Opinion: The Importance of Design

International Design Excellence Award

A vital but underappreciated discipline is key to the future of plastics & the environment

‘Design Notes’ Column by Robert Grace

In many ways, nearly every product begins with design. Someone conceives it, someone mocks it up, someone refines it, someone engineers it, and finally, someone produces it. It’s basic to all the products (and environments and services) that we deal with every day. And yet, in my experience, design tends to be misunderstood and largely undervalued.

IDSAWhen I was editor-in-chief of Plastics News for 25 years, I gained a much greater appreciation for the discipline once I began engaging with the Industrial Designers Society of America. Twenty-some years ago I became an associate member of IDSA and began attending many of the group’s regional and international design conferences. It was fun and energizing and enlightening. I found that most designers were truly motivated to make the world a better place, by reducing waste, enabling accessibility, improving user experiences, and in many other ways.

These interactions made it clear to me that many in the plastics sector did not properly value design or fully understand its true role in the supply chain. Many engineers felt that they were the ones who made things work and that designers were the ones who then made the resulting products “look good.” Using my bully pulpit as editor of PN, I made it part of my mission to try to help the plastics industry to better understand the role of design in the broader product development process. I added design sessions to many of the conferences I organized and devoted more editorial space to covering the topic.

After departing PN, I worked with SPE to create and host a pair of well-received “Design in Plastics” conferences –– at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, and at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit the following year. These featured speakers from firms such as HP, Pfizer, GE Appliances, Tupperware, Daimler Trucks, Bresslergroup, MIT Media Lab and NASA.

I continue to have a personal interest in covering the subject and have enjoyed writing each fall about some of the winners in IDSA’s annual International Design Excellence Awards, or IDEA –– one of the largest design competitions in the world. This included last year’s feature in the November/December 2022 issue of Plastics Engineering and the one before that in late 2021.

I intend to carry on the tradition this year, though the format is changing, given that PE is now published only online, with shorter, sharper stories. Still, many of the 2,000-plus entries in this year’s IDEA contest are worthy case studies in their own right, and the majority of them rely on the strategic use of plastic or polymer composites to realize their dreams.

We all know how maligned plastics often are in the general media. So it’s particularly refreshing to explore how some of the brightest and most creative minds worldwide –– professionals and students alike –– are leveraging these materials to make products lighter, stronger, safer, more durable, more accessible, and yes, more sustainable.

IDSA will announce this year’s IDEA winners on Aug. 23 at a gala ceremony during its International Design Conference in New York City. Immediately after that we will begin publishing a series of stories about some of the most innovative and inspiring, plastics-related winners. I hope you’ll join us on this ride.

By Robert Grace | August 21, 2023

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