Is it art? Is it design? What is that? Where’s Ryan Gander!?

It’s that time of year again when maddening questions fly around from the outraged and enthused alike. The Turner Prize show is up and the gloves are off; and in the UK at least, there’s nothing quite like it. You can throw as many public art commissions at the streets as you like, but very little elicits the same sort of response from those outside the “art world” as the Turner Prize.

Tracey Emin, My Bed 1998 Photography by Pete Carr
Tracey Emin, My Bed 1998
Photography by Pete Carr

Every year the national media response is much the same, particularly from more right wing sides of the debate. Can you really call a messy bed/light going on and off/massive arse] art? For all the bluster, the Turner Prize does something vital: it gets everyone talking about contemporary art. It’s unavoidable, and makes for great headlines and easy win photo spreads. Without fail, it engages people. Can the same ever be said about design prizes?

While this year’s Turner Prize show is proving divisive, I adored it. It’s strange, fascinating and warrants several long looks; to me, it feels like the most exhilarating shortlist in years. There’s Helen Marten’s beguiling and beautiful installation that forces the viewer to recalibrate how they see everyday objects; Anthea Hamilton’s massive arse and expansive blue skies; Josephine Pryde’s odd little train, and Michael Dean’s all-encompassing exploration of everything from semantics to class to poverty.

Of course I love design and everything it means for the world. It can beautify, save lives, and rearrange thinking for the better. But I’ve never once come away from a design show feeling like this, or felt as loquaciously enthralled by, say, Designs of the Year or the D&AD awards lists. There just isn’t the same buzz.

Perhaps that’s just the nature of design; it inherently has a purpose. Yes, design can be expressive and emotionally charged, but it was created for a reason. The joy in art is in the fact it even exists when it doesn’t have to. As viewers it’s up to us how we respond to a piece and the messages we read in it. Design doesn’t carry that ambiguity.

However, it still seems slightly unjust for designers and the work they make not to receive such widespread discussion, especially considering that each and every design discipline will almost certainly affect us all in our lifetime—the same cannot be said for art.

An easy conclusion to make about the disparity is that the Turner Prize is an easy win for press. Without fail there’s something that shouts out to editors and picture desks: this year, it’s Anthea Hamilton’s arse. According to art critic Fisun Guner, who writes for the likes of The Guardian, The Independent and Elephant, the appeal of the prize and the work it champions is its inherent antagonism. “There’s so much controversy around contemporary art. People love to say ‘isn’t that shit?’” says Guner. “Contemporary art makes people angry and can elicit some vicious responses. People think they’re being taken for a ride—the Turner Prize has always had that sort of relationship with the public. You need that element of newsworthy controversy and contempt: art brings that in a way design doesn’t. That’s the nub of it I think.”

Naturally something like a huge butt or condom-littered bed is a no-brainer for the national press, but surely design prizes could be an editor’s dream too? These works could change the world if they were rolled out widely enough. Take last year’s Designs of the Year human-organs-on-chips—these microdevices are lined with human cells and “mirror the dynamic mechanical behavior of internal organs,” according to their designers Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun. The idea is that they mimic real organs and lead to advances in personalized medicine and drug discovery at a far lower cost than previous procedures.

This is obviously brilliant, but it’s certainly not sexy. It’s complex and scientific, and doesn’t look great as an installation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important, and surely framed in the right way, this is an interesting story for those outside the design and medical worlds. “Maybe design awards need to change the agenda and not look to mimic traditional art exhibitions,” suggests Tom Banks, editor of Design Week. “Design awards perhaps have a bit of an image problem; people think they’re by designers, for designers. It can seem cliquey, so newspaper editors would likely see the designs [being awarded] as too nuanced.”

He adds: “I think the Assemble project was a bit of a watershed for the Turner Prize. Maybe now they’re focusing a bit more on social responsibility, with Michael Dean’s pennies. Fine art can feel a bit esoteric, but it should be for everyone. Design is actually for everyone, but it’s harder to communicate it to people, especially with a lot of social design projects.”

As Banks points out, it’s worth remembering that the majority of design awards are very much industry focused. They don’t necessarily need the approval or recognition of non-designers, as they’re about celebrating great work within design and awarding teams with an accolade that can then be used to win more work.

Samuel Wilkinson, Plumen 001 sketch
Samuel Wilkinson, Plumen 001 sketch

Industrial designer Samuel Wilkinson won Designs of the Year in 2011 for his energy-saving Plumen lightbulb. He feels we should all be aware of trying to make design resonate with wider audiences. “People don’t totally understand design and that’s the frustration I have with it—you’re trying to make things better but people think of design as a superfluous thing, it has an overly aesthetic connotation. Designs of the Year chooses things that have deep meanings, for instance the gov.uk site [2013 winner] is purely functional, but it makes things better for people. These kind of awards need to show that and further people’s understanding.”

As Wilkinson points out, an issue with both art and design awards is that there’s just so many of them, with a large proportion demonstrably more entry fee-oriented than philanthropic or interesting. This can water down their significance for designers and interest from the press. “I get contacted all year about entering more awards, most of them want you to enter with a payment, which in some case can be useful, but with 90% they feel like they are run just to make money or for the bigger businesses to congratulate each other,” says Wilkinson.

So how can we make sure design is as widely discussed as art? Does it matter that it isn’t? “I do think it matters, because its frustrating when you’re a designer and you see so much potential for great work, but when design isn’t tapped into a wider audience, it leads to a misrepresentation of what design is and what designers do. Art is much more subjective.

“Often when people commission design, they don’t understand who’s better or worse as they don’t understand the industry. Having a conversation around that helps people see what’s good design and what’s not.”