Come together

As design bodies sort themselves out, Jeremy Myerson explains why 1996 could be a bumper year

You can only speculate on the New Year resolutions of those charged with running the UK’s professional and promotional design bodies. But inside the design community, the strongest wish is that it will work together more closely in 1996 to initiate the changes in perception and practice that designers so badly want to see.

The sound of so many different and sometimes contradictory voices in design in recent years has produced a veritable tower of design babble which has often confused clients and government policy-makers alike. Many designers demand one coherent voice to speak on their behalf, but given the different remits and backgrounds of the various design organisations, that is a practical impossibility.

So what are the realistic options for engineering change through a coordinated approach? Can our design bodies work in tandem and not at cross-purposes? Ironically, given the chequered recent past of so many of design’s leading institutions, 1996 offers the most promising prospects for a decade.

Looking back to 1986, we can now see with the glorious benefit of hindsight that it was a pivotal year for the institutional infrastructure of design in the UK. Not only was Design Week launched and the Business Design Centre opened, but the Design Business Association was set up as the UK’s first commercial trade body for design consultancies.

The Society of Industrial Artists and Designers finalised its plans for a name change to the Chartered Society of Designers and an expensive move to Post-Modern-styled headquarters at Bedford Square in London. And in 1986 the Boilerhouse Project left the Victoria & Albert Museum for Butlers Wharf, to become the Design Museum under director Stephen Bayley.

The Royal Society of Arts, home of the Royal Designers for Industry, developed an ambitious expansion scheme involving the remodelling of its Vaults in London’s John Adam Street. British Design and Art Direction, part of the personal fiefdom of Edward Booth-Clibborn, similarly contemplated enhanced premises and ways to give design a higher profile within an advertising-dominated club.

As for the government-funded Design Council, this still operated on the expansive post-war model as defined by Gordon Russell and Paul Reilly. It ran a design centre, shop and café, was staffed by more than 200 people and was blissfully unaware of what was to come, first under engineer Ivor Owen and later as a result of John Sorrell’s dramatic review.

Back in 1986, as the design boom gathered pace on the high street, the UK’s design bodies clearly had grand plans of their own. But since the design bubble burst at the end of the Eighties, things have been tough going. Subscriptions have faltered, support has waned, external perceptions of design have suffered. Many of the design organisations have limped through the early Nineties, crippled by the backfiring of their own expansion plans.

In 1996, however, they can all, to varying degrees, look forward to a little light at the end of the tunnel. The Design Business Association, very lean and fit over the past decade, can anticipate its tenth anniversary with some confidence. Its commercial remit is perhaps the most unambiguous – exports and training are trade issues people readily understand – and its structure under current chairman Jonathan Sands has been designed to promote more effective interaction with other bodies (DW 8 December 1995). DBA member consultancies are already in a new colour directory and can look forward to being on CD-ROM and the Internet in 1996.

A bigger question mark hangs over its sister organisation and landlord, the Chartered Society of Designers, which has been wrestling with running debts of around 1m since the excesses of the late Eighties. Frequently, the wisdom of struggling on amid such dire financial straits has been questioned and people have argued for the CSD to be wound up and a new organisation started up in its place. But the CSD emerges blinking into the daylight of 1996 with a deal on the table to get rid of Bedford Square and move to cheaper London premises. Over the next five years, the debt burden could be eased by at least 250 000, and the move is likely to be an enormous psychological boost for the CSD, offering a fresh start.

Money matters also dominate consideration of the Design Museum, which has been locked into a grim downward spiral of survival after the early promise of Butlers Wharf. Government backing has been conspicuously absent as the museum has been forced to cut and trim, and benefactor Sir Terence Conran has been forced to dig deep into his own pockets.

Nearly seven years on from the 1989 launch of the museum, director Paul Thompson has kept the ship afloat with a mix of personality-focused popular exhibitions (for example, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Smith) and a clutch of Department of Trade and Industry commissions to stage design shows overseas. But should the Design Museum, our flagship of design history and contemporary culture, be constantly deflected from its core purpose to feed off the scraps of Government contracts just to survive? It is an issue for the entire design industry to debate in 1996.

Not all new ventures have come unstuck financially. The RSA’s successful development of its Vaults as a conference and entertainment venue has done much to secure its own financial future. In 1996, the RSA can look forward to enhancements to its prestigious Student Design Awards and a more crusading role by the Royal Designers for Industry, whose new master Nick Butler has pledged to put his head above the parapet to shape a new agenda with fellow RDI’s.

Even D&AD, at one stage a hopeless case, has emerged afresh from the traumas surrounding Edward Booth-Clibborn’s acrimonious departure with a more coherent, less elitist strategy in place under Anthony Simonds-Gooding and David Kester – especially in education, with Vicky Sargent advising the organisation. The presidential work of first Aziz Cami of The Partners and then Lewis Moberly’s Mary Lewis has also made serious inroads in putting design back on the map within D&AD.

The Design Council begins 1996 with its messy transition period largely behind it, not withstanding the debacle over its own corporate identity. New managers are in place and a clutch of new initiatives for this year include a Design in Business Week, a Design in Education Week and the reported relaunch of the Design Council Awards. Local design support groups have been set up to aid the Business Links and the first substantial results of the Design Council’s research programme to build new knowledge on the design process are anticipated in a year regarded as make-or-break in giving substance to chairman John Sorrell’s rhetorical vision.

Sorrell’s passionate belief in creating prosperity and well-being through design finds echoes in Nick Butler’s espousal of social market responsibility as a designer, just as the CSD’s design education programme has similar objectives to those of D&AD. Remember that Sorrell and CSD president Stefan Zachary are both former chairmen of the DBA. It is a bit like musical chairs; everyone belongs, broadly speaking, to the same community. So why can’t there be greater coordination between bodies?

There have been attempts. The inter-body Design Forum was established by former RSA director Christopher Lucas for just such a purpose. After many fruitless meetings, the Design Forum is a dead duck. Lucas now claims it was never intended to provide a single voice for design – it was simply a mechanism to reduce friction and fragmentation between competing bodies. If that was really the case, then it was doomed from the start to be yet another club.

Last summer, as the Royal Institute of British Architects launched its unprecedented Strategic Study on the future of architecture, I argued in Design Week (30 June 1995) for the design profession to make a similar coordinated response. The professional bodies expressed interest but nobody could see how to achieve it. All ways forward were routed into the Design Council, whose control over a modest 200 000 conduit funding budget for design projects still looks the best bet for some kind of single thrust in design, but whose Department of Trade and Industry’s remit works against any holistic campaign on behalf of designers.

Just like the Design Forum, the Design Council doesn’t want the “single design voice” burden thrust on its shoulders. It has its own patch to tend. So do all the other organisations. And the reality is that in 1996 they will all defend their own corners as tenaciously as ever.

In this context, it is instructive to observe two of the organisations featured in Project 2045, the Design Council’s current “design futures” exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall. Both the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation express the fervent wish that, in 50 years’ time, they will have been closed down because their ideas and action have been so successful. At present, it is hard to imagine any British design body, whose strongest instinct is self-preservation, adopting a similar attitude.

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