At a recent conference on sustainable design, the cookery writer Pru Leith described how she’d recently bought a wonderful new home cinema setup, with thin plasma screen, DVDs and all, and found herself the proud possessor of five remote controls, none of which she was able to use. She solved the problem by creating a new ‘cookbook’, whereby any operation was carefully described with reference to labels she attached on each of the controls. This was, she felt, the fault of designers, who were so completely in love with the act of design that they couldn’t stop designing and gave, in her case, five times more design than she needed.
The problem was more likely not enough design, that no design process would have come up with such a ludicrous situation. But Leith does have a point. Designers were, of course, involved in many aspects. They shaped it, and they laid out the graphics (though probably not the position) of the controls. They would have done the instruction manual and the packaging of the box the equipment came in. They might have helped with the screen interface, and, of course, the channel idents, programme guide and interface of the TV channels themselves. But for all that wonderful work, they missed the big problem, and Leith still has five remote controls with Tipp-Ex and felt-tip pen all over them.
It seems despite all our advance in technology, we’ve still avoided making it easy to use. The reason Leith has five remotes is because design was so far removed from the decision-making process. Design at the extremity of the process, away from all the core human decisions, which were presumably made by phantom combinations of feature-led reactive marketing thought, manufacturing convenience and electronic and engineering disregard for humanity. A consequence of this is an inability to make the simplest of observations about what the experience of using this incredibly sophisticated bit of kit is actually going to be like.
Every aspect of design takes place in a context of dependency on significant others, be they engineers, IT techies, the printer, fitter, builder, or manufacturer. We rightly try to influence the captains of commerce and the marketing kings and queens to get design on to the top table. But our relationship with those on the coal-face is just as important, and this often means dismantling deep preconceptions about our roles that seem to linger longer in the UK than with our international competitors. All the issues around the relationships between architecture and engineering, product design and mechanics, Web design and IT, share common experiences of exhilarating visions made possible by highly creative and equally visionary enablers. Those relationships make the real difference.
At the other end of the food chain is the positioning of design at the planning, strategic and board level. Last week Kenneth Grange won the Prince Philip Designers Prize, a prize that aims to celebrate the designers behind great design. Grange was responsible for myriad good things in design, not least his role in creating Pentagram, which has proved to be the most sustainable model for renewable creativity and longevity of brand.
For many years Grange was the pioneer and spokesm
an for the business case for design. Crucially, he found his way, by charm and talent, on to the boards of companies like Kenwood and was able to influence the management of Wilkinson Sword, Kodak and British Rail. Getting British Rail to change its shunting policy meant he could put an angled front on a train that made it look like it really did do the 125mph it was designed to do.
Influencing the big picture makes a real difference. Finding designers who have the influence of Raymond Loewy, or Grange isn’t so easy now. Superstars like Philippe Starck and Marc Newson give creative vision, but design has become departmentalised, tied to specific outputs, reactive to the brief. When the video recorder needs a remote control in the box, one gets designed. It’s the same with the DVD, TV, cable box and hi-fi.
What’s more, design is the tool to unlock new markets for an older population, create economically and environmentally sustainable products and develop technology we actually want, rather than trip over. It’s not a new story, but designers need to find a way to get up the corporate agenda and start influencing the big decisions – and make sure Leith gets just one, usable remote control.