Better days

Nick Smurthwaite previews the new series of Better by Design, where Richard Seymour and Dick Powell attempt to solve a succession of design enigmas

Alan Titchmarsh did it for gardening. John Harvey-Jones did it for business. Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen did it for decorating. Can Seymour and Powell do it for design?

Popularise, that is. Like the other three subjects, design is ripe for the picking. Every household and workspace is crammed full of appliances that are the result of some kind of design evolution.

Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, who have worked together since 1982, made their TV debut on Channel 4 three years ago, with three hour-long programmes, Better by Design, in which they attempted to re-think the bra, the car and the toilet. Their wireless bra, with its restructured dynamics, goes on the market this October.

Now they are back, with a series of six half-hour shows in which they once again look at everyday things like shopping trolleys and kitchen bins to try and find better design solutions than the ones we know and hate.

In the first programme, which airs on 18 July, they tackle an aeroplane passenger seat. Because of the huge increase in air travel, airlines persist in cramming as many people as possible into weeny spaces, blithely ignoring the fact that we’re getting taller and heavier.

Richard and Dick, as the narrator refers to them – you can see why they decided against The Two Dicks – set about designing a more comfortable seat that will replace the bulky foam job with its attendant health problems (postural discomfort, risk of blood clots, and so on). The prototype they create is lighter, using a network of thin fibre threads, has a recline position more conducive to sleep, and tips up for easier coming and going.

Tania, the marketing person from Avio Interiors in Italy, which serves Swissair, among others, was duly impressed, but the seat will have to survive two years of rigorous safety testing before Avio even considers putting it on the market. Seymour and Powell are convinced their prototype has a future and they now intend to take it to some other airlines, notably Virgin, to see if they’re interested.

Re-designing the supermarket trolley was “a complete nightmare” apparently, as it is almost impossible to find an engineering solution that ensures a wobble-free forward drive while enabling the handler to move sideways. The man from Sainsbury’s wasn’t bowled over by Seymour and Powell’s worthy compromise. Besides, it is too complicated to explain here how it failed the tipping test.

One of the most successful outcomes of the new series is the burglar alarm. Put simply, they have adapted the concept of central locking a car to the home. Basically, you press a button as you leave, and hey presto, all the outside doors click shut. UK Alarms, which helped them with the prototype, are going ahead with production of this deceptively simple system – an attractive alternative to that mad scramble to punch in your pin number before the wretched thing goes off – which the company is hoping will retail at less than £100.

Do Seymour and Powell see themselves as design’s answer to Two Fat Ladies? Emphatically not, if Dick Powell has anything to do with it.

“We fought desperately against the Challenge Anneka mentality of some programme makers. Design professionals might look at the programmes and think they’re a bit thin, but we’re not trying to lionise design. We want to demystify it and show that it’s not done by blokes in white coats holding clipboards,” he says.

Quite apart from their design skills, the fact that they’re obviously so comfortable with one another, and mutually respectful, makes Seymour and Powell easier to watch than a lot of more experienced TV presenters. And let’s face it, any new show that isn’t about cooking, gardening or home decor has got to be good news.

Better by Design is scheduled to begin at 8.30pm on Channel 4, Tuesday 18 July

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