Learning by doing: a design award jury experience

This year is the 40th anniversary of the International Design Excellence Awards (or IDEA). For many of us in the design field, there’s a sort of mysticism around IDEA— it influences and in many ways sets the tone for the current state of design. It was originally an industrial design–focused competition, but in recent years it has expanded to cover a multitude of design disciplines. This year, almost 2,000 teams submitted entries, in categories ranging from automotive and transportation to branding, children’s products to commercial equipment, health and medical to furniture and lighting, and more.

I spent a few months on the jury for this year’s awards, reviewing hundreds of student and professional entries and debating with my fellow judges as to which ones deserved recognition as the best of the best. The experience left me inspired, challenged, and amazed—and it taught me a lot. Here are a few main takeaways that stand out.

Sustainability is critical

Overall, there is more awareness on the impact that we, as designers, can make on sustainability—especially when looking at a category like packaging. Packaging has to do a lot of things: it has to seduce and draw you in, it has to spark interest in a specific brand, and it has to keep you loyal. It must protect the product, making sure it doesn’t arrive damaged. And increasingly, as consumers are becoming more concerned with package material, it must also be compostable, recyclable, or reusable.

I remember one product submission was beautifully designed and really nailed the seduction part—it created a big “wow” effect during the unboxing. But when we looked at the product’s sustainability, we found it was actually quite wasteful. We didn’t feel comfortable rewarding this type of design in the current world, so we took it out of consideration. It was a good reminder, to consider all elements of a product's ecosystem.

Learning by doing
Learning by doing

Student designers push the needle forward

The student entries were often refreshing, evoking a feeling of something new. With students, I think the approach is about being ideological and abstract. It’s not just about the next product redesign—it’s looking further. There’s more of a focus on moving the needle forward and wanting to do better for society. They are hungry to solve big problems, like generating sustainable energy from natural disasters. In contrast, many of the professional entries often focused on enhancing the user experience or elevating an existing product's features (for example, improving the feel of the knobs on an air purifier), which shows the importance of incremental improvements to next-generation products.  

Dedication to inclusivity and designing for good

A significant number of entries focused on inclusivity and accessibility. The designs addressed motor-skills, elderly populations, or disabilities. Some entries even aimed to break down social and cultural barriers.

Expanding the boundaries of inclusivity by addressing the need to design for a broader group of people is here to stay. As a jury, we prioritized designs that help people get healthy or provide other positive long-term outcomes. This gave me hope that designers are still trying to make the world better for people of all abilities.

Design is a conversation

Design is a dialogue, and this competition reflected that. Hearing the points of view of others on the jury allowed me to see a multitude of perspectives, which was truly refreshing for a design critique. While a design’s appeal won’t check all the boxes for every single person, moving the conversation forward with creators can help focus our efforts and identify where we should put our attention moving forward.

As a society, it’s important to distinguish between what is necessary and what is superfluous, and design has a seat at the table for these types of conversations. We need to see things with a bigger lens. We need to not only consider the monetary benefits of a design but its societal benefits too. We should be clear on what need a design addresses and what purpose it serves. Seeing the jury take the time to consider those questions—and not just focus on what will be the next big consumer product—was truly inspiring. Design’s future is definitely something to be excited about. 

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