John Thackara | Essays

Ten Ways to Redesign Design Competitions

The image above is a piezoelectric skin that could be attached to vertical surfaces on buildings.The skin would generate electricity as wind moved across its tiny hairs. Wind Skin, as the project is called, so enchanted jurors at last week's EDF Sustainable Design Challenge that it was selected as one of six winners that will be exhibited at the London Olympics next year.

Wind Skin does not yet exist. But according to the three French students who designed the system — Jérémy Gaudibert, Antoine Giret and Marion Jestin — the technology is not far from being available. A quick check on Google by this juror unearthed 264,000 entries on piezoelectric energy harvesting — and the fact that a 412-page book on the subject was published in April.

That said, a host of other questions remained unanswered by the judging process. How far is this technology from being usable? How does it compare with other emerging energy solutions? What would be the energy return relative to the energy invested in its manufacture and use — its EROEI? What business model would enable it to be deployed? What could go wrong?

The fact that Wind Skin was such an evocative idea, and yet left these questions unresolved, crystallized a concern about design competitions: as most of them are conceived and run, they achieve only a fraction of their potential.

My EDF experience was not a one-off. This article is informed by the writer's experiences as a juror on a series of design competitions in recent times. These included: the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge (which I wrote about here and here), India Future of Change, the Papanek Foundation's Social Design Award and the Royal Society of Art's Design Directions.

It's been an enjoyable privilege to serve on the jury of these sustainability competitions — and I do so with pleasure because their potential is tremendous. They can stimulate fresh thinking on intractable challenges. They can pose new questions, explore new solutions and start new conversations. They can bring positive energy to bear on situations that are otherwise bogged down in endless talk. They can foster connections between people who would not otherwise meet one another. Above all, design and sustainability challenges can yield such evocative "preferred states" that diverse groups can be motivated to try and make those outcomes actually happen.

Can — but for the most part, don't.

So why is their potential missed so often? Here are some of the problems:

1. Competitions are too often staged for wrong or unclear reasons. Some competitions are staged to furnish an exhibition with exhibits, or a book with content. Or they are run and paid for as marketing projects whose aim is to make the sponsor appear innovative. When these objectives take precedence, the potential of a competition to make a serious impact is diminished.

2. In too many competitions, innovation, by itself, is the main requirement. But innovation is not, of itself, virtuous. The carbon economy is the result of innovation. The financial crisis is the consequence of innovation. The parlous condition of global food systems is the result of innovation. Last year, a new product was launched somewhere in the world every three minutes. They too were the result of innovation — but the vast majority involved the inefficient use of energy, water and natural resources.

3. Design competitions usually present us with novelty — but not with the means to assess it. Each group of finalists is added to a growing cacophony of contradictory ideas and solutions. Simply adding to that flow of ideas, without also proposing new ways to select among them, does not take us forward.

4. A focus on neat "solutions" detaches competitions from reality. We face an array of wicked problems that are simultaneously complex, uncertain and urgent. We must learn how to adapt to unpredictable discontinuities rather than cling, dangerously, to business as usual. Static design solutions are not a good preparation for that. A single-vision, top-down approach to design — especially when it is based on a project-only business model — simply does not work in the face of so much uncertainty.

5. Attention is usually focused on the thing rather than on the person or team behind the thing.

6. Competitions too rarely insist that entrants scout the world for situations where the question has already been addressed — whatever the question may be. As a result, they too often end up re-inventing wheels.

7. Many "competitions" and "challenges" are better described as awards for past achievements. The "send in your best work" model is helpful for designers, especially students, seeking recognition and feedback. It is also, for the bigger events, a lucrative business when all those entry fees are added up. But an award for great work is not at all the same thing as recognition for an intelligent exploration of a new question.

8. The linear design challenge format — publish a call; judge the entries; announce a winner — perpetuates the myth that complex, multi-faceted challenges can be met by of a one-off "solution."

9. Many entries avoid that problem only by being "solutions" to non-existing problems.

10. There is seldom enough time in the judging process to assess entries adequately. In one extreme case this year, we judges were asked to select the winner of an international competition, from 50 heterogeneous finalists, in a single two-hour meeting. Even when they have more time, juries rarely contain the right range of expertise to properly evaluate claims made by entries.

Ten ways to make them better

Most of these problems are the result of bad habits, not bad intentions. And to repeat, it's because design challenges have such an important role in the transition to sustainability that it's worth improving them, radically. In that spirit, here are ten suggestions of ways to make them better:

1. Make a clear separation between awards, on the one hand, and competitions and challenges, on the other. If designers want to give each other awards and prizes, fine. But activities outside the tent should operate according to different principles.

