Although the 87 design projects included on the list of nominees, and on show at London’s Design Museum, cover a wide variety of disciplines, there’s a significant focus on designers addressing the world’s problems in this year’s Beazley Designs of the Year show.
This runs the gamut from new materials, such as Zoa’s cruelty-free leather made using collagen derived from yeast, to Gusmanson and DROG’s Bad News game, which teaches players about fake news.
The environment is a particular focus this year, especially ways to reduce our reliance on plastic. Among the eco-friendly nominees is LADbible’s Trash Isles campaign, which gives the Pacific Ocean’s enormous stretch of plastic waste a national identity, including passports and currency, to encourage the UN to brand it an official country and include it in its Environmental Charter. There’s also Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza’s plastic-free aisle, which includes a logo designed by Made Thought that’s stamped on all plastic-free products.
However, while projects like Ekoplaza’s aisle – due to be rolled out in all of its stores by the end of this year – have an obvious impact, it’s hard not be suspicious about the long-term effects of some of the other nominees, or their relevance for the majority of people.
While products such as Studio Klarenbeek & Dros at Ateliera Luma’s Algae Lab chases a lofty goal – replacing plastic with algae-based polymers – there’s little sense of how close this is to becoming a reality. The Tetra countertop dishwasher promises to use less water, and be easier to transport, but still only has a tentative availability date later this year, and while LADbible’s Trash Isles campaign might be raising awareness, we’re no closer to resolving the rubbish patch swirling around the Pacific.
It’s also worth remembering that the winner of the 2016 Designs of the Year was Ikea’s flat-pack refugee shelter, which was put on hold, and redesigned, the following year after suffering safety issues.
That said, there are moments that remind design can make a difference, even if it isn’t always about saving the world. On the smaller end of the scale, Ian McIntyre’s redesigned Brown Betty teapot helps restaurants save space by stacking the ceramics vertically, while Fenty Beauty’s range of makeup, which includes 40 different skin shades, tackles the beauty industry’s longstanding lack of representation.
Happily, the exhibition also doesn’t neglect the times when design, while not resolving global issues, is playful and enjoyable – such as Bjarke Ingels Group’s brightly coloured LEGO House, Studio Drift’s dancing drones, or Territory Studio’s atmospheric Blade Runner 2049 interfaces.
Shows such as Beazley Designs of the Year perform an important role, in exploring how design raises questions, spreads awareness, and attempts to solve problems faced by society as a whole. It has the power to connect with visitors that live outside of what can be an insular industry, and expose design’s potential for effecting change and influencing our lives.
However, while some of these projects may go on to have a wider impact, if they stay within the confines of the Design Museum, or the studio where they were created, it becomes another exercise in the design industry talking to itself – a criticism it often faces. Surely, however speculative a piece of design, the ultimate test for it must be whether it can live in the real world one day?
Beazley Designs of the Year 2018 is on at the Design Museum in London until January 6, 2019; designmuseum.org