It was refreshing to hear Nick Butler’s call last week for the Royal Designers for Industry to make their voices heard further afield than the Royal Society for the Arts’ pedimented front entrance.
“I want the faculty of the RDI to stop having erudite conversations behind closed doors,” said Butler. His new title – Master of the Faculty of RDIs – is just the sort of crusty, Masonic-sounding moniker that he doesn’t need in trying to extend his audience. Still, his determination to offer the RSA’s “well of knowledge” for “the common good”, despite sounding suspiciously like he is conferring some sort of godly braindust on us all, is welcome. The tradition of most clubs for designers has been to cement the profession’s insularity rather than act as points of focus for positive action, directed outwardly.
Regrettably, designers spend far too much time talking to themselves and not enough addressing points of view to the world outside. This has accounted for the marginalisation of design. It is possible to count without the aid of anyone else’s fingers the number of British designers who represent a clear, emphatic standpoint on the role of design.
I don’t mean people who pound away on the theme of design as a mechanism for creating wealth and increasing competitiveness, to the exclusion of design’s other functions. There are far too many of those people as it is, since design must be about much more than lining the pockets of industry.
I mean designers who can see beyond the boundaries of their own business, who question the status quo.
Designers of consumer goods, for example, have enormous responsibilities towards users, the environment and society as well as to their client. Yet such individuals are the exception, not the rule. It is as if British designers have lost touch with how powerful and positive design can be.
Design has been reduced to a business, when its real duties go far beyond furnishing clients with commercially effective solutions and paying the rent. While they continue to bleat on about their usefulness as skivvies to industry, the respect and status that designers crave will elude them. Without shared values or convictions about the wider context of design, the design industry appears like a sponge, ready to be pushed, pulled and coloured by the people who pay its fees.
The failure of the design profession to express itself on issues that affect lives – such as safety, crime prevention, education, transport, healthcare and the environment – has hugely damaged its public standing. It is so far removed from important issues, and so connected with ephemera, that it has become trivial in the eyes of the public. Most of what consumers buy that they recognise as having been designed “professionally” – food packaging and so on – goes straight in the bin.
Branding and packaging specialists – those businesses most closely connected with marketing and manipulation – have been the most vocal elements of the design business in recent years. That’s a shame because they have the least to say. They employ PR agents, marketing teams and new- business development staff to help them compete with each- other. They have a large turnover of projects to publicise. They produce bits of “research” that offer resoundingly dumb insights – such as how supermarket products “aren’t shouting loud enough” (DW 3 November).
The small industrial design groups tackling more enduring problems cannot afford publicists and are able to make public only a limited amount of work. This is how the image has taken hold of design as a business populated by well-heeled, empty-headed individuals remote from the needs of society.
This perception is inaccurate and has to change. Design is not just a marketing tool. It is not just about building large consultancies. Designers and the organisations representing them have to reconnect with issues that are beyond the quest for new business. They need to reclaim a position of authority on major topics. News stories about ferry accidents, stress at work, classroom sizes, motorway pile-ups, care in the home, Internet access, rail privatisation, ethical food labelling, recycling and pressure group campaigns all offer the opportunity for input from designers. But when was the last time you saw a designer on News At Ten?