2. Design the desired outcomes of the competition first. The focus should ideally be on posing new questions, connecting people to new people, and helping them learn from each other’s other experience. Exhibits, books, winners and ceremonies are a means to an end, not the end itself.

3. Focus on the discovery of new and meaningful questions to do with with daily life issues — not on pre-cooked solutions. The most valuable outcome is a question that excites people, that is meaningful, and that becomes a shared focus for a wider variety of people to join the conversation.

4. Focus on "wicked" challenges. Rather than solicit fully-formed design objects or "visions," ask entrants to create platforms and contexts in which diverse groups of people may co-design the systems, institutions and processes that shape our daily lives.

5. Focus on tools more than on messages and solutions. These can be tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing. They can be tools for sharing and organizing and exchanging. And yes, they can be tools for making things; the carrying capacity of the biosphere is not limitless, but neither is it zero.

6. Get real: Insist on external partners and a live context. The identification of individuals and groups who are already out there, and active, is a key part of the value competitions can create. One way to do this is by posing three questions upfront: What might life in a sustainable world be like? Who, out there, is already experimenting? And how can design help us get there? Reassure participants that incremental improvements to an existing reality will be taken just as seriously as blue-sky scenarios.

7. Provide communication support throughout the process. Make writers, filmmakers and storytellers available to the program as a whole. This will ensure that the most important outcomes — meaningful new conversations — are well prepared. It follows from this that PR or corporate communications will support, but not own, such competitions.

8. Ensure that there is adequate time, expertise and resources for entries to be evaluated. Entrants should be required to provide independent evidence to support their claim, and the jury process should have its own capability to interrogate those claims.

9. Make the judging public. Various formats are possible — from a court-room trial or Pecha Kucha to Dragon's Den. The key point is to expose as many people as feasible to the content of jury deliberations. The deliverable, here, is the capability of more people to interrogate the propositions of experts and specialists critically.

10. Provide ongoing stewardship for the community of participants, experts, judges and sponsors that a competition brings together. This connecting is itself a form of innovation. It should not stop with a winners' ceremony.

Yes, most of these recommendations will entail considerably more work and resources than are typically available. They accompany suggestions in a similar vein made about next-generation biennials, regional museums and, especially, design schools, to which I proposed a three-step plan for connecting with the green economy.

Some resources in existing competitions can be released by simplifying award ceremonies and publications. But my other advice would be: do it properly or don't do it.

Posted in: Business, Education

Comments [11]

The idea of competition is in itself Western, capitalist, and a masculine construction. Number 11 in your proposal may be to call contests, "co-operations," to encourage working together to find excellent design solutions. Which social groups are left out of competitions? Whose voices, talents, and cultures are we missing when we set out to compete with each other? Finding The Best cooperative designers who can synthesize diverse knowledge is a goal in itself! Thank you for our article.
Carla Corroto

Carla, I agree that co-operation should be the outcome - but in my experience you can't just tell people to co-operate. We need a reason, a motive, to do so. That's why I suggest here that posing meaningful new questions is the most useful thing design competitions can do. .
John Thackara

Remarkable and insightful essay. The aspiration of making the evaluation process as innovative as the innovations it seeks to stimulate is important and timely. It would be interesting to evaluate how competitions for more traditional objectives -- i.e. a building design -- could be looked at through the same lens.
Ray Gastil

I very much agree with your post. On my personal experience as a student, design challenges (and not only challenges, university assignments too) are usually not as useful as they could be. Students rarely receive proper feedback and assessment from professionals, a challenge is treated sometimes like a check box list from the side of professors, they check what we are doing and they tick their boxes without getting involved in the project, without posing those meaningful questions that may change its direction to make it something real are more valuable. We are rarely encouraged to get involved with real organisations or project or people, because as you said at the end, the process does not matters, the jury will only look at the "thing". And plus, those things that we are encouraged to design in innovation challenges should be NEW things, something that doesn’t exists at all without considering the possibilities of designing something that doesn’t exist in a certain type of environment, or in a specific community,... That is why usually the "things" respond to problems that dont exist.
We as students are always wishing to make a change, to do something real, we are usually highly motivated people that want to explore exhaustive possibilities to problems, but unfortunately we are not encouraged and sometimes even stopped to do that. And our ideas stay stucked in sketchbooks or reports.
Natalie Ortiz

One problem with competitions that should be highlighted is that designers are typically not in contact with the people and places for which they are designing. Briefs are not interactive and good design solutions need feedback from user groups and clients and, if place specific, the people and culture of those places.

