Why the Designs of the Year 2014 really matter outside the creative industries

Last Friday I was interviewed live on Bloomberg TV about the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year 2014 competition (which you can watch above). I was asked to pick out entries that would be of relevance to an audience from the worlds of business and finance, and explain the important of projects nominated for the awards to these worlds.

Here, I’ve expanded on the points discussed as the importance of design to business is always worth reiterating - so feel free to drop some of these into conversation with your clients when they need reminding that what you do for them isn’t just window-dressing, but a great driver of the success of their business.

It’s also worth repeating here that design is a strong industry in itself. The most recent government figures show that in 2012, the creative industries brought in over £8 million a hour to the UK economy. The industries account for 5.6 percent of all UK jobs and was the only sector to grow in 2012.

Beyond this, the Designs of the Year reminds us that the design of products and services – not just how they look, but how they work and how users perceive and experience them – is increasingly important for differentiating them from competitors, especially digital products and services. It also provides an insight into current and future trends in product development: from apps and services that combine different sources of (live) ‘big data’ to the Internet of Things.

6 business-focussed picks from the Designs of the Year 2014


Aerosee is a search-and-rescue drone for use in the Lake District. The drone scans the landscape and publishes the shots online for the public to scan. If someone spots a missing walker or climber, they can inform the rescue team and help guide their efforts.

In concept, it follows the pattern of cases of successfully found missing persons cases through Twitter or Facebook. Also, alongside the use of drones for filming at the just-finished Sochi Winter Olympics, this relatively small scale is also indicative of how lower-cost drones are becoming more popular for projects beyond controversial military use in countries such as Afghanistan and large disaster relief projects.

Building Stories by Chris Ware

An A3 box containing a story told over 14 books, posters, flip books and pamphlets, Chris Ware’s graphic ’novel’ is an outrageously indulgent piece of print, but it’s something you cannot replicate on a Kindle.

It’s a brilliant example of what printed books have to become in the face of the convenience of digital media: an experience, as a homeware just like the framed LP covers many of us have on our walls.


Citymapper is everything a map app should be. It tells me how to get from A to B in the best possible way right now – not some theoretical journey I might take next week or overlaid with reviews of highly thought-of restaurants I have no interest in going to when I’m trying to take my daughter to the Senses Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy or a late night jaunt to Rumpus while she’s spending some time with one of her sets of grandparents.

Citymapper knows there’s a Tube strike on or that the Northern Line is suspended. Again. And it’s never once tried to get me to take that ridiculous cable car, even if I have been going to the Excel or O2.

It doesn’t assume I’ve got a car – I do but it’s at home in Surrey – but gives me a clear list of route, time, cost and calorie-burning options from Tube, bus, walking, cycling or hailing a cab (black or minicab); so I know how much a taxi will cost at 4am when we wander out of Rumpus or how long the next nightbus will be, and can choose accordingly.

The app even gives me an route I could take to avoid the rain and the ensuing hair disaster if I’ve forgotten my umbrella. And it can find me the nearest bus-stop if I don’t know where I am. And occasionally it lets me see the direct route over London that Boris Johnson would take if he was thrown by a catapult or teleported, which can be cheering when you’re cursing his befuddled face because the next 38 to Dalston is stuck in the traffic treacle that is the West End. Again.

The reason why Citymapper is so wonderful is that it’s focused on two tasks: interpreting live information about London’s transport network and presenting that in a clear way that even a West End hen party could understand. Most of the information is taken from public sources such as TfL’s Route Planner – what the app does is mix this in with other data sources and present it in a way that’s much easier to understand than looking at multiple apps (and than the TfL mobile website).

Many of today’s best apps do this. They pull in information from a range of free and licensed sources, plus where you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Tell the app what you want and it sifts the information to make it usable.

Dumb Ways to Die

Dumb Ways to Die is the probable overall winner. It’s an animated video (with super-catchy song, above), site and now app about rail safety that went truly viral worldwide – and helped save lives.

