Many rivers to cross

The tallest building in the world is about to be built by an Asian woman; nanotechnology is almost at our fingertips and marketing may finally die its much-prophesied death – and all by the year 2000. But, asks Gaynor Williams, will the UK be able to keep

How the world is turning. Less than 100 years ago, the sun was said never to set on the British Empire, man had yet to take flight, and women didn’t have the right to vote, still less to compete fairly in the jobs market.

Now, according to Forbes magazine’s latest annual rankings, one of the richest people in the world is a businesswoman – and an Asian woman at that. Nina Wang, head of the Chinachem property development group in Hong Kong, is worth a reputed $3.3bn. In billionaire fashion, she is about to build an edifice she calls Nina Tower. Which means, at 486m, a woman’s name will adorn the world’s tallest building. Top that, boys.

Still less than 50 years ago, we didn’t even have the computer. Touted by some as a threshold in human history, the computer has revolutionised the world.

In this post-post-post age, millennarianism is rife (have you heard the one about the blood-pumping nano-machines that, once inserted into our arteries, are going to self-replicate and destroy us all from the inside out, in much the same way as a computer virus?)

It’s always risky attempting to predict the future, but there are some pretty good bets to take. We are already seeing huge advances in materials and production technology. Given the second-by-second enlargement of the power of the computer, my guess is that we are looking at a total transformation of design in almost all fields – products, graphics, multimedia, fashion, you name it. While it’s obvious to anyone who’s looked at a web page that multimedia is moving fast but has even further to go, there are some fields of design where revolution is the descriptive term of choice. Nanotechnology will utterly transform materials into “‘intelligent” things: built-in obsolescence, for example, will take on new meaning when you get fashion goods that biodegrade in a pre-programmed cycle.

It is now easy to imagine a world in which we take fuzzy logic to its most rational extreme: soon products may be created that grow and change over their lifetimes, according to their owners’ demands. And maybe we will see the much-touted “death of marketing” once the Internet and computer design power combine to create a genuinely global, mail-order market. People will no longer be part of a shapeless “market segment” and have to take what they can get, when they can communicate directly with manufacturers and their design teams.

The designer is the link. The “client” will be as much the public as his or her direct employer. This shift is going to require the development of new skills.

The UK’s wealth of talent in both design and high technology theoretically puts it in a good position. It could capitalise on this revolution; it could even spearhead it. But the UK still has some major structural and cultural hurdles it must cross if it’s to become a force for the new century. Among those are the old chestnuts of investment and design awareness: here there are movements afoot both in politics and education that could augur well. But in strict design terms?

In the interests of both their futures, clients and designers must realise that good and effective design does not mean a cynical, self-serving use of superficial, flashy design touches as an alternative to a good service or a good product.

The other problem is the “them” mentality that still persists here. It’s so deeply embedded into our psyche that you find it, not just between classes and cultures, trades and trades unions, but also between specialisms and job descriptions.

It hits designers particularly hard. With our art and design colleges operating in isolation from the rest of society, British business people are still unlikely to be very visually literate. One recent study for the Design and Engineering Research Centre in Cardiff revealed that even the top executives within small companies are afraid to commission design, because they simply don’t understand the terminology.

This may change, but for now we have to sweep away the “clubbiness” of good old GB – the single strongest factor to have held it back since it lost its place in the sun. Business people still talk business jargon to each other: designers talk their patois. This has got to stop. The world is one big network now.

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