Electrolux is the worst design competition there is
Electrolux Design Lab is an annual international design competition sponsored and run by appliance maker Electrolux. It’s meant to be a competition that pushes design and ideas forward, a challenge to serious product designers to stretch their creative and problem solving muscles to approach challenges both in the near and far future. We’ve written about many Electrolux design entrants, finalists, and even winners like the floating ball that cleans your air, a wine cooler operating by magic, and a spoon that tastes for you. If, as a whole, we can operate under the assumption that not every design, even from design students, need be so horrifically flawesome, the conclusion that you reach is that the competition itself promotes flawesome ideas to needless height; that is to say, Electrolux encourages and produces bad designs. Electrolux Design Lab is one of, if not the worst, design competitions that exists, a fact made only more painful by its popularity, reach, and the seriousness in which its audience takes the designs submitted. On every conceivable level it recklessly lauds the most shallow, thoughtless, farcical, and superficial facets of design while glossing over while makes design intensively challenging, endlessly productive, and simply wonderful.
In short, Electrolux is to Design is what Mainstream News is to Knowledge; it’s barely skin deep and TERRIBLE for EVERYONE.
Design should identify and solve real problems
Great designs address shortcomings or voids in solutions to existing or soon to exist problems that people or groups of people might face. For example, if a single person needs to cross a body of water, a boat could be designed. If many people need to cross, a bridge could be designed. If a person needs keep their outfit clean in a dirty environment, stain-resistant clothes could be designed. Or a better washer. Or a hand-held stain remover. Or a chemical stain remover. The point is, a problem has to be real, valid, and of a certain intensity to have value. A solution looking for a problem is the exact opposite of how design should work.
Yet this flawed method of looking for non-problems is exactly encouraged in Electrolux, as evidenced by their selection of finalists and winners. A spoon that tastes for you? Why? No one has trouble finding out if food tastes bad, unless they’re in denial. How good something tastes is also very subjective; so this is a problem that simply does not exist. Design competitions, design teachers, and everyone else in the design industry needs to encourage identifying the multitude of problems that DO exist rather than trying to solve ones that DON’T Exist.
Design should take challenges seriously
That doesn’t mean designs can’t be silly or wacky, but designs should approach any challenge with a rigorous degree of respect. If one of the challenges is to create an environmentally friendly product, the whole of the design should take that into consideration in the most reliable and realistic way. Such a design might attempt to reduce the amount of plastics and parts to leave a smaller pollution footprint, be easy to manufacture to reduce required tooling, or be made mostly from existing and readily available and already-recycled parts such as steel tubing (environmental challenges can exist at the manufacturing or usage level, often both). Challenges can limit the utility of a design (that’s why its a challenge) or increase its cost. This can seriously affect the viability of a design so each challenge should be addressed carefully in a rational manner.
In Electrolux, these design challenges are cursory. A design appears to be environmentally friendly if it just has a few recycled parts combined with wishful thinking. Designs often seem to just have ‘recycled materials’ or even more ambiguous terms like ‘green manufacturing’. Or ‘green’. If the challenge has space constraints, the design is simply smaller, or miraculously foldable, with no apparently reduction in its effectiveness.
Design should be plausible
Oftentimes, people will look back upon old sci-fi and become enamored when they are right. Touch-screen displays, the internet, hand-held computing: these are just a few of the things sci-fi predicted before they became reality. “Hah see?”, one might think, “Design should be as prescient as these ideas.” Except those ideas were not prescient. Many were shots in the dark; the fact that people put so much weight into the ones sci-fi got right is an example of observational selection fallacy. After all, where are those flying cars? Hover boards? Teleporters? FTL [Faster Than Light] Transportation? Burgers that look like ones in the commercials?
Designs should be plausible; there are things you can and can’t extract about technology and technological advances. This year’s winning Electrolux design floats by magic while performing tasks ordinarily regulated to much heavier machines. This is highly unrealistic, and is an insult to all serious designers. If the design community truly believes the requirement for design were a novel idea, good renders, and the belief that a product could be operated by hopes and dreams, then the community is poor and intellectually bankrupt.
