Reliving former glories

The new leaner Design Council fails to realise that resurrecting the short-term design strategy that served it so well in the affluent Eighties isn’t going to help anyone. What we need is a policy for the times we live in, says Emma Dent Coad

SBHD: The new leaner Design Council fails to realise that resurrecting the short-term design strategy that served it so well in the affluent Eighties isn’t going to help anyone. What we need is a policy for the times we live in, says Emma Dent Coad

The Design Council’s new policy is based on a number of fundamental misunderstandings.

First and most important is the premise that the only definition of design is that of something which leads to an innovative and commercial product. This is a potentially dangerous and narrow-minded viewpoint which inevitably leads to disappointment – even for the Design Council’s prime targets, the first-time investors in design who expect instant and tangible results.

Second and no less important is the premise that a large market still exists out there for innovative products.

So let us map out the broad territory of design. At one end is what we could call the Ideal of Fifties’ America: the constant supply of new or restyled products to create and to feed an innovation-hungry and affluent market. At the opposite end is what we could call the European Platonic View: design as the intelligent resolution of practical problems encompassing the urban environment, the domestic environment, transport and manufacturing industry, and so on. In other words, the intelligent application of ideas, technologies and systems to improve our everyday life. This places Harley Earl at one extreme, Victor Papanek at the other. What we really need is a mutually beneficial meeting point somewhere between the two.

The Design Council was set up at a specific point in history to fulfil a very specific purpose, namely, to fill an aching gap in the post-war manufacturing market for reasonably priced, British-made goods built to last. There was high demand and few goods to supply it. This was very much a Henry Fordian or Bauhaus approach: mass production of a limited range of well-designed goods for everyone (“everyone” usually referring to the working classes). It was directed by a benevolent and essentially middle class patriarchy deciding, on rationalist lines, how The Other Lot should live. They offered the delicious democratic notion that everyone must be able to afford “nice” things, the criteria for these things being quality, economy, and fitness for purpose, with an unmistakably middle-class taste.

This didactic role receded over the years as this approach can only be guaranteed success in a hungry and deprived market, which can be controlled. As soon as there is choice, consumers will return to the familiar and complex territory of their own culture, which has more bearing on consumption habits than any government quango.

In its half century, the Design Council has gradually refocused its objectives from the education of working-class tastes and buying patterns, to supplying demands from the new Habitat-influenced and visually literate upwardly mobile market. Extrinsic values of designer, origin and image became more important than intrinsic values of quality, durability and economy.

Throughout the Eighties, it seemed to address the cappuccino drinkers (Us Lot as opposed to The Other Lot), or designers and manufacturers targeting the cappuccino drinkers; a flick through many issues of Design magazine in this period will confirm this. There are few case studies of collaborations between manufacturers, designers and clients. Instead, there are one-sided interviews with designers photographed with products they pretend to be wholly responsible for. No manufacturer. No client. Sometimes even no market.

So in the Eighties the Design Council jumped straight on the designer/style/consumption-led bandwagon. Short-term values abounded. Now in the Nineties we are suffering from the lack of vision and responsible attitudes to design. The market has changed. There are fewer people buying “high design”, and the general consumer goods market has slumped. And yet there are virtually untouched markets, consisting of the over 60s and the unemployed or barely employed, who individually have meagre needs but together make up a potentially vast market. And where are all the high-quality, recyclable, flexible, repairable, long-life goods we were promised at the end of the Eighties? Is nobody campaigning for Green or responsible design? Why is there no equivalent of The Body Shop in other areas of the consumer market? Are the Design Council research projects intended to be led simply by existing consumption patterns, or to speculate on the future? Where is the new generation of design thought?

The answer is depressing in the extreme. Instead of looking in a mature and dignified manner at the times we are living in, the new “small, lean” Design Council has decided to squeeze back into an Eighties frock and try to relive its former conquests. Its slogans tell us that design “can improve prosperity and well-being” (what exactly does it mean by that?). So we are back to the “feel-good, trickle-down” culture of the Eighties which depended on a large affluent market that no longer exists. Is there no-one out there with a real vision for the future of design in the UK?

Emma Dent Coad is a design historian and researcher.

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