What is Design of the Year for?

Previous winners had seemingly established the Design Museum’s Design of the Year prize as a scheme to honour projects for social good. But this year’s winner is a major departure from that theme

The Design Museum Design of the Year for 2014 is Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku. Photo: Iwan Baan


Previous winners had seemingly established the Design Museum’s Design of the Year prize as a scheme to honour projects for social good. But this year’s winner is a major departure from that theme

Now in its seventh year, the rationale behind The Design Museum’s Design of the Year prize has often been something of a puzzle to the industry. Speaking as someone who has both nominated work and had work nominated by others, I share some of that confusion. Briefing for the nominees was always somewhat, er, brief with an admirable degree of trust bestowed on nominators to come up with appropriate suggestions. There were no specific criteria but perhaps nominators were swayed by the museum setting: in the graphics category there has certainly been a lack of overtly ‘commercial’ projects, for example.

While there was the occasional mystifying choice, this eclectic approach did succeed in setting the Design of the Year show apart from other awards. Whether by accident or (sorry) design, it has carved out a position for itself with successive winners rooted in social causes or design for the public good: Yves Béhar’s One Laptop Per Child, the Plumen 001 low energy lightbulb by Samuel Wilkinson and Hulger and the Gov.uk site all being former winners of the top prize.

The emphasis was on the aspirational: design as we may like it to be rather than as it is for the majority of practitioners.

In that respect, the scheme could be said to have been setting the agenda for others to follow: witness the number of ‘good cause’ projects winning at D&AD, Cannes and even our own CR Annual this year.


Photo: Iwan Baan


This year’s winner, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku (above) by Zaha Hadid, is a departure from that positioning. This spectacular ‘cultural centre’ is named after the Azeri former leader, an ex-Soviet era secret police chief who, according to the New York Times, “for 30 years ruled his native Azerbaijan with an iron fist”. As has been widely reported in the architectural press, there have been concerns over various aspects of the project including the way in which the land for it was cleared, conditions on site and, of course, its ultimate purpose in glorifying the name of a man who, according to The Guardian “presided over a country with a shabby human rights record and endemic levels of institutionalised corruption” where, Human Rights Watch warns, “torture and ill-treatment persists with impunity”.

It is a spectacular building though. Jury member Piers Gough described it as “An intoxicatingly beautiful building by the most brilliant architect at the height of her office’s powers. The thousand and one geometrical junctions are consummately mastered and segue seamlessly into each other. Sitting atop a swooping zigzag landscape that would be a winner even without the building, it is as pure and sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt.”


Photo: Iwan Baan

Hadid’s design won out over six other category winners which were:
In Digital, PEEK (Portable Eye Examination Kit), designed by Dr Andrew Bastawrous, Stewart Jordan, Dr Mario Giardini, Dr Iain Livingstone


Fashion: the Prada S/S14 collection designed by Miuccia Prada


Furniture: the Pro Chair Family by Konstantin Grcic


Graphics: James Bridle / booktwo.org’ Drone Shadows project

Product: The Seaboard Grand by Roland Lamb and Hong-Yeul Eom


Transport: the XL1 CAR by Volkswagen

More detail on all thse projects here


For the first time this year Designs of the Year included a Social Vote in which 18,000 people took part. The winner of that process was Dave Hakkens’ Phonebloks project to develop the idea of a modular mobile phone with individual components that can be upgraded or replaced as needed.


Although Phonebloks is still in the concept stage, as an aspiration for the design industry it would have fitted more comfortably with the positioning of the prize which seemed to have been emerging via previous winners.

This year’s jury, however, seems to have been minded to award the prize on the basis of the Heydar Aliyev Center’s technical and formal brilliance. According to jury member Kim Colin of Industrial Facility ” The jury felt that for Zaha’s office, this is a pinnacle moment in their portfolio, a sign of international maturity. The jury argued heatedly for and against, and then we finally agreed unanimously that the project deserves our utmost respect. This architecture should make us talk for years to come.”

For some, this will be a welcome shift away from the ‘worthy’ winners of previous years but it adds further confusion as to the purpose of a scheme that was at last beginning to coalesce around a consistent standpoint that felt appropriate for the institution organising it.


Designs of the Year 2014 is at the Design Museum, London SE1 until August 25


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