Count your blessings

Patrick Baglee rejoices about being a designer and encourages a little more joie de vivre in others. After all, you could be stuck in 100F heat with spiders and snakes

Preparing for an 11-hour trip to Arizona, a good friend pondered on the likely horrors he would face. Among the denizens of the plain are rattle snakes, tarantulas, mountain lions and scorpions. And with an average temperature of 100F, there is as much chance of rain as the Tories holding Uxbridge.

“Why flirt with danger?” I ask. “Another week of design and I’d be finished,” he explained wearily. The cumulative effect of four sleepless nights in New York, writing commitments, an all-nighter on election night and an unscheduled speaking engagement had dampened his ardour.

Despite all the above being a result of his involvement in design, I wanted to offer him (if he’s reading this) some random thoughts on why design should again be the most exciting career right now.

As human beings first, designers second, we must not lose sight of sensory enrichment. Forget those who say trains and toasters should be “sexy”. Sex should be sexy. The motion of a train can promote a sexual response, but 125s per se do not turn me on.

Therefore, let’s clarify our feelings about our profession. For instance, design should be enjoyable – getting to the heart of the brief, seeking the truth, sorting out the bullshit. At all times we must learn new skills, become proficient in a second language, “do” culture.

Okay, so staring up a dinosaur’s arse at the Natural History Museum might not be your idea of a perfect Saturday, but then reading newspapers and munching croissants aren’t mine.

If we enter people’s lives with our work (sometimes pervasive, sometimes invasive) we should do it with humility, responsibility and as joint participants in life.

Another thought – assault your senses, provoke reactions, do things slightly differently. To begin – try gargling in a meeting, or cough explosively every five minutes for an hour in the office. Watch the entire Star Wars trilogy in one afternoon. Life’s too short… have fun.

Read more about design. There are enough “design writers”, but how much of their work do you really read – or how many of their opinions are you passionate enough to disagree with? Why not write your own critiques but without using stock phrases such as “no formal training”, “disarmingly modest” and “the Mac, to them is just a tool”.

Our critical vocabulary is ample to some, but woefully limited in comparison with other fields. This is partly due to a poor understanding of design’s social importance and because full-time, dedicated design writers are still thin on the ground. If design is to be believed, it must be spoken of in a believable way, the onus being on practitioners to broaden their self-criticism and its quality.

A comparison between the level of debate now and in the Sixties shows an embarrassing gulf. You only have to look at the writing of Ken Garland to capture the fervent atmosphere of graphic design in that period, and to see how thin ours is by comparison.

Garland remains both advocate and example of the designer as thinker. His commentary strikes at the heart of our beliefs. For instance, in 1975 he asked to what extent our profession should have a common voice – and how it could make itself heard.

Our work, of course, is not our only voice, though it is the most obvious: rarely praised before a public whose mistrust of (corporate) graphic design ranks us alongside travelling salesmen. But maybe redemption has arrived. If the system which governs our economic fortunes receives a shot in the arm, so should we.

Lynda Relph-Knight wrote recently that as designers we must retain the ability to present first-class thinking and visual approach. True. But if our new Government is to pay more than lip service to what our industry can contribute to the success and well-being of the country, we need to speak about responsibility, results and kept promises, passion and humanity.

It is said that Prime Minister Blair is looking for a policy director with a “melon-sized brain”. We must ensure that under Labour, design doesn’t go pear-shaped.

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