The minutes are ticking down, and a fleet of town cars idle outside the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, ready to leave for the airport. Inside the building, though, the 18 design luminaries serving as jurors of the 2010 International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) — the field's top honors — are unmoved. Over the previous 48 hours, they have blazed through a pool of 1,900 entries from 28 countries, choosing 38 gold-medal winners. And now they are stuck, deadlocked over the final selection for Best in Show.
Choosing the medalists in some of the 18 categories — everything from medical devices to home decor — was easy. And seeing the reach of modern design has been exhilarating. For instance, Thomas Meyerhoffer's elegant surfboard takes top honors in leisure and recreation, while the judges deem Ideo's poignant posters for pharma giant Lilly "a simple but beautiful moment of creativity," awarding it gold in design research.
Best in Show proves to be the knottiest problem. The four finalists affirm the wild diversity of the competition; they are so different that judging them against one another is like picking between apples and oysters. There is the packaging for Method laundry detergent, which the jurors love for its ability to change daily consumer behavior. There is the user interface on Microsoft's Zune music player — "There's poetry in this," one juror argues. The minimalism of the Slingbox multimedia broadcaster has many fans. "If this were the standard," one juror jokes, "it would put us all out of business." And then there is the innovative low-cost latrine from Cambodia, modest on physical beauty, perhaps, but high on social responsibility.
The jurors are hypersensitive about the signal their choice will send to the larger design community. Jury chief John Barratt, CEO of product-development firm Teague, insists that the winner be something that people throughout the industry "could be proud of vicariously." He also reminds the panel, "This award is the bellwether of where the industry is and where it's going."
There had been a heated discussion at dinner the previous night about whether the environmental impact of a design should be a consideration in every category, not just in the "eco-design" niche, as in this year's awards. Designers Accord founder Valerie Casey, one of the eco-design category's judges, urged her fellow jurors to make a bold statement by recategorizing that group's entries and measuring all entries' eco-responsibility. The debate continued long after the dishes were cleared, until 2 a.m., when IDEA officials decided that changing the rules midstream, not to mention the logistics of rejudging everything the following morning, made Casey's suggestion unworkable.
One significant result of the discussion: a major change in judging criteria for subsequent years. "When considering products for awards in the future, they will be evaluated on their social, ecological, cultural, as well as economic responsibility," says Clive Roux, chief of the Industrial Designers Society of America, which runs the Dow Corning — sponsored IDEAs. "The design profession can no longer claim excellence in design unless we have considered the concept of responsibility as a central part of the design problem."
Eventually, the judges decide on Best in Show. The Zune interface loses out: "We don't really want to send a message to the world that we want to make more mobile music players," one juror says. The other three finalists — the Method bottle, the Slingbox, and the Easy Latrine — are all named Best in Show. Each has addressed the issues that have been roiling the group, but in different ways. "What's important is telling the story," says Barratt. "These three tell the story. They show responsibility at all levels."
On the pages that follow, you'll find all three Best in Show winners, plus 14 other gold recipients and a sampling of silver and bronze medalists. Visit FastCoDesign.com, our new design site, for an exclusive look at all 150 medalists, plus videos of the judges explaining their choices.
IDEA Best in Show Winners
Images from top to bottom:
The futuristic Tatou shoe is for practitioners of parkour, the sport of traversing cities as if they were obstacle courses.
Designer: Annika Lüber, University of Applied Science, Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany
The Cesto Trama laundry basket's weave pattern echoes traditional Brazilian craft, but the use of sugarcane-based resins to reduce plastic consumption is totally modern.
Designer: Bertussi Designdustrial
The all-bamboo base of the bronze-winning Demoiselle six-seater dining table was inspired by aircraft from the 1930s.
Designer: Paulo Foggiato, Oré Brasil
This elegant Oxo cork pull, a bronze medalist, has a built-in foil cutter and the brand's trademark rubber grip.
Designers: SmartDesign and Oxo
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.