Design Week at 30: Q&A with Paul Priestman

As Design Week celebrates its 30th birthday, we speak to a host of designers who have been working in the industry since 1986. First in the series is founder at Priestman Associates, Paul Priestman.

Paul Priestman © Fran Monks
Paul Priestman © Fran Monks

Design Week: What job were you doing 30 years ago?

Paul Priestman: I had set up my own design practice, Priestman Associates, following my masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA). I had just returned from a trip to China, which I made after receiving some prize money in the RSA Student Design Awards. Little did I know that 30 years later I’d have an office in China, and would be working with one of the largest rail manufacturers to design the fastest trains in the world.

DW: What have been the biggest changes in the design industry in the last 30 years?

PP: Google Earth has had a huge impact. It’s put the size of our planet in perspective, and allows us to see the impact that our patterns of consumption have had on ecosystems over time.

While capitalism was a strong driving force in design initially, I think designers now have a responsibility to design products to positively affect behaviour, and to consider the whole life cycle of products, like the RSA’s Great Recovery project.

DW: What has been the biggest change in the way that you do your job?

PP: Personally, I still do a lot of hand sketching, but many of our designers use digital programmes in the design process. We’ve developed our visualisation department so that we now offer augmented and virtual reality. This has proved an important tool, not just for us as part of the development process, but for our clients, in the sales process.

DW: What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in design? 

PP: Consider the wider social applications of design, and the ways in which you can help move the world towards more sustainable consumption patterns. We’re seeing the rise of design as a tool for social innovation. There are so many ways in which design can help make things better and more efficient, from transport to healthcare and consumer products. For instance, a key driving factor in our work in public transport is to create better passenger experiences, which will help get people out of personal vehicles and using mass transit instead. This is key to reducing our carbon footprints.

DW: What excites you about design today?

PP: It’s incredible to think of the scientific and technological advances that have been made over the last 100 years. We’ve gone from the first automobiles to the ubiquity of hyper-powerful personal computers and the imminent birth of commercial flights to space, such as the Worldview Experience, which we’re working on.  But beyond the sheer realm of sectors that design touches today, what I find exciting is the way in which technology is allowing us to design and manufacture more efficiently, to make more with less.

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