet these charts are missing one side of the story: quality. The dilemma facing an entrepreneur may look like this: Will you assign your next mobile phone project to a large agency that won 15 awards, 10 of which in medical, environmental and packaging? Or, should you award the contract to a studio winning three awards in mobile computing? Simply put, the diversity of awards mask more specialized teams. It is also masking the relative higher success rate of smaller studio teams compared with the larger multi-office agencies. Your next project's chance of becoming a marquee product is directly related to the quality of the team actually assigned for the job. In other words, look at personal credentials, not the agency global layout.

[Bravia EX1 LCD, red dot award, product design; Adiri Natural Nurser, iF gold; Light Lane, IDEA Gold; Loft chair, ID Magazine Best in Category]

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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2 Comments

  • Chelsea Sutula

    Gadi --
    I appreciate your thoughtful comments about the value and basis of design awards... and I would concur with most of what you said, with the exception of points 2 and 4.

    Every awards scheme is different and mitigates juror bias differently. When I was managing the IDEA program, the general consensus was that good design requires a multi-disciplinary approach and that's why IDEA needed a multi-disciplined panel of experts to evaluate the entries. Every entry is screened by two people with some expertise in that category. Then four additional judges weigh in. The entire panel has to confirm or deny the final award recommendations. So everyone has a voice.

    As far as concepts being favored over products -- I saw the opposite actually, jurors had been increasingly skeptical of concepts that have zero chance of being produced, or aren't presented and designed in a thoughtful way. Concepts may attract more press because they have the crazy cool factor that excites people... but statistically there are way more products that win awards. IDSA decided to re-organize concepts to be a sub-category of every product category instead of its own category -- so concepts for cars could be compared with real cars as opposed to being judged alongside a concept toothbrush. Maybe concepts should be a separate competition -- that's up to IDSA to decide.

    The great thing about IDEA is that it's governed by a nonprofit whose members have considerable influence in how it's run. I encourage you to email IDSA and ask to be included on the 2010 jury so you can enjoy some of the fruits of your 2007-08 IDEA Awards-reform committee efforts -- and figure out what process improvements to suggest next.

    Cheers,
    Chelsea