Decoding Design

Trends in U.S. design: services, social responsibility

Posting in Architecture

The nominees for the People's Design Award, decided by popular vote and given in conjunction with the National Design Awards, offer insight into what disciplines U.S. designers are interested in and what the American public deems "good design."

An efficient way to trace how the American public understands and defines the concept and influence of “design” is to look at the nominees of the People’s Design Award. It’s an honor given in conjunction with the National Design Awards, one of the most prestigious prizes any U.S. designer could hope for.

The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

For the past decade, the National Design Awards have represented the most high-profile educational program of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. These prizes were created in 2000 to recognize excellent American design in a wide spectrum of fields. Five years ago, when the concept of “crowd sourcing” became popular, the National Design Awards added People’s Design Award, which uses online voting to determine a winner from public nominees (vote for or nominate a design here—voting is open through 6 p.m. Eastern on October 17). The historical lists of nominees also offer a fascinating timeline of trends in American design over the last five years.

In 2006, the inaugural year of the People’s Design Award, nominees reflected classic examples of product design and architecture, from the banal (the zipper) to the iconic (the Empire State Building). In 2007, the nominees still reflected beloved objects (the fly swatter) and buildings (the Brooklyn Bridge), but branched out to include hyped examples of socially responsible design (the One Laptop Per Child initiative’s $100 laptop). The following year seemed to reflect a similar mix.

But in 2009, a year in which the Cooper-Hewitt saw a spike in the People’s Design Award Web site traffic (up to nearly 200,000 visits from 119,000 the year before), there were new types of nominees: transportation-service systems such as Zip Car and blogs such as Design Observer. Last year, the mix included what the Cooper-Hewitt defined as “projects with a social mission.” An example: Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), an initiative that helps women in developing nations create their own businesses by manufacturing sanitary pads out of local materials.

Clearly, the popular definition of design is evolving. Only five years ago, if one considers the People's Design Award as an indicator of trends, design was perceived as a more canonical field, as well-recognized objects and buildings made up a bulk of the nominees. Increasingly, the public has nominated and voted for projects that address sustainability. And in the last couple of years, the concept of “design” has veered into new territories that might not even traditionally be considered design at all—services and entrepreneurial networks in emerging markets.

Tom's Shoes, the 2007 People's Design Award winner

Past winners have achieved high visibility after receiving the People’s Design Award. Think of the 2007 winner Tom’s Shoes, which matches each pair of espadrilles the company sells with a pair given to a child in need around the world. It is now a popular brand. The 2011 winner will be announced at a black-tie dinner on October 20 in New York City, which also honors the ten professional National Design Award winners nominated and chosen by a jury of experts.

So far, this year’s People’s Design Award nominees range from commercial icons, such as the iPad2 (especially poignant, given the sad news on October 5 of the passing of Apple’s Steve Jobs), to inventive objects that are often both eco-friendly and have a social mission, such as the Baja Children’s Desk, a lightweight, easy to assemble work table made of 100% recycled materials (plastic cups, bags, bottles and other items) and designed specifically for use in classrooms in African towns where desks are scarce.

In many ways, this year’s wide range of projects reflects how design is increasingly becoming a driving force in competitive commercial markets and resource-challenged communities alike. As in year’s past, the People’s Design Award offers insight on what the public feels are creative projects and cultural themes worthy of national recognition, no matter what issue or audience they address.

Photos: Cooper-Hewitt, Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons; Tom’s Shoes, Parke Ladd/Flickr

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure