Daniel Weil: “Designers are the ones who show change”

The Pentagram partner and product designer talks about and his first children’s book, the power of chess and how he designs in the present.

Daniel Weil has had many “mythical moments” over his career — though he also calls them the “happy accidents of life”.

The designer grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina and came to London in 1978 where he studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art (RCA), receiving his MA in 1981. He went onto design a collection for Memphis in Milan, and became the Professor of Industrial Design at the RCA. And he joined Pentagram’s London office in 1992, counting Swatch, Lego and Krug among his clients. There’s no shortage of moments to highlight.

Today, though, he is talking about chess. Specifically, his book Chess on Earth, aimed at kids. It is his first children’s book and Weil has written and illustrated it himself. In a neat design detail, the book is both a way to teach kids about the origins or chess and also acts as a miniature chess-set.

Daniel Weil

Weil says he was inspired by his own children, and the way his wife used to read children’s books to them — something he says is not a part of Spanish culture. The books he particularly liked are Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s rhyming children’s books — Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo! And Burglar Bill — which have “enormous charm”. Likewise, Chess on Earth has its own rhyming scheme, written with the help of some “family critics”. “I wanted to create a silly rhyme, which told a more serious story,” he adds.

Weil hopes it will encourage younger people see past some of the game’s “status and gravitas” while also learning the “fundamentals” of the game. His passion for chess is well-documented; he redesigned the set for the World Chess championship in 2013. He’s also created paper versions of the game (which came in a bag) so that people could play in cafes and a leather-bound set which people could pack up and play portably.

Weil’s paper chess kit

This was all part of his attempt to make chess “more of an everyday thing — not for those playing chess, but for those who should be playing chess”. It requires “two people who don’t know each other to engaging in a dialogue that is civilised and enjoyable” and that “social power” could be a very valuable lesson, not just for children.

“Design is a connective activity”

Since joining Pentagram, Weil has worked for a range of clients including Swatch, Lego and United Airlines. For United, he introduced lie-flat beds for business and first class. For the Indian drinks company Frooti, he designed a new bottle — based on the shape of a mango — when the company wanted to attract more grown-up audiences. A few years ago, he also designed the exhibition space at the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing of the Israel Museum.

Chess on Earth, by Daniel Weil

And as his illustration of a children’s book might suggest, Weil is aware of the interdisciplinary skills required of a designer. “Those that get involved in design understand that at some point, they have to apply text onto a solid object,” Weil says. “And this is a crossover into graphic design.”

“Design is a connective activity”, he adds. “I trained as an architect originally, and if you asked me to get involved in the design of a skyscraper or a bus shelter, I wouldn’t know everything there is to do — but the professional activity of architecture enables you to think about what you don’t know.”

Weil’s design process

In 2014, the Design Museum put on an exhibition in honour of the designer, entitled Time Machines: Daniel Weil and the Art of Design. Included in the exhibition was one of his most recognisable products: the 1983 Radio Bag, a deconstructed radio laid out in a see-through plastic bag. Weil also designed a series of conceptual clocks for the exhibition. At the time, the museum said that “Weil plays with fundamental elements of time, light, space and sound.”

And while some of Weil’s concepts might appear esoteric, they have clear results in his work. Take the milk-bottle he designed for Mothercare in 2014. He looked back throughout the history of baby bottle design, from the 1950s to the present day. What he found was a trend towards shorter, fatter bottles with wider necks for ease of washing. In the 1980s, the necks became even wider as parents increasingly used formula powder and needed to fill the bottles easily.

Acrobat clock
Acrobat clock for Time Machines: Daniel Weil and the Art of Design

As the bottles became shorter and fatter, a more uncomfortable angle was needed to tilt the liquid into a baby’s mouth — the 2000s bottle required an almost vertical angle. This was uncomfortable both for the parents and the baby as more air was mixed with liquid, causing the babies discomfort. Weil’s solution was to give the bottle an off-centre neck, meaning the angle was comfortable and the wide neck was retained.

There was also a concurrent design pattern in this process. The 1950 bottles looked like a glass Coca-Cola bottle; the 1980s design like a soda can. In the 2000s the even-shorter bottle looked more like a jar of peanut butter. Weil’s own bottle for Mothercare also found its own contemporary cultural reference: the takeaway coffee cup.

“Designers are the ones who show change”

The Mothercare bottle illustrates how Weil’s design process requires a thorough knowledge of design history. Even the children’s book, with its playful re-telling of the history of chess, requires an in-depth knowledge of the game’s history — an illustration of a flying rug is a clue to the game’s Eastern origins, for example.

Whether it is a children’s book or an aeroplane or a baby’s bottle, Weil places great importance on the role of a designer. “Designers are the ones who show change,” he explains. “When a designer is designing something, he’s doing it before it’s made, and by the time it’s made and delivered to the customer, the customer is buying the past. As designers, we live in the present of the activity.”

The Chess on Earth miniature chess set

And if designing means being in the present, what might Weil’s future hold? He’s already been a teacher at the RCA and is a partner at the world’s biggest independent design studio. “One of things I haven’t done is comment on all these things.” That could be a book — something he’s promised himself and others to do — though it’s unlikely to be a child’s book this time.

Whatever form Weil’s “comment” would take, it would likely be another “mythical” — or accidental — moment in his long and varied career. But as Weil used to tell his students: “Designing is for life – you’re choosing an activity for life.”

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  • Krista Webb Carney January 21, 2020 at 8:38 am

    Daniel – great article and so many humble truths. Thank you for the journey you’ve been on so far – you are a credit to our practice.

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