IDEA 2009: Designing a Better World

Many of this year's International Design Excellence Award winners created products that could have a global impact

In May, 20 of the world's top designers ditched their day jobs and headed to Washington. There, over the course of three scorchingly hot days, they agonized and argued over who should win prizes in this year's International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) program, organized by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and sponsored by Target (TGT) and Autodesk (ADSK). Today, BusinessWeek announces their decisions, with gold, silver, and bronze gongs awarded to 150 products or programs.

Reflecting the scope and reach of the design discipline itself, awards were given to everything from sleek TVs and sharp-looking computer monitors to more creative concepts with barely a toehold in reality. But this year, particular credit was given to designers who showed they had truly considered a project in the wider context of the world at large.

"Design is not just about making things pretty," says Claudia Kotchka, former head of design at Procter & Gamble (PG), who was one of this year's judges. "Designers are about making the world a better place."

Rewarding the Process

This lofty ambition was on show in many of the awarded projects. In the gold-winning Project Cooper, for example, designers synthesized months of research documenting thyroid surgeons at work. The final product design, a revolutionary surgical device, was just one element of the overall project. "We weren't necessarily just rewarding the physical result of a process, but the process itself," says Andrew Hartman, director of new business at Philips Electronics' (PHG) Philips Design, who was the chair of this year's jury.

Neither smart thinking nor awards were limited to products incorporating sophisticated technology. Noting that vibrations from heavy machinery can cause serious hand injuries, the creators of the gold-winning TegeraPro Vibration Control gloves incorporated a special foam insulation into the protective hand gear. "So simple, yet so sweet, this product effectively weds the usability goal with a self-evident design," says Stephen Melamed, another of this year's judges and principal at Chicago-based design consultancy Tres Design Group.

Over its history, the IDEA prizes have become something of a showcase of Apple (AAPL) designs. But this year the Cupertino (Calif.) giant was upstaged by Samsung Electronics, which won eight awards to Apple's seven. Samsung has turned design and innovation into a real business strategy over the past few years, and its ultraslim Luxia LED TV in particular wowed the judges. The company's Blu-ray player was another gold winner, and the consistency and quality of the products' designs marked Samsung as a company that's hitting its design stride.

As the IDEA judges bickered and argued over three days, good naturedly, there was one point on which all the jury members agreed: Design matters. "Business leaders should care about design because it hits the bottom line," says Kotchka. "More than anything else, design builds a business."

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