Credit those who deserve it if you stretch design definitions

On the face of it, it has been a fantastic few days for the Design Council – and so for design.

First, one of its directors, Hilary Cottam, was named Designer of the Year by the Design Museum, then council chairman, George Cox, received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Cox’s honour gives true cause for celebration. The former director-general of the Institute of Directors only assumed the chairmanship from Professor Sir Christopher Frayling last October, and has yet to deliver the Cox Review of links between business and design that Chancellor Gordon Brown outlined in his Budget. But his new title will open even more doors for design.

Cottam’s success is, however, problematic, not least in challenging the definition of ‘designer’. That she isn’t a designer in the formal sense has caused uproar in the industry.

This is no bad thing. By broadening the definition, the Design Museum is honouring creativity as a vital tool in addressing social ills – Cottam and her team are known for facilitating work with prisons, schools and in healthcare. It’s about designing a service rather than an object.

But allegations that she has been afforded the credit due to the actual designers of the projects leave a bad taste in the mouth. The Design Museum can ill afford more bad press, after the debacle instigated by its former chairman James Dyson, who disagreed with its stance on design.

Meanwhile, concerns over the Design Council’s spin tactics in promoting Cottam’s nomination have foundation and won’t help its bid to curry favour with the design community.

Where does the industry go from here? We build on the national debate Cottam’s award has provoked to follow the Design Museum in challenging preconceptions about what constitutes design.

The museum, meanwhile, would do well to consider its terminology for the award in the future. A descriptor indicating the breadth of its trawl for candidates can only further its cause.

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