I went to MIT Media Lab's Design-Driven Innovation (DDI) conference where, among other things, five teams of students presented a product they created during a weekend-long hackathon (there were 11 teams, but only 5 were selected to present at the conference). Among the 5, there was 1 that attempted to solve a pressing public-safety issue by creating a helmet that would be useful not only once you have an accident by protecting your head from a fall, but beforehand by incorporating lights that would blink if you are going to turn (activated by the blink of an eye) or decelerate. I think there might also be a series of lights that could be turned on at night. The idea is to help motorists better understand what bicyclists are doing so that they can avoid a crash. The students had a working prototype that they filmed working correctly on the MIT campus. They say the cost of materials was about $80 per helmet, while according to their presentation, the cost resulting from bicycle accidents in Massachusetts is said to be $4 billion a year. Perhaps someone else has thought about this before, and there would be then be a need for the student team to make a business case for their idea and justify why their product would be more successful than whatever currently exists in the marketplace.
The other teams had products that weren't overly useful and some presentations were stronger than others but their prototypes worked and they made good cases for their little innovation. The last team created a device that would allow users to create and broadcast their own online radio station; others would notice part of the device in their front pocket with the channel number on it and would then be able to listen to the channel. They dubbed their concept "social listening" and, having a MBA student in the audience, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they were the only ones who had secured a webpage and a Twitter name (@WaavyIsComing named after their product Waavy). You can really tell when a MBA student is part of the group and when there is not: MBA students make sure interested folks can stay in touch somehow. No doubt it will positively affect the product's chance of seeing commercialization.
At the end of the five presentations I was sure that the bike-helmet team (I don't want to give their name in case someone else then grabs the domain name instead of them) was head and shoulders above the others. It simply taps into a much more important collective story. You may not bike but if you drive you've probably seen bicyclists around and maybe worried about how to safely pass them or perhaps witnessed near-misses between bicycles and cars. The safety of bicyclists is simply a bigger story, especially in conjunction with the sustainability movement and the rise in bicycle accidents.
In the end, the helmet team did win second place and a check for $2,000, but judges picked for first place ($3,000) a product where the soles of people's shoes light up neon pink or neon green or neon blue based on some interface on your phone when you are looking for your friend or your own shows light up neon blue and that, if you're lucky, tells you something about what is underground (although obviously the data would need to be available and formatted in a usable way to be incorporated on the smartphone, and that part seemed more wishful thinking than impending reality). And the name they picked for it was just cheesy, but it went well with the whole purpose of the product.
Now, I'm not competent to judge design itself, but if you think of the bigger picture, for design to be taken seriously, it is perhaps not the best-advised move to pick for first place a product that made people laugh because of its ridiculousness and the vacuity of its purpose, no matter how well done it was (LED lights in 3 colors!), instead of the product that had an important public-safety purpose. The need the helmet product solved is just far more critical for society. If the sole of your friend's shoe fails to light up when you look for her, you can call her and ask where she is. If you don't build better helmets, some people's lives will be tragically cut short.
Now, this was not a business competition, and I'm sure the judges had good design-based reasons to pick the winners they did. And people who make public-health prototypes shouldn't be given a free pass just because they work on an important problem and the other teams are not. (In this case, the prototype was working and seemed complex enough.) I wouldn't feel so strongly about the whole thing if the prototype of the team that had received first place actually did something interesting - the team that won third place, for instance, created a harness where LED lights light up depending on whether you put your weight on your left or right leg, to help ballroom dance students understand how dance moves are created. Not life-changing, certainly, but interesting enough. At least you learn something from watching the lights. But the need the first-place product solved was so tiny (nonexistent?) as to be ludicrous, I find.
For design to be taken seriously as a discipline central to innovation, it might need to be a bit more conscious of the image it projects through the products and prototypes it rewards. You have to be incredibly myopic and focused on your little part of the picture to miss the bigger point. You'd expect the design world, from all places, to know that image is important.