From Folding Plugs, to Typographic Trees

This month, the CR Readers’ Panel visits the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year exhibition.

For the second CR Readers’ Panel we visited the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year show. Accompanying CR were Ed Wright, a designer at NB: Studio in London; Belinda Webster of London studio Picnic; and Dave Sedgwick, who works at Manchester-based studio 999 Design. The Designs of the Year exhibition features 100 pieces of work nomi­nated for inclusion by a range of critics, design profes­sionals and editors (including CR’s Patrick Burgoyne) from the worlds of graphic, product, transport, furniture and interaction design, architecture and fashion. A winner from each category is also judged by a separate panel, along with an overall Design of the Year. This year the show was organised thematically into six sections; Communications, Cultural Heritage, Everyday Design, Conceptual Design, Global and Sustainable Solutions, and Social Enablement.

CR: Rather than categories, this year the Design Museum has arranged the work into six themes delineated by large typographic pillars. What did you make of that?

DS: I thought I’d find myself going straight to the graphics work. I didn’t though; I took more time on the product design, on the things that I felt were important, like the disabled access work. My mum has multiple sclerosis and is paralysed so, to me, there were very personal things like the EyeWriter, where people can draw with their eyes, the Design Bugs Out Commode and the Worldmade Sport wheel­chair, which was great as they can weigh a lot and cost a fortune. While Farrow’s Pet Shop Boys record is a great piece of design, I found myself drawn to the things that were personal.

BW: I don’t think arranging things by theme worked for me, as I like things mixed up. There’s no harm in keeping the work within the different disciplines though; you can compare things within the same area. I think they forced some of the work into themes so they could lay them out more easily.

EW: But it would look odd if you had seven buildings shown together, then seven pieces of graphic design. It gets boring. But they could have mixed it all up, as it’s work from one year, instead of adding another level of categories over all the work.

BW: They should keep it simple, definitely. But then I don’t know the best way around it. If you walked in and knew nothing about design, I just think you might get in a muddle.

CR: It’s good to see many of the projects physically there in the exhibition. How important is it to be hands-on with the exhibits?

BW: I really like that tactile side; lots of things were exposed. I was looking forward to seeing the Newspaper Club idea explained, but with a pile of newspapers, you have to work hard to find out what it’s about. It’s such a brilliant concept, but a little underwhelming in the way it’s positioned in the space.

DS: With the graphic design, you can’t pick up the pieces and read them. I understand why as they’ll become tatty, but I would expect more hands-on work. I was impressed that they have the BMW car actually there though, as it’s a good centrepiece.

EW: I appreciated what you could touch. I’ve never seen a Kindle before, how the digital ink looks, so I appreciated that. And the objects that were fixed using the Sugru silicone-based repair clay were great to pick up.

CR: Did you get a sense of how the show was put together, based on nominations? Was it conveyed why something was chosen to be included?

EW: The guidebook explains that more but, in the show, there isn’t a biography for any of the nominators, so what relevance do these choices have to people outside design? The Design Museum often seems to be for ‘design people’ and this show doesn’t do much to dispel that. But maybe that’s a good thing and we should be precious about it and just let people who work in design choose what the best work is.

BW: They’re exposed all the time to the best in their field; they’re in a better position. If the Folding Plug [which won Design of the Year] is a genius idea, then that’s because it’s been compared to lots of other pieces of design.
DS: Yes and the plug means a lot to me! It feels almost too easy as an idea. We’ve all struggled carrying plugs around; while laptops have got smaller and smaller, the plug is still a bulky object. The BMW is fantastic, the Extrusions aluminium bench is great, but these things didn’t mean anything to me personally. And that’s where the public is going to be able to have a voice and more of an opinion. But it’s interesting how in music awards, for example, the artists claim to prefer the awards that were chosen ‘by the people’ – not by editors of music magazines. In design it seems the other way around; you feel you get more respect from peers, from ‘experts’ rather than the public. It’s so subjective.

EW: But it shouldn’t be that hard; design should be one of the easiest things to judge, because it either works or it doesn’t. It should be less subjective than music or films because in many ways it ‘can’ be measured.

CR: Information is key to a show like this. The captions contained a description of the object, then a quote from the person who’d nominated the piece. Do you think that both explained enough about each object and why it was there?

EW: This is my bugbear with the exhibition. In many cases, the writing in the captions didn’t do much other than sound very elitist. If the Museum is meant to promote design to everyone, to enthuse them, having a Designs of the Year show should be the most accessible starting point. For the portable commode, the caption reads that the commode is made of two parts, one is “the shell that forms the patient interface”. The seat that you sit on, right? Don’t call it a “patient interface”. And with It’s Nice That becoming a book, it’s so that “users can engage with the content” – so you can read it. The captions need to be more accessible so it doesn’t come across like a designer exhibition for designers.

