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.


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!