Not the foggiest

Design, anyone? We all practise it, but what exactly is it? Hugh Pearman is none the wiser after thumbing his way through the statistics in the Design Council’s latest report

Well, I fell upon Industry Insights from the Design Council, handily packaged with last week’s Design Week. Full marks for looking non-corporate. Nul points for failing to mention who designed it, though the printer and even the paper stock got credited. But it’s to be expected/ so much design is invisible, it seems even the Design Council isn’t too bothered about name-checking whoever came up with the look for its own publication. Presumably – to judge by the findings – he is white and 38 years old.

It’s one of the design industry’s big problems, this invisibility. Not only the invisibility of the hand at work in a given case, which is not always a bad thing. After all, I’ve argued often enough in these pages for ’good ordinary’ design rather than the prima donna kind, so I concede that there’s a kind of nobility in anonymity. No, what bothers me more is the report’s curious implication that design is just one thing.

Try it yourself. ’Designer.’ What does that word mean to you? Well, if you work in graphic design or in product design or digital design or branding or interiors or vehicles, say, you presumably think it means yourself. Me, I’ve never been clear. Even if you exclude the Victorian professions with their own nomenclature – architects and the various kinds of engineers, for instance – it’s not easy. Someone doing an office reception doesn’t have a lot in common with someone designing an annual report for the same company or the gardens outside, let alone the chairman’s limo or the frock the receptionist is wearing. Many designers work in more than one area, but not even giant groups claim to do all.
On its website the Design Council offers various design disciplines. No mention of fashion, oddly, but experience design is there. Whatever that is.

Which of the many and various kinds of designers fall into the research remit of Industry Insights? I’m not knocking it, really. There’s fascinating stuff in there. Like – isn’t it surprising that the South West employs as many designers as Scotland? Isn’t it incredible that only 51 per cent of all designers have a degree? Maybe it’s just me, but I find such statistics intriguing.

I’ve learned how many designers are freelance, from a minority ethnic group, work in private consultancies or in-house, are male or female, and how many of you there are in total: 232 000, it seems, pulling in fee-income of £15bn. Congratulations! And what do you do, exactly?

Everything, of course. But you don’t do everything. You do what you do. So the strangest thing I find about Industry Insights is the way it sort-of-pretends that there is only one thing: ’Design’. No: design isn’t a nation state. At most, it is a loose confederation of very diverse trades.

Will this fog ever lift? I think it might. In London’s King’s Cross, tower cranes mark the huge building site of what will soon be the new, combined, Central St Martins College of Art and Design by Stanton Williams. An art and design school with a strong public presence, visually stronger even than the Royal College of Art, acting as a public cultural hub, at the heart of a new urban district.

Of course, as always everything will depend on the quality of the teaching and the talents of the students. But maybe such a place will help to dispel some of the mystique surrounding the disciplines. It needs to. Because the one thing Industry Insights does not give anyone is an insight into what the hell design actually is.

It was designed by the Design Council team with input from Purpose – Ed

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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