Congratulations to Wally Olins on achieving the rank Commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. The only big surprise – except the revelation that his full name is Wallace – is that he didn’t get it ten years ago, when, as one of design’s most ardent activists, he was rarely out of the media, championing the cause of corporate identity as a means of defining a company’s culture.
If more design people had been acknowledged then, we’d have more role models for aspiring creatives to pursue and possibly greater confidence within and about the industry. But the then Government hadn’t grasped design as a force to boost commercial competitiveness in the way that Tony Blair’s administration has.
What is most telling of the Blair Government’s stance – or, at least, that of its “advisor”, the Design Council – is that Olins was awarded the honour “for services to design in business”, rather than for the more usual “services to the design industry”. Olins is not a designer, though highly creative, but the descriptor is still intriguing.
There is nothing wrong with honouring design in a commercial context. Indeed, it would be good to see the likes of WPP Group boss Martin Sorrell, who has convinced many a multinational of the value of investing in the creative industries to improve performance, gaining wider political influence. But let’s hope it doesn’t mean that designers of the calibre of Alan Fletcher, Michael Wolff, Bill Moggridge and newer names like Michael Johnson, renowned for creativity, are overlooked in future honours lists because the business case isn’t their only card.
Architects have made the leap from practice to political power, with Sir Norman Foster now joining his one-time partner Lord Rogers in the House of Lords. And talents such as international star Will Alsop OBE – almost 20 years younger than Olins – still feature regularly in the honours lists just because they’re good.
Blair and his ministers have promoted the creative industries in a way that is both welcome and unprecedented. But if they are as passionate as they would have us believe about design’s role in shaping social and business environments and effecting positive change, why not empower those who have backed that view consistently. Imagine a debate in the upper house led by Lord Frayling and involving Lords Conran, Dyson, Fletcher, Wolff and Seymour. The House of Lords would have more teeth and the Government would enhance its reputation by putting innovation, entrepreneurialism and intellect at its heart.