Britain’s uncreative approach to design

Monday, July 18, 2011

A preoccupation with social engineering hampers the innovative and wealth-generating potential of design.

The ‘Made by Britain’ initiative, launched by UK business secretary Vince Cable, intends to highlight British manufacturing and design ingenuity. The plan is to create an equivalent to the Great Exhibition of 1851, only this time it will be in the form of an online interactive map plotting where everything we’re good at exists. Cable thinks the public has a negative view of our manufacturing and design capability, and he wants to prove them wrong.

Who’s he kidding? What Cable has actually produced is a website and a series of nominations by MPs for random stuff made in their constituencies.  The list includes the Aga cooker, Young’s fish fingers, McCain Smiley Potato Faces, McVitie’s custard creams, The Flight Caddy innovative golf-club case, Great Heck cask ales and last, but not least, the SCA Toilet Roll!

There are, thankfully, a few more serious contenders, such as the technology used in the Rolls Royce Trent engine and the HRN3 Hydrogen Generator. But judging from the Made by Britain website, it would appear that the public is right: we don’t have much to show for our once-glorious industrial past. And when it comes to design—another of Cable’s key components for a successful economy—we continue to behave as if we still rule the roost whilst forgetting the basics.

This was apparent at last month’s Design for Growth summit, which was jointly organised by the Design Council and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). It was an event meant to re-launch the Design Council, which this year had its role as adviser to government severely curtailed. It has been reduced to a charity status organisation with a paltry budget of £4million. It was also forced to merge with another floundering organisation, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE).

In an attempt to raise spirits at the summit, we duly paid homage to Apple’s design god Jonathan Ive. As always, Ive gave an interesting insight into what it is like to work in one of the world’s most innovative companies. He said Apple’s success comes down to the fact that everything they do is geared towards perfecting their products, above making money. However, the discussion’s focus on the physicality of Ive’s and Apple’s design output belied the role of other factors that have played crucial parts in the company’s success: technological innovation and Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s renowned business acumen and risk-taking approach. Jobs famously insists that Apple never tests its products with customers, instead trusting to instinct that its products can lead customer expectations. Rather than a discussion that could usefully put design in its place amongst the set of skills that make up a great company, we were left with an overinflated impression of the importance of Ive’s nevertheless brilliant design.

Good design can be as much a beneficiary of earlier technological innovation as it can be the spur for it in the first place. But in reality, as reporter Evan Davis pointed out in hisMade in Britain series on BBC2, we are largely a nation working in services. The majority of design’s contribution is in the marketing of innovative ideas, not in leading their creation or manufacture. Hence, as the Design Council’s own research points out, while £15 billion is spent on design services, when broken down, much of that design output is done on a small scale. The vast majority of the UK’s 232,000 designers are either freelance workers or employed in small teams of one to four people; 49 per cent of all designers who work in businesses bring in less than £50,000 per year. The majority of them (62 per cent) work in marketing and communications, while only 11 per cent work in product or industrial design.

David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science, introduced the government’s case for design at the summit, promising the government will continue to pay note of design’scontribution to the economy’s recovery. Willetts focused on ‘manufacturing firms and particularly those with advanced manufacturing capability’, but the problem is that the UK hasn’t got many people with the right kind of design skills, nor much of a healthy manufacturing base to make use of them. So the question is: are we re-skilling our nation of designers for the times ahead? It seems not. Even more problematic is that design is suffering an identity crisis that will further detract from anyone wishing to benefit from a much-needed dose of creativity.

The present Lib-Con coalition government could be excused for being confused about design. When New Labour and the Design Council (before its role was reduced) got together, they did much to detract from promoting design as a skill for helping business be more creative, and instead spent more effort on using it as a tool for social engagement. Hence, just like the political class, the design establishment was busy reinventing itself as a service defined by the outcomes of focus groups, to the detriment of designers’ own skill and expertise. The Lib-Cons have done much to continue in this vein.

For some time now, many of the most high-profile design initiatives promoted by the Design Council and other leading designers have been all about solving various social problems as diverse as bike theft, curbing violent behavior in pubs and more recently using design to calm aggression towards staff inhospital accident and emergency departments. While these projects sound worthy and innovative, they provide cover for the fact that politicians and other professionals have failed to resolve these problems. The broader effect has been that businesses, who might benefit more from design input, have missed out while receiving mixed signals about what design can do for them.

Another example of the use of design to explore social goals is housing. There is a serious shortage of good housing in the UK, yet the focus of the discussion at Design for Growth was on how to build within the government’s localism agenda. Television presenter Kevin McCloud, speaking of his joint venture called Hab Oakus, said ‘we try to build very distinctive special projects that look like they belong where they are’. By focusing on design, the elephant in the room – the fact that many areas of the UK have been off-limits to housing – can be ignored. Architect Jim Eyre, a former member of CABE, explained that ‘cost should not be your sole measure, civic pride is actually incredibly important’. But that tends to put reinforcing existing communities above the need for creating entirely new towns. It also means that new developments become over-designed to the extent that individuals will find it hard to adapt such spaces for their own needs.

In contrast to Jonathan Ive’s approach, architects, civil servants and town hall planners all see engaging communities and stakeholders in the process as just as important as the final end product. In the words of Richard McCarthy, the civil servant in charge of delivering the government’s Localism Bill, ‘government wants to see more growth done in a way that connects people to that growth… where it will strengthen the local story’. This suggests scaling down ambitions to existing ideas of local needs, not using design to lead people towards new and better ways of doing things.

These are difficult times for design. For some designers, these socially focused projects come as a relief since they personally struggle to equate design with making stuff, preferring if it were less about things and more about some higher moral purpose. Hence design commentators like the Guardian’s Justin McGuirk remarked on Twitter that ‘If the #designsummit11 can teach politicians one thing: design is not just for achieving “growth”.’

Although design is not just about the pursuit of growth, when it becomes bogged down with social renewal and engagement, any creativity that truly pushes boundaries gets lost amongst the policy-making and box-ticking. Although we should be wary of those who yearn for design education to go back to basics in the form of teaching craft-based skills, there have been few proponents who argue for design on its own terms, as something that can unlock much needed skills of creativity, objectivity, problem-solving and risk-taking.

Thankfully there are some glimmers of hope. Take industrial designers Priestmangoode’s example of how to solve the problem of extending the high-speed rail network without incurring huge costs needed to build new platforms and of having to renovate existing ones. Its moving platforms concept involves connecting a high-speed train with a local train whilst moving alongside each other, letting passengers transfer between each train without needing to get off.

Transport, like housing and many other areas, deserves many more such radical ideas. But in order to do so we need to accept that good design is as much about putting the case for innovation—in all its forms—regardless of the prevailing political outlook. The more we release that creativity, the better the outcomes will be for all of us, whether we want to rebuild society or otherwise. Then those MPs will have far more exciting examples to choose from when they want to promote the best of British.