Solution #6 above hints at a more collaborative method but how would such a competition be structured? Perhaps the competition should just select teams that would then work together towards a better solution. I've been to many conferences and workshops where I meet people that would have made great collaborators for a project that I have already developed. How do we make these connections happen earlier in the design process?
Chris Hardwicke

Ray, thanks, and you make a good point: there must be other professional domains [medicine, law...] where more rigorous procedures are already in place that we could learn from;

Natalie, as I suspected, once you touch design competitions you also touch design education... which, frankly, also needs to happen. Over to you?

Chris, you touch on another important issue: team formation. I'm intrigued by platforms such as helpX.net that seem to be doing a great job in matching volunteers [midway through, or after, college] with venues and sites that need help. If you or anyone can connect me with those guys I'll be very grateful!

John Thackara

Nice piece, and timely too. Here in India, we are witnessing a raging debate over the selection (by competition) of the proposed national "Design Mark", with many voices disagreeing with the final choice, as well as the process used to reach it. One chunk of designers have virtually embarked on a"secession" process! Watch this space for more.

In my relatively scant experience, I have only found one thing, which is implied in your first point: that competitions are held because they (are perceived to) offer great return on investment i.e. ideas for cash - and also to publicize and reposition businesses as being innovative. This means that they are essentially media productions, and come attached with the attributes that media requires: instant appeal/communicability, sexyness, glamour/celebrity factor and so on.

Another recent logo design competition held by an Indian IT startup used a combination of jurying and crowdsourcing in its process - again, raising questions (though not controversy, good for them) about the value of the process and quality of outcome. Hopefully they will find their logo, but I'm not sure they tapped the full 'potential' of the competition format.

Which brings me to a request: that you elaborate the snappy 'ten points' into a more elaborate and fuller discussion about 'the potential' of competitions. I am personally not so convinced about this, and would welcome such a discussion!
arvind lodaya

Addendum > One of the ideas that emerged in the "India Design Mark" debate was that juries must be given a NOTA ("None Of The Above") option. As a juror, I know how pressured I've been to reach a conclusion and consensus in an impossibly short time or without any time or space for debate with fellow-jurors, and how this has hugely compromised my contribution.
arvind lodaya

Your article has given me the inspiration to redesign a high school design challenge called The Visioneer Design Challenge.

Based on your ideas we will redesign the challenge so that it doesn't focus only on the end results but on the process. Judging would be done at 5 stages rather than just at the end:

1. Ideation: participants identify their own challenges and do the research necessary to understand and clarify the problem to be solved. This stage is evaluated on significance of the problem, community buy-in, identification of stake-holders, local connection, etc. (In the past we came up with the challenges for them.)

2. Visualization: visual brainstorming of potential solutions evaluated on fluency, flexibility, elaboration, originality, addressing criteria and involvement of stakeholders.

3. Prototyping: physically trying out some of the potential solutions in quick, inexpensive, tentative but tangible ways to further identify practical, doable solutions that consider sustainability, cost, resources, etc. (Visualization and prototyping were encouraged but not evaluated in the past.)

4. Presentation: oral and visual presentation of solutions to stakeholders evaluated on clarity, conciseness, completeness and persuasiveness. (This was the only basis for evaluation in the past.)

5. Implementation: Actual successful implementation of problem solution in a real world setting to meet the needs of stakeholders and others.

Martin Rayala

I thought you'd learned from your efforts to improve your carbon footprint, but you seem to have substituted jury duty for conference attendance.

You're right to criticize innovation for its own sake. It's always been around, it just isn't sustainable any more.

If the design system is based upon competition, and design education mimics the "profession," then students will be forced to compete when they ought to learn to cooperate.

So, isn't it a matter of getting students involved/interested in something other than "the system", or whatever it takes to succeed in design? Because, if there isn't an environment, there won't be any design worth having.

Lastly, if we have to evoke "expertism", which always is the skeleton in the closet with competitions, let's make it "wiki-jury" and do it by consensus. Then maybe guys like yourself will have a chance at footprint reduction.
david stairs

(cont) how to make them better:

11. Make sure you have the money/prize to award the winners.
"shortlisted for a competition but not paid TWICE"

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