Review: Beazley Designs of the Year 2017 at the Design Museum

This year’s exhibition features a wheelchair that can climb stairs, a language-translating earpiece and a brand identity for Wales.

More and more, design is becoming an all-encompassing term spanning everything from new products, TV animations, graphics and clothing to the way our buildings are put together and our streets are laid out.

Every year, the Design Museum does an apt job of making sense of this enormous concept with its Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition.

Now in its 10th year, the show presents a carefully curated selection of the year’s best designs spanning six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. The show comprises a shortlist, of which category winners and one overall winner will be chosen and revealed in January.

© Luke Hayes

Navigating the 2017 exhibition is significantly easier than last year’s. The 62 shortlisted projects have been grouped into themes, making them more digestible, while architectural practice Carmody Groarke has designed a dystopian exhibition space in the basement of the museum, consisting of mountainous, grey sculptures.

© Luke Hayes

Made from a textured, recycled paper called Soundcel, the space is both tactile and peculiar, and the mounds separate out sections sufficiently. Exhibition graphics have been designed by Micha Weidmann Studio, and consist of brightly-coloured acrylic pieces that add some life to the cavernous, grey mounds.

© Luke Hayes

This year’s themes include: Innovators, “risk-taking” projects that are free from commercial constraint; Activists, projects that recognise and address current political and social issues; Brands, which are communication, graphic and brand design projects, mostly for clients; Makers, projects created through craft skills; and Builders, building projects created by architectural practices.

In addition to a showcase of projects, this year also includes a five-minute film looking back on the last 10 years of the Beazley Designs of the Year Awards, where spokespeople including Design Museum director Dejan Sudjic talk about the merits and downfalls of previous winners. This includes 2016’s overall winner, the Ikea Better Shelter, which is aimed at housing refugees.

© Luke Hayes

After strolling through the space, here are some of our favourite, shortlisted projects from this year’s show.

Graphics: Wales Nation Brand

Wales Nation Brand, by Smörgåsbord Studio

The country of Wales took on a new brand identity in February this year, designed by Cardiff-based consultancy Smörgåsbord. The identity encompasses a red dragon symbol, akin to that seen on the national flag, and bespoke typeface Cymru Wales Sans, which takes typographic cues from the Welsh language. The studio’s co-founder Dylan Griffith told Design Week at the time that the new identity was part of a drive to “do the country justice” and increase business, tourism and migration to Wales.

There are some sterling graphics projects in this year’s Designs of the Year, including Unit Editions’ book design for a monograph on Paula Scher and the popular Me & EU postcard campaign that came about following the Brexit vote.

Despite fierce competition, Smörgåsbord’s branding project stands out as a well-thought-through and sensitive depiction of Wales and its culture. Its success is proven by the country’s surge in popularity since its launch – a 30% increase in social media followers for tourism board Visit Wales, five million visits to its website and a feature in the Lonely Planet travel guide for 2017.

Transport: Scewo wheelchair

Scewo wheelchair, by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

It is remarkable that Scewo – created by a group of designers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – has not already been invented. One resounding problem for wheelchair users is the need for somebody else to help them when using public transport such as trains, due to inaccessible stations and abundance of stairs.

This ingenious yet simple interpretation of a wheelchair includes a retractable set of rubber tracks, which would allow users to climb up and down stairs independently. An extra pair of wheels at the back of the chair also allows them to raise the chair up so that it meets other people at eye level.

If proven safe to use up flights of stairs after testing, this could be a game-changer for wheelchair users, helping them to travel independently and communicate with able-bodied people confidently.

Product: The Pilot translating earpiece

The Pilot translating earpiece, by Waverly Labs. Digitally generated by Sergio Del Rio

English is, without a doubt, one of the most prominently spoken languages across the world. Research conducted by The Telegraph this year found that there are 45 countries outside of the UK where at least half of the population speak it.

This comes with the merit that, when travelling, Brits have a high chance of being able to speak their native tongue abroad. However, it also means that there is a reluctance in the UK to learn other languages.

