Design & Society has moved

February 26, 2009

Please visit the new address http://designandsociety.rsablogs.org.uk.

This week I spent three days on a National School of Government training course called Developing Deliverable Policy. The three fellow trainees at my table, respectively Andrew from from CLG (Communities and Local Government), Iain from HMT (Treasury) and a Jo on a complex secondment arrangement between DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), BERR (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) and DfID (Department for International Development), upon listening to my Policy (or was it my Strategy? still not sure) of using design to increase the resourcefulness of people and communities, nodded approvingly and – completely off their own bat, I swear – suggested I identify the following Outcome: “Design is a core competency for Civil Servants”. Obviously as well as being really good for my government acroynym fluency, this outcome was itself immensely cheering. Design and Society really has moved hasn’t it?

The ethics of making stuff

February 13, 2009

tord-boontje-fig-leavesSo back to the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year. Blogging away here about design and society, I feel I should explain myself as the nominatator of, arguably, the most anti-social exhibit in the show in terms of democratic access:  Tord Boontje’s limited edition armoire for Mallett. What was I thinking of? Well, here’s what I said at the time I was asked to nominate: “The inner sanctum of Mallett’s Meta collection at the Milan Furniture Fair revealed a wardrobe by Tord Boontje in the form of a tree bursting into the foliage of over 600 enamelled leaves. In the torturous semantic deliberations over design and craft, old-fashioned dignity of labour doesn’t get much of a look-in: this is an unequivocal tribute to very specialised and ancient manufacturing skills”.

On a long train ride this week I finally got to the end of Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman; not an easy read, but rewarding when you get to section 2 onwards and especially the fabulously metaphorical instructions for boning a chicken in the Persian style on page 190. Anyone who, like me, struggled to understand what Sennett was talking about in the introduction when he meets Hannah Arendt in the street and witnesses her disdain for animal laborens – ordinary working, making man – might also be pleased, like me, by the relatively simple resolution Sennett arrives at in the closing chapter on ethics. The Craftsman is complex and discursively illustrated argument for enrichment and pride in work that comes through crafstmanship. The vitrine of sample enamelled leaves on the Design Museum’s wall give an insight into this. Design has given new challenges of scale and illusion to enamellers who would otherwise be making an awful lot souvenir pill boxes.

Taxi home from the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year opening last night: “So where’ve you come from tonight?” “An opening party for an exhibition at the Design Museum.” “Oh yeah? Is that work or fun?” “Sort of the fun end of work.” “So what do you do for work then?” ” I work for a society that tries to influence people and government to think harder about citizenship. My job is to show what the value of design to society is.”  “So what is the value of design to society?” “I think design teaches you that as a citizen you don’t have to just pay or wait for other people to solve problems for you. We don’t have to just buy things or have things done to us…” “In our throwaway world.” “Exactly.”

Leading service design company Live/Work have published a thoughtful article on their website today: Service Thinking. At first I felt chastened at having attempted to explain recently to a US visitor what service design was. I said that because of their appetite for solving problems of order and function, designers can apply their visual and spatial fluency to systemic problems and to services as well as to the material world, as if systems and services were things.

Woops. Live/Work would probably say this is exactly the wrong way to explain it, for as they perceive it: “The reason so many services under perform and disappoint customers is because we treat a service as if it is an industrially manufactured product”. A thing, in my terminology. Thus chastened, I read on. They talk really well on the rise of mass production and mass consumption in the last century, and, citing Alvin Toffler, on the dislocation of those phenomena that has alienated everyone from first products and then from services treated by all sectors as if they were products (in our times “a train journey is somehow a product”).

It emerges that it’s not the production and consumption that are wrong, but the mass factor, and what they’re getting at is the service imperative of personalisation, in which “producer and consumer must come together”. Now I feel a bit vindicated, as co-curator of My World: the New Subjectivity in Design, an international exhibition looking at the influence of craft in contemporary design. We the curators agreed that because of industrial production at first, then later of globalisation and the rapid advance of digital technologies, design very easily risks the banishment of personal meaning. We were talking about products, but the New Subjectivity has serious traction in services.

But one thing still bugs me. Product or service, what we see is a lemming-like flight to brands. Not warmly individuated, customised, personalised things shaped uniquely to your needs, but fierce evidence that people want what everyone else is having. This is most obvious in the consumption of commercial products – the powerful desire to belong to Nike’s global club – but might it equally be true of services? Is the perceived need for personalisation actually a perceived need to compete with the individuation and choice that is the received wisdom of commercial marketing? Ben Barber‘s book Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults and swallow citizens whole is as fantastically bracing a read on this subject as its title suggests.

Finally here’s a breakthrough in the recognition of intangible design. The RSA Academy in the West Midlands made it to Design Week’s Hot 50 last week. Surrounded in this league by personalities, commissioners, consultancies and cultural institutions who all damn well should know how to use design, there it is: a school. Not even a school in a fancy building, but a school operating an alternative to the National Curriculum. Neither product nor service; a curriculum. Now what kind of a thing is that?

Woops. I conjectured two days ago that Harry Beck’s metaphysical London Underground map is eternally modern because anyone over the age of seven can tell it’s schematic rather than literal. I forgot to mention yesterday that Richard Wentworth also told a story about finding a Japanese man measuring the distances between stations on the map at Russell Square and indignantly pointing out “Map is wrong”. I was wrong.

But Emily King did say that for her the London Underground map and the A-Z streetfinder “are” London. Design has imprinted her very neurons; existential cartography, isn’t it great?

A powerful design nerve

January 21, 2009

Great phrase, isn’t it? It’s not mine, it’s Richard Wentworth’s. He said it last night in discussion with Emily King at London Transport Museum in a discussion of the London Underground posters going back a century. Man Ray was the man with the actual powerful design nerve in question, but Wentworth boldly went on to say it’s what all American artists have.  Of course I really wanted to know what it is to have a powerful design nerve. “They know how to organise things” said Wentworth, “they’re do-ers, while here we just desire”. He made several exceptions, most notably among the “commissioning class” who in the 1930s included Frank Pick, Managing Director of London Transport and among many achievements, commissioner of the Edward Johnston typeface and roundel. In Wentworth’s always distinctive words, “these people had a sense of connection accross a big critical territory”. I think part of what he means is that people like Pick, who trained as a lawyer, weren’t cowed into thinking commissioning design needed a specialist: it is simply in the workaday gift of a public servant to think critically about design.

We talked later about how America’s early pioneering spirit – “do-ers” out West building their own houses and tilling their own fields, getting railroads built – obtains today in some magnificent amaterism from high-craft wooden-boat building to Pro-Am running a ranch for pleasure. It’s something about doing things with complete commitment. I occasionally subscibe to a beautifully designed American magazine called Cook’s Illustrated which goes into magnificently scientific, alchemical detail as it presents not just the product but the process of its recipe testing in order to determine the ultimate 5-bean chili or chewy chocolate cookie; the archetype. 

“Yes we can!” With a powerful design nerve, maybe it’s true.

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