Stop making ant sense

Study the actions of your fellow designers… and you may be left feeling perplexed. Tim Rich is certainly mystified, as he observes some peculiar design industry behaviour patterns.

I have always been a sucker for TV programmes about strange phenomena. As a child I would employ all manner of techniques to ensure I got to see the leisurely sandaled Arthur C Clarke walk around Sri Lanka talking about how people from the future might have helped build the pyramids; or that the disappearance of ships and ‘planes in the Bermuda Triangle was down to a large cod called Brian.

The pub conversation version of such programmes can also be entertaining. It usually starts with some lagernaut of an acquaintance revealing that they believe the abduction of sheep by Venusians is commonplace and has been hushed up by the shadowy men and women of MI25 (the intelligence department that ensures truth seekers go round in circles, slowly).

The pub conversation then – if this is possible – degenerates as people start reeling off seemingly unfathomable, but oft-heard mysteries, like why do you never see baby pigeons in London? Or how does the person who drives the snowplough get to work?

I had one of these conversations this week, but it was – sad to say – all about design in the UK. It started when someone pointed out there are thousands of designers under the age of 40, but far, far fewer who are older than 40. Look around your studio and do the maths; what’s the ratio of youngsters to crinklies? Five to one? Ten to one? Twenty-five to one?

So where do designers go when they reach a certain age? Is there some equivalent of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang who sniffs around consultancies in pursuit of mature creative talent? What do people in this industry do at that point in their life? Have crises and move to a macrame- and marmalade-making commune in the Hebrides? Throw their pencils away and become stockbrokers? Join the circus?

Then we have the “impossible mathematics of awards” mystery – a numerical enigma that would cause a woolly migraine in the normally Sabatier-sharp minds of Hercule Poirot or Jim Taggart. “What is this?” I hear you gasp. It is based on the strange equation you get when you try to balance the huge number of designers who say “Oh, I don’t care about winning awards” with the massive number of entries sent in to British Design & Art Direction. The figures don’t add up, the equation cannot hold. Indeed, in secret tests conducted by MI25, even Carol “Darth” Vorderman had to admit defeat. So are the mums and dads of designers paying to get their progeny’s produce recognised? Does a poltergeist wizz round studios late at night filling in the entry forms and sending the work off (complete with signed cheque and a wrongly spelt credit for the illustrator)? Is the estimable David Kester an accomplished hypnotist?

Then there is the mystery of (cue Twilight Zone music) “the design company’s marketing brochure”. Why, even when every studio I know has always set out to make it a priority, does it always take exactly 18 months to complete the brochure? It’s never a year, never two years – always 18 months. What happens during the process of making this item to ensure that it ends up taking exactly this amount of time? Is there a lecture at design college that I haven’t heard about called “Why your own marketing brochure must take exactly 18 months to complete”?

And what of the “great colour conundrum”? Which can be described thus: The industry is a kaleidoscope of people who are sophisticated in terms of imagery and visual matters, and who enjoy expressing their individuality.

I have sat in meetings where two designers have discussed the very finest nuances of colour in a way that suggested they had bionic sensitivity in the eye department. “We want to achieve a fine Chardonnay yellow here”; “Oh no, I think we’re talking something a little more Chablis, surely.” And yet half the design industry wears black, from collar to soles, almost every day of the week. Is it a code – some sign of belonging to the Worshipful Company of Mousers and Pencil Weavers? Are they burnt out from years of microscopic attention to hues and tones, so the black is symbolic of their exhaustion? Or is it because it reduces reflections on the screen of their computer?

These conundrums go to the very heart of the British design industry and I think we all deserve some answers. If you have vital information relating to any of these mysteries, please let either me or Arthur C Clarke know.

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