By Patrick Avenell
It’s 1968 and the nation is gripped by design. The Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, is in Australia to present an award at the 11th Design Awards.
Fast forward to 1976, and the Design Awards, propped up by Government funding, is broadcast nationally on live TV to an audience of millions.
Now it’s the 1990s and things have changed. The Awards have stagnated and interest in design is at an all-time low.
Towards the end of that decade, fresh out of university, Brandon Gien joined the organisation running the Awards, Standards Australia, with the remit to turn it all around. In 2012, the restoration of the Awards to a more prominent position has been achieved, but much work still remains.
After being run by Standards Australia for 20 years, 2012 marks only the second year a new organisation, Good Design Australia (GDA), has managed the Awards. Gien is this company’s managing director.
The change in direction was instigated to provide more independence and to empower GDA to further build on the work of Standards Australia. Somewhat confusingly, Standards Australia is now a corporate partner of the Awards.
“We’re still part of Standards Australia,” explained Gien. “We’re still here, we’re still pretty much the same organisation, but the path that the Design Awards have been put on under this new organisation is going to allow it be a lot more autonomous and a lot more flexible.”
Part of that autonomy and flexibility is the opening up of the Awards to corporate partners. This is a big step forward for an organisation that was set up by the Menzies Government in 1958. The objective back then was to foster and encourage design in the local manufacturing industry, “to help get manufacturing off the ground in Australia,” according to Gien.
“The high point was when they had the Prince Philip Prize for Australian Design. The Duke of Edinburgh used to come here once a year and hand out this top gong to the best Australian company, it was televised live nationally and Australia took notice.
“The public awareness of design back in those days, the 60s and early 70s, was through the roof. People understood what the Design Awards were about and what design actually meant and the role design played in turning a good idea into a great product.”
Awards supremo Brandon Gien working in his Sydney office.
So what went wrong? Gien himself admits that the 1990s were very dark days for local design and, especially, for the Design Awards. At some point (before Gien came on board in 1996), the public funds supporting the Awards were withdrawn, “and the whole thing collapsed in on itself”.
Standards Australia managed to resurrect the Awards, but the product submissions weren’t groundbreaking and the public interest failed to attract the public’s imagination.
At its absolute nadir, the Design Awards became the unfortunate dumping ground for indifferent products looking for a cheap piece of marketing buzz.
“The Design Awards were pretty much in a dark hole back in those days — I’m talking largely within the industrial design profession — they didn’t really see it as something that added value to their business. It was a quick and easy way for manufacturers who perhaps didn’t have a quality product to get some form of endorsement.
“It had lost its way.”
It’s been a slow road back to significance for the Awards, but a successful one. At tomorrow’s gala presentation, Gien will be surrounded by the most innovative and creative thinkers across categories including Medical and Scientific, Automotive and Transport, Sport and Leisure, Housing, and consumer electronics and appliances. Brands such as Dyson, Miele, Breville, Tefal, Samsung and Kenwood, amongst others, will be nervously awaiting the presentation of awards.
And the reason these brands stumped up the cash to both enter their products and buy tickets to the presentation? Gien said it came down to good business sense.
“I think it’s incredible value,” he exclaimed. “If the product is well-designed and it ends up receiving an award and getting the endorsement, for that amount of money, what’s the equivalent? You get a small print advertisement in a magazine?
“This is a way of differentiating your product, of saying to a consumer, ‘Hey, this is a quality product: it’s been well designed, it’s made from the right material, there’s environmental considerations that have been taken into account, it’s safe and it’s received endorsements from experts’.”
“When there’s 30 other ovens sitting on the floor in a deptartment store and one of them has got some sort of differentiation, I think that adds incredible value.”
In the time he has been running the award, Gien has noticed a remarkable change in the way both suppliers and consumers approach the appliance industry.
“Look at a kettle that was designed back in 1996 — it was generally designed to be put in a cupboard — I’m finding that a lot of these consumer appliances are now designed to be proudly placed on the shelves of the kitchen, to be displayed and to be almost a talking point,” he said.
“There are new technologies: look at Dyson as an example; they brought out a vacuum cleaner, improved it, improved it, improved it, until the point that you think they can’t possibly improve the product and then they come out again and supersede that.”
Gien said the key change has been an increased focus on design. He said that consumers are now bombarded with so many products, that it has become difficult for suppliers to stand out and to remain competitive — to differentiate their products.
“Rather than just introducing a new kettle with an extra button on it, they actually have to go the extra mile and continually improve that product.”
The 2012 Australian International Design Awards will be presented tomorrow night in Sydney. Follow @Patrickavenell on Twitter for live updates throughout the night. Current.com.au will have the full list of winners straight after the event.
A version of this article first appeared in Appliance Retailer magazine.