08 November 2006
Ben Hargreaves
Ben Hargreaves

Design competitions grow in scope and number with each passing year. But what exactly is their true worth, and is the industry in danger of celebratory saturation?

...The IDEA awards, the Industrial Designers Society of America's (IDSA) glitzy annual festival of peer acknowledgement and back-slapping; Design Sense, sponsored by Corus and backed by the Design Museum in an effort to promote sustainability in industrial design; the Design Week awards; the Royal Society of Art's design awards; Red Dot, a German tip of the hat to excellence in product design, and not to be confused with the Yellow Pencils given out every year by the D&AD. Then, of course, there are the other IDEA awards, the Design Business Association's (DBA) own home-grown festival of glitzy annual acknowledgement...

It's a sign of our celebrity-obsessed times that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the competitions currently open to industrial designers seeking recognition, respect and commercial advantage for their work. There are now awards for anything and everything -- it's only momentarily surprising to learn that the Grosvenor Hotel in London now holds an awards ceremony for the organisers of awards ceremonies. Why shouldn't industrial designers have their turn in the spotlight? Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes: even he might have been surprised by the all-embracing nature of that prophecy, nor would he have imagined that fourteen of those minutes would involve the walk to the podium, with just one dedicated to delivering the tearful speech.

Arguably the most prestigious of any of the current plethora of awards ceremonies, the IDSA Industrial Design Excellence competition this year saw North Carolina-based product design consultancy Bolt pick up two gold awards. One of these was for the ThoughtCaster headset and base station, which came out on top in the Medical and Scientific Products category, and is designed for treating children with attention deficit disorder.

As the before and after shots above illustrate, Bolt can feel justifiably proud of its achievement. The designers turned something that initially looked like a sinister science experiment (presumably, not even the parents of the most excessively wired youngster would relish seeing their child hooked up to that) into a kid-friendly, colourful and aesthetically appealing product. The awards from IDSA, says Monty Montague, design principal at Bolt, were both a valuable recognition of the company's design work and an important commercial and marketing vehicle.

"The awards are really the Oscars of our industry," he says. "We've got significant press and recognition. It's opened up some doors and people have spoken to us that might not have otherwise."

"They're very important in that we've already had a degree of spin-off publicity from it," agrees George Church, industrial design manager at Hoover, whose Concept-Q vacuum cleaner picked up a silver IDSA award in the Design Explorations category.

Montague thinks the fact that the IDSA awards are run in conjunction with Business Week gives them an extra kudos that some other competitions perhaps lack. "It gives them credibility because they're linked to a publication that's not just about design. Connecting it with Business Week gives it credibility in the eyes of business. Design obviously needs to continue to elevate its position in the business community: that's what the connection with the magazine does." Church concurs, suggesting that while awards linked to design magazines can seem rather incestuous, Business Week's involvement lends gravitas to IDSA's ceremony.

"It's important when you're looking at the role of an awards scheme to remember where it's coming from and what its remit is," says David Kester, chief executive of D&AD, which operates as a charity and therefore perhaps has a different perspective from corporate culture on awards. "The bottom line for one scheme might be to promote a company or to sell a magazine. For another, as it is with D&AD, it might be to set creative standards for an industry, to provide the basis of an education programme, and to communicate with business."

"Our entire rationale puts the Yellow Pencils in a completely different mould," he argues. "It's not profit-making. It's not trying to make anybody rich: it's purely there for the whole of the creative industry."

Is there a danger of awards overkill? Bolt's Monty Montague doesn't believe that the proliferation of design competitions -- at least in the US -- is, as yet, having an adverse affect on the value of the schemes. "At some point in time, once you get to the tenth or twelfth, or fifteenth awards programme, then you start getting concerned. But it's almost like the old adage that even bad press is good press. Promoting the quality and the visibility of design is a positive: at some point the answer will be yes, there are too many competitions. I don't think we're there yet."

"We're not seeking a monopoly," states David Kester. "We operate in a free market and people will come up with PR ideas and awards, and good luck to them," he adds. "But D&AD is engaged in something rather different; it is benchmarking 21,000 pieces of work each year, recording the best in creativity for inspiration and learning, promoting the industry, and providing valuable educational tools.

"I think it's a pretty healthy scene out there which works well for both designers and clients. There can be little doubt that winning an award, like D&AD, can have a significant effect for a business."

Ultimately, of course, awards ceremonies need not be in mutually exclusive competition with each other. Kester rates the DBA's awards, for example, because they provide a differing focus from that of his own organisation. "We have a very high regard for the DBA's Design Effectiveness awards, which sit well alongside our own programme. The industry needs the D&AD to look at creativity on its own, because creativity ultimately is the product, and it's such a difficult and elusive thing to measure. What you don't want to do is cloud that with performance within the marketplace. There can be a hundred reasons why a product launch didn't reach its target: it might be to do with the designer; it might not -- it's difficult to isolate design within the mix. The DBA's awards try to ascertain what effect design is having within business, and are valuable for precisely that reason."

About this article
The above article was first published in New Design magazine and is reprinted with permission.

About the Author
Ben Hargreaves is Staff Writer on the UK's leading industrial design title, New Design. He writes regularly on a range on issues including ecology, transport, inclusivity, and innovation in product design. He also contributes regularly to the magazines Engineering and Vehicle Engineering & Design. He holds an MA in 20th Century English Literature from Sussex University.

About New Design Magazine
New Design magazine is the only title devoted wholly to the business of industrial and product design. Published six times each year, New Design tackles the issues faced by designers, design managers and those involved in the purchase of design services, both in the UK and the rest of the world. With its powerful combination of intelligent, incisive journalism from an dedicated in-house editorial team, contributions from major industry figures, and innovative graphic design, New Design has already established itself as a must-read in all its key market segments. As the designer's role changes in the 21st century, New Design is tracking, predicting and helping to facilitate that change.