Free to create? Dream on

In an ideal world, designers would all have the freedom to be more visionary, however, clients’ budgets often don’t allow it, according to Callum Lumsden

Have you ever been to a party or a parent-teacher association meeting and been met with a look of complete incomprehension? It always happens when somebody asks me what I do for a living. While our industry can be inward-looking and we all know what we do, the general population have a very strange view of the term ‘designer’.

I mean, it seems to be such an inadequate description. It just does not properly describe what I, or many of those who read this august journal, do.

Now if I were a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant it would be extremely straightforward. I mean Felix Dennis, now multi-millionaire publisher and tree worshipper, had ‘magician’ as his passport description when he was editor of the radical magazine Oz in the 1960s. So how can we define what we do to make it sound interesting and convey the emotion and passion in our working lives?

In an effort to be positive, challenging and helpful the ponderings about my job description led me to contemplate all the other things we do as part of the design process. We draw, create, organise, cajole and perform miracles of biblical proportions. Which isn’t easy to describe in simple terms.

And then, eureka, there it was: designers ‘dream’. A colleague of mine once suggested that the job of a designer is to dream. Clients commission us to create a difference by design and how can you do that without looking forward? If you are to create something ahead of the crowd all of the best creatives will tell you that you have to delve deeper than the surface of your imagination. You have to really excavate. For your design to be enduring it has to be looking beyond what has gone before.

Now I’m not suggesting we all become designer versions of Mystic Meg. As we all know future prediction can be a dangerous game and you have to utilise some serious intelligence to get it right.

There are lots of great examples of companies already doing this. Disney has imagineers in its film studios. Studio Edelkoort in Paris produces colour, style and interior predictions in books which are a ‘must-have’ purchase in design and fashion houses around the world. Worth Global Style Network ( puts photographs of what the kids in Brooklyn are wearing on the streets on their website, today. Architect Future Systems is actively realising the buildings it designed conceptually for its terrific show at the ICA a couple of years back.

It has long been a gripe of the design community that designers are not taken seriously by the outside world as their skills are only perceived as a form of embellishment. Many design consultancies have bolstered their core offer with services such as ‘brand strategy’ and ‘visual engineering’ pinned to their mastheads. I’d classify these titles as opinion offers, something which can be interpreted in many ways, but open to interpretation nevertheless.

Would it not be logical for the design world to take more of a lead than a back seat and provide others with a real direction about where the world might be going and thereby clearing up the mis-perception of the design fraternity at the same time?

Ideally we’d all be free to be more visionary, but sadly are often restricted by client budgets. Where are the clients that encourage (and pay for) blue-sky thinking? How often do designers get the chance to really let their visionary juices flow? Can we fight the woeful client adage of ‘we love what Joe Soap does and want a version of that’? Is it just a pipe dream to think one day some clients will say ‘we don’t know what we want, that’s why we called you’?

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a sector that the world wanted to speak to, rather than the other way around? Every business wants to meet its competition head on and feel that it is one step ahead. The danger at the moment, with black recessionary clouds looming over the world, is that designers will become pre-occupied with survival and references to what has gone before will become more prevalent than what is really needed: breathtaking originality. This worries me because design is a form of fantasy and it should be always be given the freedom to create something new and startling, which has to involve the word ‘imagination’.

Forget about the present and the imminent for a while. Designers could hold the future in their hands. Dream a little dream for the world and set yourself apart from the crowd.

Which goes back to my original point. I’m going to change my job description, to ‘dreamweaver’.

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