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Design judges on how design can be truly transformative

2021 D&AD judges come together to discuss the balance between 'good' design and 'doing good', impactful simple design work and the possibilities digital personalisation offers to designers

Harnessing design to change the world is an ambition shared by many, and over the years D&AD has recognised projects from across creative disciplines that address social issues and aim to transform people’s lives. 

But truly transformative pieces of work are some of the most challenging creative projects out there, requiring designers to balance a multitude of responsibilities and considerations. In a panel hosted by design writer Emily Gosling, judges from the Digital Design, Product Design, Design Transformation and Spatial Design categories discussed the challenges and possibilities of change-making design. In getting to the heart of what makes for good work, they question how design is judged and deemed useful – including the aesthetics versus social good debate – explore the possibilities digital personalisation offers to designers, and discuss how privacy concerns are influencing design.

The events of 2020 have catalysed creatives to address bigger issues

“The year of 2020 had a big impact on the world,” noted Ingrid Chou, Creative Director at MoMA and Educator at Parsons School of Design. “I think that impacted the design community deeply – it seems like design for social awareness and social responsibility was very evident in the submissions for this year.”

It’s something that Ratna Desai, Director of Product Design at Netflix, also noticed, saying that across the board there was “an intense pull towards a global sensibility and that’s why, for the themes of social unrest, racism, and climate change, we saw a lot of entries. We experienced a global pandemic, universally, and I think that triggered a lot of creativity in the design community to address some really complex societal problems.”

When “simple” is the most effective design

One major event from 2020 was the Black Lives Matter movement, which kickstarted a renewed discussion around longstanding issues of racism. Nick de Jardine, Designer and Developer at Grafik, picked Clemenger BBDO New Zealand’s Voice of Racism project as an example of digital design confronting and highlighting some of these bigger questions – as well as proof that simplicity shouldn’t be underestimated. 

“It exposes [racism in New Zealand] in a very effective and simple interface,” he explained. “You’re then able to dig into it to see why is this racist, why is this a microaggression, why is this a stereotype. I thought it was a really good way of approaching a hard topic to deal with in  digital manner. For me it was the most engaging site that I saw – just put your headphones on, and it’s a completely immersive experience.”

Simplicity was also a key element of The 2030 Calculator by FARM Stockholm, which enables businesses to calculate the carbon footprint of their products. Climate change is an absolutely vast subject, but Marc Ligeti, Lead Designer at Knowit, described the project as a “groundbreaking” approach. 

“The design is great, very minimalist in the look and feel,” he said. “It doesn’t have the more typical environmental look – it’s very minimal and functional which gives a more neutral and scientific feel to it. And it’s simple to use too, which is important because you don’t want to be overwhelmed.”

Personalisation and privacy are becoming a bigger part of the creative process

Desai picked Apple’s iOS 14 as one of her most memorable projects, for its use of iterative design but also the way it handled personalisation and people’s concerns around privacy. She described the design as “profound”, for the way it set a high bar for design and quality, but also its modular customisable widget system, that responded to how people used the device and adapted it accordingly. 

“What we’re seeing is this bidirectional feedback loop between a user’s behaviour and how it impacts the personalisation and machine learning algorithms to give you an experience that’s meaningful to you and your life,” she said. “This was a massive trend in other entries – and it’s this notion of what things are personalised for us and what aren’t, and what is that balance that digital products offer.”

This also naturally feeds into users’ concerns around privacy, which Desai said is an ever-growing challenge for designers to answer. She pointed out that it was “extremely controversial” for Apple to make privacy a top priority of the user experience by exposing what information apps are tracking, and offering control back to the user. “I think that’s going to have profound implications on how we innovate in digital design,” she added. “It’s an interplay between how our data and information are treated, and how transparent they are to us in the user experience.”

Judges have to balance a project’s aesthetics with its will to do good in the world

This year’s jury had some challenging conversations around the balance between ‘good’ design, and 'doing good'. 

Léa Berger, Lead Designer at Morrama, said projects rooted in social awareness and social issues sometimes prompted debate amongst the judges. “Sometimes there were discussions around the reason for a project to exist, and what it’s actually doing and bringing someone versus what it looks like,” she explained. “You could feel there was sometimes tension between us around the aesthetics of a product in particular versus what it achieves, and I thought that was quite interesting.”

High-tech is not always the answer

Questions around aesthetics also extend to ideas of inclusivity. Chou selected FCB Chicago’s Boards of Change as a standout project, for the way it addressed communities in Chicago, encouraging them to register to vote. “It’s obvious that this isn’t Bauhaus, this isn’t Swiss design, but it’s functional, meaningful, accessible and, to me, conceptually beautiful,” she said. “To me it’s important to bring diversity into the design industry not just [around] designers. It’s about the change in design perceptions as a whole.”

Chou also emphasised the project’s use of accessible technology – using QR codes instead of packing the booths with complicated features. “It meets people where they are,” she said. “It’s portable, accessible, and although it used QR codes – which is something we consider low tech – it’s actually a perfect use of tech in this case. It’s so easy for people to use their phone.”

Desai also emphasised that transformative design only works when it remembers its audience. Ever-greater innovation and personalisation is one thing, but there’s the danger of design becoming “a blackbox”, that leaves humans feeling like they’re not in control of their experience. “We’re in the early stages of how all this will evolve, but I think more innovation that balances a human need and offering people control over what algorithms provide them will be paramount.”

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