Awards designed to make a difference

Entries for the President's Design Award must spell out how they impact lives, giving weight to the designer profession and opening doors to disciplines beyond architecture, industrial or interior design

What counts as good Singapore design these days?

The answer was made clearer last week when organisers of the President's Design Award, the country's top design accolade, announced a slew of changes.

After 11 editions, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and DesignSingapore Council, which jointly administer the award, now explicitly place greater emphasis on the impact a work has made, in the Design of the Year category.

Submitted entries have to fulfil one of four impact areas: economic transformation such as cost-savings; improving the quality of life; advancing the Singapore brand and engaging with communities here; or a ground- breaking achievement, such as making a process more efficient or improving people's lives.

The other category is Designer of the Year which looks at the oeuvre of an established designer or architect. The judging criteria here include the nominee's design ethos, a consistent quality across his or her projects, and if he is an inspiration to the design field.

The refreshed and stringent judging criteria spells out a clear message: Designers in Singapore must look beyond just aesthetics or commonplace design.

Indeed, the definition of good design has evolved. In the past, aesthetics was a major factor. Today, that alone won't cut it.

Last year, National University of Singapore industrial design students (from far left) Lim Li Xue, Ng Ai Ling and Cheryl Ho created a wallet called Kin, which separates coins and notes. Launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the design was a hit. PHOTO: ST FILE

These days, designers innovate and build products that redefine and improve how people do everyday things, make a social statement and ease processes.

Every day, game-changing designs pop up around the world, across myriad fields from fashion to graphic design - and these aren't always big-scale projects backed by established firms.

Last year, three industrial design students from the National University of Singapore came up with Kin, a wallet that separates coins and notes using a nifty mechanism sewn into it. The simple design, launched on global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, was a hit.

Other impactful projects from around the world include a paper water bottlemade of plant-based fibres; and Thinx, leak-proof menstruation underwear - a godsend for many women - designed by a New York-based start-up.

By recognising the changing, crucial role of design, the President's Design Award not only gives credence to the profession, but also opens its doors to disciplines beyond just architecture, industrial or interior design.

In the past, aesthetics was a major factor. Today, that alone won't cut it. These days, designers innovate and build products that redefine and improve how people do everyday things, make a social statement and ease processes.

The awards have already started moving in this direction.

One of last year's Design of the Year winners was manufacturer NSP Tech, which came up with Safeticet - a medical lancet that pricks the skin more gently than a regular needle. This makes daily blood tests less scary for diabetic patients and could encourage them to be more proactive with testing their sugar levels.

Also at last year's awards, Dr Hossein Rezai, a chartered engineer and director at Web Structures, became the first Designer of the Year recipient for his work in engineering design. Against an alumni of winners made up largely of architects, his win may have raised a few eyebrows.

But Dr Rezai's engineering design work is important. Without him, the complexities of an architect's drawing will never become reality.

Perhaps in the next President's Design Award edition, we might see a seamless, user-friendly app that changed the lives of users, or an exhibition designer who knows how to put on an engaging public display.

Another point to note is that the President's Design Award is now explaining the criteria in detail - a welcome move. Members of the public can also nominate an architect or a designer's work for the award.

While winners from previous editions were given glowing citations, what the awards' jury panel was looking for was never this explicit.

Also, designers whose projects did not make the cut were not given feedback on why. This meant that making a submission used to be a leap of faith.

Now, designers are able to see if they check the necessary boxes. This would lead to more quality submissions instead of candidates trying their luck with the judging panel.

The awards also move to a biennial cycle, from being held annually. Organisers hope this will allow for more projects to mature - as opposed to judging something that is fresh off the design board - and that designers can better gauge the impact of their submissions.

Award winners are also set to get more recognition. Previously, the President's Design Award was given out at the end of each year and followed up with an exhibition. Winners - and the award - go dormant until the next cycle rolls around. Now, they will give public talks, hold workshops and be part of mentorship programmes.

Hopefully, their work will also travel, given that organisers have tied up with international institutions and award bodies such as the British Design & Art Direction Awards and the Danish Design Award.

Giving more visibility to these "local design heroes" - as they are called by the award's organiser - will raise awareness among Singaporeans about the good designers and their work done on home ground.

After all, if Singapore has artists, writers, entertainers and sports stars who have become household names, why not a designer too?

The President's Design Award was in danger of becoming routine, so it is good that an award of such stature is taking the lead in defining the future of design.

The change is also in line with Singapore's desire for design to take on a bigger role.

In recent efforts to kick-start a design movement here, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in March that design "should not be an afterthought".

Instead, he said, "it can deliver new value and create new markets".

The ball is now in your court, designers. Go out there, think out of the box and let good design be rewarded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'Awards designed to make a difference'. Print Edition | Subscribe