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?
February 11, 2009
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.”
February 5, 2009
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?
January 30, 2009
In her New Statesman preview of the coming Tate Modern exhibition Rodchenko and Popova, Rachel Aspen recounts how the October Revolution brought art into everyday life in complete and programmatic way which is bracing for a designer to imagine today: “Their work was no longer to be confined to the elite realm of galleries and studios. The entire fabric of everyday existence – from mass transportation and housing projects to teacups and book jackets – was to be redesigned to serve a new vision of Russian life”.
Let’s go back to the Royal Mail Design Classics, which also belong to an era when it seems you could capture the whole force of social optimism in a thing (Concorde, a mini-skirt, a public phone box…). Am I just torturing myself that it’s no longer this simple? Look at the 2012 Olympic logo debacle. So high are our expectations now of pluralism and interactivity that Olympic logo had to be endlessly changeable and accommodating of infill imagery and colour, applicable in digital and analogue form. No wonder the mark itself is nasty and its typographic resolution poor – you’re almost never supposed to see it as the mark itself, only in its infinite subjective metamorphoses.
Earlier this week I had the happy privilege of visiting Manchester Town Hall. Actually it’s not such a privilege; you can just walk in off the street. But what a neo-Gothic treat of mosaic and stained glass and coffered ceilings and spiral staircases and cloisters is this building, reputedly the most expensive in Europe at the time of its construction in 1877. The guidebook narrates the incident three days after the opening banquet when 43,000 working men of the Manchester and Salford Trade Societies marched into the Town Hall bearing samples of their craftsmanship “ranging from glass swords carried by the United Flint Glass Cutters’ Society to a tin suit of armour worn by a member of the Manchester Tin-Plate Workers’ Society”. In Manchester, amidst all the industrial and bureaucratic steam of the late 19th century, these symbols of industry were incontrovertible civic symbols as well.
Franklin Roosevelts’s New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration, instigated a massive programme of civic building to generate employment in the Depression; a programme of progress manifest in built things (parks, bridges and schools) as well as artistic and literary activities. They are symbols of social good; some more allegorically coded than others, like the famous Rincon post office murals in San Francisco depicting the history of California in social-realist terms influenced by Diego Rivera. Gordon Brown has recently invoked the New Deal in the context of our own recession. But how could its ethos apply in a society now so suspicious of propaganda, political iconography and material depictions of public good? Allegory and symbolism in design now seem acceptable only in the commercial realm where the narrative manipulation is so self-evident as to be unobjectionable.
Design now works subtly and intangibly at citizenship ceremonies, public service reforms and electronic forms of democracy. Obama’s campaign betrays the influence of design through and through but you simply can’t quantify it in things like posters and logos. Has the idea of visually manifest, designed, singular, symbolic identity passed forever into private hands? Has the commercial marketing promise of choice killed off the very idea that your state could commission the one true thing you the citizen need?
January 22, 2009
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?
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.