To Judge Good Design, You Have to Get Past the Pictures

Two competitions underscore the value of research, innovation, and collaboration.

A young industrial designer invents a cooking system for her autistic brother. A nonprofit works with an architect and a chef to create an inner-city restaurant to serve healthy meals in an underprivileged neighborhood­—and train local residents for food-service jobs. Both projects focus on our basic need for nourishment, but they also speak to human dignity, independence, and connectivity. The juries that chose them were inspired enough to spend long hours in passionate but collegial debates. While each jury commented on the designs’ visual appeal, the liveliest discussions focused on the stories behind the attractive images­—the intertwining relationships and complex processes. These were stories worth telling in detail.

In the case of Metropolis’s ninth Next Generation Competition, I served as moderator of an energetic discourse on the necessity for original, rigorous, and focused research as well as the importance of identifying underserved user groups and designing for their special needs.

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In the case of Chicago’s Inspiration Kitchen, winner of the 25th Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, I was a member of a diverse jury that included a mayor, in addition to the design professionals. But the jury’s duties didn’t end with picking five urban interventions across the United States as finalists. The foundation’s delegates fanned out to visit each of the five sites: They talked to all the stakeholders and the people who live nearby; took pictures; discovered the details of financing; determined how the design was received by the community; and, most importantly, how it fulfilled its mission. Armed with this rigorously researched information, as well as live reports from the site visitors (in addition to the brief that was originally submitted to Bruner), we reconvened to choose the winner—a most satisfying, though at times difficult, experience.

The Bruner way of judging gives design work the meaning, dignity, importance, and relevance to the community that it deserves. So, I must ask, why are we still spending time debating pictures when there’s so much to know, so much to say?

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