A good idea but…

Our panel: Tony Brook of design studio Spin, Simon Piehl from design consultancy Bureau for Visual Affairs and Mark Holmes from furniture design and manufacturing company Established & Sons

CREATIVE REVIEW: What did you think of the show’s structure: with the work nominated for inclusion and split into categories?

SIMON PIEHL: Well, putting the iPhone next to a calculator in the ‘product’ section made me uneasy. There is a mile of difference between a remake of a beautiful calculator – don’t tell me ‘colours’ are new – and an iPhone. You can’t say that they’re level in terms of putting them both under the same pane of glass. I understand it’s a product, but it’s the interaction design that makes an iPhone an iPhone. A Prada phone is sleeker, but that’s product design. The iPhone’s software is interaction design. Things have become more multi-layered and multi-faceted. In some cases it would also have helped to point to the objects’ uniqueness to help visitors. With the Vélib communal bicycles in Paris, it’s a great ‘concept’ but not great design.  I need to be told that the idea is what we’re looking at. I think my most feared object in there is the Fiat 500 – everything’s wrong with it as a car. The interesting thing about it is that you can specify about 800 different things, you can have coloured wing mirrors if you so choose, but that’s not mentioned.

TONY BROOK: And the group of nominators who’ve chosen all the pieces – I don’t mind that at all, I think it’s a nice idea. But it’s still a group of people who we don’t really know, and then their choices are judged for the awards part by more people we also don’t know. That process, I think, needs to be communicated. Some graphic designers that I know have been bewildered by the show as if these things had just landed on the Design Museum from nowhere. But, actually, it’s quite a simple idea.

SP: I have a slightly different feeling. I’m told who’s nominated a project; OK, I know a few of the names. But as an industry outsider I won’t know the names at all. And then the reasons for something in the show being interesting, I’m not being told them either. If you didn’t change anything but explained the choices better, it would be much more user-friendly.

CR: So there’s a lack of reasoning behind the choices on display?

SP: I’m used to buying records from a list of the ‘ten best’, watching the ten best comedy shows. I can rant a bit about the choices, that’s the idea. Here, I’m being told that a selection of nominators thought these things were worth including and that they’re being brought to my attention under the headline of ‘design’. But, to an out­sider, ‘design’ itself might be some­thing strange and intangible.

TB: It’s a hell of an ask really. While I reckon I saw better graphic design in the CR Annual, at D&AD, the ‘Designs of the Year’ is the entry point here – ie it’s something to go and see. If there was a deeper look at ‘why’ these things are interesting, then that becomes really worthwhile. Then you get a sense of connection with why these people chose these things, which you don’t get in awards ceremonies. The personal aspect of people choosing things is really nice here.

CR: So more critical weight behind the explanations would be good?

SP: Absolutely.

TB: Part of the Design Museum’s raîson d’etre has to be to bring an understanding of design. This is the big show of the year and a fantastic opportunity to give an insight. I do feel very strongly about the winner of the graphic design category though [Penguin US Deluxe Edition covers]. I looked across in envy at the architecture section, it all looks so wonder­ful, they’re trying things, pushing things forward. Whether I liked them or not is irrelevant: they really feel adventurous.

SP: So you felt your discipline was represented by American under­standings of pastiches?

TB: Yes! I’m really disappointed by that, even though there were some really nice pieces in the graphic design section. But this is like someone in the architecture section making a new version of the Parthenon and winning.

MARK HOLMS: So it’s not reflective of the present climate in graphics ?

TB: Absolutely not. There is no great rash of pastiche design. I just think it’s really disappointing. What does it say about graphic design that the winner has done a very good job of pastiching someone else’s work?

SP: In terms of being represented, I don’t take this personally. My issue is with the categorisation. These are the ‘Designs of the Year’. To then say, this is from graphic design, this is product, interactive…?

MH: But doesn’t that enable the public to engage with it more directly? It’s just communicating more clearly.

TB: Perhaps – but if they explained each item and its merits they wouldn’t have to categorise anything. It would feel more like a dynamic design world.

MH: True. I guess it’s the easy route to take, putting something into a box. The difficult thing to do is to explain its value as design in itself, divorced from its category. I think they had the best intentions, and invited the nominators to write something about each selection. It’s just disappointing that time wasn’t on their side to put that into place properly.

CR: What do you think about the idea of the pieces being nominated for inclusion rather than being entered?

TB: I think it’s refreshing.

MH: Yes, it’s good if it’s done right.

SP: I agree, the nominations are OK.

MH: I think they’ve done a decent show, but it could have been better. Maybe this is where they need to get better next year.

TB: Despite being critical of the graphic design section winner, I enjoyed the show. I thought it was really strong. Except for maybe some of the decisions made along the way, I like the idea, I like the nominations process, the judging – it’s a really refreshing thing to do.

