How do you design for Designs of the Year?

We caught up with the curator of the Design Museum’s Design of the Year show Gemma Curtin who told us how the exhibition was organised, curated and designed and how the Design Museum got a car to the second floor.


The Design Museum’s Designs of the Year exhibition opens this week and includes everything from an off-grid eco-toilet to a book printed without ink. The exhibition celebrates design from the worlds of architecture, digital, fashion, product, graphics, and transport. It represents the longlist of 76 designs, which have been nominated by design experts, practitioners and academics based all over the world.

Benjamin Hubert has designed the 3D elements of the show and consultancy Kellenberger White is behind the 2D design solution. We caught up with the Design Museum’s curator of the show Gemma Curtin about how an exhibition with such a broad reach is put together.

Design Week: What are the challenges of curating and designing Designs of the Year?

Gemma Curtin: The main one is organisational. In October we send emails to all our nominators. We have over 300 design practitioners, critics and experts around the world. This year we’ve tried to be as international as we could to include North and South America, Europe and Africa – we’ve really opened it up. Then we had to get the nominations down to 76 across the six categories. This year we also gave the nominators a set of criteria for the first time – in the past we left it up to them but by producing a set of criteria we can be more focused. They had to think about “Design that promotes or delivers change”, “Design that enables access”, which means putting the user first, “Spirit of the year”, and “Design that promotes best practice”. Really they’re thinking about the everyday impact of design, how design is used as a tool or to resolve a problem – you always get a sense that good design is trying to do that.

DW: Last year’s design concept saw a title created for each exhibit. What was the success of this and how has the design changed this year?

GC: For the design concept last year we placed a simple title next to each entry and that’s something we developed this year. The problem prior to last year was each object’s title tended to be a brand name so when you read it, so it didn’t tell you much about that object. Now you immediately know what it is even though the categories are mixed together. It shouldn’t be a complicated exhibition. In the brief to the 3D designers I asked them to use the vertical space and you can see in Benjamin’s design he has used the vertical height. Also the panels are the same width to create impact.

DW: How have you created a system that gives equal weight to each entry, or each type of entry?

GC: Benjamin [Hubert] has introduced a fluid design. The table-top plinths curve down rather then being at an angle – the vertical and horizontal meet and there’s a lovely fluidity which helps bring together this mad complexity and diversity of the entries and it helps visitors flow through the space and respond to each individual piece.

DW: Can you run us through some of the themes you’ve chosen this year?

GC: Well there’s “Sharing what we know” – this about recognising the fact that designers work in isolation or in studios but they still collaborate and share knowledge to solve real life problems. With “Making a sustainable world” there’s a nice Air Purifying Billboard project, designed by the University of Engineering and Technology of Peru. There’s also a sophisticated BMWi8 car. I’ve noticed over the years we’ve been running Designs of the Year that with the latest projects sustainability has become something which is deep in the core of projects. It’s really evolved and it’s mainstream now. There’s also “Encouraging explorations”, which is about designers who are inspired by discovery and new ways of expression. And there’s “Design with everyday impact”, and “Designing for change” – so design that can change our habits and ideas.

DW: What does grouping different disciplines together under common themes bring to the show?

GC: Mixing them together gives people a more organic experience. It’s about the world around us. Whether, that’s print, fashion, architecture or anything else – the world brings you all of these things simultaneously just as we are. We want to make you feel part of it. Design of the Year is not an in depth study, it’s a one stop shop.

DW: How do you get the larger objects into such a small space? 

GC: We have a lift on the outside of the building. All of the larger objects went in there and the largest were the car and the toilet…

22222211111166666555554444433333777All images by Mirren Rosie.

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