What matters? Well… love and fellowship matter, as do justice, education and good governance. Add others, but include design. For it is design that conditions much of the physical world and the human experience of it: home to workplace, wardrobe to toolkit. Design is part of everything in people’s lives. In fact, it might just be everything spelt another way.
It is this very ubiquity and pervasiveness that encourages businesses, governments and consumers alike to take it for granted. They shouldn’t, because design, good or bad, affects our lives massively. To misquote Bill Shankly: ‘Design is more important than life and death itself.’
Design, its nature and its purpose really matter – they matter a lot and everyone should try to understand design’s power and significance in the human psyche and, as a result, why all of us should really care.
I make this seemingly extravagant claim in the belief that design is the bedrock of all creative work. It’s not just the prerogative of those among us who call ourselves ‘designers’, but of engineers, scientists, gardeners and admen alike. Also, inside everyone, there lives a designer trying to get out. This includes our clients, our consumers and our children.
And while this wide constituency may criticise – but seldom take into their own hands – the law, science or education, they have no hesitation whatsoever in condemning, criticising or contributing to what they see as ‘designing’.
So design matters to a wide universe, and whether or not this universe can articulate the why, my own belief is that, objectively, we could all subscribe to the following ‘design beliefs’.
First among them is that design is the hope of the world. During a lecture he gave in Birmingham towards the end of his life, William Morris was asked by a member of the audience, ‘What is the purpose of Art and Design?’. He replied, ‘To give hope, madam, to give hope.’ Now, of course, the great man said this in a late Victorian context, but I firmly believe this to be as true for design today as it was 125 years ago. For in the 21st century, it is by design that we will address some of our planet’s major issues, including social and sustainability problems such as elegant and liveable urban environments; low-cost and low-impact energy; non-fossil fuel transportation; and better waste management. On the other hand, when we do bad work, it’s awful. There can be little doubt that bad design contributes to societal problems, adds to sustainability burdens and contributes nothing to the ideal of a happy life. This is a heavy cross for designers to bear.
Then again, design is that universal language capable like no other of transcending geographic, cultural and political boundaries. It is the most democratic of the arts, allowing as it does people to engage and participate both in its process and the result.
To this end, design is the least private of the arts – it is played out on a public stage, usually in full view of an interested and critical audience, which in many cases will also be its end-users. It is no wonder, then, that this same audience really cares and worries about the role design and designers play in shaping both the experience and meaning of the world we all share.
It has been suggested that 95 per cent of children under the age of five can be measured as creative (after the age of 25 this drops to 5 per cent). Is it any wonder, then, that the young are obsessed by creative possibilities? A child looks at the sky and sees dinosaurs, castles and whales, while we grown-ups see only clouds. Nurturing this creative curiosity and inquiry beyond childhood not only produces designers, but contributes to the aesthetic experience of life, in itself an important ingredient in shaping a society that is not only innovative, but also civil.
Whether we are looking for solutions to critical planetary issues, or simply better products or environments, design is the handmaiden to innovation, which itself is the bedrock of modern business. It is hard to imagine a successful 21st-century enterprise that does not have innovation and design at the heart of its strategy.
But innovation without purpose and meaning is an empty vessel. Look where it has led the financial services industry, rendering design ineffective – or worse, a sham. Successful enterprises as diverse as Apple and Tesco flourish on a continuing commitment to innovation, while businesses such as Ford or General Motors must reinvent themselves with a greater commitment to genuine innovation, where the design contribution goes beyond styling to deliver real customer and environmental advantage.
As an agent of change, design can deliver, while design thinking and innovation are critical if commerce (and not just a few cultural or societal institutions) are to flourish in a world that is increasingly dominated by visual imagery.
Those far-sighted and public-spirited founders of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal College of Art recognised that design was the umbilical cord that connects art and commerce to a successful society. It mattered to them. But finally, why does design really matter? Well, because it’s what you do, so care about it and do it well.