Slogans are not enough

Janice Kirkpatrick argues that the relaunched Design Council needs to do much more than just produce leaflets extolling the virtues of design. But designers must also lend a hand if the UK is to benefit from the handful of people who can innovate new prod

SBHD: Janice Kirkpatrick argues that the relaunched Design Council needs to do much more than just produce leaflets extolling the virtues of design. But designers must also lend a hand if the UK is to benefit from the handful of people who can innovate new products

“Design can improve our prosperity and well-being. The new Design Council is here to inspire better design”, says the leaflet. You don’t need specs to see what the new Design Council is up to: even the Council’s new envelopes are emblazoned with slogans in revolutionary red and black.

The word “can”, as used in the first sentence above, sticks in my throat. It’s a political escape clause I’m very familiar with. Every evangelical designer worth his or her salt knows that design can improve prosperity and well-being. Rather than reading this sort of stuff in leaflets, we need to know why design doesn’t live up to its potential more often and what, exactly, the Design Council is going to do about it.

In any case, why sloganise in Bell Centennial? The face was designed by Matthew Carter for Linotype in 1978, specifically for use in phone directories. Why use it as a headline face, showing its optically corrected opthalmologically manipulative outlines? If form forever follows function then what can we surmise about the new Design Council from presentation?

Rather than use words to describe the new Design Council’s aims, why not act on the conviction behind them and produce a wickedly seductive and communicative publication? Such a device could actively demonstrate the power and dynamics of good design.

“The new Design Council is a small, lean, collaborative and agile organisation – a think-tank which develops and disseminates new knowledge, inspiring action. Its programme marks a new beginning in the drive to improve competitiveness in the UK economy through design.” Or so reads the folder.

Well, pardon me, but “agility”, “inspiration” and “action” are personified by youthfulness, energy and confidence: characteristics which this decoy-duck information could hardly be accused of displaying. There are those who think and those who do. If the new Design Council thinks, who does? The manufacturers who need help want someone to do it for them, so that leaves the design professions – God help us all, we’re only consultants!

The new Design Council could theoretically bring about change, as could its sister organisation in Scotland, Scottish Design. But they are not going to achieve all that they might on their own – they must work in partnership with design professionals who have relationships with industry and an armoury of managerial skills.

If we, as designers, are really to help the new design councils bring about meaningful change, instead of just whinging, we must view our talents in the broadest sense rather than merely hiring them out on an hourly basis. There are only 24 hours in a day and there’s a limit to how much we can charge per hour.

If you are in graphic design, why not develop your own line in stationery? Get your fingers dirty raising finance and sorting out distribution and retailing. Minimise the risk by starting with products that are familiar and have high added value. Perhaps it’s in doing this that we can create a real design-led economy – and perhaps the new design councils can help. We’ve been trying since the war to educate the British public and industry with little success and I suggest the time has now come to do it for ourselves.

The recent economic climate has bred the frontier spirit out of our great British culture. Failure is socially unacceptable and not everyone can afford to become an outcast. Maybe the new councils can make it easier for us by being supportive if we try but fail.

The term “designer” has become synonymous with parochialism, passivity and shallow decoration. Yet designers are some of the few people left on these shores who have been educated to innovate and create new products and services that can help create wealth and employment.

So why is it that British designers and the design councils always conspire to do the polite thing, the easy thing – nothing at all? Designers are as guilty as the design councils. I, for one, don’t want to hear any more jokes about the difference between a designer and a shopping trolley. The punchline – that the shopping trolley has a mind of its own – is just too close to the bone.

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