Build a sustainable future

There’s more to design than wasteful rebranding, says Jim Davies.

The practice of making New Year’s resolutions was started some 4000 years ago by the ancient Babylonians. They weren’t quite so troubled by chubbiness or smoker’s coughs as we are today, so the most common one was promising to be more conscientious about returning borrowed farming equipment. Must give Hunzuu his best hoe back soon, that sort of thing. There was usually a period of two weeks when implements were returned to their rightful owners with great zest, but then everyone would lapse back into their bad habits.

Which only goes to show that resolutions tend to reflect the social mores and cultural preoccupations of their communities. What areas of self-improvement should the design community be working on in 2005? One immediately springs to mind: image. (And I’m not talking about whether you should wear double cuffs or a Windsor knot this season.)

As a group of people who specialise in advising organisations on how they come across to the public, designers are remiss when it comes to projecting themselves. Though the 1980s are long-gone, the stigma of the so-called ‘designer decade’ still lingers. The national media continues to stubbornly portray the industry as a stable of pony-tailed profligates, or ineffectual nerds who come over all trembly at the sight of some tightly kerned Helvetica.

Corporate rebranding comes in for particular stick; how many times have you seen before and after logos, captioned ‘Spot the difference – Acme Corporation’s ugly new logo cost £25m’? Of course, this is classic newsprint fodder – up there with Premiership footballers’ sexual antics and whether bureaucrats in Brussels may one day decide to make us all wear berets. But the nub is that (with the exception of fashion and architecture) there is little real understanding of, or interest in, design outside the confines of the industry itself. Coverage is scant at best, sneering and stereotyping at worst.

And we don’t help ourselves either. Public spats like the hoo-ha over the direction of the Design Museum are grist to the mill to those who paint design as irrelevant, superficial and a downright waste of money. It hardly comes as a surprise that a product designer’s hobby horse is different from a graphic designer’s or a hat designer’s, but they ought to be grown up enough to see that they’re just as relevant as each other. (Incidentally, it was as sad as it was short-sighted that the late, great Saul Bass was damned by implication.) If it takes an exhibition of couture stilettos or Japanese sex toys to turn on a lukewarm public, so be it. Getting them through the door is a good enough first step.

But we’re missing a trick here. The industry is full of verve and charisma, people with the eloquence and personality to drive home the importance of design to the sceptics. If you’ve seen the likes of Michael Johnson, Quentin Newark or Geoff Nicol present to clients, you’ll know what I mean. They’re persuasive, charming and professional, the kind of ambassadors that the industry needs – unfortunately, they also run demanding businesses. But it can be done – Dick Powell and Richard Seymour’s foray into television a couple of years ago showed that, driven by strong personalities and deftly handled, design can appeal to a wider audience. Designs on your… had the right mix of drama, humour and resolution to hold a non-design audience.

Design’s strength lies in its diversity and pervasiveness. But its protean nature means it can be a difficult concept for outsiders to grasp. It needs to show that it is more than a kissing-cousin of consumerism, an adjunct of advertising. That a comfortable bra, a smooth-flowing pen, a jacket that keeps you warm up a mountain, a sign that helps you on your way, a piece of literature that puts a smile on your face, all contribute to a better quality of life. Design doesn’t have to be grand or expensive – ultimately, a great potato peeler is as worthy as an iPod. A decent smoke alarm is more important than a sleek digital camera.

More than encouraging hollow aspiration, design has a key role to play in promoting sustainability and creating a platform for a better future. Small, clever, responsible, lo-fi brands like Howies and Innocent Drinks are showing the way forward, wittily using design to make people think about their everyday decisions, taking the grey out of Green, replacing worthiness with attitude.

In 2005, let’s try to show the people out there what design is really about.

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