Critical masses

Design is rarely featured on prime-time TV, but an ITV series is about to change this.

Television and design do not always make the best bedfellows. Sure, there have been some examples of well thought-out programmes that do design justice: Channel 4’s Better by Design and Designs on your… series with Richard Seymour and Dick Powell; last autumn’s BBC Design for Life series, which included journalist Marcus Fairs’ profile of Philippe Starck; and BBC2’s 2003 series Designing the Decades, which revisited the nation’s design heritage, from the 1960s to the 1990s.

But on prime-time terrestrial TV that is pretty much the only airing design has had in recent times. All too often, design is tarred with the home makeover brush. ‘Proper’ designers fume about this, seeing the programme-makers’ appropriation of their term as verging on blasphemous.

But in the next few months the subject of design will be lighting up our screens from an unlikely source. In January and February, ITV is dedicating its precious 7.30-8pm Tuesday slot to a six-part series on the history of everyday design classics.

Made for the Masses champions common items such as the Brown Betty teapot, Polyprop stacking chair, British road signage system, McLaren baby buggy, postbox and Anglepoise lamp. As well as the standard design fodder, the programme goes off-piste with the custard cream biscuit, the string vest and the duffel coat.

These products are discussed in a way that would be palatable to even the most design- illiterate man on the street. There are comments from design pundits and celebrities, insight into the products’ origins and development, and a bit of musing on the value of design.

The celebrities – Roland Rivron et al – come in the form of talking heads, reminiscing about their experience of the individual products. Not much meat there, but the pundits do better. Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn is lucid and informative, and Seymour and Powell, as well as making an appearance for the cordless kettle, double up as commentators.

The most interesting parts, however, are the stories of the design processes. For these, ITV has rooted out the inventors and designers themselves. For road signage, there is Margaret Calvert, who developed the graphics with Jock Kinneir. Not only did they design a new typeface, but the spacing between letters was carefully considered so that each word could be read at a distance. Calvert explains how the girl in the girl-and-boy-crossing-the-street sign was modelled on her as a child, right down to the bobbed hair cut. The animation of their road symbols – from leaping deer to snowflakes – is a joy to watch.

Then there’s the arctic explorer explaining that as well as string vests, string pants were made. These didn’t catch on as the string dug into the skin, creating a condition commonly known as ‘waffle arse’.

All this is pulled together by the show’s presenter, Oliver King. A product designer, King runs a strategic design consultancy, Engine. It is up to him to expound the virtues of design and explain the criteria for choosing the products.

It’s good for the design industry to see one of their own on the box, with a genuine enthusiasm for the products he’s introducing. Having King there means the viewer is taken through the design process in an interesting way.

However, some of his musings sound a bit clunky: ‘I guess, in hindsight, good design is obvious,’ or, ‘Good design is about choice: we choose to use certain things and therefore we make them great,’ or even, ‘Invention is coming up with something new. Innovation is coming up with something that people actually want.’ None of these maxims bear scrutiny, but nor do they detract from the enjoyment of the programme.

Made for the Masses shows that good design doesn’t have to be expensive or exclusive, and helps to claw back ‘design’ from the ‘designer’ label. That’s one in the eye for Starck, then.

For industry insiders, there’s a cameo appearance in episode three’s Dr Martens package. Watch out for a skinhead-style Nick Bell of Una cavorting around a housing estate in a pair of DMs.

Six-part series Made for the Masses, on ITV1, begins on Tuesday 11 January, 7.30pm

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