SP: I liked the conversation we had going round but I’m here in informed company. Having to put myself in the shoes of some poor schoolchild – of someone with that attention span, from that standpoint, it’s a disparate view of things: there is nothing that takes me by the hand and tells me that these things were chosen by a select group of people.

CR: What exhibits did you like best?

TB: Burble London, the interactive balloons. Such a simple but beautiful idea. The iPhone is a fantastic thing and it will get better too.

SP: I’m really intrigued by the SkySails, the computer-guided kites for use by tankers on the ocean. They find the spot where there’s most drag for the boat and this saves up to 25% on fuel. It’s really positive and the tenacity to get it made is amazing.

TB: On the graphics front, I really enjoyed Jop van Bennekom’s work for Butt, though I think Fantastic Man is better. I thought that the apfel identity for Performa 07 was lovely too, a really nice piece.

SP: What did you think of the spanner?!

TB: It’s great, I loved it.

MH: It’s my favourite in the show.

SP: I really liked the spanner. I think I would hang it on my wall to remind me of simplicity.

MH: Yes, it revolutionises the idea of a spanner – it’s a great piece of design in reinterpreting a well known object but it has a modesty to it as well, some­thing often lost in shows like this. Too much emphasis can, instead, be put on slickness.

SP: Well, modesty takes us back to the Orange site. Put that spanner on one side and then the Orange site that sells you endless calls by being an endlessly long website. It’s two extremes: from a usable object that improves everyday life, to a company representing itself through the use of more-or-less trendy graphic design. They should not be in the same show.

TB: Something I really liked was the 100 Chairs in 100 Days project.

MH: Yes, it’s fantastic. The designer, Martino Gamper, has been physically sketching with chair parts. I think it was one of the best exhibits of design I saw last year, though I’m a little confused as to why it’s in this show, as it’s his own personal brief. If I wasn’t sat round this table getting in to the depths of what this exhibition is and what it should be, I think I would have left the show feeling very happy having seen it within this context.

CR: What about the awards, having a winning design of the year? Can you even compare all these things?

TB: It should just be ‘well done, you’ve been nominated for one of the designs of the year’. They could do a best in show but that kind of melts my mind!

MH: It works from a marketing point of view, to generate continual interest: announce something one week, another the next. Having designs of the year in each category – that’s valid – but as for choosing an overall winner, I don’t know how you go about doing that.

TB: That’s the problem, they all have merit, but what piece of typography is going to win against an innovative building, or a car? You can’t do that.

CR: Ultimately, is the exhibition a positive thing for design and people’s perception of design?

TB: I think next year’s will be. There are just some issues that have been thrown up this year. But it’s a great thing that they’ve done it and it will be interesting to see what they do next.

MH: They had to start somewhere and as long as the organisers are able to accept the faults, they can be treated as a positive for next year.

SP: The thinking has to be to make it more usable for industry outsiders, and I think that’s a big failing. If that’s addressed, it does a service to design. At the moment, I think it does neither a service nor a disservice because it leaves it where it is.

MH: And the duty of the museum is to do that. But it’s like how we talked about the iPhone, it’s the same thing – it has a few flaws but it’s a great idea.

TB: There were some pieces I liked a lot, but what graphic design’s got going for it is life, vibrancy, relevance, connection and it felt a little quiet, or cold here. It didn’t feel like the vibrant graphics scene that I know about.

MH: So part of the feeling you walked away with is misrepresentation?

TB: If one of the criteria could be that ‘it has a sense of that year’ then the regressive work wouldn’t be there. It’s the Designs of the Year and you should get a sense of what that year has been about. So if you went there in 1960 you’d feel the vibrancy of 1960. You’d get the ‘now-ness’, what design actually feels like right now.

MH: And it’s a great opportunity to do that because it’s ‘product’ based rather than ‘designer’ based. That’s a smart move. If it’s done correctly you have a snapshot of 2007/8, this moment in time, which is a fantastic creative document to have.

TB: That would be something.

Brit Insurance Designs of the Year runs until April 27 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London, SE1 2YD. More information at designmuseum.org

Winners of each of the seven sections:

architecture: National Stadium, Beijing, China, by Herzog & de Meuron

fashion: Airborne Autumn/Winter 07 design by Hussein Chalayan

furniture: 100 Chairs in 100 Days, designed and manufactured by Martino Gamper

graphics: Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, creative director Paul Buckley, co art director Helen Yentus

interactive: Burble London

designed by Haque Design + Research

with Seth Garlock and Rolf Pixley

product: One Laptop Per Child (overall winner)

designed by Yves Béhar of Fuseproject for OLPC

& Quanta Computer Inc

transport: Mex-x wheelchair for children

by Meyra – Ortopedia Vertriebsgesellschaft mbH


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