Q&A: Allan Chochinov

How do you give the familiar and frankly, outdated, design competition new life? We went for answers to Core 77, the popular website that takes a critical, yet supportive, approach to design reporting. Their competition, about to close for entry submissions on May 3, relies on fresh, exciting, new approaches to a long-outdated way of […]

How do you give the familiar and frankly, outdated, design competition new life? We went for answers to Core 77, the popular website that takes a critical, yet supportive, approach to design reporting. Their competition, about to close for entry submissions on May 3, relies on fresh, exciting, new approaches to a long-outdated way of judging design. The competition organizers had thought hard about such things as how designers work today, the use of rapid electronic communication vs flying juries around the world, the rewards of discovering new talent pools in regions that have been left out of the design dialogue until now, new and evolving areas of engagement with design, among other things. We caught up with the intrepid Allan Chochinov, editor in chief of Core 77, as he was returning from London. Eager to peek behind the curtain to find out more about the design competition that’s much more exciting than your father’s (or, for that matter, your mother’s) ever was, we put the following questions to Allan.

Susan S. Szenasy: With the deadline for submissions to the Core77 Design Awards looming on May 3, I wanted to ask you about the intent and hopes for the award. To begin with, tell me Allan, what makes this award unique in the sea of existing award programs?

Allan Chochinov: Well, Core77’s been around for 16 years now, and we’ve been debating an awards program for probably the last 10 of them. Our mission has always been to serve the global design community, but we’re keenly aware of the shortcomings of typical design awards programs, so we’ve waited a long time. After great consideration though, we now feel that we’ve come up with a recipe that addresses the challenges with awards programs in general, and at the same time leverages the Internet and the unique platform that Core77 offers the industry. Specifically, there are 5 principal innovations to the program that make it unique:

First, we’ve expanded the usual entry categories to honor long-overdue design efforts around Service Design, Design for Social Impact, Design Education Initiatives, Strategy and Research, Speculative Objects, DIY, and one of our favorites—Never Saw the Light of Day. (That one’s for design projects that were “killed” in 2010; they’ll still be juried with winner and runners up, but we’ve pledged to publish all of the entries submitted in that category, so they will, in fact, see the light of day…and hopefully a lot more!)

The second twist, and perhaps most significant departure we’ve made, is how we’ve conceived of the jury process. Instead of putting two dozen people (often criticized as the “usual suspects”) on planes and flying them all to New York, we’ve created a model where we’ve selected Jury Captains—experts in their field, and distributed around the world—who each choose 4 additional people to be their own local Jury Team Members. With 15 awards categories there are 15 Jury Captains, and the reception to this approach has been tremendous. The teammates the captains have assembled form an astonishing international group of jurors (75 in all)—people we wouldn’t have known or thought of or been able to reach out to. So, global and local; less plane fuel. We are really thrilled with how this radical departure has come together, and anticipate great results. It’s riskier than locking up 24 people in a hotel conference room, feeding them almonds and cookies twice a day and making sure they don’t leave until they’ve completed their job. Instead, we think this new approach is more inclusive, less environmentally impactful, and, well, generous to many design communities. We’ve got our fingers crossed.

The third and fourth innovations are around transparency. We really wanted to push the storytelling aspects of design (after all, designers are great at communicating concepts in person, waving their arms around, pitching ideas and inspirations, talking about process, articulating challenges, breakthroughs and more), but awards entry protocols don’t take advantage of that, and, worse, printed results often provide little texture or evidence of it. So in addition to the usual jpegs and entry form text, we’ve introduced “Video Testimonials”—short, low-production videos where you essentially communicate your passion around the design project, why you are proud of it, why it’s great, anything else you like to share. It’s a way of talking directly to the jurors. That’s the transparency “in” part. The transparency back “out” is that the teams of juries around the globe will reveal their choices live on the Internet, in their own time zones, discussing why they picked what they picked, how they felt about the entries, and hopefully some juicy debate about what happened behind the scenes. So more storytelling—both by the creators and the jurors.

Finally, we’ve got a great twist on the actual award itself: since so many people contribute to a design project, our “trophy” will allow multiples to be made from it for each of the contributors and clients. This is another nod to our desire to make an award program that is more inclusive, generous and more celebratory of the range of talent and extraordinary effort that go into the making of great projects.

C&&DA_posterThe design of the Core77 Design Awards identity and the poster invitation was done by Alex Lin of Studio Lin.

SSS: Yes, the international jury is very unique. In addition to the intent of getting local input, will the juries actually get to touch the design entries, or are we still talking about virtual experiences? If so, how do you feel about that?  

AC: This is an inevitable question that we’ve spent dozens of hours debating. There is no question that for several categories (Product, Packaging, Soft Goods and Furniture, for example), having a 3-dimensional object is of course ideal—we’ve both been on enough design juries to know that! But since, for this first year, we are attempting a distributed jury model, we’re trying to push what can be leveraged through better use of digital assets by augmenting with the video testimonials from the designers and design firms, and we’re also inviting additional artifacts for people to upload. (For instance, in Product and Interactive we see video being used as an incredible vehicle to get ideas across, so we know many designers will include these.) In the video testimonials, designers will be able to demo their products—it’s funny, because ironically, in many jury scenarios, you don’t get to test out many of the artifacts at all. Of course, the majority of categories do not require 3-dimensional artifacts, so that’s less problematic. We are hoping that less shipping, less fuel, and simpler logistics will help offset the sacrifice, but certainly we at Core77 acknowledge that this is challenging territory. We will get some of this right, and some of it wrong, but we think it’s worth trying this new model. We will learn from this year’s experience and make improvements for next year. We’re in it for the long haul.

