The black and white of design

January 16, 2009

Design Week reports that the Royal Mint has offered a public prize for the design of a commemorative 2012 coin, noting that this initiative, along with Boris’s public competition for a new Routemaster and the 2003 public competition for a London 2012 logo, is starting to look like a trend.

I spent much of the end of last year thinking about amateurs and design. Fashion or zeitgeist, it turns out – as it always does – that I’m not the only one and I’ve been lucky enough to converse and correspond with Juergen Bey, Jerszey Seymour and a handful of others for whom amateurs in design are deeply interesting and topical. I asked earlier here if the relative lack of amateurs in design – compared to crafts or astronomy or history – was in part responsible for fractured relationship between design and the rest of society – no shades of grey between the black of designers, as it were, and the white of everyone else.

Repairing this fracture is not about making everyone into a designer, not about taking away the commercial work of designers and giving it to amateurs. Of course it isn’t. It’s about a better relationship between professional practice and public participation; between the education of professionals (supply) and the education of everone else (demand); between the leadership professionals can give and the ability of everyone else to criticise it intelligently.  A public competition like this seems to me to be a good way to engage non-professionals in the processes that designers go through all the time, and thereby increase the public understanding of design.

In my work-in-progress account of design as part of the RSA’s larger agenda of progressive social change, I’m arguing that designers have a particular resourcefulness that needs to be more widely shared. It’s a readiness to improvise and prototype, a bravery in the face of disorder and complexity, an holistic and people-centred approach to defining problems. What I want to know is this:  if you give people who aren’t designers some of the insights of design, do they become more self-reliant and resourceful?

The Design Business Association has urged professional designers not to enter the Royal Mint competition because there are no fees to entrants: “In the current economic climate it is more important than ever that design businesses maintain a healthy profit margin”. I’d say in the current civic climate it’s more important than ever that the public understands what designers do.

2 Responses to “The black and white of design”

  1. matthew taylor Says:

    Love this. How about a two stage process. Stage one is amatuer with no professionals allowed. Stage two for the shortlist supprts the amatures in working with designers. This is kind of the X Factor/Apprentice way of doing things and we used it for our Meet the Dragons competition last year.

  2. Jamie Says:

    I’d be interested to know what you think the reason for the lack of amateurism in design is. Does it affect product and graphic (and other sorts of) design equally?

    There are a couple of movements over the last few years that seem relevant to this, notably Make ( and its sister Craft (, which are magazine/books published by the technology publisher O’Reilly and “celebrate your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will”. They’re a bit like Blue Peter with more of an edge.

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