In the past decade, the Beazley Designs of the Year award has been responsible for identifying design excellence, although it didn’t always get it right
Looking at the nominees for the Beazley Designs of the Year 2017
“Design is order out of chaos, isn’t it? But sometimes, chaos out of order is more interesting,” says Margaret Calvert, the typographer and graphic designer responsible for creating many of the United Kingdom’s most recognisable road signs.
Calvert is one of seven judges who are tasked with selecting the winner of this year’s Beazley Designs of the Year award, an annual exhibition and awards ceremony organised by London’s Design Museum. Calvert and her cohorts are responsible for sifting through the 62 nominees, which are spread across six categories that cover the full gamut of design, including architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport.
Sketches, models, videos and photographs of all nominations are currently on show at the Design Museum. Along with one overall winner, the best entry in each category will be announced on January 25. Nominees include Nike’s now-famous hijab, which was created in consultation with top-flight athletes such as Amna Al Haddad, a female weightlifter from the UAE, and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari.
At the other end of the scale is Sir David Adjaye’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, a landmark institution that became “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture” when it opened at the end of 2016.
Other notable entries for 2017 are Fractured Lands, a one-off, ad-free issue of The New York Times Magazine that focuses on the Middle East in the past decade; Pokemon Go; Remolten, a furniture line made from molten lava; the world’s first translating earpiece; Wolfgang Tillmans’ Remain Campaign for the Brexit referendum; and the world’s first 3-D printed self-driving bus.
“Beazley Designs of the Year is an annual prize and exhibition that recognises the best, newest and most significant designs worldwide,” says Glenn Adamson, guest curator of Beazley Designs of the Year 2017. “The exhibition is all about looking ahead, but it’s the 10th anniversary this year and a great opportunity for us to look back at design. It looks very different in the rear view mirror.”
The anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on the real role of design; on how you gauge what is important and transformative; and on how long it takes for good design to show its true worth. “Design is a funny thing; sometimes it has its impact in places you can’t quite see it, and it can be very difficult to see in advance what’s going to have the real effect,” Adamson notes.
He uses 3-D printing as an example of something that generated a lot of buzz when first launched, but has not yet had the transformative effect that one might have anticipated. “Whereas, if you think about something like shipping containers, which have been around a long time but have become more and more pervasive, and in a way that people perhaps don’t quite notice, they have transformed the way that we live,” he says.
As previous winners prove, sometimes the most inconspicuous of objects can have unexpectedly far-reaching effects. Min-Kyu Choi’s Folding Plug, for example, which was an award winner in 2010. Or the Plumen 001 bulb by Hulger and Samuel Wilkinson from 2011. More complex was the Human Organs-on-Chips, a creation by Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, which took top honours in 2015.
The tiny microchips “recapitulate the micro-architecture and functions of living human organs, including the lung, intestine, kidney, skin, bone marrow and blood-brain barrier”. In layman’s terms, it mimics the response of human cells, offering an alternative to animal testing when it comes to developing new drugs and personalised medicines.
“There’s a certain extra-vagance and formalism attached to the word design, whereas in this particular case, it was almost an invisible object,” says Farshid Moussavi, the director of Farshid Moussavi Architects, who was one of the 2015 judges. The microscopic device “allows us to more closely replicate human cells,” she explains. “The potential of it is enormous.”
While the past 10 years have seen a diverse range of products and projects being recognised for their design excellence, Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, admits that mistakes have been made. Most notably in 2008, when the then new iPhone lost out to Yves Behar’s One Laptop Per Child project. While admirable in its intent, the One Laptop initiative never really went on to fulfil its potential, while the iPhone became ubiquitous.
“We did make a howling error – the iPhone was not the design of the year in the year in which it was launched. The One Laptop Per Child project got the top award,” Sudjic says. “It was a very worthy and worthwhile idea – that you could actually deal with illiteracy and the disadvantages of the Third World by making laptops cheap and available. It was a bold idea, but in the end, it was the smartphone that won, everywhere.”
In a similar vein is 2016’s winner, Better Shelter by the Ikea Foundation and UNHCR, which was designed to change how refugees are housed, but had inherent flaws that prevented its widespread uptake. Nonetheless, its humanitarian slant is mirrored in this year’s competition by new designs that also attempt to raise awareness and improve the lives of those impacted by global displacement.
The Avy Search and Rescue Drone is designed to rescue refugees in danger whilst travelling across the Mediterranean Sea; the Refugee Nation Flag for the Olympics was created for the first ever Olympic refugee team; and the Calais Builds Project, which provides short-term structures and infrastructure.
Looking to the future, the designs that truly make a difference could be all but invisible. Design is, arguably, no longer defined by its materiality – just because you can’t see a Bitcoin, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and wasn’t designed. Which means that in the next 10 years, the exhibition part of the Beazley Designs of the Year may become all but redundant.