Dumb Ways to Die was created for a New Zealand railway by McCann Melbourne, but it went truly viral worldwide – garnering over 68 million views to date and press coverage that combined its creators equate to over $500 million of bought media. Before the interview, I mentioned the campaign to my 14-year-old stepdaughter thinking she’d enjoy it – but she’d already heard it last year, got the song stuck in her head and so had many others at her school.

Most importantly, the railway Metro Trains saw a 30% drop in near-miss accidents – and its impact on rail safety around the world can only be guessed at.

Nest Protect

Nest Protect is a smoke alarm that connects to your home Wifi network and contacts your phone if it detects smoke or carbon monoxide, wherever you are. It’s best known though because its creator Nest Labs is in the process of being bought by Google for $3.2 billion – though the Protect is not Nest Labs only product, as it also has a thermostat which is similar to the Hive that British Gas is offering in the UK.

The Nest Protect is also the poster child for the Internet of Things, a growing trends for hardware devices that connect to the Internet to improve their purpose. As you’d expect there’s a lot of hyperbole around this, but as with other markets, those things that fill a need will succeed: those that make your life better or easier or give you psychological pleasure or reassurance.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift is a VR headset aimed primarily at gamers, but it also could also be popular for experiential installations in retail, entertainment venues such as cinemas and for architects who want to let clients see their buildings at real size.

As with the Microsoft Kinect, part of what’s driving this isn’t the technology – comparable types of VR headset have been available for years – but that the Oculus Rift is relatively inexpensive, opening up much wider possibilities for smaller scale projects or widespread multiple installations.

So where was Google Glass and the Pebble?

Opinion is still divided as to whether wearables will be as or more popular as fitness monitors like the Fitbit, or will be this year’s Bluetooth headset. Perhaps the judges felt that what they offer wasn’t different enough from what you can do with your smartphone to be worth celebrating: an accessory to your phone and not a product in themselves.

Personally, I was disappointed that the Hövding ‘invisible bike helmet’ from Sweden wasn’t included. This acts as an airbag for your head. you wear it like a collar and inflates if it detects you falling off or being knocked off. So for normal riding it doesn’t mess up your hair like a conventional bike helmet.

Aren’t these all just prototypes?

It would be easy for someone from outside the creative industries to look at this year’s Designs of the Year nominees and see a bunch of ideas that have yet to come to fruition. It’s true that while some are still prototypes, others are are fully formed commercial products or projects.

With the competition, there can be a tendency to nominate products on the strength of their concept and potential rather than what they deliver. For example, the Oculus Rift is a beta product with low-resolution screens – and the commercial version ‘Crystal Cove’ is still a prototype.

Some prototypes become mainstream, some don’t. We’re still waiting for the non-stick ketchup bottle that was nominated last year to become a reality.

Set against these though as are fully-formed projects that affect millions of people, such as last year’s winner Gov.uk, the government’s website for information and services that’s visited by millions of people every month.

Designs of the Year winners 2012 and 2013

The winners of the previous two years’ competitions are a great example of the breadth of what design means.  

Gov.uk is a great example of why design matters to the success of a project even as pragmatic as the government’s own website. Previously, the government had a series of sites arranged as the bureaucracy of different departments, rather than how the public perceives.

The new site is based on the principles of user experience – asking how an average user expects the site to work, and then building it to that expectation: I want to do something that involves my car, or my benefits, or a life event: births, deaths and marriages.

2012's winner, the London Olympic Torch is about as different from Gov.uk as you can get. It serves no practical purpose, it’s purely symbolic – but it’s incredibly beautiful. It was a bold choice at the time – it was chosen as a winner in the spring before the Games, when many people thought they were going to be a damp squib.

If the Designs of the Year can be said to serve a single purpose, it's to celebrate the design is everything that sits between these polar extremes. And that's worth telling the world about.


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