Tim Rich: Fight your own battles

Why are designers looking for a leader? Tim Rich thinks there are already enough design bodies, and if you want something to change, why not do it yourself?

Help! Design is in crisis! We need a strong leader!

The news is that the design industry is in a grave situation. So grave, in fact, that a recent correspondent in the Design Week letters page (DW 19 January 2001) asked, rhetorically, “Could this be another opportunity for John Sorrell to ride in on his white charger? I for one would enlist as a foot soldier.”

So what exactly would this good knight (and his infantry) be saving us from? Is it the mythic dragon that has always stalked the design world – the manipulative client who won’t share enough of his gold with us? Is it the villagers, who lump around doing their business, ignorant of the vital contribution design makes to their lives? Is it design ruffians who get away with evil deeds, such as freepitching and paying students half a groat for a year’s work – so destroying the good name of every other designer?

Despite the clamour of alarms, it is far from clear what the most urgent and significant issues facing the design industry are. Education, training, fees, best practice, worst practice, debate, knowledge, collective promotion, Government understanding, public misunderstanding, tax relief on trainers – plenty of things could be addressed, but where should the industry, as a collective body, start and how will it create change?

This question often raises debate, but rarely generates action, most often because all the talk leads back to the same old panacea – the need for a governing body for design. The assumption is that such a body would be able to prioritise the issues facing the industry and effect change. But is this really the right solution? Do we think a giant bureaucratic thing can do the lot, from running creative awards to overseeing education and training, providing copyright consultancy, organising lectures and seminars, lobbying Government, media and industry and a thousand other things people think are important?

Even if it was possible to create this organisation and for it to excel at such disparate activities, could it possibly serve every constituency? Should it represent anyone who might describe himself or herself as “a designer”? Even (God forbid) a fashion designer? And if so, what about account directors, production managers and illustrators? And HTML programmers? What about non-practising lecturers? And people who work on Changing Rooms? The most pressing needs of a freelance editorial art director are likely to be very different from the chairman of a multinational, multidisciplinary design group; could some generalised body really represent both?

Such a body seems neither practical nor desirable. And getting existing design organisations to reach a real consensus on its remit would be essential, but about as simple as negotiating a lasting peace in the Middle East. Even if consensus was reached and funds found, the organisation would surely implode under the barrage of adverse reaction to its logo.

The real reason why it will never exist is that there isn’t enough genuine need. A mere 300 companies are members of the Design Business Association, for example, because they have found other ways to achieve their ends. If the need is great enough people get together, if not, they don’t.

I am not arguing for passivity in the face of problems. In fact, one reason why I dispute the need for a macro body is that it hampers initiatives created at a micro level. If, for instance, you are concerned about the lack of common standards in design education, then why not find others who share your concerns and create an organisation that can promote, influence and implement new standards? If local animal rights campaigners can close labs, I am sure designers can improve education.

Of course, local initiatives would benefit from national co-ordination. There is value to be had from sharing access to databases, buildings, knowledge and channels of communication. But Design Unity, a body created by the Design Council, the DBA, British Design & Art Direction, Royal Society of Arts and the Design Museum can provide this. Design Unity seems ideally positioned to help issue-specific initiatives make a real difference. It is not a governing body; it is a facilitator and it should be used.

We do not need to create a parent that will tell us the right way to do things or represent us in an argument with the outside world; we can do it ourselves. Those in the industry who want to create change should stop looking for a knight on a white charger and find themselves a horse.

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