In search of a little lift

The wet, dull summer has left Tim Rich feeling a bit down. He eventually finds a design tonic in the most unlikely venues of Sainsbury’s and Fishguard.

Do you remember a series of ads for a cooking product called Cookeen? A sort of over-smiling, over-researched young “mother” stirred Cookeen into her flour, giving it fantastic properties. Her awful screen family would munch one of her culinary creations (I think sausage rolls and cheese sticks may have been involved) and start to float, grinning inanely. This somewhat hallucinatory incident would be followed by the words “Give it a little lift with Cookeen”.

I mention this piece of cultural detritus because, absurd though it sounds, I can think of no better way to visualise the effect of seeing or hearing a good piece of design thinking for the first time. Whatever the media, however basic the function, it should make everything around you stop for a second and hover your thoughts above the norm.

The awful gurning Cookeen woman has been haunting me recently, partly due to our English summer being so limp and grey and because nothing’s excited me design-wise either. Bland clouds have been winning a wrestling match with a pallid sun, reflecting what’s been happening on the ground.

Then PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ new “visual identity” was published, taking corporate design into the realm of photocopying accidents, and the sun was completely thrown out of the ring.

I’m pleased to report that a whiff of warm pastry has returned to my nostrils within the last week, for not only has the sun leapt back into the fray and delivered a Kendo Nagasaki-style forearm smash, but small examples of design intelligence have popped up out of the blue too. The first was outside my local Sainsbury’s. Resplendent in corporate orange were a pair of three-wheeled cycle taxis. Designed to carry two passengers, loads of bags plus driver, it’s a cool-looking vehicle that can transport shoppers anywhere in the greater Islington area for a reasonable fee. It brings your recyclable rubbish back to the shop too. The battery on the bike only operates the lights, so either the driver is bionic or we’re talking about a pretty mean piece of mechanical design here.

I think the bike taxis are brilliant. With Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott threatening to dehubcapitate London’s drivers, it’s an example of someone getting off their arse (literally, in the case of going up Pentonville Road) and offering an innovative new transport service. A tilt of the hat to Sainsbury’s for giving the bike people space, creating a spectacularly good leaflet explaining the service and branding the vehicle with such élan.

Later that week I found myself in Fishguard. For the sake of narrative continuity I’d like to say the weather in Wales was bakingly hot, but in truth it was wetter than a haddock’s swimming trunks. However, a few hours spent wandering around the West Wales Arts Centre, talking to its owner and champion of local creativity, Myles Pepper, bought some rays of sunlight. Unlike the way we tend to view things in the capital, Pepper sees no great division between the worlds of art and design. He’s attempting to inspire greater design awareness locally, pointing out that areas like his need to find fresh ways to attract visitors, investment and interest.

Some of Pepper’s activities are as small as encouraging local restaurateurs to pay for designers to create menus instead of getting a friend who can draw to a “have a stab at doing something nice”. Yet it takes word-of-mouth stuff like this to get things moving. Design at a local level is about a chain reaction of trying to do things better. The problems faced by designers living and working in remote parts of the UK are real – both budgets and design understanding are generally low – but they have sidetracked the debate by talking about aesthetics and ethics. Better design at a local level is important not because of flouncey ideas or the rights of employing local people just because they’re local, but because it helps the area compete. If the Fishguard initiative means people and businesses in that bit of Pembrokeshire do better than others then may their sun shine brightly.

Finally, I’d also like to offer a nod of appreciation to the following for giving me some more design-inspired Cookeen moments: the people behind the sleeve design of the new Ministry of Sound CD Clubber’s Guide to… Ibiza for (quite rightly) elevating Intro’s Christmas 98 T-shirt to icon status; to French Connection for continuing to use fcuk even though it has fcuked some people off; and – on the eve of the new football season – to the team behind the redesigned Chelsea club newspaper Onside, who have turned a complete donkey into an assured player.

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