Ruth Soénius is Director of User Experience at Siemens Corporate Research (SI ) in Princeton, N.J. As chair of this year's International Design Excellence Awards, she brought together a panel of judges from around the world, including legendary product designer Richard Sapper; Carole Bilson, vice-president of global design and usability at Pitney Bowes (PBI ), and Moira Cullen, design director at Coca-Cola North America (KO ). Here, she explains her choice of jury, and outlines the exhaustive—and exhausting—process of choosing the best designs from a field of more than 1,700 entrants:
The International Design Excellence Awards provide a snapshot of the state of design and give both internal and external observers a sense of the field's current status in the world at large. This is important for many reasons, not least for designers to take the opportunity to stop and assess how their industry is evolving. Clearly, the discipline has come a long way from the days when it was seen as styling or as some kind of superficial pandering to the lure of the new. It's now well on its way to being seen and valued in broader terms. Designers, and the corporations that employ them, are truly embracing the medium's power to create, shape and convey an entire experience.
That's not to say that there's not a long way to go, and one of the conclusions drawn by this panel of judges was that the battle is far from over. Still, many companies seem prepared to pay only lip service to the ability of design to shape and affect a business on every level. In contrast, the panel that I invited to judge this year's entrants represents some of the most outspoken design thinkers in the world. Those from within global corporations, such as Moira Cullen from Coca-Cola, Carole Bilson from Pitney Bowes, and Gavin Ivester of PUMA (PUMG ), come from companies that have understood and embraced design's importance and value to the bottom line. Theirs is no mere lip service or faddism; these leaders take a clear position and are tireless, smart, and serious evangelists for design as central to smart business.
JURY SELECTION IS KEY.
This year, the awards have been rebranded, celebrating "International Design Excellence" instead of, as previously, "Industrial Design Excellence." That's an important shift, reflecting that design is about much more than just good product design and that design is now a global industry. I was adamant that the jury also be international, and invited judges from Europe and Asia. Milton Tan, for instance, is a Fellow at the Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts in Singapore, and Robin Edman is chief executive of the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation. Richard Sapper, from Milan, is a consultant for IBM (IBM ) and has done important work for companies such as Alessi and Artemide . Andreas Haug is co-founder of Phoenix Design in Germany. All the judges brought insights from their native cultures, along with their deep understanding of what is pertinent in a good design solution.
It was also really important to me to have an opinionated jury that was qualified to assess a wide range of entrants and had the expertise necessary to understand the nuances of every entry. Although the IDEA are probably best known for rewarding consumer products, the categories are very broad, and the panel had to evaluate work from a variety of disciplines including interactive design, transportation products. and basic research. That's why I called up Michael Schrage, author of the book Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate. I didn't know him, but I'd heard him speak at the Aspen Design Conference a number of years ago and thought he'd be a good person to judge the innovation and research categories. Likewise, Sigi Moeslinger from Antenna Design has proven herself time and time again with her amazing user-centered interface designs.
I also invited a series of judges from the cultural, educational, and consultancy fields. Jurors such as Barbara Bloemink of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Prasad Boradkar of Arizona State University and Stephen Wilcox of Philadelphia-based consultancy Design Science brought important insight that ensured a well-rounded assessment of each and every project. Design awards are often judged through a narrow lens. These awards aimed to assess design as it exists in the real world—and to award great projects accordingly.
The Industrial Designers Society of America provides a very clear set of guidelines for the judging itself. There were six main criteria that we bore in mind when judging the entries:
1. Innovation: How is the design new and unique? 2. Aesthetics: How does the appearance enhance the product? 3. User: How does the solution benefit the user? 4. Environment: How is the project ecologically responsible? 5. Business: How does the design benefit the client's business? 6. Research: What validation is given that the design solved the problem?
DUKING IT OUT IN PERSON.
The judging process initially took place over the Internet, which allowed the judges to have the necessary time and space to understand each project in detail before voting. There were two rounds of online judging before we met in Washington in April to fight things out in person. Yes, fight. Judging is a very emotional process. If I stand up and make a case for what I think is the "best product," I'm essentially telling people about my point of view in design. People get defensive when challenged, so you can be sure that there were lots of intense discussions.
But at the end of the exhaustively rigorous process, a few conclusions could be drawn. First and foremost, as demonstrated by the wealth of serious, thoughtful entrants, design is not about the appearance of a product anymore. It's not about surface but instead about scope and structure; design is a multifaceted industry. That's both refreshing and reassuring. But it's also clear that we, the so-called experts, are still developing our ideas about how design should be seen. Many of the discussions that we had in this group concerned whether something was a really excellent solution or not: Did it do enough? Could it have been done better? Is it appropriate, and is it authentic? I'm proud to say that in this year's crop of winners, plenty of projects were all of the above.
Design is a little like math—there may be lots of ways to get there, but there's often one most elegant solution.
By Ruth Soénius