SSS: I’m glad to see that you don’t have a “sustainability” category, because I have long been disappointed by competitions that segregated sustainability as if it were just another design category. I’m hoping you’ll tell me that considerations for protecting the environment and human wellbeing are expected to run through all the submissions. Yes?

AC: An enthusiastic Yes, Susan. This was absolutely central to our mission. We felt that one of the flaws of design awards programs is the conceit that they are somehow picking “the best” designs. Well, that’s philosophically (and practically) impossible, anachronistic, and ultimately creates a false and hollow promise. (Our tagline is “a celebration of excellence, enterprise, and intent”.) It also sets up a limiting “form & function” metric that we believe we need to move beyond. Designers solve problems, sure, but they also bring amazing things to life—in education, in experience, in strategy and research, in interaction, in guts (that’s the “enterprise” part). We argue that, since you can’t really judge something new on its efficacy, utility, meaning, or results (since it’s, well, new), design artifacts are often judged on aesthetics—typically visual and tactile—as well as a an admittedly-irresistible characteristic: inventiveness.

These aren’t enough, so for our awards program we concentrated on intent and content. What were you trying to do with the project? Where were your passions and motivations? What did you do with the brief? So right from the get go we frame the entry process in both a more personal and global way. And since so many designers are realigning their practices to focus more on design as a force for creating value beyond the commercial, we were deliberate about creating a clear way to communicate their efforts around that value…it’s literally in the wording.

Our entry form has only 6 questions in it—most based around intent—but we don’t ask whether your project was green or socially responsible or resilient or less toxic. We assume it is, because that’s the reality we want to frame and give content to. We ask, “What is the social value of your design? (gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?” This question is sandwiched, by the way, between questions around rigor and the consideration of stakeholders.

As an industry, we are looking for designers to think holistically and to create products, services, systems, curricula, research, and enterprises that consider the quadruple bottom line. And we believe our readers are as well. So we were deliberate about wording the form to encourage designers to really articulate how they’ve made things more sustainable, more culturally relevant, more respectful of labor practices—essentially how they added value to the world. That’s where the conversation is right now, and we want to be part of the engine that that amplifies that conversation. Designers speak loudly with what they create; we want to help publicize their progressive efforts and get them global recognition for it.

SSS: I noticed, though, that you lifted out “Design for Social Impact.” Shouldn’t all design do that?

AC: Yes, and I think you’ve actually answered this one for us. By calling out Social Design as it’s own category, we are trying to acknowledge its ascendance in the design enterprise hierarchy, and to insure it has (at least!) equal billing with all the other categories. Again, we don’t ask “did you think about sustainability or social impact in your design?” We acknowledge that all design should do those things, but we also felt that this urgent, maturing field of social design earns a spot of its own, and want to communicate its critical place in the world of design. Hopefully, all design will reach a point where its positive social impact is in its DNA, but this year we wanted to shine a light on it. People focusing their practice in this arena have earned all of our respect. We want to honor them in a deliberate, overt way.

SSS: I’m very much interested in the category, “Service Design.” Is that a growing category?

AC: Many design firms are already doing a ton of service design; they’re just not often calling it that. It’s a very mature field in the UK, and now gaining traction in many parts of the world. Of course, you could argue that ALL design is service design (a car provides a service for getting you from one place to another; a car sharing program provides the same service, but it also provides you the value of belonging to a group who’s as much concerned with impact as convenience). Choosing the 15 categories was very difficult, and we went through many taxonomies. We will certainly add and tweak the categories for next year, but we’re pretty comfortable with the inaugural set. Design is an evolving discipline, so it demands that we stay flexible and agile.

SSS: Beyond posting the winners on your great website, and alerting the rest of the media, do you have plans, worldwide, to create public dialogues about the contributions design can make to the human adventure?

AC: When you ask about having a place in helping lead the dialog around design, in celebrating design endeavors that are sustainable, socially valuable, viable from a business perspective and delightful from an experiential one, well, we are trying to deliver on all of those things. Since 1995, Core77 has been championing design and has had the unique privilege of working, every day, to earn the respect of our readers, contributors, participants, fans, sponsors, and advertisers. We don’t think that design awards programs are a bad thing, but they do get criticized an awful lot. So it was with long and careful consideration that we are entering into this arena, because we honestly believe that recognizing great design, that earning the acknowledgment of your peers, and that helping all kinds of people understand the power of design is essential to our practice. We hope that we got most of the recipe right. It’s now in the hands of the people, firms, corporations, non-profits, hackers, dreamers, students and all flavors of creators to run with it. An awards program is only as good as its participants, and those are the jurors and the participating designers. Then it’s about the people who read about it, look at the results, watch the videos, share, tweet, blog, and email them around. We provide a platform with global reach to help our community of designers share the good stuff.

I’d also like to take some pixels to acknowledge our full-time Awards Program Director, Jacqueline Khiu (who you’ll recognize from Design21) and her incredible dedication and passion. In addition, we are proud to let people know that the program identity was designed by the amazing Studio Lin, and that the physical award “trophies” by the creative triple-threat of Rich, Brilliant, Willing.

And finally, thank you Susan and thank you Metropolis for inviting us to share our excitement around this initiative and for supporting our efforts. We are very grateful.

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