Seditious stirrings

At this time of cuts and upheaval, design needs to be at the forefront of emerging radical thinking. Adrian Shaughnessy is encouraged by the social focus he finds among students


Something is stirring in the basement of British public life. Rioting students, politicians called to account for broken election promises, and near universal disgust with taxavoiding corporations and greedy bankers. Even Prince Charles was attacked on his way to the theatre (as an arch traditionalist, the heir to the throne should be pleased about this: there is a noble tradition of attacks on royalty. It really is part of the job).

What are the implications of all this unrest for design? We can be sure of one thing: the world of professional design will never be the same again. For a start we’ve witnessed the emergence of a new student radicalism. And although I’ve seen it dismissed as ‘a middle-class revolt’ and as a ‘misguided manifestation of youthful political immaturity’, it seems to me to be something more deep-rooted than either of these descriptions.

Over recent decades the young have been regarded as non-ideological, overtly passive and unengaged with the political process. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this: it always seemed an oversimplification. But now it’s plain to see that there really is a generation that takes politics seriously and has a world view that is idealistic and political, yet uncoloured by the dreary machinations of Westminster (so effectively exposed by the MPs’ expenses scandal).

This is not an overnight phenomenon. For some time now I’ve been watching the emergence of a new type of design student. I’ve seen it repeatedly in the numerous visits I’ve made to design schools over the past five or six years. Where once I encountered students designing CD covers and indulging in the cult of the ‘designer as author’, I now see students working on projects with a social focus. In other words, they are using design skills to help others – or, to use that slightly goofy-sounding phrase, ‘trying to make the world a better place’.

This shift in the student psychological ecosystem raises many questions. Will colleges be producing enough graduates to keep the design production-line flowing?Will there be enough designers to produce the branding, packaging and messaging demanded by design’s corporate paymasters? Will students emerging on to the job scene in the next few years have the market-oriented sensibilities to be of any use?

There may even be a more urgent threat to the supply of oven-ready graduates for the design industry. The Browne Report has recommended that the Government should be free to withdraw public funding from all but ‘priority’ subjects. And guess what? The arts and humanities are not regarded as priorities. So if, as seems likely, the Government withdraws all funding for arts and humanities higher education, the effect on the UK design industry is likely to be farreaching. We may begin to see clients routinely sending design briefs to China, India and Brazil. 

My own view is that a head-to-toe reassessment of the role of design is the best thing that could happen to designers. The more design is placed at the forefront of the radical new thinking around finance, urban living and social change, the more likely it is to prosper in an increasingly global and automated world where knowledge is the most valuable commodity. We may be in for a painful period of readjustment as old ideas of design’s value and its role in the marketplace is reassessed. (We’ve already seen what is happening to design budgets: they are falling.) But as new ways of using design and new priorities for designers emerge, the future will begin to look warmer. Well, warmish.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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