Why can’t design shine on TV?

The BBC’s Review Show last weekend featured a fascinating discussion about the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year exhibition.

The Review Show's panellists discuss design
The Review Show’s panelists discuss design

The three panelists – academic Sarah Churchwell, critic Paul Morley and novelist Sarfraz Mansoor – were full of enthusiasm about the exhibition. And not just about the exhibition – they talked about design itself with the zeal of the converted.

Churchwell said, ‘I must admit I went into the show with my heart slightly sinking, thinking, “What do I know about design?”, but anybody could go in and respond to it – it’s about the things that we all used in our daily lives.’

Morley suggested that contemporary designers are like philosophers and ‘good design prepares us for new ideas – this is where the future is.’

It’s incredibly rare to see such enthusiastic and intelligent discussion of design on television. It’s likely to get rarer still, this, of course, was the final episode of the Review Show.

TV commissioners have not been kind to design in recent years. There’s a range of ‘redecorate-your-house’ style interiors shows of course, and scenes in the Apprentice where long-suffering junior designers are patronised by blundering contestants, but beyond that, not much.

It wasn’t always this way. SeymourPowell’s Better by Design series is often cited as an exemplar of an intelligent and worthwhile design programme, but more recently I was reminded of Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan – a four-part Channel 4 show about the regeneration of Castleford through urban design screened back in 2008.

The Big Town Plan programme reportedly took almost seven years to produce, and was apparently seen as an indulgent failure by Channel 4.

Of course it’s challenging to produce good design coverage – almost as challenging as it is to produce good design. But if TV commissioners want – as Paul Morley says – to be where the future is, then they need to show a bit more commitment and a bit more ambition.

The Review Show’s final episode is available on iPlayer, until 6 April. Both Better by Design and Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan are available on 4od.

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