Design leaders yuck it up in Miami

I’ve been in Miami for the past few days, checking out the IDSA conference and, last night, handing out the gold gongs in the International Design Excellence Awards. I also had to give the official BusinessWeek speech to the attendees, which I’ve posted here.

BusinessWeek has covered the International Design Excellence Awards since 1990. The relationship of design and business has evolved radically since then, becoming ever more intricately intertwined. Executives and readers have seen companies reaping the benefits of a design-savvy strategy. A rising tide lifts all boats, so they say, and the work of pioneering designers and firms has resulted in increased interest in design from business leaders, and the maturing of a vibrant industry with the potential to do no less than change the world.

This year, it was my distinct pleasure to witness the judging of the IDEA in person. Held in May in Washington DC, the judging was remarkable for the rigor of its process and the high standards to which every project was held.

During those three long days, I had a chance to talk with the judges, to get a sense of how design is currently viewed within their own organizations. Ken Musgrave of Dell was unequivocal. Leadership gets it, he said, matter-of-factly. Now it’s up to designers to step up and deliver.

As I wandered around the gallery of this year’s winners, to admire the best of the best in 2009, I realized that to a certain extent, that’s the message from the jury to the design industry at large, too. The most exciting winners in this year’s IDEA event were those that had considered way more than the superficial design of the object itself. These winners, clearly, had stepped up, to consider every implication of their work and to view their own efforts through the wider lens of the world at large.

That includes considering how design can contribute meaningfully to a company’s revenues and how it can, in fact, shape a firm’s very reason for existence. To do this effectively, designers need to speak the language of the corporate sponsors who so often hold the purse strings. As Tom Dierking of P&G put it in his presentation yesterday, design is all well and good, but unless it makes an impact on business, forget about it.

It’s a theme that we constantly address in stories for BusinessWeek, where we too lay emphasis on results. A gorgeous object is one thing. A gorgeous object which makes a proven, significant impact on a company’s bottom line is quite another. That’s not to say that the only worthwhile design is created for companies looking to make a profit, more that metrics matter.

Creating a great-looking, well-thought-through product which accounts for everything from materials to user experience to what happens at the end of its lifecycle, all while managing the pressures of today’s business environment, is an enormous challenge, infinitely more difficult than coming up with a beautiful but impractical concept with no chance of making it off the drawing board. The latter has its place, but heartfelt applause goes to the designs that run the gauntlet of reality and emerge victorious.

We live in uncertain times. As the economy teeters and it becomes ever clearer that some of the world’s long-standing systems have been shattered, perhaps irrevocably, it strikes me that designers are better placed than ever to fulfill the promise of the discipline, in numerous and myriad different contexts. Now is the time for designers to apply their thinking and processes, to iterate and innovate, to re-imagine and redefine our world at large.

Last night, as I stood knee deep in water in the shallow end of the pool at the Delano hotel, I was privileged enough to find myself discussing the state of design with some of the world’s foremost practitioners. And what struck me more than anything, more, even, than the entirely surreal nature of the scene, was the unbridled passion of all of those with whom I spoke. Passion at the power and the possibility of this discipline. Excitement and energy at the opportunities provided by this moment in time. Gritty determination to solve the challenges arising from both within an organization and from the world at large.

On behalf of BusinessWeek, I applaud this passion and congratulate all of this year’s worthy IDEA winners. And I urge you all to continue in your efforts to bring the very best that design has to offer to an ever wider audience.

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