Design in Public, an outreach initiative of AIA Seattle, recently announced the winners to its ideas competition, "Redesigning the School Lunch Experience." We spent some time with DiP Associate Director Katherine Wimble, learning a few of the ins and outs of competition management, and how Design in Public caters to a broad cross-section of designers and creatives in addition to architects. Along the way, Katherine shares a couple of potentially time-saving resources for other AAO Members.
AAO: We understand your competition was part of larger year-long agenda. Can you tell our readers more about the Design in Health agenda and how the competition fits in?
Katherine Wimble (KW): Every year the Design in Public Board of Directors sets a programmatic theme for the coming year, and for 2013 it was ‘Health.’ We explored the connection between environmental design and our physical, mental, and social well-being through three major programs: 1. a thought-leaders’ Summit, 2. our annual Seattle Design Festival, and 3. an Ideas Competition-- sequenced to set up a ‘discover-design-deliver’ program progression, as you might find with a typical design process.
First, the Summit—or ‘discovery’ phase—was a problem-seeking exercise. We gathered 50 of Seattle's most accomplished health professionals, scientific researchers, educators, organizers, and interdisciplinary designers to examine all the factors influencing children's health and talk about what design can do to ameliorate the problems. Next, we moved into Seattle Design Festival planning, lining up 37 partner organizations across our community to implement 70 programs that would demonstrate to the general public how design can improve health by promoting physical activity, increasing access to healthy food, reducing injuries, improving air and water quality, minimizing stress, strengthening the social fabric of communities, and so forth. Finally, we concluded the year by moving into problem-solving mode, shifting the design challenge into a real-life situation—we chose the school lunchroom–asking entrants to identify a particular problem with school lunch programs and then propose an innovative solution that would improve kids’ health.
The great thing about setting up a theme for the year is that not only were we building on lessons learned in each program, but the theme allowed us to grow our network of partners, sponsors, and volunteers working in arenas not typically thought of as ripe for design-thinking and design innovation. This allowed us to carry out Design in Public’s mission of demonstrating and celebrating design as a means of creating a healthier, more livable Seattle.
AAO: You chose to label this an "ideas competition." Please elaborate.
KW: We knew from the outset that we wanted people to think big, to be bold, to be innovative and imaginative without the constraints of certain realities. Working with big ideas you can always go back to refine/adapt/tweak/edit to suit a given situation, but you can’t really go the other way; in fact, you might never get to innovations, if you stay saddled by limitations. Ideas are powerful and they can, and do, precipitate change. Our opportunity opened up room to fully explore ‘the problem’ before rushing to easily-implementable ‘quick wins,’ as it seems people so often want to do.
[Working in Europe] I learned that entering competitions as a way of testing ideas is a more common practice than in the US, which might explain why we had so many international entries.- Katherine Wimble, Design in Public
Because we knew that every aspect of the school lunch experience offered opportunities for design innovation and that the most meaningful change usually comes out of a holistic approach to behavior modification, we invited submissions from any and all design fields to address any identified problem. We also encouraged entrants to work in interdisciplinary teams that included designers and people who see themselves as non-designers.
We debated for some time about the entry format. Design in Public promotes interdisciplinary design; therefore, we have a Board of Directors that hails from different fields of design. Some of our Board members were in favor of a 2D submission format, while others argued for a time-based submission format to allow interaction designers and user experience designers, for example, to convey their design intent in a way that would be impossible in a 2D format. In the end, we required both: a 2D pdf file and a one minute, ‘Kickstarter-style’ video. I believe the videos maybe pushed some people creatively… and it looks like people had fun making them.
AAO: So how did the competition go?
KW: For it being only our second annual ideas competition, we were thrilled with the outcomes. As we were getting our call for entries out into the blogosphere, to partner organizations, and social media channels, we started to see questions coming in from all over the globe. We ended up with 46 eligible submissions from 16 countries: a global response to the North American childhood obesity crisis.
The entries gave our jury a lot to chew on (no pun intended). Many entrants had clearly done their research and truly practiced a ‘user-centered’ design approach, closely examining the behaviors and attitudes of kids. Their design solutions took advantage of children’s natural inclination to play by gamifying the lunch experience. Other entrants focused on the influence of infrastructure—the lunch room, its furniture, its trays—and suggested modular elements that could be contextually reconfigured to influence healthy choices. Overall, I think it’s accurate to say that all entrants took the challenge seriously, recognizing that children’s health and well-being is at stake and that lunch time is just as important as any other aspect of the school day—a place to learn, understand cause and effect, and connect choices to larger systems.
AAO: We see you offered a cash prize. Some AAO Members shy away from that. What was the conversation like with your Board?
KW: Obviously, offering prize money creates one incentive to enter, and we wanted to offer every incentive we could. We did some research comparing ideas competitions worldwide, noting prize monies and numbers of prizes, and tried to hit the average. In the process of doing the research, we built our list of media sites that publish competitions and submitted the information soon as our competition was underway. Having worked in a design-related agency for a period in Europe, I learned that entering competitions as a way of testing ideas, trying new things, engaging in and securing new work, is a more common professional practice outside of the U.S., which might explain why we had such a high percentage of international entries.
My job is a perpetual game of connect the dots—it's making connections, building community relationships, holding the pieces together...
AAO: The site looks terrific. Was it organized in-house or did you use an external vendor?
KW: We searched for a tool that would make our process as seamless as possible, minimize staff time managing submissions, and that could support videos, jurors’ needs, and anonymous submissions. It was a tall order. Finally, we decided to enter into a year-long contract to use nonprofitcms.org’s award management software. They customized their basic platform to match our organization’s branding, then gave us access to the administrative back-end to manage the submissions, the jury, and entry fees. They also were able to integrate a Vimeo-interface for the video submissions.
AAO: Getting back to talk of annual themes, what's next for Design in Public?
KW: In a few weeks, I will have been on the job for one full year and am now feeling like we’re poised for big moves. As I see it, my job is a perpetual game of connect-the-dots—it’s making connections, building community relationships, holding the pieces together, and matching resources with outlets.
Our theme for 2014 is ‘Design in Motion.’ We love the poetic ambiguity: is design literally in motion? Are we talking objects designed for motion? Transportation? Mobility? Kinetics? The space of motion—the public right of way? YES, all of the above. It is a rich topic that implies surface, ground, sky, materiality, immateriality, direction, friction, transformation, potential. In this topic, we can pick up where we left off with health—walking, biking, wearable tech, etc.—and take off into air and space.
Design in Motion will kick off with a Pecha Kucha night in March, then the 4th annual Seattle Design Festival arrives in September, followed by another ideas competition—stay tuned!