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Opinion: Nat Hunter praises design awards for looking beyond the pretty

This week Nat Hunter, director of design at The Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) and a trustee of D&AD, welcomes awards being given to projects that make a real difference. It might mark, she believes, a fundamental shift in the design world. As ever you can add your thoughts using the comment thread below.

Many people think of design as “prettification.” It’s the stainless steel kitchen object you never use, or the sleek lines of a new gas-guzzling car. This is a constant source of frustration to those of us that understand the impact of good design.

Once again it’s the time of year when the design awards are getting handed out. There is always great work on show: stuff that is beautiful and stuff that is useful and stuff that is desirable. But I am, for once, struck by the possibility of finally having proof that design makes a real difference to people’s lives.

We’re seeing an increasing trend of disillusioned practitioners taking matters into their own hands, and design is at last showing that it is a valuable tool that can help us change the world for the better. Design touches the most important social and environmental issues in our lives and it is not our politicians that are providing the best solutions, it is our designers.

Last week at the RSA Student Design Awards I was impressed by the ambition and the quality of the design thinking on display – and most of the entrants were under 22.

Breakfast for Two, a volunteering initiative that connects two groups of people in need – isolated older people and children who suffer from food poverty – through a breakfast club that provides a space for children to eat breakfast whilst interacting with elder volunteers, was just one of many entries that focused on volunteering. And the Community Toilet was a proposal for a shared loo intended to challenge attitudes to sanitation by creating a sense of ownership – pertinent given the recent launch of the UN’s #opendefecation campaign.

The RSA winners could at one time be forgiven for being perplexed when it came to deciding where they wanted to work after graduation. When you’ve realised that you can use the power of design to make society better at every turn, how can you enjoy a job where you are designing or selling consumer products that are not necessary or even that desirable?

But this year’s D&AD awards indicate that a change may also be afoot inside the design industry too.

The Gravity Light, a ten dollar plastic lamp is an extraordinary game changer. So too is Sweetie a clever campaign by a Dutch NGO, which uses a computer-generated model of a 10-year-old girl respond to paedophiles on Skype and entrap them.

What is intriguing is that these winners had been judged against the standard of products that we might think that designers normally create – the £2,500 sleek black Mac Pro and that polished Volvo ad with Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I’d like to think that this indicates in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours we are all eagerly looking for a sign that we can make things better. Perhaps these winners will not have such a struggle to find somewhere to work that welcomes both their design skills and their youthful idealism.