National Design Award 2006

Design isn’t just about looking pretty or cool. For some, it is also about social responsibility. On Monday, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum announced that Nike will be given a corporate achievement National Design Award for more than just cool underscores that point. But it may not be sending the right message regarding the role of design in corporate competitive strategy.
According to the Cooper-Hewitt:

The National Design Awards were conceived in 1997 by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum to honor the best in American design. First launched at the White House in 2000 as an official project of the White House Millennium Council, the annual Awards program celebrates design in various disciplines as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world, and seeks to increase national awareness of design by educating the public and promoting excellence, innovation, and lasting achievement.

This year’s award, as the Washington Post puts it, Cooper-Hewitt Honors Nike For Just Doing It Right:

Jury spokesman Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, says the panel was impressed with how Nike has moved beyond the taint of overseas sweatshop scandals.
“Corporate philosophy was a major issue for us,” Mandle said by phone this week. “Beyond the extraordinary design quality and thinking on product development, it was their responsibility in manufacturing and attention to human resource issues.”
. . .
“The jury is reflecting the state of design concerns today,” Mandle said. “They are looking at the broader perspective. It’s not just about cool design — it’s the overall responsibility of the designer or company.”

This is not the first time that the corporate achievement National Design Award was given for broader goals. Last Oct, it was Patagonia, who was cited for its social consciousness as well
Cooper Hewitt: National Design Awards 2005

The 2005 Corporate Achievement Award is presented to Patagonia, a sports apparel company based in Ventura, CA, whose commitment to innovation, design, and performance is matched by its devotion to environmental and social causes. Founded in 1973, the company creates high-quality outdoor sportswear for mountaineering, skiing, and extreme sports, with a focus on functionality. Patagonia works with manufacturers to develop new fabrics such as Capilene and H2No Strom which meet athletes’ strict performance demands, and also implements numerous environmental initiatives, including producing clothes out of soda bottles, recycling scraps even before they hit the cutting room floor, and harnessing wind for fuel.

Not everyone is happy with how the awards are going. Last October, when the 2005 awards were announced, Business Week’s design guru Bruce Nussbaum posted the following on his blog: The National Design Awards are a failure.

Cooper-Hewitt just announced the winners of its Sixth Annual National Design Awards and it’s really time to say out loud what so many design and innovation professionals have been saying for so long–the contest doesn’t work. The winners are all wonderful designers who have done excellent work. But they are obvious choices. Most appear to be recipients of life-time achievement awards, which is really what the National Design Awards has mostly become.
What is wrong. I think design has quickly evolved far from the original conceit of the awards program. Just giving attention to great designers is really beside the point today. The great struggle for respect in society and in the corporate world is over. Design has won. It doesn’t have to sell itself. It does have to prove itself, however. Design has to create better methodologies, better processes and better results for the people who use it. And design contests have to reward this ongoing effort, not simply recognize those in the past who have achieved greatness.

[One disturbing indicator of all this is the announcement garnered almost zero press coverage. The Post– which actually published its story days before the announcement – was only newspaper to pick up on the announcement (at least according to my Google news search).]
I would go one step further. I’m not sure that giving a design achievement to companies for their social responsibility sends the right message. Companies should be rewarded for social responsibility – both with awards and where it really matters: in the marketplace. But I worry that equating design with social responsibility takes away from both activities. Either it says design is all about social responsibility — which is a very limiting message and cheapens the role of design in company strategy and operations. Or is it is about the design community patting itself on the back for being such good people — which cheapens the importance of environmental and social responsibility.
In all fairness, the award to Nike is not just about being a responsible company. It would never have even been considered if it was not for its ongoing commitment to design and innovation as a core strategic principle. But the design award should be to companies for those criteria – not some other criteria however laudable.
I would rather have my friends over at the Calvert Group’s Socially Responsible Investing section tell me how a company is doing on that criteria. After all, they are the experts. The design jury at the Cooper-Hewitt is not.
[Interestingly, all of the companies that are designated as Calvert Leaders are also innovative and design-intensive: Applied Materials, Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and Texas Instruments.]
As Roger Martin, of the Rotman School of Business at Toronto, keeps reminding us, we need to embed design in to corporate activity, not just added it on to the traditional firm. Nike may very well be an example of a company that does that. Its history of innovation and design excellence are proof that it is doing something right – and therefore deserves recognition such as with the National Design Award.
But the Award should be given for embedding the design process into the company – not of other factors. After all, isn’t one element of good design its clean focus, without all the extras?

2 thoughts on “National Design Award 2006”

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