Grand old man of UK design looks back over a century

We’re in for a treat this autumn when one of design’s elder statesmen hooks up with one of the industry’s younger pundits to give us an overview of design over time. Terence Conran and Design UK author Max Fraser will present a ‘timeline’, matching personalities with events in design over the past 100 years when their book Designers on Design is published by Conran Octopus in November.

We all have views on who and what has had the greatest influence on design and its acceptance by consumers, but it will be fascinating to see what septuagenarian Conran and 20-something Fraser agree on as the guiding lights. Of particular interest will be their projections into the future that are promised as a coda to the book. Conran has seen the saga unfolding from the outset of the industry as we know it, both from a creative and a business perspective. Fraser, meanwhile, has his finger on the pulse of what is happening now.

The book will focus on product and furniture design, and given the authors’ combined expertise in these fields, should provide an invaluable insight. The subject will be more populist than if it had extended into communication design, if you accept that only graphic designers are interested in graphics. However, the bias will limit the book’s usefulness as a general resource.

There is, though, great merit in books of this type. They offer snapshots rather than profound theories about the history of design – ‘Filofax journalism’, as Wally Olins called this approach in the early 1990s, pre- Palm Pilot, when the leather-bound aide memoire was all the rage. But they help to build a culture around design that celebrates its impact on society and business as well as the cult characters it has created.

Conran himself is a great example of this. His life has culminated in ‘high office’ in the industry and elsewhere, but he has earned his place through a blend of creativity and entrepreneurialism that many would do well to emulate. He has taken the risks, driving design into restaurants and retail in particular, and hasn’t always won.

Fraser, meanwhile, is not a designer. But he is intuitive about design and has shown strong entrepreneurial tendencies, having quit design school very early on to develop Design UK.

Design’s story has changed significantly over time. What was just a cottage industry with attitude is now also part of the global marketing mix. But wherever it comes from, what characterises the best design is personality. Whether a designer, a strategist or a client, it is invariably the drive of an individual that produces outstanding work. Designers on Design should help to reinforce that fact.

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