“Designer” of the year

Shaggy at Core77 reports that the Design Council’s Hilary Cottam has won the Design Museum’s (UK) 2005 Designer of the Year award and the resulting controversy around her selection. It illustrates the confusion and emotion possible when designers of the intangible mix it up with the traditional sort.

The Observer reports two points. One is that Cottam didn’t work alone. But what designer does these days?

The other point is that she’s not a designer. This assertion can get us into a long semantic debate, but the design community has persistently pushed for larger and more inclusive defintions of design. Now that someone who embraces that larger definition and applies design thinking to intangible problems wins a traditional design award, we’re surprised.

I needed to ask, why was she actually nominated? The Design Museum says,

Hilary Cottam has been nominated for the Designer of the Year prize for her achievements in championing a more inspiring and efficient approach to public sector design by demonstrating how design can be used as a tool to “tackle some of the more intractable social problems of our day”.

and the chair of the award committee says of the award decision…

‘Hilary Cottam is not a designer in the traditional sense, but she is a wonderfully worthy winner of Designer of the Year for the imaginative and innovative way she uses design as a strategic tool to modernise schools, prisons and other critically important areas of our lives.’

I applaud the Design Museum for taking such a progressive stance. It’s unfortunate they may make a few enemies along the way, but hopefully the award will act to widen our understanding of how design thinking helps solve problems and not just make things.


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  2. Designers & design teams create & realize “things”. To call Hilary Cottam a “designer” is wholly inappropriate & to give here the prize for “Designer of the Year” completely bizarre.

    As I understand it “what Cottam did was to kick-start the project, and introduce investors” but it was architect Philip Morgan & his team, of de Rijke, Marsh and Morgan who actual designed, developed & controlled the project during its construction. It is completely unjust that Cottam has received the prize for “Designer of the Year” based on the submission of this project.

    Today all to often politicians, administrators, bureaucrats, advisers & managers like to think of themselves being “creative & imaginative”, attempting to gain credit for the hard work of others. While they may be involved in a variety of aspects for any given project such as fund raising, program definition, team selection & conceptual “think tanking”, it is not they who “design”, they merely define the contextual framework for within which a designer works.

    The process of design, especially in the construction of a building, is an extremely complicated & non lineal process dependant on a number of interconnecting factors, where the input of a variety of specialists is essential to make a well designed building or object. However not all would take credit for being the called “designers”. The designer is the sole professional capable of moulding all the various concerns that arise during the design process, from conceptual idea to budget restraints, into a single coherent form that is technically & financially viable.

    Perhaps next year the Design Museum’s Awards Committee should reconsider the name for its award maybe “Administrator of the Year” or “Consultant of the Year” would be more appropriate.

    James Cornock (architect)

  3. James, I’m sympathetic to your views. This situation has the danger of diluting our terms to the point of meaninglessness.

    But what people like Cottam do is very important. Christopher Alexander has pointed out how architects have not been able to affect change in people’s lives nearly as much as they’ve wanted to. Why is that? I think one reason is because architects are given direction from those paying for the structure and must to some extend do their bidding.

    Now what if the buyers *were* creative? What if they explored the human use of the artifacts, considered many options, understood the situation from a systems point of view and were open to experimentation? This could lead to more productive relationships with architects and designers. What do we call this collection of traits? We call it design. I would love to have another word that differentiates it from the design of things, but as of yet I haven’t found one.

  4. Victor,
    You are right when you point out that the current trend of generalisation leads to a situation increasingly confusing & meaningless. In a society made up of specialists the communication between different specialists is important & for that reason people like Cottam can be of great value in the process of developing artefacts. This is because they are able to move freely & coordinate between different fields of interest , but that does not detract from the fact that they are not designers.

    In relation to your comment about “buyers”. I don’t think it’s necessarily important that a client is “creative”, for that they go to a specialist. I think it is much more important for a client is be informed, open & confident about what’s required so that any proposal presented by a designer can be easily analysed & tested. In my experience the process is a dialogue between client & designer where there is ample room for experimentation.

    You further imply in your comment that as clients pay designers fees that this can sometimes lead to a reduction in the quality of design solutions, I do not believe this. As with any dialogue there are many outcomes & possibilities. No design solution is the exclusive solution to any given problem. A good designer should be able to guide the client to an appropriate solution. Lets remember if there are only “good” designs produced by “good” designers, then there can be no “bad” designs designed by “bad” clients.

    James Cornock

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