Tom Lloyd: “What does it mean to be a designer today?”

Tom Lloyd, the newly appointed Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers and founding partner of Pearson Lloyd, proposes a shift in the way designers operate.

I have been thinking about what it means to be a designer today. Given the challenges that we all face, how can we make sense of our world’s shifting priorities, values and vocabulary, and make progress in our response to the great issues of our time, including resource depletion, inequality, and climate breakdown?

Homo sapiens play the dominant role in what is now known as the Anthropocene epoch – so named because, for the first time in the Earth’s history, our actions are putting unbearable strain on the habitat that we share and depend on for life.

As designers and humans, we are participants in this system. As designers, we have an important role to play in responding to and leading change in the world. 

Our history is peppered with periods of rapid and unexpected change. During the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, the city of New York was brought to a near standstill by the by-product of an estimated 200,000 horses living and working there. One thousand tonnes of manure was deposited onto the streets every day – rat-infested and disease-ridden. Horses that died in the street were left to rot where they fell, so that they could be more easily dismembered for removal weeks later. The mayor organised an emergency town-planning conference to try to solve the problem, but no solution was found or proposed.

However, in a matter of 15 years, the city was transformed into a place of cleanliness and modernity by the emergence of the motor vehicle. At that moment, Henry Ford, creator of the Model T, had secured heroic status. For decades, the car was an optimistic and aspirational path to our future, a symbol of progress and freedom. But, as we now know, the impacts of this once-hopeful development have become both harmful and hurtful to us all.

Today, our lived experience is moving in constant waves of change. We are witnessing new ways of doing – surprising new rituals that challenge our sense of what is right and true.

Covid has upended all our lives and is acting as a trigger of transformation in the process. Cities are being reshaped, communication redefined, work reimagined and, just perhaps, the pandemic will be a catalyst for the more radical system change that nature now demands. 

In Pearson Lloyd’s first year, 1997,  in response to the emergence of the laptop and what was then called ‘hot desking’, we designed a mobile work caddy. We used just about every material and technology available and worked to conceal all fixings from the user, with no sense of disassembly, repair, or recycling of materials – it was a true product of its time.

Ten years later, commissioned to design street furniture and wayfinding for the city of Bath, we developed a response including zero refinishing, easy repair, and complete circularity of production. 

In 2018, we designed a self-assembly timber stacking chair for the Danish start-up TAKT – all parts of which can be replaced by the owner to allow for repair and reuse. Committed to transparency, TAKT publishes the embodied carbon data for all parts of the production and distribution process.

Then, just a few weeks ago, we launched a range of desk accessories designed in collaboration with Bene and 3D-print start-up Batch.Works. The collection is made from a single material, 3D-printed on demand, using locally sourced 100% recycled post-consumer waste bioplastic.

The processes and systems surrounding these designs could not be more different, reflecting some of the extraordinary changes we have lived through in the past 25 years. Discussions about why and how we make things appropriately now form part of every working day. The models of production, distribution, ownership, and consumption are all in flux.

The sectors and industries we work in are filled with compromises, inefficiencies, and practices that we need to change, and I honestly believe that design can take a leadership role in the transition to a more balanced and equitable system. As a faculty, we need to establish more fruitful links to the future of our practice as well as the past. How can we act in ways to diversify our intake, expand our reach, and better reflect and represent the world we aim to serve?

Through the history of design, a common narrative has existed around the theme of ‘added value’. Perhaps most readily associated with designers such as Raymond Loewy, Honorary RDI, in the mid-20th century, the value that design brought to a product related to making manufactured things more desirable, more efficient, more sellable, and of course, more profitable. Could it be that, while the role of design today remains to add value, the value proposition needs to be redefined and reordered?

We now understand the impact of unfettered consumption and need to re-evaluate our contribution to the physical world we inhabit. The building blocks of our relationship with the built environment and the vocabulary of design are being redefined:

From novelty            to longevity

From linear              to circular

From extractive        to regenerative

From exclusive         to inclusive

From owned             to shared

From designed         to co-designed

From human-centred    to nature-centred

The UK design industry consists of 200,000 businesses, 95% of which contain under 10 people. Alongside the giants, we are a tribe of micro-businesses, with countless relationships and ways of making a difference. It may be that marginal gains in these small organisations will perhaps be more meaningful than any single idea in solving our present and future challenges.

The practice of design is, as much as anything else, about how we respond to the world – social, cultural, and political – so, as our world changes, so our responses need to change.

