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It’s time designers latched on to the public popularity shown towards inventors, says Michael Evamy

Everyone loves an inventor. Designers, on the other hand, have no such hold on the popular imagination. Why so? Both claim to solve problems, addressing real needs of users and consumers. What they do isn’t so far removed from the other. Or is it? Which group is it that people feel closest to?

The recent BBC Design Awards encapsulated the complicated relationship between design and invention. The winning projects all began life as works of individual initiative, not as a closely-honed marketing brief.

In the products section was the most obvious invention of the lot: the Baygen clockwork radio. In this product, invention and design seem to be two distinct processes. The heart of the radio – its wind-up motor – was invented by Trevor Baylis and its body was given form by TKO’s Andy Davey. Annie Gardener, Davey’s partner, played a considerable role in helping to keep an unstable-looking project on track, and she likens the transition between the invention and design to a baton pass in a relay race: “The invention was a quantifiable idea but had to be handed on to someone else to communicate it. That’s what happened between Trevor and Andy: the articulation of the idea. Andy was giving the idea life, like an actor does to a character.”

The design of the radio went through many stages. At times it was a struggle, and TKO needed all its experience of Japanese consumer electronics development to keep the project going. But, if the BBC prize was to have gone to the designers who salvaged the most extraordinary result from barely promising circumstances, the Eurostar nose by Jones Garrard would have walked it. A machine for getting life-or-death information to remote Third World communities versus a front-end for a fast European train: which is the more impressive concept? Whether we are talking about a product doing good or the pangs of conscience of a first-world viewing audience, the radio had to win.

None of this means that the BBC Design Awards have honoured the wrong projects. What it does confirm is that inventions and inventors capture the public imagination and designers don’t. Most product designers claim to address the needs of ordinary people in their work, but those ordinary people wouldn’t agree. The most human person in the BBC Design Awards programme was Trevor Baylis. He wasn’t dressed in the designer uniform of a black suit, white shirt and no tie, and he took the opportunity of a platform on national TV to make a valuable point about industrial innovation.

Of course, it’s true that inventors are romantic figures anyway, the heroes and heroines of rags-to-riches tales. The longer they are ignored by business, the greater their achievement when they eventually hit paydirt. They take risks. They remortgage their houses and usually lose out. Only 2 per cent of the 4000 inventions patented each year by individuals in the UK ever reach production.

Inventors represent the little guy, showing up the myopia and lack of enterprise in industry. Frequently, inventors work with their hands and know how things work. Designers, on the other hand, are polished, professional people with the advantage of a university education – not the material of fairy tales. Still, there are not many designers who say they would like to be known as an inventor; it would imply that they were, in the words of one, “slightly bonkers”.

Bonkers they may be, but inventors are seen by people to be more in touch with humanity and everyday life. Baylis reflects opinion at large when he says: “The social and economic consequences of what inventors can do can be absolutely stunning. With design it’s not quite the same: people will eat their cornflakes whether they come from a cardboard box or a polythene bag.” Like it or not, people think design isn’t very important most of the time. It has become too closely associated with reducing product life-cycles and perpetuating modes of consumption that the planet cannot support. In the them-and-us consumer/retailer world, designers are very firmly one of them. The assumption has long since disappeared that when a product is redesigned it is better than it was before. Usually it is just different.

Designers can and do improve the quality of our lives, but in a very different way to inventors. The most successful inventors are stimulated by the basic needs that arise in society for new products. The needs that designers concern themselves with are of a smaller scale, to do with fit, weight, clarity and beauty. The case of the Baygen radio illustrates the difference, and demonstrates the power of meeting both levels of need. TKO packaged Baylis’s device to be robust, intelligible and attractive. Design turned the invention into an innovation.

Invention and design can be much more closely intertwined and produce stunning results, as they did in Julian Brown’s can crusher for Rexite, another BBC finalist. Brown came up with the double-handed action for the device, and by virtue of its symmetry, it could become a free-standing object. Recalls Brown: “at that stage, I didn’t have a design hat on, other than looking at the user. When you have the spark of the idea, you think how it might look, how it might be made.”

The most memorable consumer product innovations happen where invention and design are inseparable: George Carwardine’s Anglepoise lamp, Alex Moulton’s bicycle, Alec Issigonis’s Morris Mini Minor, Clive Sinclair’s Executive calculator and the Sony Walkman are a handful. There are also a host of ingenious design-inventions that we take for granted where the designer has been virtually forgotten: brilliant designs such as the Bic biro, the Swiss Army knife, the compact cassette and the credit card. There may also be a place in history for strokes of inventive design, where the perception of a conventional product has been questioned. Names that spring to mind are Philippe Starck for his Saba televisions, Mario Bellini for Olivetti’s Divisumma 18 calculator, Richard Sapper for the Tizio lamp and Achille Castiglione for just about everything. These designers produce exciting design with ambitions above and beyond the purely commercial. They do not underestimate the cultural significance of what they produce.

If design is to re-engage the interest of the public and the consumer, it needs to rediscover its spirit of invention. It is on the cusp of becoming unpopular with the general public. Designers too often fail to see their role beyond that of answering briefs and pleasing their clients. They leave college with the equipment for thinking critically about the minutiae of our lives, and the technical skill to do something about its shortcomings. The success of designer-inventors like Paul Priestman, James Dyson and Sebastian Bergne undoubtedly shows the value of taking the time to be inventive.

The profession needs to take a step sideways off the treadmill and remind itself of what being a designer could be about. It would be a start if some of the courage, conviction and humanity of Trevor Baylis were to rub off while he spends time in the strange world of design.

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