Tim Rich: An explanation of values

Designers are literally shaping the world as they never have before, according to Tim Rich, which brings both enormous opportunities and responsibilities

I have just received a brochure flogging home design products, including a ‘Shaker-style kitchen’. It seems this isn’t a reference to fittings that might inspire you to sketch ideas for a new kind of apple peeler while experiencing spiritual convulsions. Rather, it is an insinuation that this kitchen is true to Shaker design values.

To my eye, however, the units look a double-dovetail joint short of divine. Shaker values don’t inform the very fabric and construction of the work; they have been applied as a veneer – a visual sales pitch to a generation of home-owners potentially aroused by the promise of traditional craft, modernist simplicity and post-industrial pricing.

I find this borrowing of honest and thoughtful design principles offensive. I’m not suggesting that all makers of Shaker-style kitchens should become gyrating non-conformists, but to invoke the name without some commitment to quality is dishonest.

Believing in an omniscient God inspired the Shakers to consider what they were doing and why. The best Shaker craft-workers thought as much about what was hidden from human view as what was on show. Well, if God is everywhere you better make sure everything looks good and works well.

Some Shakers believed angels walked the corridors between their male and female dormitories. Aware that weary spirits might need to sit, they created the most comfortable chairs they could – an interesting variation on design that impacts the bottom line. As monk and poet Thomas Merton notes: ‘The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that an angel might come and sit on it.’

The Shakers’ vision and spirit has been on my mind because I’ve been examining hundreds of brochures, websites and other self-promotional items from groups. This experience has left me wondering why so few groups have any wider view of what they do and why they do it. Most appear content to offer an outline of their services and previous clients, introduced by a wodge of copy about their ‘unique combination of creativity and strategy’.

Some consultancies go a little further and present an ethos based on the premise that good design improves things. But the notion of design-as-improvement only means something when it is informed by a set of criteria, and criteria demand values and purpose. ‘This new design work is better’ is a subjective assessment – a case must be made for why it is better, and that means having a world view.

It is the ‘why?’ questions that designers are often failing to answer. Many seem incapable of explaining why new work is better without resorting to the lazy maxim that ‘it meets the client’s brief’. But what if the brief could be ‘better’?

Lack of values and purpose make for dull reading. How much more engaging and differentiated self-promotional items would be if they made a case for why that particular design company’s work is valuable in the broadest sense. That means explaining its value to clients, to employees and to users/readers, but also to the public and to the world. If you believe in what you do, is that so hard?

The irony here is that design is now embedded in almost everything that surrounds us – brands, products, services, infrastructure, interiors, media, communications, objects. Designers are literally and metaphorically shaping the world as never before. That brings both massive opportunities and responsibilities. Is it not time to be less timid about what design does, to be less limited in talking about why we design and what effect we have? Or is having a larger purpose and values simply an old fashioned way of approaching design in the consumer age?

Writing in the letters page (DW 15 November 2001), Alex Cameron and Kelly Al-Saleh state that the function of a designer should be separated from the business of moral fulfilment. The role of the (graphic) designer is, they say, only ‘to communicate the ideas of others in the best and most effective way possible’. Interesting, but this position fails to acknowledge that in choosing to help a client a designer is inevitably making a moral choice, and is partly responsible for the effects of that client’s activities. Design does not take place in a moral vacuum. Work for the BNP and you help promote its values. Work for BT and you promote its. Designers should be free to work for any (legal) company, but must also understand and accept the responsibility that goes with design effectiveness.

Latest articles