For the past two years, I’ve covered the Beazley Designs of the Year awards, hosted at the Design Museum in London, a celebration of the year’s best design projects across the industry and covering the categories of architecture, fashion, digital, graphics, product and transport.
For the 2020 awards, the projects included are from January 2019 to January 2020, with 74 projects nominated by the public and international “design experts”. Each category has its own award as well as an overall award. Because these projects came out mostly in 2019; Covid-19 doesn’t appear very much as it was still early days (expect the 2021 awards to feature many Covid projects), as explained by Maria McLintock, the assistant curator of the Museum:
“[We thought] we should leave the designs of the pandemic to breathe a bit and end the show in January 2020, perhaps next year the exhibition will be full of pandemic designs, but right now, it felt too close and immediate.”
What I like about this exhibition — and the previous editions — is being able to look back and reflect on projects that happened a while ago; sometimes they’re forgotten about, but sometimes they’re still relevant. Sometimes they’re by a small designer who has since become ‘big time’ and sometimes vice-versa.
For these previous editions (2018 & 2019 Medium posts), I visited the Museum, travelling to London and experiencing the designs physically and in person. Still, as you might expect, with Covid restrictions in place, it wasn’t possible this time around. Nonetheless, it’s totally accessible online (like most things now), either through various website blogs or a virtual experience.
For this post, I went through the 74 nominations and picked my favourite projects from each category, explaining why and marking my favourite project overall. None of the projects I chose was officially awarded by the judges* but if you want to find out which ones won, check it out here.
The reasons for why I chose these projects are varied from touching on my own interests, projects I have explored myself, things and causes I believe in, or just being generally and subjectively good pieces of design.
A green social-housing scheme
Mikhail Riches – Goldsmith Street, Norwich 🇬🇧
Ever since university and studying design, I’ve been interested in social housing, carrying out multiple projects, and writing numerous blog posts on it. I find it interesting as a concept that for decades governments have been providing accommodation for people who cannot afford it, often failing to succeed in creating sustainable living environments.
Mikhail Riches’ project for Goldsmith Street in Norwich is not only an attractive alternative to “normal” social housing solutions, but it’s also green and low-energy as a Passivhaus: a voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building. 100 ultra-low energy houses make up the estate, utilising South-facing angled sloped roofs and prioritising pedestrians over cars.
From a visual perspective, it uses traditional British bricks and roof tiles to build low-rise houses and streets compared to usual high-rise flats. It has a shared alleyway, only accessible by residents to create secure spaces for children. The design also extends beyond the estate, blending into the local environment to not be so glaring.
Designs like this show that quality social housing can work. And that this can become the standard for working-class people as well as creating an environmentally sustainable model.
“This is proper social housing, over ten years in the making, delivered by an ambitious and thoughtful council. These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing.”
Julia Barfield, RIBA Stirling Prize judge, on the project winning the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize: the UK’s biggest architecture award.
A suitcase made of shoes
Nicole McLaughlin – Scrap Case 🇺🇸
Inadvertently, this project in the fashion category is also underpinned by the theme of sustainability, and I’m not necessarily choosing it for the one project that was nominated but rather the body of work created — and still constantly being made — by the designer Nicole McLaughlin.
I first discovered McLaughlin’s work on Instagram a year or so ago, initially finding it funny (and impressive) how she managed to turn Carhartt beanies into slippers with no context other than “beanies”. The more I saw, the more I realised that despite being funny and memes in their own right, it was clear there was something in the design and concepts.
She explains that she uses second-hand items to make her pieces, either found online or in second-hand stores, and using samples, damaged items, or even making non-clothes items into “clothing”. All this up-cycling shows that clothing and these other things can have a second life as something else, often not too far removed from where it might belong, i.e. turning beanies into slippers.
“I want you to see a piece and immediately feel something and kind of recognise where it comes from, know that it’s not in its normal state, but still be able to understand and translate that. It could be the colour, it could be the shape, it could be how the material feels. Ultimately it comes down to, can this have another use other than what it originally is, and what it is used for.”
Quote from Nicole McLaughlin about up-cycling.
