It’s lunchtime on Thursday and the newly opened Design Museum is packed with visitors. There are parents and toddlers, groups of students and couples ranging from 20 to 80-something. The cafe is almost full and there are rows of people queueing for tickets.
The Design Museum hopes to attract 400,000 more visitors a year in its new home. It now has a permanent free display – Designer, Maker, User, which includes almost 1000 pieces of contemporary design – and opens with two temporary exhibitions: Fear and Love and Beazley Designs of the Year. Fear and Love features 11 works responding to ‘issues that define our time’ – from sentient robots to networked sexuality – while Designs of the Year showcases the designs shortlisted for the museum’s Design of the Year award.
The exhibition features 70 designs nominated by academics and industry experts. Experts are asked to put forward designs that ‘promote or deliver change, enable access, extend design practice or capture the spirit of the year’.
As always, it’s a diverse collection of designs, from ambitious architectural projects to an electric bike and a pair of trainers made from waste plastic. An overall winner will be decided by public vote and announced in January next year.
In previous years, the show has sometimes lacked a clear curatorial focus and a proper explanation of the selection criteria. The variety of projects featured has always been one of the exhibition’s biggest draws but it also presents some major challenges. How do you group such a disparate collection of objects into a show with a meaningful narrative? And how do you choose between The Shard or the gov.uk site – or a beautiful book cover and an ingenious medical device – to select an overall Design of the Year?
This year, however, the Design Museum has made a real effort to explain how designs are chosen. Detailed captions outline why each item has been selected and introductory text sets out the criteria for nominations.
‘Act’ groups designs that aim to improve situations or services and promote political or social change. This includes SH:24, an online sexual health service offering live webchats, advice and free home testing kits, and the Better Shelter, a flat pack refugee shelter produced in partnership with IKEA and the UNHCR. The section highlights the power of design to change lives and solve major global issues.
‘Place’ showcases designs created in response to their environments – designs that are inspired by local landscapes or buildings that offer a creative response to spatial restrictions. There are some beautiful architectural projects: MAD Architecture’s Harbin Opera House looks as if it was sculpted by wind and water and SL11024 is a vibrant housing complex that makes clever use of a wedge-shaped strip of land in Los Angeles.
‘Unite’ highlights the importance of user-centred design and the role designers can play in bringing together communities. Featured projects include Assemble’s Turner Prize-winning Granby Four Streets project, Margate’s Dreamland theme park and a nomadic design museum in Mumbai. ‘Connect’ shows how clever technology can transform everyday objects – from clothes to bikes – while ‘Renew’ highlights projects that give existing products or brands a new lease of life, including 4Creative’s rebrand of Channel 4 and Phonevert, an initiative to find new uses for unwanted smartphones.
This year’s themes highlight the many ways in which it impacts our lives: from improving the spaces we inhabit to transforming the products and services we use everyday. They also help visitors make sense of the objects contained within the show, drawing connections between buildings and kitchen appliances, or a video game and an interactive documentary.
Studio Hato has done an excellent job on the graphics, creating pictograms to represent each theme and colourful banners to signpost each section of the exhibition. The studio also worked on the digital design and has created some charming animations for digital displays.
Visitors are invited to vote for their favourite designs using iPads and a live feed of voting figures is displayed on a screen within the exhibition. The screen also displays visitor responses to questions about design and Designs of the Year – for example, whether a design of the year should solve a problem, benefit the environment, provoke debate, innovate, be beautiful or emotive. The top answer is currently ‘be beautiful’ – yet the frontrunner for the DOTY award on day one was the utilitarian Better Shelter. As well as encouraging debate among visitors, these interactive elements should help the Design Museum better understand its audience and what they think of DOTY.
Designs of the Year has always offered a fascinating glimpse of outstanding craft, brilliant problem-solving and beautiful products. But this year’s exhibition feels much more focused and engaging. And if visitor numbers on its opening day are anything to go by, it will be a hugely popular show.
Beazley Designs of the Year is open at the Design Museum until 19 February 2017. For details, opening hours and ticket prices see designmuseum.org. You can read our article on the 2016 Designs of the Year shortlist here.