Underdogs scrap with cynical British Bulldogs

The design industry owes a lot to James Dyson. Not only has he brought the concept of good design into many a home, his dogged persistence in defending his vacuum cleaner designs through the courts has set legal precedents that other designers can now cite. His argument in his latest tussle against established giant Hoover is that he has fought for the cause of the underdog, and, by winning, might encourage others to take up the fight (see News, page 3).

It’s all good stuff, but is it really appreciated? As far as the Great British Public are concerned, Dyson might be pushing his luck if he initiates further court action, however strong his case. As an “underdog”, he is virtually guaranteed popularity, especially as he exudes genuine charm. But his continued success might start to rankle with a society suspicious of high achievers – a victim of “the tall poppy syndrome”, as the Australians call it.

It would be great to think the design community was above this cynicism, that its members applauded innovation and business achievement as much as they do creative prowess. But sadly it isn’t so. When someone makes it big time, they’re met with more critics than champions.

Dyson has already experienced censure from his peers, some of whom have aired their feelings in these pages. But he’s not the only target. Terence Conran, Michael Peters and Paul Smith have all shown through their innate entrepreneurialism that good design and business can coexist and been chopped down verbally for their efforts.

But it isn’t just the blend of creativity and commerce that makes our hackles rise. It can be creative success itself, especially if someone crows too loud about it.

A famous example is graphics wunderkind Neville Brody, slated to the extent that clients shied away for publishing a book and flaunting an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the early days of his career. No wonder he now keeps a low profile for his internationally- acclaimed business. More recently uncomplimentary murmurings about small, award-winning group Johnson Banks and its outspoken creative director Michael Johnson have stopped it from broadcasting projects that might serve as an exemplar to other consultancies.

It’s all very well to shrug and say such an attitude is part of the British culture. Wouldn’t it be better if the design community could buck the trend and, like the Americans, celebrate success as something we can all gain from. With so much US influence affecting the big global players, we should look to them to lead the way. Without the leadership shown by the likes of Dyson, design wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the average boardroom against other consultancy businesses.

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