Bathed in creative talent

In this, his last appearance in Private View, Clive Grinyer extols the virtues of British design and argues that, as a nation, we are far from design philistines

Our homes are our castles, as they say, so it isn’t surprising to see the state of the nation over the past three decades represented by a home improvement retailer. The building supplier Wickes recently reminded us of our appetite in the 1970s for aluminium patio doors, our 1980s love of fitted kitchens, the 1990s romance with decking and the prediction that in the Noughties the bathroom will become a Japanese wet room. But, as The Guardian version of the article concluded, this being design, the British will probably never quite get it.

Why should they think that? Never has there been so much design in Britain. From Llewelyn-Bowen to McCartney, Foster to Dyson, Sainsbury’s and Boots the Chemists, restaurants and pubs, an international reputation for creativity, design and innovation. Why would you think Britain doesn’t get design?

Despite what we perceive, for most in Britain design is a ‘good thing’. Although financial journalists love to applaud entrepreneurs who shun design, big business and its representatives are supporters and would find it hard to say otherwise. Society is interested in invention, innovation and design. They get them mixed up, of course, and always vote for catseyes and Concorde as their favourite designs, but luckily they don’t shop or buy by those criteria.

But when they go to work, something seems to happen. The interest in ingenuity and invention turns into a passion for object, rather than people. Making it cheaper, more efficiently (though ironically, rarely environmentally sustainable) and competitive, response, rather than innovation, is the norm. There is wonderful innovation in the country and every now and then we lump it all together and take it round the world, but there could be so much more.

Experience tells us we have very real cultural problems regarding design. We have world leading scientific research, but are poor at creating marketable applications. We have great engineers, but conflict with human-centred design harms our ability to create international success. Companies rely on marketing, focus groups or their own perceptions and miss real needs or future innovation. Design is something on TV, and at work it is done by designers when you need a brochure, website or product.

However, design can do a lot more and effect most aspects of life. It’s not a ‘thing’ done by a different breed of people – ‘designers’, but by those who discern design as a way of thinking and have faith in its outcomes. It’s a simple faith because its components are so easy to understand. You put the end user first. You visualise perfection. You view the possibilities and mix them together in various combinations. You help others decide and set a unified direction that often results in innovation and always in the creation of something better than what went before. You need many skills along the way and an ability to think creatively, but anyone can do it – though, like anything, some are better than others.

Working recently with manufacturing companies, I’ve seen designers effect huge change in companies in just a few hours. Have they sprinkled magic dust over the directors or left enough sketches for the next three years’ product development? No, they just focused on what companies were doing and why. The most common quotes from companies were: ‘We were thinking of doing that’, ‘We’ve discussed this many times’, ‘It’s just common sense really’. So why hadn’t they done it before?

Sometimes, what designers say is so simple, so obvious, but in the blind rush of daily survival, it gets shelved. The time to step back and see the big picture is never there. Until design is needed. There is your chance. To do that brochure or create that product you have to know who it’s for and what the benefit is. There are tactical answers to those questions, and there are strategic ones. Difficult argumentative designers challenging what a business stands for with no knowledge of the customer? It’s a difficult moment, but one to grasp and take the journey.

So I disagree. Britain wants to and will get design, and not just in the bathroom. Evidence is in the thriving design press and world leading, effective design bodies that have been, or are about to be, re-energised by dynamic young leaders. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get design out of the spotlight and under the skin of Britain. But don’t just leave it to them, it’s what you do that’ll make the difference.

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