Design is a flexible craft. Amongst many things, we are researchers, opportunists, optimists, and entrepreneurs, makers, thinkers, tinkerers, communicators and, above all, synthesisers. We are good at managing complexity. I hope we can continue to reflect and celebrate the power of design, and advocate for its relevance and the positive contribution to our collective futures that I know it can make. The brief is being rewritten. It is up to all of us to respond.

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  • ROBIN LEVIEN December 21, 2021 at 10:05 am

    An inspirational piece Tom, we have all discovered how much we can change over the last year or so, we must take advantage of that momentum and make further changes for the sake of our planet. As you say, many small and marginal changes will add up to significant benefit.

  • Rishita December 24, 2021 at 7:31 am

    In the 21st century a designer means a problem solver. It is the most important skill to have in the business.

  • mike dempsey December 24, 2021 at 11:19 am

    I am old enough to have lived through the WWII post-war period. We had a little pamphlet called ‘Make Do and Mend’, issued by the British Ministry of Information. My mum would save elastic bands, brown paper and string. Socks and jumpers would be darned, torn shirts and jeans would be stitched or patched and every scrap of food would be used in inventive ways to eke out the meagre rations. Even in later life mum would continue making and mending it was firmly lodged in her psyche.

    Our world today is in stark contrast. I often visit the local dump, or I should say recycling centre. If you have never done it you should go. It is shocking to see what people discard. The world that Tom Lloyd described is far removed from that of my dear old mum. We consume and discard at an increasingly obscene amount. Obesity is becoming the norm, with a large part of the population, mirroring what happened in America several decades ago. Seeing a steady line of cars picking up from the local MacDonald’s always makes my heart sink. Tom’s seven redefinition points on design are very welcomed and I hope, in what is left of my life, I will see some of them implemented.

    In my more humble world of graphic design, I would like to encourage designers to think more deeply about what they are contributing to. The graphic design community can do so much in bringing beauty, intelligence and integrity to our society. But it can also collaborate in helping to degrade life to an increasingly depressing level. Three examples. The abundance of alcohol dressed up in fun, funky packaging aimed at the young inexperienced drinker. The same designers make attractive to innocent eyes products filled with sugar, fat, salt and artificial additives that can heighten a child’s activity to such an extent that some have to be prescribed tranquilisers. A better use of the graphic designer’s talents would be to devise a universal clear labelling policy imposed on all food retailers so that concerned parents can see at a glance what these products contain and the harm they can cause.

    The same designers who decorate packaging for MacDonald’s and Burger King with free promotional merchandising gifts, to lure our children to the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local multiplex cinemas, where they will be fed with yet more sugar, fat and salt in vast buckets while watching movies that mostly dull the mind.

    In recent years I have taken to buying second-hand iPhones. The idea of discarding that beautiful marvel of modern technology, simply to upgrade to the latest model each year is nuts.

    • Peter Burgess January 11, 2022 at 12:45 pm

      I could not agree more with your comments Mike. I think all practising designers should read Going Green by Victor Papenek which outlines the principles a 21st century designer should follow. This includes designing products that have a long life and can be repaired (not releasing new phones every 2 years), avoiding creating novelties ‘for a jaded elite’, and sharing rather than buying. Although the book was written in the 1990s the text could not be more relevant to the needs of 2022.

      One sector that really needs a William Morris moment (a dark night of the soul) is the digital design industry. I have been to UX Design presentations where one of the speakers has presented some really worthy digital products such as a government website, and then another has presented a gambling app or some product that uses UX design to entrap unwary consumers into signing up for some dodgy online product, with no distinction being made between either. It strikes me as odd that companies that produce eCommerce websites that destroy local business, Blockchain products that need server farms with huge energy needs, or social networks that have the power to destroy democracies do not come under more scrutiny.

  • Vivian January 17, 2022 at 9:33 am

    I Invent and design products I find that we get so far with are new designs Then hit a Manufacture Wall as most Manufacturing in UK is Alliterated now All oversees mainly China This can cause many problems for Designers trying to get Prototypes made As I do now Trying to find a Shoe Manufacture Northampton was the Capital of Shoe Manufacturers Now Nothing Yes there few Be -Spoke and hand Made Orthopaedic Shoes So Anyone out there who knows of a Shoe manufacture in Uk please Contact me. We need to Bring back Uk Manufacturing we should Not be reliant for all our products from Oversees Where has (The Great Gone.) From Uk Manufacturing.

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