“This book,” says Richard Seymour’s covering letter with The Product Book, “defines the practice of product design at the end of the 20th century.” Blimey! Clearly Seymour, as president of British Design and Art Direction and a leading products man himself, has succeeded in his mission to move the organisation away from its obsession with advertising “creatives” towards something more tangible. As those creatives might say: he can talk the talk – but can he walk the walk?
The book is the fourth title in D&AD’s Mastercraft series. It’s a big lilac-coloured hardback, designed by Kate Stephens with cover by George Hardie in approximately the format of the original 1980s-model Blueprint. It is sponsored not only by D&AD, but also by the Design Council and British Steel, both of whom get to write puffs for themselves. It has an introduction by Catherine McDermott, author of the 20th Century Design book put out under the aegis of the Design Museum. There is a strong sensation of everyone pulling together for the common cause. Is there anything else?
Well, yes, if you like designers being totally self-indulgent about their own work; words and pictures are extracted from 29 leading product design people around the world who talk about how they do things. No critical commentary is vouchsafed. McDermott’s introduction tells us how fascinating the designers’ essays are, how unique “the Product Book” is. Um – isn’t that for the readers to decide?
The selection of names is carefully done. There are celebrities (Philippe Starck, James Dyson, Ross Lovegrove, Ron Arad, Marc Newson, Jasper Morrison), corporate design departments (Apple, Renault, Philips), big all-purpose design firms (Pentagram, Frogdesign, Ideo) fertile middle-rankers (Seymour Powell, Priestman Goode, Hollington, TKO, Alexander Neumeister) and the modish younger outfits; Jam, Lunar, Tangerine, Vent.
Apart from the celebs, who, being in couture, can do what they like, and specialists like Neumeister (which does transport design), all the mainstream designers – young or old, big or small – design much the same things in much the same way. Being good, they all try to push the boundaries just a little, and the pity is that you can see exactly how far they are allowed to. There are only a certain number of ways you can do a mobile phone or a notebook computer or a toaster, and you’ll see them all here.
They talk of professionalism, of responsibility, of respect for the environment, about problem-solving. About how nice it is to be in London, or Milan, or California. Starck is one of the few wealthy enough to say something different from this babble. Be prepared to turn down commissions, he says. If a perfectly good product in a given area already exists, don’t try to re-invent it. A client may think he wants a boat: maybe he should take up swimming instead.
Of course, we all know that Starck talks bollocks too, but at least it’s amusing bollocks. Unlike most of this book. It looks quite pretty as an object in its own right. But is it necessary, essential? No.
The Product Book is published in November by D&AD in association with Rotovision SA, priced £37.50