The Design Museum has announced the category winners in its 2015 Designs of the Year awards. The list features some brilliantly inventive projects, but it also raises the question of whether the scheme's current categories are really relevant.
This year's Designs of the Year shortlist included 76 projects, grouped into six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. The shortlist is selected from a list of nominations put forward by industry experts, and categorised by curator Gemma Curtin. A panel of judges - this year made up of artist Anish Kapoor, fashion designer Nicole Fahri, architect Farshid Moussavi and PearsonLloyd co-founder Tom Lloyd - is then asked to select a winner from each category, before the overall winner is announced in June.
Google's driverless car
Google's much-talked about driverless car is the winning design in transport; while Elemental's UC Innovation Centre, a university building in Santiago, has been named the winning architecture entry for providing "the right environment for knowledge-creation" and the potential to reduce the university's energy costs by two-thirds.
In the product category, Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh's Organs-on-Chips (chips lined with living cells which can mimic the function of organs) was selected for its potential impact to advance personalised medicine and accelerate drug discovery (the chips can be used to study how drugs impact different organs and are metabolised around the body).
Elemental's UC Innovation Center
Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh's Organs-on-Chips
Commenting on the judge's selections, Curtin said judges were united in responsibility "to award projects that emphasise design's impact on our lives now and in the future. Solving diverse problems with innovation, intelligence and wit, each of these six designs is a worthy winner," she adds.
Google's driverless car has been one of the year's most talked about vehicles, attracting attention in mainstream and design media as well as motoring press; Organs-on-Chips is a product that has the potential to deliver real change in its field, and the UC innovation centre marries great aesthetics with environmentally friendly design.
Tomas Tait's AW13/14 collection, winner of this year's fashion category
In the graphics and digital categories, however, the results are surprising - Marcel's Inglorious Fruits campaign for Intermarche is the winning graphics project, selected over Irma Boom's all-white book for Chanel No5, Pentagram's identity for MIT Media Lab, Kellenberger-White's hand painted system for Glasgow International, Sawdust's bespoke typeface for Wired magazine, Snøhetta and the Metric System's Norwegian bank notes; a scratch-off ad campaign for MCA Chicago's Art as Archaeology exhibition; an illustrated campaign for Kenzo, a Jurriaan Schrofer monograph; collaborative typeface Franchise Animated and new magazines Riposte and Modern Design Review.
Marcel for Intermarche, Inglorious Fruits
The digital winner is The Ocean CleanUp, a system developed by 19-year-old engineering student Boyan Slat to help rid the world's oceans of plastic waste. The system isn't a digital product - instead, it's a concept for a system made out of long floating barriers, which use the force of the current to guide and cordon off debris - but was placed in the digital category for its approach to digital campaigning. As well as setting up a website detailing the concept and the project's progress, it has been raising funds through crowd funding site IndieGoGo and recruiting support through social media.
Both of these projects are great ideas - if it is put into production, The Ocean CleanUp has the potential to solve a huge environmental problem that also has a devastating impact on wildlife and Inglorious Fruits, which aims to help reduce food waste by encouraging people to eat misshapen fruit and veg, is a clever and well executed campaign with great intentions - but neither sits easily within their respective category, and their inclusion highlights a fundamental problem with organising dozens of diverse designs into just six groups, and adds further confusion to Designs of the Year's purpose, nomination and selection process.
The Ocean CleanUp
In choosing work for its graphics category, the Design Museum says it looks for "predominantly 2D work, where graphic design is the key to the project's success - this could be beautifully executed packaging, books, magazines, identities, digital, films, animation, street art, exhibition design, posters or typefaces." In its criteria for winning designs across categories, the Museum cites "design that promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year".
With this in mind, Inglorious Fruits seems an odd choice of winner, unless it was selected for capturing the spirit of the year (it was one of several initiatives launched to tackle global food waste, some of which we covered in our Food issue), or for its worthiness (it's the only entry aimed at delivering environmental or social change)
Print ads are well designed, and it is a strong campaign, but the idea itself seems the strongest element, rather than the craft behind it - particularly when placed against extensive identity systems, handcrafted books and a radically different approach to bank note design. .
The criteria for the digital category is less clearly defined: the Design Museum acknowledges that it may include "projects that may touch on other categories but are included here because it is their digital dimension that makes them interesting." This makes perfect sense - an exhibition might launch an innovative interactive arm, or a physical installation might be nominated because of its use of digital technology.
But while The Ocean Clean Up has adopted a savvy approach to digital fundraising, it represents neither a beautiful piece of digital craft nor a particularly pioneering approach to digital technology. It's a fantastic concept, but given the number of people recruiting support through social media and crowd funding each year, the idea itself seems more interesting than the website and campaign launched to promote it.
While it certainly deserves a place in Designs of the Year, it seems an awkward fit with projects like Monument Valley, a beautiful example of digital design which has inspired thousands of game developers; Asif Khan's Megafaces, a gargantuan interactive digital installation and Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier's Shadowing, a street furniture installation which uses digital technology to cast shadows to accompany pedestrians on the street.
Designs of the Year is a brilliant scheme and exhibition, consistently producing a much more diverse selection of work than other industry awards and highlighting projects by individuals and small organisations alongside leading global agencies. This diversity is one of its biggest strengths, but it can make for a confusing nominating and judging process.
Perhaps, then, the solution is to rid the scheme of categories altogether. Grouping designs into rigid categories gets more and more difficult as projects today often span several types of work - so are they still necessary or relevant?