The swooping white big top made the lawn of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum resemble a giant Dairy Queen cone, but design is a big tent. At the fifth annual National Design Awards, presented here Tuesday night, exotic fashions, inspired buildings, dazzling computer graphics and even the packaging for a lipstick tube were honored.

Images exploded into view as video screens transmitted the work of 18 designers and design-friendly companies. By the finale, eight were clutching spiraling avant-garde trophies.

But it was left to graphic artist Milton Glaser, winner of the lifetime achievement award and, at 75, a true dean of design, to explain once and for all what "design" is.

"Design is moving from an existing condition to a preferred one," he said before dinner. It should be no more difficult to grapple with than "love, sex and beauty."

The awards night attracted a record crowd of 520 and raised $750,000 for the museum. At dinner, guests were seated on plastic chairs designed by Mario Bellini, each accessorized with a tote bag designed by architect Richard Meier and produced in three weeks by Coach, which Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small noted was "exceptionally helpful as the sole financial sponsor" of the event. Honorary patron Laura Bush was absent.

"Every American benefits from the breadth of talent assembled in this tent tonight," Small told the crowd.

Two trophies were awarded for architecture, calling attention to a 40-year-old firm known for quiet elegance in urban settings and an emerging talent, Rick Joy, who uses raw metals in the Arizona desert.

Polshek Partnership of New York, founded by James Stewart Polshek, has devoted decades to nonprofit clients, including many museums and schools. Recent projects have included a concert hall at Carnegie Hall and the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a giant crystal cube appended to New York's American Museum of Natural History. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library, opening next month in Little Rock, is essentially a cantilevered glass box thrusting toward the river's edge. (The former president, rather than the architects, dubbed it "the bridge to the 21st century.") In Washington, the firm is designing the Newseum and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitors center.

A third architecture firm, William McDonough+Partners, based in Charlottesville, led the pack in the environment category. McDonough, former dean of architecture at the University of Virginia, is widely recognized as an ecological visionary. The award cited his work toward sustainable design for Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. He is also working with Ford on a redesigned car.

McDonough's strategy is the subject of a book, "Cradle to Cradle," in which he proposes "the next industrial revolution" without pollution. China has already signed on to his concepts, making McDonough the U.S. chairman of the China Center for Sustainable Development.

"Modern culture doesn't seem to have an endgame except tragedy," he said before dinner. "Design is the first signal of human intention. It's the de facto plan. We have an endgame."

In contrast, the award for product design was pure glitter. Yves Behar, a Swiss-born industrial designer who founded his firm, fuseproject, in San Francisco, is known for sinuous perfume bottles, the Mini buckleless watch, a Toshiba laptop and Birkenstock garden clogs. His most exotic design to date is a chandelier of 7,500 Swarovski crystals surrounding a high-tech ring of light, devised for a design exhibition in Milan. At full size, the chandelier would cost at least $100,000. Smaller versions are being launched in Shanghai in December, he said. He is also working on a new, easier-to-use bottle cap for a major producer of over-the-counter medicines.

"Design is about treating people well," Behar said.

Communications design encompasses advertising, film, video, Web and other entertainment sources, as well as static graphic design. The award to the entertainment and media company recognized founder Jon Kamen's campaigns to advise the public on dialing 311, a documentary on Lance Armstrong and his "Road to Paris," and "The Fog of War," a film about former defense secretary Robert NcNamara.

Minimalist fashion designer Yeohlee Teng won against stiff competition from Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez. The flowing geometries of her asymmetrical skirts and pared profiles are designed for "urban nomads" who, she believes, want low-maintenance garments that look like wearable art.

After dinner, the younger, hipper design crowd arrived at the old Andrew Carnegie mansion for disco and champagne. Overhead, a computer animation by curator Ellen Lupton conveyed the museum's message, "All design, all the time," as logos turned into whimsical landscapes and skylines morphed into smokestacks. Galleries showed off the 20th-century designs of Josef and Anni Albers, a curving Thonet settee from a room devoted to design circa 1848 and a display of wallpaper by contemporary artists, including one voluptuous cartoon character.

Little wonder that design school enrollment is way up. But as Glaser noted before dinner, pay and jobs are down as a result.

"There are thousands graduating with no corresponding opportunity," he said. But it's still a good thing that "everybody is interested in design. People make design judgments every day."

Glaser revealed the secret of his success in the choice of his gala attire. Over a dark suit he wore a polka-dot tie, tied in an 18th century-style bow. It serves as an example of his fundamental design rule: "Deviate slightly from the norm but not too much."

Spotted in the crowd was interior designer Albert Hadley, a founder of the renowned Parish-Hadley firm, who decorated the vice presidential residence for Al and Tipper Gore. When asked whether Teresa Heinz Kerry might be among his clients, he replied, "No, not yet." But he liked the idea.

"She calls a chintz a chintz," he said.

The National Design Awards were conceived in 2000 to raise awareness of the role of designers in everyday living. Lifetime and corporate awards are announced in advance. This year, the Aveda Corp. was honored for design consciousness, including the recycled materials in naturalistic lipstick packaging by New York designer Harry Allen.

There is also a design patron, selected by Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Thompson. This year, Thompson chose New York City planning department chief Amanda Burden.

Swiss-born industrial designer Yves Behar, whose work includes these garden clogs for Birkenstock, received the award for product design.