Last week I had the privilege of serving on the equipment category jury for the 2008 I.D. Magazine Annual Design Review (to be published this summer). By way of background, I.D. has been conducting an annual review of the best designs for over 50 years. This is something I had wanted to do since I read the magazine as a teenager (perhaps that says as much about my social life as my interest in design, but anyway). Besides equipment, there are a range of categories including consumer products, interactive design, furniture, environment and graphics. Consequently, the selected winners are not only considered the best designs, but represent the state of the art in each category.
Given my background, I saw my responsibility as focusing on the ergonomic aspects of each of the nearly 50 products we reviewed. My sensitivity to usability was heightened by staying in a New York hotel room the preceding night where the temperature controls were reversed. Unable to get my $300 room warmed-up, I later found out that, due to some technical fluke, I had to set the control to cold to activate the heat. This also meant lowering the thermostat to below the current room temperature so that the "cold" would switch on.
Fortunately, it turned out that my co-jurors who are designers/design teachers had as much to say about human factors, as I did about aesthetics. By its nature, the equipment category tends to evolve gradually, compared to the more dynamic year-to-year changes of interactive or even consumer products. The Annual Review issue will be published in a few months, so I can't go into details on the entries at this point (see the 2007 Annual Review for reference), but by participating in the judging process, I did learn or confirm some principles about what makes a successful entry.
The judging process is based on expert review and consensus - in other words the criteria changes from year to year based on the expertise, opinions and criteria of the particular judges in each category. At the same time, the nature of the judging process - one full day of going through a large number of entries - suggests the following to submitters:
1. Treat the Entry Process Like a Design Project: Successful designs meet the needs of their users. In this context, the users of the entry forms are expert designers and their tasks are to relatively quickly review and classify submissions. Design basics like appropriate use of typography and visuals to communicate information quickly and effectively are critical (one would think this would go without saying). In other words, given two hypothetically equal design submissions, the one with the well presented, visually structured entry may get more attention than the scribbled one. This may mean going above and beyond the constraints of the entry form, where appropriate.
2. Communicate to a Naive Audience: While jurors are experts in design, they can come from a range of industries and backgrounds. The equipment category in particular, includes a variety of complex, technical products that may be unfamiliar and require explanation. Explanations should include a scenario to describe when, how and why such products are used. In some cases, videos can illustrate usage with a demonstration or simulation. Similarly, it is valuable to explicitly communicate why a particular product is an improvement over competitor or predecessors, as jurors may not be knowledgeable of particular domains.
3. Link the Product to the Greater Design World: Jurors are not only looking at the inherent strengths of a particular design, but how it fits into the current, changing design world (re: my earlier comment about the Annual Review representing the state-of-the art). Consider that two well-designed products from completely different fields need to be compared against each other - broad, less tangible factors such as symbolism of emerging design trends, or benefits to society and the environment may come into play. This is not an easy area for the submitter to address, but I suggest considering the ramifications of a design to the field of "Design", as well as a product's specific users and industry.
I look forward to discussing the Annual Review issue when it comes out.