The Pilot translating earpiece, designed by Waverly Labs, translates between users speaking different languages. It consists of two earpieces, each worn by two users, and translates automatically as someone speaks into it. It currently works with 15 different languages, but can be updated with more.

While we should encourage learning and appreciation of other languages rather than resigning ourselves to an automatic translator, it cannot be denied that this could be a revolutionary piece of kit that could help ease communication between people of different cultures. Everything from international trade to airport border control could benefit from this invention, which was brought to life through a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $5 million (£3.8 million).

Digital: Refugee Text

Refugee Text, by Kåre Magnus Sand Solvåg, Caroline Arvidsson and Ciarán Duffy, photo by Angel Garcia

Last year’s Designs of the Year winner, Ikea’s Better Shelter, has helped house thousands of refugees and protect them from physical danger – but what tools are available to help them travel to safety in the first place?

Refugee Text, designed by Kåre Magnus Sand Solvåg, Caroline Arvidsson and Ciarán Duffy, is a text message and online tool that aims to provide refugees with regular updates and information, tailored to their individual needs and journeys.

“Every refugee should have access to actionable information, but aid organisations are struggling to keep refugees informed,” say the designers. “They are unaware of where to get help.”

Refugee Text tackles this by linking up directly with aid organisations and charities, which provide the service with information updates. Any refugee with access to a phone can then text the service or use its website, and an automated chatbot will appear giving them the information they need immediately. It is available to use 24 hours a day, and does not need wifi to work.

While the service can never replace a humanitarian aid organisation being present in the flesh, Refugee Text could be a go-to when migrants do not know where to turn. It also acts as a link between charities and travellers, helping them reach each other and communicate critical information.

Fashion: Pussyhat project

© Luke Hayes

The Pussyhat project, started by four women in a village in California, is an example of how a small piece of protest art can lead to mass movement and solidarity between thousands of people.

The Pussyhat is a pink, woolly, knitted hat, created by the Little Knittery in Atwater village, Los Angeles, as a form of protest against Donald Trump’s presidency, and particularly his reported treatment of women.

It was created for the Women’s March that took place in Los Angeles in January 2017, which turned into a worldwide march. The group put an open-source knitting pattern online, as an invitation for other women to stand together and wear the same hat at the march.

It has since turned into a global project, with thousands of women turning their hands to craft to signal their dissatisfaction with current politics.

Knitting a hat cannot change the world but the project is a refreshing reminder of the impact that can be created by making art, craft and design accessible to the masses.

Architecture: Warka Water

Warka Water Tower, by Arturo Vittori

Lack of access to drinkable water is a shocking reality for much of the developing world, including small villages in Ethiopia, where the Warka Water project was first trialled.

Warka Water, conceptualised by Italian industrial designer and architect Arturo Vittori, is a large-scale project aimed at generating and transporting safe, drinking water to communities worldwide.

It consists of a vertical tower that collects and harvests water from the air, such as from rain, fog and dew, relying on natural processes such as gravity, condensation and evaporation to work. It also has a canopy, providing a shaded area for people to meet, study, work and relax, and contains solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight and allow communities to charge phones.

Other parts of the project include a hygienic shelter and housing solution called Warka House, a water transportation system called Warka Drone, and a food harvesting tool called Warka Garden, which uses water collected to grow crops.

It is an ambitious one-stop-shop for communities in need of basic and critical needs such as shelter, water and food. Although it cannot claim to be an all-encompassing solution, it could be the basis for other similar projects in the future which could collectively make a big impact.

Beazley Designs of the Year takes place 18 October-28 January 2018 at Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London W8 6AG. Entry costs £10 or £7.50 for concessions. For more information, head to Design Museum’s site.

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  • RitaSue Siegel October 18, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    The late Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, also invented a stair climbing wheelchair called the iBot, in the late 90’s. It was very expensive to produce and few were sold. In 2006. Toyota licensed the technology from DAKA, Kamen’s firm, to produce the product. I imagine there will be refinements to make it more affordable.

  • RitaSue Siegel October 18, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Sorry, Toyota licensed the technology in 2016.

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