Concorde (1976) is the youngest of Royal Mail’s new Design Classics special stamps, and a reminder of how far design has stretched in the last thirty years. More recently London’s design community witnessed an ugly fissure in two incidents that provoked unprecedented media debate about the meaning of design. Remember the angry resignation of James Dyson (inventor of the bagless, dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner) as the Design Museum’s Chair of Trustees? An exhibition about the pioneering mid-century styling maven Constance Spry – a Martha Stewart before her time but all too easily dismissed as a flower-arranger – was the final straw for those who believed a design musuem should narrowly demonstrate the power of engineering wed to manufacturing technology. Then Design Museum jury’s decision to award the title of Designer of the Year to Hilary Cottam; not herself a designer like her fellow candidates, but a social activist passionate about using “design thinking” to address deeply entrenched dysfunction in public services; particularly prisons, schools and health services.


All of this begged us to ask: what is design anyway? In the 20th century chairs were really important touchstones of future thinking; as were labour-saving domestic devices, housing solutions for everyone and, later, portable electronics. But these two incidents were at the centre of a new discourse in which the meaning of design in our post-modernist, post-industrial world has irretrievably expanded. The image is recognised to be as significant as the artefact; the value of the service is known often to outstrip that of the goods; the built environment is a metaphysical concept full of hidden forces; regeneration finds more favour than the new; and design – for so many and for so long synonymous with the sleazy adjectival tag “designer-” – regains some of its more abstract and divine original significance.


Three of these classics – Alec Issigionis’s Mini, Mary Quant’s mini-skirt and Robin Day’s Polypropylene chair – were designed by the RSA’s own Royal Designers; themselves continuously exercised in defining “sustained excellence in design” as the uses and sightings of design proliferate around us.  


It’s sobering for design insiders to look at the Design Classics selection, for while we strive to determine the meaning of design today, these classics are unequivocal: tangible and iconic. The Classic most tractable in our modern, stretchy design-critical terms is Harry Beck’s London Underground map. Its metaphysical character is its virtue; almost anyone over the age of about seven can see that it’s a schematic rather than literal representation of geographical reality. In our interactive times, when the Web gives us access to information that is infinitely deep and wide, the Underground map is eternally modern.


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.

14 January 2009: Compliments to Caroline Roux, Editor of the Guardian Weekend’s Space feature for her report on a conversation between Sir Terence Conran, Kirstie Alsopp and Philippe Starck on the role of the designer in lean times. It cast up some ideas with traction. It’s fantastic that Starck, self-styled “design superstar” who rose to glory in the decade of big shoulders and conspicuous consumption, should now so outspokenly champion the politics of design, “democratic ecology” and revolution. It’s easy enough to claim, as he does, that design has always been political, but when design has also always been commercial, how is that more than a truism? It’s like that old chestnut: “look around you, everything man-made has been designed!”; so true that so what? But this notion of democractic ecology does advance the political idea, especially when Starck elaborates with an example from the internet design resource “The next years will be the time of the microstar. It’s our duty to help this new solution along”. This speaks directly to the new hypothesis that RSA Design will set out to demonstrate: that the insights and processes of design can increase the resourcefulness of people and communities. Since design has for so long been concerned more with creating beautiful resources, this could be quite political.


So naturally, I also admire Kirstie Alsopp’s statement about self-reliance: “I like the idea that people become as confident about furniture and decoration as they have about food”. Not for the first time, I’m struck with the thought that cooking is the last remaining bastion of domestic craftsmanship. We don’t dressmake much any more (the haberdashery and fashion fabrics and dress patterns department of John Lewis used to cover half the ground floor of their Oxford Street store, now it’s tiny), but we cook like mad.


Terence Conran answers Roux’s question about taste by invoking the idea of essentials, basics, “necessary things that were good value and simple”. As a designer, with a designer’s radar for the archetype, the perfect synthesis of utility and form, I concur. But I think there’s a problem. For the English eccentric, the sceptical, anti-modernist, individualist British person, there’s something too dogmatic about this design-led prescription. Doesn’t it suggest a liveried matching set – or perhaps an assorted but exquisite collection – of designer items? Where in Japan it might be culture, here it just sounds like retail.


Conran also raises the economic question of employment: “If we design everything for longevity… what are all our hands going to do”. The answer is somewhere in Starck’s democratic ecology: a more ambiguous relationship between supply and demand, producer and consumer, professional and amateur. Charles Leadbeater, in his essay Production by the Masses, argues that the future role of professionals is to guide non-professionals into a condition of self-reliance, rather than to “do” for them. “Professionals should become campaigners, counsellors and advocates…”, he writes. How might this vocation be interpreted for design?  

5 January 2009: The Business and Media section of yesterday’s Observer is virtually themed: the excessive consumption of the Festive Season interbred with an accelerating alarum over the dwindling credit that chiefly furnishes all the consumption in the first place makes for a pathological publication. We look at recycling your gifts or auctioning them for charity; at which stores will and won’t give you a refund for returns; at renting luxuries to minimise capital outlay; at managing credit card debt; and all in the framework of “an economic outlook like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes”, one that “could mean going back to the thrift and austerity our parents’ generation saw during the war and the 1950s”.


Is it because I’m a designer that I find all this so terrifically exciting? The collapse of retail so apocalyptic and thrilling? It’s a truism that designers – in principle at least – love limits and are stimulated by the tension created by production constraints; money for example. If no-one’s got any money imagine how creative we’ll have to be! The very idea of thrift and austerity populates my head with improvisations and contrivances and making do and mending and problem-solving and pooling resources and endless opportunities to create a solution you can no longer just go and buy new.


