The launch of the BusinessWeek issue that covers the annual IDEA Awards, honoring the year's best industrial design, is a highly anticipated event in the design world. With companies investing significantly more resources in design, that excitement is increasingly shared by the business community. I've had the pleasure to serve as an IDEA Awards juror three times in my career, and this year I had the honor of chairing the jury. With this role comes the responsibility to select the group of 18 jurors who will evaluate the roughly 1500 entries and choose the winners.
With the increasing profile of design in business and the broadening of design's role in innovation, I used the opportunity to shape a jury unlike those of previous years. I invited a broad range of professionals, targeting those I knew cared deeply about design and were involved routinely in creating new, successful products and services. But I wanted these jurors to come from marketing, business development, and senior business leadership positions in addition to industrial design.
A REASON TO EXIST? My first win was securing the participation of John Hoke, Nike's vice-president and global creative director of footwear design. John leads more than 600 designers at Nike. John showed real leadership in accepting the juror role knowing that it meant Nike would not be able to participate this year (per IDSA policy, jurors and their companies are not allowed to enter). And Nike had won the top Juror's Prize the prior year.
I was fortunate also to have three brilliant jurors from Europe. Jeremy Meyerson co-directs the excellent Hamlyn Research Center at the Royal College of Art. Richard Eisermann has served as director of design and innovation for Britain's Design Council and led design at Whirlpool Europe, and he now heads a strategic design firm. And John Thackara is the director of the Doors of Perception conference and author of In The Bubble.
John's relentless commitment to setting new, value-added agendas for design was felt throughout the evaluation of entries. He planted the most paradoxical question of the two days we spent working together: "Regardless of the design, we should ask if the product even needs to exist."
FOUR ROUNDS. I had some doubts about whether a jury of designers, marketing, and business people would be effective. I knew it would foster good debate, but I wondered if the debate would be productive. Would these people really have anything to say to each other?
But in my consulting practice, we work only in cross-disciplinary teams, integrating design, technology, marketing, and business to drive innovation. I've found it is the different areas of expertise that identify the most fitting innovations. And if we are to take the entry form for the IDEA awards seriously, it has all of the criteria a business would care about in addition to design excellence. In fact, can a jury really be successful without being diverse in background and expertise?
The IDEA Award jury process is the most rigorous of the competitions in which I have participated. Entries must make it through four rounds of presentation, debate, and voting. The first round, which weeds out the weakest entries, is completed online. All entry text, photographs, and videos are made available to the jurors.
TOUGHER STANDARDS. Subsequent rounds are done on site, first by a pair of jurors, then in a sextuplet, and then with all 18 jurors. In each round an entry is reviewed, possibly suggested for an award, and then defended and attacked. It is this iterative and the open discussion, a process similar to the shaping of design projects themselves, that leads to such high-quality results.
It became clear early in the process that this jury would not be swayed by the restyling of consumer electronics or even the competent use of design in less mainstream product categories like industrial equipment. Thoughtful designs such as a modular and reusable construction fencing product from Taiwan won unanimous praise.
Imagine being the entry subject to the critical thinking of the juror team that included Don Norman, known for his rants on usability, Aura Oslapas of A+O Design Methods, Alistair Hamilton of Symbol Technologies, and Carl Magnuusson, former design director at Knoll. It was the combination of stellar professionals like these and the rising expectations of the design field that led to fewer awards this year than last.
SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES. Some of the more business-oriented jurors included Denis Weil, senior director of McDonalds' Innovation Planning and Advanced Concepts Group, and Hosain Rahman, the president and founder of Aliph. Hosain, a Stanford product design grad, embodied all of the techno-entrepreneurial spirit and energy that one would expect of his ilk!
My jurors from the marketing world could not have been more influential in identifying the relevance and communicative power of the products under consideration. Robyn Waters, former director of all things trendy at Target, is now president of her own firm, RW TREND. Rinat Aruh, who joined us as vice-president of marketing at Forthe and Towne and has had significant roles in shaping the The Gap and Mini Cooper brands, now leads her own brand consultancy.
This year the IDSA created the EcoDesign category to foster awareness and reward products that address the significant issues of ecological sustainability. Unfortunately, the number of entries was surprisingly low. There were a few awards winners, but overall it suggested to the jurors that in the world of product design, sustainability has not achieved the same level of awareness and activity that it has in architecture.
To bring expertise to bear on this new category, I invited John Paul Kusz, who is the co-director of the Center for Sustainable enterprise at the Illinois Institute of Technology. John's expertise was refreshing as he was able to skillfully balance the design, business, and ecological dimensions of the entries we reviewed.
CONVERSATIONAL PIECES. Several other themes emerged over the course of the judging: the growing impact that design is having on medical products, the increasing sophistication of student work designed for the rest of the world, and the fact that great design is sometimes obvious but beyond description.
The most satisfying part of participating in the IDEA Awards jury, which certainly helps to offset the hard work, is the amazingly thoughtful and informed conversations one is able to engage in with the world-class participants. As Marcia Lausen, head of the design program at the University of Illinois Chicago and founder of Studio Lab, stated, "It's great to see all this work and have such rich discussions of its merits."
Hundreds of products, all pitching themselves as well designed and innovative, are met with 38 critical eyes and 19 eloquent voices. The winners should be proud. The disciplines of marketing, technology, business, and design should take note. These are the year's best.