In a recent column in the FT, Edwin Heathcote observed that “designers are being touted as superstars” (The best design does not need to shout about itself, Edwin Heathcote, March 20, 2006 [paid sub required]). Discussing the Design Museum's Designer of the Year prize, he derided last year's award to a ‘bureaucrat’ (the Design Council's Hilary Cottam), and noted of the current list of nominees that “It also, almost surprisingly, features a product designer, Tom Dixon” though he adds that he “is showing retro copper lampshades and plastic macramé chairs”. He considers this list, overseen by outgoing Museum director Alice Rawsthorn, to be the “epitaph to her reign, with barely a conventional product in sight” and castigates the presentation of the work in which “objects are placed on plinths, spotlit in darkened rooms”.
Heathcote contrasts this with the approach of New York's Museum of Modern Art, whose curator of design, Paola Antonelli, has published an exhibition follow-up book entitled Humble Masterpieces: 100 Marvels of Everyday Design. In conclusion, he argues that “Design is not art. Designers are usually paid to do a job and, if the product is successful, they have the pleasure of seeing their design become generic, omnipresent, of seeing it making peoples' lives better. What more reward could you want?”.
The reward for good designers should, of course, be seeing their designs make people's lives better. But Heathcote misses the point in his analysis of the Design Museum's Designer of the Year Award. The problem with almost every design award is that they fail to educate either designers or client about how to be better designers or better managers of design. Britain's celebrated D&AD awards are most guilty in this respect, while the Designer of the Year Award does most (though not enough) to explain the value of its nominated projects.
On the appropriate areas of design for nomination, Heathcote reflects that Sir Terence Conran founded the Design Museum as a vehicle for promoting product design, but that became sidelined. While this should be corrected by the Museum's new director, Deyan Sudjic, we need to acknowledge that new areas of design such as interface and interaction design need to be addressed -- not least as an increasing number of hard products are inseparable from their soft and hard interfaces (think iPod, iTunes and its associated Music Store).
Heathcote is also too quick to dismiss Hilary Cottam's award. Thinking from one discipline is regularly applied to other areas of human activity -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Cottam's work at the Design Council should be considered in this light and intelligently debated, not sneeringly dismissed. In the light of the Chancellor's obsession with creativity, the pages of the FT would be a good place to develop this more grounded and realistic debate.
Published as a letter in the Financial Times, March 23 2006 entitled Almost all design awards fail to educate designers or clients [paid sub required]