The world’s attention seems to focus on Cannes in the South of France each spring, at film festival time. But the phenomenal buzz of the renowned International Film Festival is not confined to the latest movies and its stars. The stars of the global creative industry also gather here as the city plays host to the annual Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

Now in its 56th year, the global communications festival is going strong. Not only was the 2008 event the best attended to date, but, this past year, organizers added an award category dedicated to design-a huge and timely step forward for the whole industry.

After years of pitting design against its advertising counterparts, it’s immensely exciting that our industry has been given the status it so rightly deserves and that the two disciplines are being showcased and rewarded under the one creative umbrella.

I served as a member of the inaugural jury for these new Design Lions awards in Cannes, and it was a great honor. I certainly relished having the time and opportunity to discuss global design and its effectiveness with the diverse and passionate group of designers that rounded out the jury.

The high quality of entries showed that creativity is thriving across the globe-with Latin America and Brazil putting on a very good show and with Russia, South Africa, Australia, China and New Zealand also very well represented. There was an overwhelming consensus among the jurors that we should be proud of what the global design industry has to offer and that we should welcome the opportunities presented by this new annual showcase.

But the festival did raise a few interesting questions about design, how it is categorized and just how much value we place on the discipline. The jury spent time discussing this and, on their behalf, I wanted to share their suggestions here.

Moving forward. First and foremost, the design versus advertising issue must be resolved once and for all. The fact that design awards have been added to the festival program is a markedly positive step forward, but there is still work to be done to ensure that the event is no longer known as just an “advertising” festival.

The heritage and prestige of the event should pave the way for the future success of the Design Lions program.

But, the advertising versus design issue also presented problems on a category-specific level. Specifically, the judges had something of a tricky time trying to separate “a creative idea using design” from “design”. The poster entries-quite frequently advertising posters-were particularly difficult to reward on merit when we had to be clear that our focus was not about beautiful art direction, but about compelling design.

The way the Design Lion awards were categorized also brought to light an issue that plagues design: how to segment it and break it down. The categories for the Design Lion awards “broadly included” Brand Identity, Packaging Design and Environmental Design, with product or architectural design entries invited to submit to any of these three groupings.

And while we applaud the acknowlegement given to Packaging Design with its own category, it could have benefited from more logical segmentation (the Festival divided the Packaging Design awards into product sectors). Personally, I feel that this may not be truly representative of packaging’s increasingly important role in brand communication.

A cultural icon. That said, the governing aim of the festival was concise and business focused. The Design Lions awards recognize and reward “the creative use of design as a lever to influence consumers and its use as an aid to the communication of brand and product messages”.

And, with this mission statement front of mind, the jury was unanimous in its decision to award the inaugural Grand Prix to Turner Duckworth for Coca-Cola.

America’s leading cultural icon, the brand is still setting the ultimate design benchmark. Its newest packaging is a perfect example of de-cluttering design: stripping back packaging to essentials so that the uniqueness and character can stand out. And, of course, it is a perfect illustration of how the Coke contour bottle leads all other brand communication from transportation to advertising.

This win not only underlines the importance of packaging design as the key consumer touchpoint at point of purchase. It also opens up the debate on where we look for global design inspiration.

Even with the world getting smaller and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) starting to make their mark on the design direction of the world, it is clear that the United States still has a lot to offer, particularly in terms of a new and challenging design approach.

Design-savvy consumers probably feel that they can spot a U.S. brand at a million paces. It has generally-and historically-been considered that the United States produces brash designs and big and instantly recognizable logos and that this “formula” has created shelves of colorful look-alike brands.

On the other hand, European design has always been credited with a cleaner, simpler and more modern approach. Probably due to their smaller and more regional biases, European brands have tended to rely far more on visual subtlety, leaving their design open to interpretation and, as a result, targeting and connecting with a far more diverse audience.

But it’s clear that we can no longer make such sweeping and generic assumptions. What’s probably fair to say is that U.S. design has traditionally played to the heart and European design to the head. But since the zeitgeist currently dictates the idea of physical touch above an intellectual connection, Americans are currently streets ahead in the design stakes.

It is also fair to say that every brand owner aspires to create the next all-important iconic brand. Without doubt, Europeans-and now probably the rest of the world-are envious of the sheer number of brand icons that the United States has produced. Not just Coca-Cola, but Apple, Jack Daniels…the list goes on and on.

But these brands can’t-and don’t-just rest on their laurels. Again, it comes down to design-and more significantly packaging design-as the most effective way to stay fresh and update the iconic status of these brands.

The challenge for Coke, for instance, has always been living up to its role as a cultural icon while continuously renewing itself-without ever losing sight of what the brand represents.

This most recent update of Coca-Cola’s core packaging design, balanced with interpretive brand extensions like Coke Blak or the M5 design collection, shows how brand intelligence and self-understanding can be hugely successful. Coke’s iconic design has been reinvented, but it still captures the true spirit and authenticity of the original.

Desirability by design. And while iconic brands have heritage on their side, we are seeing a new breed of innovative challenger brands snapping at their heels with the potential to set a new design standard.

Again, we see that some of the best challenger brands-Method and Y Water are good examples-are currently coming out of America. These entrepreneurial challengers understand that, when it’s at the heart of a brand, design can relay substance, a fresh attitude and a brand personality that has the power create an icon.

By looking at historical America, we can get a handle on why this is happening now and the potential for the future. The United States has an indisputable entrepreneurial spirit that’s fostered by a history of breaking new frontiers; that makes it the perfect haven-and platform for growth-for new challenger brands.

Such brands, which exhibit what I describe as “desirability by design”, will undoubtedly become the benchmark by which we judge other brands, iconic or new.

In fact, the design force being generated by these U.S.-based challengers is starting to inspire a “can do” spirit across Europe and the rest of the world. For a long time, Coca-Cola has been the undisputed master of the “can do” spirit; the master of brand reinvention and evolution and an example to all of how design can make the world’s biggest brand.

But the field is wide open for a leader of a new and challenging design offensive to take Coke’s crown at next year’s Design Lions awards-to lead design into the next century and become the next benchmark of global design creativity. BP