EDITORIAL: Beauty and the Best
Actually, as you can tell from the cover, the contest is already over, and you have my assurances that no humans, animals, or trees were harmed in the process. But before going any further, let me first congratulate the winners on their success and thank all the other entrants for participating in our 18th Annual Excellence in Design competition.
The consideration of human factors was indeed a criterion in the contest, but its inclusion clearly creates a conundrum, as illustrated by the question posed above. It is difficult to judge human factors by looking at a photograph, even when it is accompanied by descriptive text that addresses the issue. There's really no substitute for touching and grasping something to see if it is user-friendly, but asking entrants to ship actual products to us simply isn't practical when the categories include such things as major appliances, medical equipment, vending machines, and lawn and garden equipment.
But let's say for the sake of argument, that we did have the actual products. Logically, we should then compel the judges to use them, right? Make them cook up a stir fry on the wok burner of that upscale range. Toss them a block of black walnut to try out that electric woodworking tool. Drag them out to some grassy field to take a spin on that riding lawn mower.
One of the winning entries this year was an electronic musical instrument known as a theremin. It was designed to be played more easily than others on the market. In theory then, we should have asked our judges to learn how to play a theremin before showing up, in order to properly assess the designer's claim. Right?
And let's just say, hypothetically, that we, in fact, did all that. Would it still be enough? The notion that industrial designers need to become more involved in engineering issues has been expressed often in this magazine, as well as many other places. Materials, controls, displays, and joining techniques all have a profound impact on product design. Accordingly, this more inclusive definition of design should then demand that a proper competition cart all the products over to a testing laboratory. While the entry forms provide space to describe innovative aspects of the product's engineering and manufacturing, rosy verbiage isn't quite the same as 6-ft. drop test, is it?
Obviously, such an expansive view of a design competition is impractical, which then returns us to the conundrum. We, along with many others, have preached about how today's practice of industrial design must be much more than simply designing a pretty box around some device, but then along comes a design competition that, out of necessity, appears to function largely as beauty contest. While some may see that as hypocrisy, the only alternative is no contest at all, which is a far worse scenario. For in spite of its limitations, a design competition serves an important purpose. It sends a message that good design matters. The winning entries reflect that idea, and their recognition will inspire and influence designs yet to come, adding momentum to the field. And that's what it's all about.