In keeping with past iterations of Beazley Designs of the Year, the 2019 exhibition marks a clear attempt to illustrate the power of design in doing good in the world. However, this isn’t any ordinary year. The awards have attracted criticism from activist group Extinction Rebellion – which rejected its nomination this year – relating to the awards’ sponsor, insurance company Beazley. XR lambasted the insurance company as part of a wider takedown of the insurance industry’s “failure to disclose the … financial risks” tied to the threat posed by the climate crisis.
These latest complaints follow last year’s criticism of the Design Museum by a number of artists featured in the protest-themed exhibition Hope To Nope, after it was revealed the museum had hosted an event for an arms company. It eventually had to remove a third of the pieces at the request of the artists.
It is against this backdrop that the Designs of the Year arrive at the museum, and perhaps in response – unlike last year when CR noted that many of the designs felt like speculative prototypes rather than real-world products answering real-world issues – the show this year features designs that are overtly addressing the issues of our times.
This was represented via apps and products, including OLIO, a neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app or Lia, a full biodegradable pregnancy test, as well as overtly political works (the show includes a wall covered with a Led By Donkeys campaign). Gender issues also crop up as a focus among this year’s nominees, with a book celebrating women graphic designers, an open source database of women in design, and a feminist ad campaign all racking up nominations.
Virtue, Vice’s creative agency, makes an appearance with Q, the world’s first genderless voice for voice assistants. The project comes as a timely response to growing discussions around the use of female voices in popular devices like Alexa, Siri and Cortana, which are said to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.
Another of the more meaningful nominations tackling big questions is Hildrey Studio’s ProxyAddress, which aims to help combat homelessness. The system – which is being trialled with Lewisham Council – identifies empty homes and allows those without a permanent residence to use the address, in the hope they can continue to receive support from location-based services.
The show also places a focus on accessibility, with the inclusion of Ikea’s ThisAbles range of 3D printable products, which allows those with disabilities to adapt existing Ikea products. Mona Chalabi has also been nominated for Who Are You Here To See?, her large-scale tactile artwork designed for visually impaired people. Elsewhere, in the fashion category, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive offers a range of modified apparel that includes specific adjustments designed to provide assistance for various disabilities.
The fashion section seems like the only space where it’s still okay to be celebratory or light-hearted. Even here though, the world’s serious issues came into play, albeit with a cheerier tone. Belgian designer Mats Rombaut bridged the gap between humour and conscientious design with his bioplastic ‘vegan lettuce slide’ – made from plants like pineapple and fig – conceived as a playful response to fashion’s ugly shoe trend. Aside from this, many other projects in this category felt comparatively sober.
The transport section also feels slightly looser and freer than the others, symbolising the sector’s evolution from present-day creations to the zany possibilities of the future.
Uber’s JUMP scooter and bicycle rental service (one of many similar smartphone services) appears alongside a 3D printed motorcycle, which sounds innovative on paper though unfortunately looks like it’s printed from paper too. On the more radical end of the transport spectrum, there’s Pop.Up Next, a “speculative flying drone for city dwellers” which is thankfully a distant future away.
Coming at a time when the design community is being challenged about the role it plays in shaping our world, this year’s awards and exhibition are clearly attempting to demonstrate the positive contribution that design makes, and the answers it can offer to the difficult challenges that we face.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily tackle the sponsorships challenges that the Design Museum and other arts institutions face when putting on these shows, which has been brought to the fore once again by XR, and likely not for the last time.
Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition is on display at the Design Museum until February 9 2020; designmuseum.org