A smart cot that rocks babies to sleep and a brand identity for Wales might not appear to have much in common. One aims to keep babies safe and help new parents get some much-needed sleep. The other hopes to boost tourism in a country that struggles to attract as many visitors as its British neighbours. But both are examples of designers using their creativity to tackle real problems – and both are featured in the tenth Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
Each year, the Design Museum’s curators face the daunting task of making sense of the shortlist for its annual Design of the Year Award. Hundreds of nominations are submitted by industry experts and shortlisted projects are showcased in an exhibition before an overall winner is announced the following year.
Curators must take this assortment of ingenious inventions – a collection that includes vehicles, posters, buildings and visual identities – and draw connections between them. This year’s exhibition has a strong focus on socially, politically and environmentally conscious design with sections on activism, branding and craft skills.
An Activists section includes the Pussyhat alongside anti-Brexit posters by Wolfgang Tilmans and the Protest Banner Lending Library (a US service that teaches people how to make protest banners).
This section shows how a single object – be it a poster, a hat or a flag – can come to represent entire movements or give voice to marginalised communities. It also illustrates the power of design to provoke empathy or an emotional response. A 3D recreation of a Syrian prison uses audio and witness testimonies to explain what it’s like to be detained and tortured while Tilman’s posters aimed to inspire UK residents to vote ‘remain’ in the EU referendum.
The Brands section places Google emoji representing professional women alongside a Nike hijab and Ikea furniture that can be assembled without screws (an invention that would allow customers to build, dismantle and rebuild products more easily). Also included is Smorgasbord’s brand identity for Wales and clothing designed by Kanye West to promote the launch of his album Life of Pablo.
By placing West’s and Smorgasbord’s designs alongside innovations from Nike and Google, the exhibition shows that it’s not just huge companies using design to set themselves apart but people and countries too. Google and Nike’s designs also capture the spirit of 2017 – a year when everyone from tech giants to fashion brands recognised the need to embrace diversity and be more inclusive.
A section on Makers celebrates designers who are using their craft skills to develop new production methods, find new uses for materials and involve local communities in making. A biodegradable chair made with flax and glue is displayed alongside lava seating and an electric moped constructed from locally sourced materials in Morocco:
Innovators looks at the independent studios and startups developing radical new products. Items include Yves Behar and fuseproject’s SNOO Smart Sleeper, an earpiece that translates languages in real time, a wheelchair that can go up and down stairs and a new manufacturing method known as Rapid Liquid Printing. Each of these designs has the potential to drive real change in its respective field and was created not by large organisations but small businesses or research teams – highlighting a major shift in the way new products are designed and brought to market.
Tucked away in the lower ground floor of the Design Museum, the exhibition space resembles an underground cave littered with rare artefacts. Architectural practice Carmody Groarke have crafted curved concrete-effect walls from a substance made out of old newspaper and acrylic signage is embedded in the surface. Displays are set back from a central corridor and hidden behind walls, meaning new sections are revealed as visitors move through the space. This layout forces visitors to view objects in the context of a particular theme rather than dashing from one eye-catching display to the next.
Some displays are more engaging than others: a section on buildings feels like an afterthought. A caption explains that featured projects – including Zaha Hadid’s Port House in Antwerp and a department store in a historic building in Venice – were created by leading firms who overcame various challenges to create buildings that add value to communities, but it feels more like a collection of projects that didn’t sit well elsewhere.
Road safety campaign Meet Graham is a great project – one that shows how design and creative thinking can raise awareness of an important issue (in this case, how vulnerable the human body is in a car crash) – but it also seems out of place in Innovators (it was commissioned by ad agency Clemenger BBDO Melbourne for the Transport Accident Commission). An articulated sculpture from a fashion show seems an equally odd fit in Activists – but this is perhaps to be expected when trying to group such diverse designs into just a handful of themes.
A short film created for the exhibition in partnership with Dezeen reflects on the winning designs from the past ten years and the challenges inherent in selecting an overall winner. Yves Behar’s One Laptop Per Child project was named Design of the Year in 2008 – but it was the iPhone that proved to be that year’s most significant invention.
Last year’s winner (Ikea’s Better Shelter for refugees) also failed to live up to expectations. Concerns over safety and design flaws meant that just one third of shelters were used. This highlights the danger in awarding prototypes but as the film points out, these designs can go on to inspire other creatives or have a significant impact on the world once further iterations are developed.
The exhibition could benefit from some interactive displays. Rapid liquid printing has the potential to transform manufacturing but there is little explanation of how it works or why it is so significant. Some displays feature case study films but others show only a product and a brief description.
But these are minor complaints. Designs of the Year is an inspiring display of brilliant inventions – one that shows how design impacts every aspects of our lives.
Designs of the Year is open at the Design Museum until January 28 2018. An overall winner will be announced on January 25. For details see designmuseum.org or see our feature on the 2017 shortlist here.