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The National Design Awards are a failure.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on October 23, 2005

Cooper-Hewitt just announced the winners of its Sixth Annual National Design Awards and it’s really time to say out loud what so many design and innovation professionals have been saying for so long—the contest doesn’t work. The winners are all wonderful designers who have done excellent work. But they are obvious choices. Most appear to be recipients of life-time achievement awards, which is really what the National Design Awards has mostly become.

What is wrong. I think design has quickly evolved far from the original conceit of the awards program. Just giving attention to great designers is really beside the point today. The great struggle for respect in society and in the corporate world is over. Design has won. It doesn’t have to sell itself. It does have to prove itself, however. Design has to create better methodologies, better processes and better results for the people who use it. And design contests have to reward this ongoing effort, not simply recognize those in the past who have achieved greatness.

The Cooper-Hewitt is a wonderful place and I visit it often. It’s most recent exhibit on Extreme Textiles was brilliant. But the folks who put together the National Design Awards show rethink the program. What was once worthy, is now mundane.

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Reader Comments

Niti Bhan

October 23, 2005 07:21 PM


I brought this up back in summer,, when the BW IDEA awards were announced. You have extremely valuable points to make here, and the potential to influence the change in direction that you articulate so well in your post. The Catalyst awards are one example of this shift, the other important shift, IMHO, would be to not just look at the product itself, but also how well design has been integrated into the organization.
where to quote,
When we begin to look at something that for now I'm referring to as "integrated design services", that take all aspects into consideration from the website, the experience, the brand, the communications as well as the product and give an award for that, then, and only then, will design be an integral part of a corporate growth strategy. Apple comes to mind.

Jon Myers

October 23, 2005 08:36 PM

Awesome. I couldn't agree more. When I think of award-winning design, I think of "designers" whose work takes enormous professional risks that pay off. Not just design for design sake and not the reinforcement of apologetic status quo thinking about design.

Dan Willis

October 24, 2005 04:11 PM

All good stuff.

If I may make a suggestion Bruce, please make a new, more concerted effort to elevate the idea that Great Design is usually about good partnerships. A major problem however, is that a better part of the Design community cannot mount a cohesive and compelling business argument. That is, clients want good design. They generally know how to find it. But when we are charged with connecting that to corporate ROI, the pitch sometimes falls flat. It is as much about the numbers as it is about style, emotion, creativity, innovation, or any other other buzzwords we include in our brochures. How do we better coax this information from our clients?
How can we pitch stronger case studies to our potential design partners that won't reveal proprietary information, but allow us to shed more (flattering) light on a project? For example, "this new product launch, which garnered a Silver IDEA award, increased sales five-fold and reduced manufacturing costs by a third".
If we are not so enabled by our partners, it continues to be difficult to raise the stakes with new, more aggressive clients that want better stories to take back to the executive suite regarding expenditures on Innovation and Design.
I, of course realize that business realities preclude sharing of sensitive data, but we need to press for this final (and some would say most important) component in our case studies. I feel that this is a question for the larger community of Business and Design to resolve together.
Thanks for your continuing support.


October 24, 2005 05:30 PM


November 3, 2005 04:20 PM

I have been screaming the same thing for years. These contests have become a popularity contest rather than finding the new inventors of our time. How can we as designer move forward? It's time we start making a new chapter in our history books.

Helen Dimoff

November 3, 2005 06:51 PM


Great observation here.

The BusinessWeek/Architectural Records "Good Design is Good Business" awards were headed in the right direction for recognizing work that tied architecture to business performance, better results, better processes, but then the usual suspects were rounded up for juries.

At the last ceremony, more than a few jurors first lauded the aesthetics and then wrapped by saying something like "oh yeah, and the business result was..."

drumroll, please.

What followed was usually suspect from a performance metrics perspective. seemed to devolve into just another runway show where the "model" walks down, turns around and sashays back.

And then...the program was cancelled last year.

So what, in your view, is the makeup and charter of the next generation design jury?

There's a marvellous opportunity here to bring back the BW/AR awards but bring them back truly "redesigned."

martin ogolter

November 5, 2005 12:50 AM


the way with these awards is that somebody has got to be judging it, which menas we got people in the know having their opinions put on a pedestal. yes, these winners merit mention, but its the usual suspects most of the time. find judgs from outside the circle, a business person as well if you like, for balance, but a design award will be given to the one with talent and the best mouth to put his/her achievement forward. the oscars tell us all about awards, no surprise!

all the best,

Helen, web designer

December 1, 2005 11:12 PM

But still there are innovations in web design that can be crusial. I think they should be awarded!

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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