Current Affairs

London

9 October 2017

Topicality is an overwhelming feature of the objects shortlisted by London's Design Museum in this year's iteration of its Beazley Designs of this Year programme. The list includes the pink Pussyhat that became ubiquitous during protests triggered by sexist remarks made by Donald Trump, Wolfgang Tillmans’ visual publicity for the Remain Campaign leading up to the UK's Brexit referendum and IC4’s Finding Her, a Where’s Wally style advertisement to raise awareness of the lack of gender equality in the workplace in Egypt.

Selected from a longlist of more than 300 entries, many of the 62 shortlisted designs that will feature in an exhibition opening this month speak of a troubled global political climate. The Nike Pro Hijab, which was inspired by Sarah Attar’s win for Saudi Arabia at the 2012 Olympics, challenges preconceptions of Islam, while the Refugee Nation Flag that was designed for the first ever Olympic refugee team gestures towards the recent plight of refugees and displaced peoples across the world.

The list also acknowledges innovation in design, from the world’s first translating earpiece to the Scewo stair-climbing wheelchair and DixonBaxi’s TV graphics for the English Premier league, the latter of which are reported to have reached 4.7 billion viewers worldwide.

According to Glenn Adamson, the external curator of what will be the 10th Designs of the Year exhibition, picking the shortlist was partly about setting the boundaries of a working definition of design. “I think there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t sit in conventional categories you would expect to see in a design museum in, for instance, the 1970s,” he explains. “You know, it’s not about teapots and textiles, necessarily.”

Although he considers design to be a broad category, Adamson eliminated nominations that were purely examples of social action, as well as entries that ventured into the territory of fine art. Was it a question of picking objects that have a real-life function? Not necessarily. “I tend to think function isn’t a very useful way of defining design,” he responds. “For example, does an emoji have a function?” he asks, referring to Google's series of professional-women emoji, which did make to the shortlist.

“It is worth thinking about design as implying or realising some kind of mass production – serial production at least – with the exception of architecture, which is about scale not seriality,” says Adamson. “Or applied art, which I like because it implies that the design will be put into a situation, rather than remaining autonomous.”

Disegno spoke to Adamson about a selection of the shortlisted designs, from architecture to digital, fashion, graphics, product design and transport. Below, Adamson reflects on the reasoning behind each nomination.


Digital: Pokémon GO by Niantic, a mobile game played in the physical world through augmented reality (AR)


Pokémon seemed like it should be there because it was so wildly popular and it seemed to represent a fad or the idea of something that goes viral, which is so representative of our times.

But what is particularly interesting about Pokémon is the way it re-scripts public space. It wasn’t nominated as a graphic (it was very successful because of that, but there are lots of video games you could look at for that) and actually, there were no other video games nominated. So Pokémon is the only thing like that and it is very much about the layering of the digital over the analogue and the re-scripting of space.

It is a kind of gamification: that you might motivate yourself to lose weight or learn a language or do something else worthwhile by turning it into a game and having points. So, both a spatial thing and psychological thing.


Digital: Professional-Women Emoji by Agustin Fonts, Rachel Been, Mark Davis, Nicole Bleuel and Chang Yang, targeting the representation of women in the workforce

This is entirely to do with the corrective function of the emoji: it is about taking something banal that has an unnoticed sexist prejudice built into it and correcting for that. It is also a really good example of corporations doing the right thing. Instead of turning a blind eye, it is an instance of corporate progressive ideology at work and I do think, as an aside, that it is a very important issue: a lot of the most effective backlash against the Trump administration has been by large companies.

It is very interesting that so much of our ideological debate is being played out in the corporate sector now – companies might even be more trusted than the government. If you were to poll people about their affection for, let’s say, Apple, as opposed to the US Congress, Apple would probably win. I think companies that feel obligated to the public because of the way they do business – Google, Apple, any large clothing brand – try to keep a very high level of public trust. And because people are so disaffected about government, companies arguably hold a higher level of moral stature than our own elected representatives.


Graphics: Pro-EU anti-Brexit Campaign by Wolfgang Tillmans, Between Bridges, in the form of a series of posters, T-shirt designs and campaign images

This is poignant because it is the Remain campaign that lost. And Tillmans was apparently partly motivated to do the campaign because he thought that the other graphics and statements coming out of the Remain campaign were weak and he was trying to fill the gap. So it is a great way of reflecting on the failure of the Remain campaign and the reality of Brexit in the show.

There is another one too, which is the so-called Me & EU postcards which were designed by British designers Nathan Smith and Sam T Smith and then sent to colleagues in the EU as a way of staying in touch. In both of those cases, you have an elegiac sort of “it’s happened and we’re sad about it and rattled and don’t know what to do”, which is the right note to strike for Brexit this year.

Maybe next year we can start thinking about how it happened and how design is actually responding to that, but at this moment it is more about design reacting to the surprise and the trauma of the event and the fracturing of the country.


Fashion: Nike Pro Hijab by Rachel Henry, Baron Brandt, Megan Saalfeld and Brogan Terrell for Nike, made for Muslim sportswomen

This is one of many projects in the show that relates either explicitly or implicitly to the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world.

You have this Euro-American power brand that is creating a high-performance religious garment, which is unusual in and of itself, but it is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it contests the stereotype of the Muslim woman as being domestic. It is quite fashiony and is advertised with this powerful woman in stretch pants and trainers who is strong and active.

And then, conversely, you can say it is a branding extension for Nike. I was very interested in thinking about how any time a corporation does one of these adventurous, progressive high-profile designs, it really should be considered more like advertising than conventional product design. The logic is to get attention of a positive kind for the brand more than it is necessarily to sell products.


Architecture: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC 
by Adjaye Associates, The Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond, SmithGroupJJR for the Smithsonian Institution

There is so much to say about this one but, for me, it is particularly meaningful as an American and having been aware of its progress over many, many years. The architect David Adjaye did it so beautifully. I mean, I can’t say enough that’s good about this design.

The exterior has a fantastic difference and similarity to the existing buildings on the Mall. Inside and out, everything about it makes the Mall's existing architecture and museums look staid and unimaginative in comparison. It’s very moving and powerful. As architecture, it does have a very rich blend of influences – everything from European ziggurats to southern metalwork for railings and other architectural fittings.

And when you get to the inside it has this quality of being a pilgrimage route, so you are literally walking in the footsteps of African American people over 400 years, from being captured and enslaved to eventual liberation. Every object is like a milestone along that route and you are presented with this incredibly moving storyline. I believe it’s been sold out every day since it opened, and it will be for the foreseeable future. I can’t conceive of a more important building or more important museum on any level, architecturally; curatorially; symbolically.


Transport: Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) by CRCC, a self-driving, electric tram that’s guided not by tracks but by a double-dashed line painted on the street


Self-driving was the meme of the year, sort of how 3D printing was a few years ago. But self-driving technology really does have the potential to change the world, and the urban landscape particularly. It raises many questions about how it would rule out and replace people’s jobs, so it’s another kind of automation or roboticisation of something that is being done by humans.

It seems worth thinking about all the implications of that, which is why I’m interested in public transport self-driving. Olli [by Local Motors, the world’s first self-driving 3D printed, electric bus] and ART are two examples of that; one is a shuttle in Europe and one is a train in China.

I was also very interested in Light Traffic [by Carlo Ratti at Senseable City Lab, MIT], which is a digital infrastructure project that helps to control the rate by which cars pass one another in an intersection to make sure that they don’t collide. It’s like the conceptual infrastructure for the moment when self-driving cars become a reality and we have to actually start thinking about automated intersections.