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.”


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.