BW: My system was to look at the ‘quote’ text to see why the piece was there. If I engaged with that, I then read the description. With the aluminium bench, the amazing thing about it is that it’s cast from one single piece! I wanted to know that first.

CR: What were your favourite projects? Were there things you thought shouldn’t be in there?

EW: The New York High Line. That that can get made despite all the bureaucracy they must have encountered is great. It’s a really good use of something already very New York and they’ve made it even more New York. I wish they’d do something like that in London.

DS: The disabled access work stood out for me. But there were some interesting juxta­positions. We’ve said how much we all loved the Folding Plug but, actually, that’s using more electricity, more energy; whereas on the other side of the room you’ve got a solar powered oven and furniture produced by the power of the sun. The Typographic Tree looked great, but break it down and they’re cutting down trees to put them in a library. That’s interesting, thought provoking, maybe something not many people would notice?

BW: I like the fact that the project, like many these days, involved using the public to influ­ence the design; crucial for a public space. And it did look gorgeous. But yes, it’s still using green oaks. If they’d said that the wood was recycled, grown specifically, or part of the old library, I would have been much happier.

DS: I really liked the EyeWriter. It’s the start of something that in 20 years could develop into an amazing idea. It’s not interesting for the here and now so much as what they’ll do in the future.

BW: The Zimbabwe poster campaign was incredible. That a newspaper was shut down, then generated more sales from posters printed on redundant banknotes. I’d always wondered if the notes were on one sheet, but it’s the fact that they’re all real. Politically the thing is great and so simple as a graphic piece of work.

EW: With the furniture made from pallets, it’s a great egalitarian design idea, but then they charge to download the plans that tell you how to make one! It should be open source, the plans should be free, or at least Unicef receives money every time they’re downloaded.

CR: What are your feelings on the show overall; what do you think visitors will take away from it?

EW: As a museum they’ve done an excellent job of funnelling some very disparate things from different disciplines into a show that a designer or non-designer can come to and be impressed by. As a top 100, it’s a really good job. The design of the show is very simple: simple colours, Helvetica, nothing intrusive, so you can just see the work.

BW: I think lots of things ‘represent’ their field, rather than being the best things out there. They ‘symbolise’ things, like the iPlayer, or It’s Nice That being a new movement of going from blog to book. But it makes you realise that design is about the idea. So many people think that it’s aesthetics, the end product. Everything here has had so much thought put into it. You always hear famous designers saying that there just aren’t enough good original ideas. This celebrates really original thinking. It might not all look gorgeous but the concepts are there.

DS: Equally though, there’s nothing worse than reading something about a design that you just know ‘looks’ really good, it doesn’t have a big idea behind it. The Pet Shop Boys sleeves – they make a tick shape. It’s great but, conceptually, it doesn’t stand on the same level as some of the other things. I wrote down ‘aesthetics vs process’ as we went round, as the process behind that aluminium bench was extremely clever, but the aesthetics weren’t as impressive as other objects. It ‘meant’ a lot but didn’t stand out as a piece of design. You’re either judging it on the process it goes through to get to the end point, or on what it looks like. I’d like the EyeWriter to win something. It’s a small seed but with the right funding, the right development, the right public reception, it could grow into something really interesting.

EW: Also, as a designer it’s inspirational to see what people from other disciplines have chosen as the best in their field. Equally as a student, it’s a great way to see what can get made, that ‘graphics’ can be this or that; that ‘architecture’ can mean building houses, or turning a derelict railway into something amazing. Hopefully that inspiration will be there for the public, too, not just designers.

DS: I thought I’d focus on a few sections but walking around, I’m glad I didn’t do that – as in everyday life we deal with all types of design. If the sections had been split by discipline, I’d have checked out graphics and maybe ignored some of the other really interesting things.

This month’s CR Readers’ Panel consisted of Belinda Webster is a designer at Picnic, Dave Sedgwick, a Manchester-based designer at studio 999 Design, and Ed Wright, a designer at NB: Studio in London.

The category winners
Architecture: Monterrey Housing, Mexico, by Elemental (Chile). Fashion: Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer ’10 and Spring/Summer Catwalk present­ation, Plato’s Atlantis (UK). Furniture: Grassworks by Jair Straschnow (Netherlands). Graphics: The Newspaper Club by Ben Terrett, Russell Davies and Tom Taylor (UK). Interactive: The EyeWriter by members of Free Art and Technology, openFrameworks, Graffiti Research Lab, The Ebeling Group and Tony Quan (USA). Product: Folding Plug by Min-Kyu Choi (UK).
Transport: E430 Electric Aircraft by Yuneec International (China).

Design of the Year: Folding Plug by Min-Kyu Choi (UK)

The show is on until June 6. More at designmuseum.org.

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