The voice of experience

Do designers have the skills to be absorbing public speakers? Nick Smurthwaite asks the experts

‘I like the sound of my own voice,’ says Kenneth Grange, when I ask him what he enjoys most about public speaking. Not always the first thing you look for in a good talker, perhaps, but an indication of someone who feels confident enough to hold an audience.

If he was high profile enough to be on Clive Conway’s celebrity talk show circuit, Grange might have given financial reward as his answer. These solo stand-up shows are so popular that Alastair Campbell, Tony Benn, John Sergeant, Barry Norman, Jimmy Young et al are kept busy regaling audiences up and down the country with their lucrative anecdotage.

Few creatives appear to have been recruited by Conway, the main UK purveyor in this field, although cartoonist and set designer Gerald Scarfe has given it a whirl, and Conway is busy trying to entice Terence Conran into the fold.

The man who single-handedly revolutionised post-war domestic design with the mass market Habitat look, first in Britain, then across the world, would certainly seem like a good candidate for the talk circuit. Or would he? Do designers actually have much to say?

Grange, a founding father of Pentagram, is one of the few designers to have crossed over from public speaking within the industry, to addressing the general public. ‘These people at The Wharf in Tavistock actually paid seven quid per head to hear me,’ Grange says, with some astonishment.

Having started out in the early 1950s, when commerce was still constrained by post-war austerity, Grange has seen extraordinary changes in product design over five decades. A favourite story involves a trip to a trade fair in Cologne in the mid-1950s, where one leading German manufacturer had its latest washing machine on show – a medieval-looking wooden barrel, held together with metal straps, a motor attached to its wooden lid. He says it made his white metal dishwasher, with plastic attachments, look positively space age.

Another favourite yarn concerns his designs for the HST 125 high speed train, a job he appropriated under false pretences, having been brought in to simply ‘decorate’ someone else’s model. ‘I didn’t like the look of it, so I started redesigning the whole thing on the quiet,’ he recalls.

They’re undeniably charming stories – possibly better live than on paper – but can they woo the paying public in the way the one about the missing weapons of mass destruction, the PM and the dodgy dossier – as peddled by Campbell – can?

Now semi-retired at 75, Grange regards public speaking as a minor sideline, not a burgeoning new career. ‘It helps to be so-called retired because you are not anxious about offending any would-be clients in the audience. You’ve cut loose from your commercial obligations,’ he says.

Another creative is taking to the boards, at Edinburgh Fringe festival next week. Alongside PR whizz Mark Borkowski, TV reporter Bob Wiltfong and Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe, Simon Donald, co-founder of Viz magazine, is talking for the first time before the unfamiliar glare of the national press.

Donald and his fellow Viz creative, Alex Collier will be helped enormously by the use of 90 drawings and illustrations in their hour-long show, Swearing Is Both Big And Clever. When it comes to visual aids, designers can trump other speakers every time. Donald’s drama training and years of amateur dramatics haven’t been wasted either.

‘We are the only two people from Viz who would dream of getting up and making an exhibition of ourselves,’ Donald says. ‘All the others are shy, reclusive types who seldom venture out of the office.

‘The great thing about doing stand-up is that you get instant reward. You actually see and hear people laughing at your jokes. If you’re working on a magazine like Viz you are never there to see the reader enjoying your stuff. There are a million people out there reading Viz and you are lucky if you see one or two people reading it – ever.’

Wendy Bailey, who produces and promotes celebrity talk shows for Conway, says she would love to have more high profile designers and artists at her disposal, but there is a catch: her speakers need to be charismatic, funny, able to engage an audience in debate, first-rate raconteurs and preferably – here’s the clincher – household names.

How many household names are there in the visual arts, design and architecture? Off the top of my head, I suppose there are Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, David Hockney, Conran, Norman Foster (depending on the household), Richard Rogers (ditto), Quentin Blake, Steven Spielberg, Matt Groening and Rolf Harris (sad, but true).

Any one of the aforementioned would, I’m sure, stand as good a chance of pulling an audience as Martin Bell, Benjamin Zephaniah or Michael Buerk, the newest recruits to the Conway books, even though most of them have not made their names on the box.

But even if there is little demand for talkative designers in the big wide world, there are plenty of outlets in the capital. The Design Museum’s talks programme has been so successful, it’s been given a £300 000 grant to install a special larger ‘talks space’, which opens in November.

‘We got to the point where there was a black market for tickets for our most sought-after speakers,’ says director Alice Rawsthorn. ‘We heard of someone paying £100 for one speaker, and people flew in from the US to hear Peter Saville talk during his exhibition last summer.

‘My feeling is that the public are not only more interested in design than ever before, but increasingly keen to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the subject. Rarely a week goes by without a team of TV producers or editors trooping into the Design Museum to discuss their plans for a new design series,’ she says.

The frequent Design & Art Direction President’s Lectures also attract big international names – Ridley Scott, Philippe Starck, Jonathan Ive – and appropriately big audiences, while the London Design Festival offers a platform to designers to talk at various forums and seminars. This year’s speakers include fashion designer Wale Adeyemi and furniture design team Shin & Tomoko Azumi.

Clearly there is no shortage of eminent creatives with egos and opinions equal to the task: Stephen Bayley says he regards any public utterance he makes as a contribution to world improvement. But if the credentials for a public speaker boil down to how much exposure they’ve had on television, then the world of design seems destined to be the Cinderella of the celebrity talk circuit for a while yet.

Swearing Is Both Big And Clever is at the Pleasance One, Edinburgh, on 25-26 August

Speakers at the D&AD’s Xchange, which runs from 1-3 September, will include graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook and Daniel Kleinman of Large

The London Design Festival takes place from 20-30 September

Kenneth Grange will be speaking at the Chartered Society of Designers, CBI Conference Centre, Centre Point, London WC1 on 22 September

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