McLaughlin’s design pieces offer an insight into the changing world of fashion, one that is (hopefully) becoming more circular and conscious of the environmental impact it has. Brands like Nike, who released a series of recycled waste shoes and North Face, who created a sustainable collection for World Earth Day, show that it is possible to be sustainable and stylish and not be what people think sustainable clothing has to look like. As Mclaughlin says: “sustainability doesn’t have to look so plain and beige.”
A virtual library for evading censorship
Reporters Without Borders – The Uncensored Library 🇫🇷
The projects nominated in the Digital category were varied and were among some of the more viral entries, such as Miquela, the Instagram AI global pop star and influencer, as well as the Renegade TikTok dance. However, I chose a project that was perhaps less viral and more specific to a cause: free speech.
Created by the international non-profit and non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders and designed by the (Minecraft) architectural collective Blockworks, The Uncensored Library is an open library built within Minecraft.
The vast library, built by twenty-four builders from sixteen countries — itself an incredible piece of design in the game — contains journals and articles that have been banned in several countries where the media is controlled and the right to free speech, seemingly not allowed. The game bypasses these oppressive regimes.
“Journalists from five different countries now have a place to make their voices heard again, despite having been banned, jailed, exiled and even killed.”
Quote from Reporters without Borders about The Uncensored Library.
The library also contains information on 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index and virtual ‘exhibition halls’ in Russia, Vietnam, Mexico, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, countries Renowned for their press censorship.
On a technical level, the library uses the fact that you can write pages in books on Minecraft. And by using the game, quite popular with a younger audience, it aims to empower the next generation to stand up for their right to information and free speech in the media; itself a powerful tool to fight against oppressive leaders.
A vest addressing structural racism
Banksy – Stab-proof Vest 🇬🇧
As a graphic designer, I didn’t find any graphic design projects nominated very inspiring; a book, a jigsaw, an album cover etc. And this one that I eventually chose: Banksy’s stab-proof vest for the rapper, Stormzy. I’m not sure why it’s in this category but, it is. Nonetheless, this is a great piece; to me, clearly political in its design on multiple levels.
Using the Union Jack, a symbol of the UK on a stab-proof vest, must allude to the high rates of knife crime seen across the country and specifically in London.
Using a genuine police issue vest and subverting/re-appropriating it calls to question police forces’ morality. It is a vest and referencing a traditional gentleman’s waistcoat, but this ominous undertone reflects modern urban life’s realities.
And finally, by giving it to Stormzy to wear (on the final day headline slot at Glastonbury festival, the first Black and youngest artist ever to do so), a music artist who isn’t afraid to address politics in his work, gave the piece a huge stage (physically and metaphorically) and showed how the Union Jack can seemingly be both a patriotic symbol and a target.
This artwork is nothing new for Banksy, who regularly uses his work to comment on current political or social issues both domestic and abroad. Perhaps it belongs in the graphic category as both a (subverted) piece of vexillology and a graphic symbol of the UK.
“Who knew moving into gents tailoring could be this much fun? A vest that’s capable of stopping bullets up to .45 calibre.”
Banksy on his stab-proof vest.
A toy block to teach Braille
LEGO Foundation/LEGO Group – Braille Bricks 🇩🇰
I like the Beazley Designs of the Year nominations because projects around disability and inclusivity are very apparent. Last year I included a project from IKEA — ThisAbles, allowing people to hack IKEA furniture with 3D printed additions. Projects like this show the responsibility that designers have to create (or adapt) existing products for the disabled.
This example from the product category does just this; turning a popular and iconic product into something that can be experienced by blind and visually impaired people and to be used as a teaching tool: LEGO Braille Bricks. The link between LEGO bricks and braille, both being made with raised dots, seems obvious when you think about it.
Each LEGO brick has been made to correspond to each letter and number in the braille alphabet by the simple act of removing the necessary studs from the classic 2x4 brick. Doing so enables people who use braille to ‘write’ and adjust sentences quickly, move the bricks with ease compared to a traditional braille typewriter that is still used today.
