Telling designers what to do is not something I attempt too often. What’s the point? I’m a hack, not a careers advisor. So when the editor of this very journal asked me recently to speak at an elite gathering of design luminaries, I was thinking no. Until she happened to mention that it would be one of her ‘dinner talks’ upstairs at The Ivy. The no turned instantly to yes. But what to say?
It seems these events can sometimes get a little heated. I was warned that bread rolls have been known to be thrown, along with sharp words. How to defuse potential tension? Obviously, I wasn’t going to attempt anything daft like a Powerpoint show. My audience lives and breathes Powerpoint: I don’t even use it. And since the chosen title of my talk was to be ‘Design and the media hyenas’, what images would be appropriate anyway?
But there is one evergreen presentation technique, familiar to everyone from childhood, that usually does the trick. Show and Tell. Bring an object, talk about it, pass it round. I chose two objects. The first was a favoured book of my 11-year-old son – Dead Famous Inventors and Their Bright Ideas. Not so much because it was central to the talk – it was to do with an aside about the technological leaps that tend to happen towards the end of any given century – but because it had a pleasingly naÃ¯ve cartoon cover. There was half a chance that the graphic designers in the audience would be mildly diverted by it.
But what about the product designers? Both Paul Priestman and Sebastian Conran were there. I’d have to reach deep into my Vitsoe cabinet of curiosities to find something to interest those boys. Fortunately, I had just the thing. An original, early 1960s Kodak Brownie Vecta camera, designed by Kenneth Grange. This had been my first-ever camera as a child, and for that matter the subject of my first-ever column for Design Week, years back. Even better, this particular one had been given to me on long-term loan by Ken Grange himself. An object donated by a living legend has something of the holy relic about it.
Only product design allows you to do Show and Tell quite like this. Architecture? You have to resort to pictures. You can’t bring Norman Foster’s Gherkin into the room with you, and the models of it are way too big. But my Vecta, still in its original Grange-designed cardboard packaging, was in museological terms a ‘handling object’.
The point of Show and Tell is to weave an interesting yarn around the thing in question. In this case, the yarn was about heroic failure and the futility of market research. Grange had designed an ergonomic vertical-format mass-market camera, after doing research in photo-developing labs which showed that the majority of snaps taken were portrait rather than landscape format. But despite this, people still preferred the look and feel of a horizontally organised camera. Moreover, the Edwardian film technology Grange was saddled with – 127 roll film, eight shots per roll – was absurd in the 35mm era. The Vecta was a commercial flop. But Kodak later invented the compact film cassette, Grange designed the Instamatic for it, and we all rushed out to buy one.
This was all by way of a parable. About the need for designers to take time out from the day-to-day grind in order to produce what-if? ideas, concept flyers, that can tickle the fickle media’s jaded palate. Such as Priestman’s Tamagotchi babysitting device of a few years back. An electronic device to look after an electronic pet – a pure genius marketing ploy.
Such ideas don’t have to succeed so long as they have something genuinely original or compellingly strange about them. They allow the designer to play the media hyenas – people like me – at our own game. And it’s a way of keeping your creative faculties sharp by designing for yourself as client.
In a way the Vecta was just such a concept, but for a real client, and it went into production. And it bombed. But the world – especially the media world – loves things like that. So long as they are followed up by a success. It suggests there is a personality at work, and, of course, the media loves personalities.
So, I concluded, the message was clear. To get a media profile, invent a better mousetrap, spin a yarn round it. Alternatively, fail heroically with something, and then publicly bounce back. Either way, it’s Show and Tell time. To prove the point, my guest star, the Vecta, went down a treat. ‘How can this have been a disaster?’ wondered Conran, expertly snapping open the catches and examining the insides. ‘This was my first camera, too.’
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