Ha! Just wait until our boiler packs up. Or worse, Alliance & Leicester go bust. Yikes. One more warning that we should all be judicious in our estimation of what design can and cannot achieve. Too little and designers just sound like stylists with a very confined role. Too much and nobody knows what you’re talking about unless they’re a designer. Now that we have re-christened the Design pages of the RSA website Design & Society careful calibration of this potential is more or less our raison d’etre in the coming year.

Long live the in-house team

January 16, 2009

18 December 2008: I’ve just returned from an overnight trip to the Netherlands where I and other international guests were generously dined by Aldermen of the City of the Hague at the launch of Design den Haag 2010-2018. This ambitious project, subtitled Design and Governance, aims to deliver a report and recommendations to the European Commission in 2018 for its role in the use and commissioning of design. This by means of biennial partnerships with five European cities – Berlin, Stockholm, Rome, London and Paris. London is scheduled for 2016. The objectives are put forth with his usual combination of thoughtfulness and bravura by the wonderful Ed Annink, coalescing as an ambition to “give direction” to the multiple and collective creative ability in Europe.


From my perspective, the difficulty of the concept is that it is all framed in the context of cultural policy. The appendix pertaining to cultural policy in the UK is a history of the Arts Council. When at first I was puzzled by this very one-sided view of design as part of cultural policy – here design is fostered much more vigorously by protagonists of the innovation and creative industries agenda – I realise that for the Dutch, as Simon Schama described at glorious length in The Embarassment of Riches, the concept of culture is stretchy enough to have economic implications, and economy includes the wealth that is culture. Some Brits might argue that, but the Dutch seem to know it deeply.


As if I needed persuading of the potentially beautiful alliance of design and governance, we were treated to a visit to the Museum of Communication, once the PTT Museum. Graphic design enthusiasts will know that the PTT organised from the 1920s until the early 90s the most sustained public design programme the world has known. A testament to that almost extinct concept of the in-house design team, where the sense of the values of design are shared beyond designers to the wider community on the payroll. Apple and the Guardian are the outstanding teams bucking the trend. Penguin comes and goes, London Underground regularly reassures me.

How like a designer

January 16, 2009

4th December 2008: A very enjoyable meeting, as always, with my ex-boss Michael Bierut this morning, that is, with the man best able to describe how design relates to everything else in the world. We ended up in total agreement about the similarity between design and rhetoric. Turns out I had made this point very recently to our own seasoned and virtuosic rhetorician-Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor. He was curious to know why I’d painted the wall behind my desk a very dark blue, covering up the ubiquitous fish-belly white by which we are corporately surrounded. In reply I invoked the principle of contrast, dark and light – and fast and slow, big and small, the one and the many – “surely you recognise this principle from speech-writing?”, I said. Michael wrote about this on his great blog Design Observer a few months back.


I remember arguing vehemently at an Audi Design Foundation debate on design education a few years back that my preliminary undergraduate training in writing essays and my later training in graphic design were united by an over-riding concern for coherence and economy. Writing a letter is a design exercise; designing a poster or publication is a lot like writing an argument. At that debate I was resisting the voices that argued for design as a totally distinct set of thinking processes; as if designers have the monopoly on creative problem-solving and are in possession of the ultimate transferable skill.


In order to be better understood, is it not sensible to show how like other thinking people designers are – and therefore how much more like a designer everyone else can be? I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Daniel Pink is great on this in A Whole New Mind; the chapter on Design contains an excellent “portfolio” of things everyone can do to be more like a designer.

No pictures!

January 16, 2009

28 November 2008: When I was a graphic designer at Pentagram in New York, I heard occasional echoes of an ancient contest between the idea of design tout court, and the more abstract idea of brand consultancy. Pentagram has famously prevailed in the design argument – the organisation is run by designers at the highest level of management and the accountant is the only non-designer permitted entry at the weekly steerage meetings. Contrast the Landors, the Siegel & Gales, the Interbrands, the big brand consultancies with their legions of management consultants and new business hunter-gathers. But legend had it that dissenters – one senior partner in particular – liked to point out that while you could charge limitless sums of money for intangible “consultancy”, you clients could always calculate the value of “design” in terms of unit cost per sheet of letterhead. So while consultancy made your insights appear priceless, design made you look expensive.


I was reminded of this bathos, this tragic effect of design’s base materiality, last night during the award presentation featuring the new Royal Designers for Industry. Every one a brilliant practitioner who has advanced our expectation of things and images and materials and structures; somehow the claims for expansive social value fall flat when you look, on the screen, at a photograph of a lamp or a wall or a pair of trousers. “Wait a minute. I thought you were telling me about social progress. How come I’m looking at a door handle? Which is it?”


A picture is said to be worth a thousand words; I think this is a situation in which the opposite is true. Emily King needed no pictures to nail the significance of a Peter Saville in her introduction to the monograph Designed by Peter Saville: “He discovered the mythic middle ground between commercial design and art, a place where the communicative imperative holds, but is unconstrained by the blandness of marketing”. Stanley Abercrombie go the importance of George Nelson’s into prose in his introduction to The Design of Modern Design: “He had a passion for relating things to one another: technology to education, social change to aesthetics, invention to war, global crisis to love. He also had a passion for communicating, which may be pretty much the same thing”. Rather than yield to the object-fetishism that is design’s inevitable tendency, I feel anew the challenge of letting words do their magic: no pictures!