It differs from a digital tool for learning braille because of the LEGO bricks’ tangibility, something that is said to be necessary to blind and visually impaired people. The fact that LEGO is also a toy; allowing for learning through play.
The bricks’ design has letters and numbers printed on them, allowing sighted people to interact on equal terms. In addition, LEGO Braille Bricks are totally compatible with regular LEGO bricks.
An ankle-high roadblock
Hong Kong Protestors – Brick Arches 🇭🇰 *Awarded People’s Choice Winner
For the Transport category, only three projects were nominated. None of them is an actual piece of transport (in a literal sense): one an immersive bus-stop, another a cross-border see-saw and my selection here, a tiny brick structure actually intended to stop transport.
These three-brick structures were made and used by Hong Kong protestors as a roadblock method, designed to slow down police and riot vehicles during the 2019 pro-democracy riots in the country.
A straightforward but effective design; when a vehicle drives towards one, a wheel hits a structure, the top brick falls, leaving the two remaining bricks forming a ‘buttress’ that prevents the wheel from moving forwards. Also referred to locally as “brick battlegrounds”, they very easy and cheap to make and very difficult and time-consuming to clear compared to regular roadblocks, especially at the scale these were created.
This project shows the role that design has in the fight for politics in general and that you don’t have to be a designer to design something simple and effective. Everyday people can also be designers; this might be why this project was awarded the People’s Choice Winner.
A memorial to the first deceased glacier
Cymene Howe & Dominic Boyer – Ok Glacier Memorial 🇮🇸
Finally, I wanted to choose my favourite project nominated, not thinking about a category — as many of these projects are “category fluid” anyway, and I don’t think designers should necessarily be so pigeon-holed — but more just the project as a whole. This project is the Ok Glacier Memorial.
This memorial is a bronze plaque installed on top of the Ok (full name: Okjökull) volcano near Reykjavík, Iceland. It is a memorial that commemorates the death of the glacier nearby, the first glacier to be declared dead due to climate change in 2014 after 700 years. This death was decided when glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson deemed it no longer thick enough to move, and it is simply now a tiny patch of ice on top of the volcano.
The bronze memorial plaque is the design piece in question here, though; inspired by traditional Icelandic memorials and written in a beautiful serif font. It almost seems comical to place a plaque like this to commemorate the death of a non-human object. Still, it’s far from funny in reality, and this memorial highlights what is very likely to continue happening in the future as climate change will continue to ‘kill’ the planet’s glaciers. Sigurðsson has been taking photographs of the country’s glaciers for the past 50 years and made a study in 2000 of the 300 glaciers across Iceland. By 2017, 56 of these had disappeared.
The text on the memorial plaque — written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason — reads:
“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
It ends with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air globally at the time of 415 parts per million (ppm), a staunch reminder of the global climate change crisis situation.
When researching this project, I came across a song by Luke Reynolds: Okjokull (Ok) from the album, Vanishing Places: Vol. 2 Glaciers in Iceland. I found the concept and audio of this song both fitting and moving when thinking about losing this, and many more, glaciers. As a piece of design, it is a reminder of what we are responsible for, not just what we have done but also what we can do to prevent further losses. More can be found about the Ok ex-glacier in the film, Not Ok by anthropologists Cymene Howe & Dominic Boyer.
“This piece was written to commemorate Okjökull, a glacier in western Iceland on top of the volcanic mountain Ok, located northeast of Reykjavik. The glacier was declared extinct in 2014 by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson — another instance of the depletion of a huge, beautiful, and seemingly invulnerable wild place (much like the Great Plains of North America), once thought to be too powerful, too huge, and too vast to be impacted by humans. This piece incorporates sampler instruments built using field recordings that I made near Skogafoss waterfall and the two glaciers that feed it (Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull).”
Luke Reynolds on Okjokull (Ok) from Vanishing Places: Vol. 2 Glaciers in Iceland.
If you wish to find out more about the projects nominated (or see the winners) of this year’s selection you can find it on the Design Museum website or in the accompanying book (cover photo). The exhibition can also be experienced online virtually until 28 March 2021.