Take a Martian view

Why do cars and planes look like they do? It’s just habit, says Hugh Pearman – we’re too stuck in our ways to be able to create genuinely new objects

If more designers thought like the novelist William Golding, the world would be a better place and the things we habitually use would be startlingly different. This may sound like some kind of arcane what-if parlour game, but hear me out. It’s to do with working from first principles.

Golding has a reputation as a ‘difficult’ writer – he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so he must be. Some of his novels are wilfully obscure, particularly the ones towards the end of the 1950s. But there’s one thing he always did better than anyone, from Lord of the Flies in 1954 to the posthumously published The Double Tongue in 1995 – being a Martian.

Golding once said that he was one person (imagine a more distinguished version of Captain Birdseye, and you’ve got his jovial appearance), while the Golding who wrote his novels appeared to be someone else. This was because Golding the writer looked at people and events as if he were from another planet and was seeing them for the first time. Why, for instance, is the human body the curious shape and arrangement of organs that it is? Once you start thinking this way, everything becomes weird, which also means that anything, however weird, can be normal.

So far, so existentialist. But couple this with a vivid imagination – the imagination that allowed Golding to get into the thoughts of Neanderthals or medieval cathedral-builders while scorning any but the most rudimentary research – and the Martian viewpoint becomes potent. Golding could imagine a complete civilisation and the lives, action and appearance of its people just by looking at a piece of broken glassware found on an archaeological dig.

Why do I bring this up, apart from the fact that I’m reading John Carey’s new biography of Golding? Because of the ambitious radio series that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is about to launch, A History of the World in 100 Objects. It’s ambitious because he had to select so few objects from the endless choice possible across two million years of history, and then present them in a non-visual medium, in a peak evening slot, 100 times over during 2010.

The choice of medium is interesting/television is always over-prescriptive, while radio allows us to use our visual imaginations. True, there’s to be a slightly naff-sounding children’s TV spin-off, while a pretty sophisticated website is promised where we can look at the objects to our hearts’ content/ but it’s radio-led nonetheless. If you’ve ever heard MacGregor hold forth, you know it will be excellent.

What I’m hoping for is a touch of Golding. I’ve never forgotten watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series as a child, hearing him imagine out loud what your reaction would be on first seeing the prow of a Viking longship approaching. That was a Martian/Golding way of looking at things, which was why it stuck in my mind.

We’re too overwhelmed by existing things to design genuinely new ones very often. Today’s cars and planes are mechanically little different to the ones around when Lord of the Flies was published. Computer symbols mimic the past: a man’s suit is such a strange melange of motifs from history that a Martian would be perplexed by it. But what if we approached design the way Golding approached novel-writing? We would have objects that truly are of our time, and MacGregor would have no trouble choosing his 21st-century example.

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