Design should be awesome
This last point is a little ephemeral, because awesome design often goes unnoticed. But a lot of times, that’s how it should be. While designers get a kick out of people saying “Huh, wow that’s really clever.”, our ultimate goal is for those people to think “Wow, that’s really useful.” A good design can be something so elegantly effective and simple that you feel stupid for not thinking of it yourself, or it can involve such a complex set of systems to solve extraordinary problems that an observer has to marvel at the orchestration. A good design is awesome.
Bad design might have ‘wow’ factor on the surface, but they are not awesome. They’re things like heating up soup with super-hot metal balls, washing your clothes while you hula-hoop, stapling half a chair to a wall (seriously). Electrolux seems to place much more weight on the ‘wow’ factor and very little on anything else. Electrolux favors ideas over implementation, like a man might favor prayer over levees in a flood.
I think design, like many industries (such as closely related Fashion), is prone to elitism. The community seeks out fresh ideas; they are easy to consume and applaud – their novelty and hopefulness invigorates and excites. But this is shallow. Design ideas aren’t that useful until, dragged through the mud and the muck that is the reality of cost, manufacturing, and technology, those ideas are produced into something real. The community shouldn’t continue to embrace or pander to vapid design competitions like Electrolux, it makes us all look like distant, out-of-touch morons.
We are not artists
Your mileage with the aforementioned statement might vary, but it is my belief that Designers are NOT Artists. Artists create some sort of physical representation of concepts either of themselves or a cause, or some idea. Their creations need solve no problems, nor be necessarily constrained by the same boundaries as design. That is OKAY, art serves a different purpose. Designers can create art, their creations can be artistic, but designers should follow the creed that separates them from artists. A designer’s creations are useful. They have restrictions and challenges, but they solve problems. They express others as much as they express the designer. They are the works research and scrutiny, peer-review and user-input. They are the things and services we use to make our lives better.
Electrolux is hardly the only garbage design competition out there. But competitions like Electrolux hurt design as a legitimate field in several ways. For one, from outside the community, it makes design seem to be like high-fashion; conceptual, bizarre, and impenetrable; filled with expensive glossy devices for wealthy young westerners with million dollar homes with more free time and disposable income than sense. Next, from within the design community, it incentives a certain shallowness and vapidity in the design process. It suggests that design is about having good conceptual ideas, while downplaying real challenges. Good designs might inspire, but great designs WORK. Electrolux and similar competitions largely ignore manufacturing, cost, and basic physics in the call of high design. That’s a cop-out, and a hollow excuse. Finally, whether for students or professionals, these design competitions undermine the importance of research and study in design. Design is a science; it is trial and error; analyzing evidence, finding problems, generating hypothesis and testing them. A mountain of sketches doesn’t constitute research; neither does a lot of renders and conjecture. It’s fine to create conceptual design ideas, but don’t encourage designers to invent problems where none exist, handing out solutions where none are needed.
Doing it right
Are there design competitions that do a better job? One comes to mind. The annual Braun design competition. Looking at the entries, it’s fairly easy to see a much different trend than Electrolux entries. Braun prize finalists and winners have ideas that are down-to-earth (like Jussi Koskimaki’s first aid cover seen below), most of which are simple to make (or at least possible to manufacture), and even the more ‘out there’ ideas would be considered bolted down to reality compared to some Electrolux entries. Ideas are criticized and solutions are valued. In the Braun competitions, problems are made up entirely; and great renders are no replacement for great ideas.
Design might not be theoretical physics or industrial chemistry, neuroscience, or rocketry, but design is not a fad, or beautiful renders, or nice drawings. Design is a cousin of the scientific method and a brother of engineering. It is evidence and research-based data, driven by rational methodology to create tools and systems which solve real world problems in the present and near future. Competitions like Electrolux take only the shallowest delve into design and put the superficial on a high pedestal. The equivalent of handing Nobel prizes out to the flashiest scientist with the catchiest sound-bite, Electrolux performs a disservice to all of design, and it is one competition that designers could certainly do without.
Electrolux isn’t flawesome. It’s just bad.