Recently I was honoured with an invitation to judge the graphics section at the BBC Design Awards ceremony in Glasgow. It is true that the public had done us proud, voting winners in each category which were “ideologically sound” – TKO’s wind-up radio, Pethick & Money’s fast-food packaging and Gabriele Bramante’s Citizens Advice Bureau.
While sipping champagne and discussing the entrants, Lynda Relph-Knight came up with the conclusion that all the winners were verging on the “obviously worthy”, and I can see what she means. Their goodness is explicit. But why did the public appreciate these particular projects – including the Mekong wheelchair, which was runner up in the product design category and second-largest overall vote winner? Is it because people see a point to them? Is it that design solutions which are either too esoteric or subtle for their own good usually go unappreciated by the wider audience? Is the profession guilty of not bothering to explain itself to the public, and of concentrating on projects which are either too superficial to notice or too clever to fathom?
Or does the problem lie in the way design is represented in the mainstream media, and particularly on television?
The medium necessitates the construction of a gripping yarn. Isn’t a service profession such as design, with its rich and varied cast of characters and nail-biting climaxes, an obvious choice for conversion into the docu-drama version of reality in a Casualty meets Crimewatch spot? So why aren’t we seeing the everyday tale of matte black folk, Mac jockeys and designer babes played out on our screens? Maybe because the general perception of design is of an extremely elitist, highly superficial occupation?
Fascinating scenarios and genuine intellectual engagement do happen in the design world, but looking in from the outside, non-designers can’t be expected to appreciate the effort expended on designing the most superficial, ephemeral object.
Personally, I don’t think even the prettiest carrier bag submitted for consideration to the BBC Design Awards can be judged in the same breath as a planet saving/life-enhancing innovation. I’m with the public who voted its approval for designers engaged on projects where shifting units and maximising profits weren’t the primary concerns.
Whatever happened to the Green agenda, which, when I was a student back in the late-Eighties, was up at the top of the list of designer preoccupations? Was it a mere pose? I’ve been gradually reducing my “environmental impact” since that initial awakening, but now the motivation does not come via the design world, but more through the cross-over between dance and DIY culture.
Take, for example, this month’s Reclaim the Streets demonstration of direct action. More than 7000 concerned party animals pointed out to Saturday drivers in west London just how redundant the M41 really is, by decommissioning it for a day and holding a street party along three-quarters of a mile of the six-lane carriageway. The leaflet handed to me by the protestors explained that it wasn’t simply car-owners who were being targeted. It’s the “system” that’s under attack; the state that scarifies neighbourhoods with road-building programmes; encourages out-of-town shopping; converts citizens into consumers and sells us dreams.
Imagine designers planting trees in Tarmac as a form of protest – not a scenario that springs instantly to mind. But I did come across Eco Design, the journal of the Ecological Design Association, which included an article by Professor Chris Ryan from the National Centre for Design in Melbourne, Australia. He highlighted the “distinction between eco- redesign – the redesign of our existing world – and ecodesign – in which the constructed world, systems of production and consumption and living patterns are transformed into something more sustainable”.
In the Nineties, for Green read sustainability. Ecodesign is about going back to square one and re-thinking systems, not simply printing a symbol on recycled paper. Designers are perfectly placed to do just that, because they’re trained to think creatively.
At least the BBC Design Awards showed me one thing. The public expects designers to have a sense of duty, and it will reward them for it.