The International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) is known for being one of the world's longest running and most prestigious design awards. It's also known for the continuously high caliber of its judging process and jury, comprised of top design leaders from the most innovative companies and universities across the globe each year.
The IDEA 2022 Jury is our most esteemed yet, led by Tim Allen, IDSA, VP of Design at Airbnb.
IDSA talked to Allen about his design journey and what he is looking for in IDEA entries this year.
Enter IDEA 2022 by the March 21 final deadline at IDSA.org/IDEA.
IDSA: What does IDEA mean to you? What drew you to this program?
Tim Allen, IDSA: A good friend of mine from design school invited me into the program. It’s a small set of friends from design school I keep in touch with—we went through a lot together—and he’s one of them, someone I respect quite a bit.
I already knew about IDEA, so it was a big honor to be selected. I took the opportunity right away. It wasn’t anything I needed to think about too much, especially coming from that friend. I’ve always had an affinity for the program and a respect for it as well.
I can think back to a time, very early in my career, when I’d just gone to the agency side. My team won our first major, globally recognized award. We went into a conference room, and the Chief Creative Officer came in, followed by a cart of champagne. And he started talking about the work, the impact of the work for the agency, and then started to talk about the award that we won.
Jaws dropped. It was an amazing time. We all toasted to the occasion. We went around the room and talked about people’s effort that went into the work, and what it meant to them. It was a beautiful way to celebrate that achievement. It also was a catalyst.
I remember everyone that was in that room. We started to think about what’s next: 'I can’t believe we won this thing—what is the significance of my work in the greater industry?’
I hadn’t really thought about that. I always thought about people and users, but broader than that—the design community and the canon of work—it was like, ‘What can we do next?’ And that was probably one of the most prolific times in my career, the next three to five years.
What draws me to IDEA is the same level of gravitas. I know this will impact people in the same way. It is a catalyst for people individually, for teams collectively, for brands, for companies. And I love to be a part of that, especially when it’s deserving.
We've come full circle this year, with the origins of Airbnb being tied to our annual International Design Conference and IDEA Ceremony & Gala. Tell us a bit about your design journey, from design school to Airbnb.
I was always one of the kids that was drawing people and things around them. My sophomore year in high school, that summer, my father got me an airbrush kit. And airbrushing at the time—this was back in the day where you got airbrushed clothing at the mall—I thought that was the coolest thing ever. And lo and behold, I get this airbrush set. I spent the entire summer trying to perfect airbrushing. By the end of junior year, I had an airbrush company, basically. I was airbrushing apparel, and then I started going into motorcycles, boats, and so forth. I didn’t know anything about design school, or what design was. I just loved doing that.
I only applied to one design school, because at some point, someone was like, ‘You should go to design school.’ And I was like, ‘What’s design school?’
I used my business portfolio from airbrushing because they needed a portfolio. I didn’t even know what a portfolio was. That got me a scholarship and got me into design school.
I was in a program called Art and Design, so it was objective and subjective: art of design and problem solving of design, together. I transitioned into game design, 3D and interaction design. By way of that, I started working full-time at a game design company junior year, then worked full time at IBM senior year through a co-op. That got me directly from fine arts and traditional design into designing software at IBM Research Triangle Park.
The biggest 'aha moment' was when I got recruited by Macromedia, which made Flash. At the time, Flash was king of the Internet and all things creative that I was interested in. Robert Tatsumi, the co-inventor of Flash, recruited me. I went to Macromedia and learned from him for four years straight. It was a rocket ship for my understanding of the world of design, of software. Adobe [later acquired Macromedia], and I met a bunch of Adobe folks. Steve Johnson, now a VP of Design at Netflix, was my manager while I was at Adobe, and taught me a ton of things.
I went over to Nike and RG/A, the agency side. That exposed me to a whole other facet of design: service of design, and expectation of a client. The variety and the expectation of delivering something, and that expectation of excellence, was fantastic for me as well. Then I went to Amazon, to Wolff Olins, Microsoft, and now, Airbnb.
At Airbnb, what’s really unique is, how do you design for trust and connection and belonging? They’re just concepts, right? But the experience of Airbnb could not happen if it weren’t for these: a search for connection, and this aspect of trust that goes way beyond what a normal person would normally think.
My father used to always tell me, ‘When you reach your ceiling, make that your floor.’ And so it's been like, ‘I reached that ceiling, I’ll make that my floor,’ and I try to keep bounding forward.
How do you think your expertise and background will help with the IDEA judging and jurors, who are a combination of educators, industrial designers, and digital product designers?
We hopefully did a great job pulling in people with various specialties who are senior enough and think orthogonally enough to apply that design expertise across different functions and different expressions of design.
I think of design as kindness. Being able to spend all day thinking about how to make people’s lives better, how to enable them to do things they couldn’t do before, applies to physical, digital, and the mixture thereof, of products. That’s my main ethos.
In addition to that, I went to school for industrial design. That was before there were UX design curriculums, really. You had to make UX design as a passion point: a little psychology, a little industrial design, a little what they called ‘multimedia,’ and pull it together to create something that enabled you to create design software and this new medium. So, just connecting dots as much as possible.
What are you looking for in IDEA entries?
I think you’ve got the tangibles and then the intangibles. With the tangibles, it’s all about impact: the quality of the solution, in relation to what it was set out to accomplish. What’s the impact on the person that you’re enabling, or group of people that you’re enabling? How does it solve their needs? Does it solve at scale? Is the solution designed for just a small set of people, or is it designed to be inclusive of the greater society? How is the solution leveraged for the business, and the strategy of either the client or the brand? What’s the impact there? These are very tangible, objective parameters.
On the intangible side, there’s some work that just gives you goosebumps. Sometimes the scale of a great solution can give you goosebumps. The aesthetics of some solutions can give you goosebumps. The innovation can give you goosebumps. Of course, that’s not the entirety of how you judge something. But it is something to pay attention to.
Or when something just makes you jealous. It’s like, ‘How in the world did they come up with that? I wish I had done that.’ That’s the level of excellence we’re talking about.
Do you have advice for designers submitting?
You have to express the mastery of craft. Not only the project, but the way you express and document the project is also a manifestation of mastery of craft. Think about the whole package and understand the soul of that deliverable. And do it in a way that is human as well.
Mastery of craft is very objective, and then there’s the humanity of it. How could you make us smile, or cry, or just be in awe? Speak your individual truth and celebrate your unique culture, whether that’s the collective culture of your team or wherever the center of that design is coming from. But then also tie that into what is universal about us globally as humans.
That is another aspect of design I think is beautiful that maybe we don't touch on as much as we can. Because all innovation comes from this unique place, that makes us say, 'Wow, that's a great way to think about that.' And what makes it beautiful is that either through function or form, or what it enables you to do, it’s universal—it helps everybody do something they couldn’t do before or think in a way they didn’t think before. That tie between what’s unique about you or your team, or your brand or your company, and how that applies to the world, is another great thing to point out.
What are you most excited about for IDEA 2022?
I’m most excited about the people, and just getting to immerse ourselves into the work with a bunch of people who geek out on design. So many like-minded people who are luminaries in the industry, that have achieved a lot of success in their careers, coming from different angles, talking about the same work—that’s what excites me the most.
I’m a geek on design, so I love that process. I also enjoy kind people. I was lucky to select a few of the jurors and I know some of the ones who are there too. And it’s such a great group of folks.