Comment: Design in denial

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For many people today ‘good’ design doesn’t appeal; instead it must be ‘worthy’. That’s a real problem. 

In fact, design is in a state of denial, hiding behind social, environmental or moral arguments unable to convince us of its true worth. It’s a paradoxical truth that although we have an abundance of talent, materials, technology and resources, we are unable to explain design in its own terms.

Nowadays, design is justified in terms of being sustainable and ethically responsible without much debate. Consequently many have become shy to defend aspects of good design that we’ve previously taken for granted. After all design is the result of how we able to process and master resources, taming them for our consumption and use.

But who will today stand up (unless you are Jeremy Clarkson) and commend a car’s design for its increased speed or added performance, or because it uses materials in novel and innovative ways? Gone are the days when we could admire the beautiful chrome styling of a 50’s American motorcar, without it being derided for being wasteful?

If we are not careful, design itself will become characterised as irresponsible, only enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Even worse, it will only be enjoyed by a select few individuals—the rest of society being excluded from its benefits.

We have two choices—both as designers and as those who consume and use it. Either we continue to accept cultural and political limits widespread in society, including sustainability to the accepting of personal responsibility for the state of the world around us; or we stand firm insisting that design can only excel once free from constraints and agendas.

We are at a unique era. Our potential to innovate could be greater than at any other time. But we just seem unable to summon up the will to do it. Talk of creativity and innovation remains just that. And where our lives aren’t beset by problems, we have lost enthusiasm for how design can also bring pleasure.

Today we need innovation and creativity that can solve problems and also to recreate who we are. To do so, the designer, engineer, architect and so on must be free to use their experience, objectivity, creativity and ingenuity to provide us with answers that many think are insurmountable or even unimaginable. Done well, we should have a inspired world fit for the future.

Of course ignoring your own moral, personal and political framework is always hard. But design is one of those activities that we can only excel at once the designer is free from any limiting constraints. Without a clear vision and perspective, what is left might not be good enough.

More than ever, we need designers who are able to stand up and defend design for its own sake. That includes design that is useful, beautiful, pleasurable and even wasteful—or all of these things. Unless we do so, we’ll always be left wondering what we missed out on. How boring that would be.

In stark contrast, today, many including the government, ministers, local councils, policy wonks, design commentators and institutions and funding organisations including the British Council, Design Council et al, want to use design for other things. Most notably to help resolve wider social issues such as social inclusion, access to health and education performance. But by doing so, we are at risk of losing what design has to offer, because it is becoming sidetracked in the pursuit of other agendas that are not easily resolved through design expertise or practice.

Witness the massive furore of the recently designed 2012 Olympic logo. Many couldn’t relate to its graffiti-like style, which professed to appeal to a youth audience. When we needed an example of design that extols universal, human-centred, Olympian values, it represented something different. It meant to help overcome social exclusion and to encourage wider community participation. But it is hard to imagine how these political problems will be resolved through a logo. Consequently, the design didn’t inspire us—perhaps even patronising those it sought to include: a missed opportunity.

Designerly thinking is, if we are not careful, at risk of being shackled by wider political responsibilities. This can’t be healthy.

There are real disconnections to be overcome but design is being feted because it is hoped that it can bridge the gap between those that make “stuff” and the rest of us. Such is the vacuity in politics, that designers are being drafted in to do what politicians can’t. However in resolving moribund political agendas through design, those at the sharp end will invariably become complicit in accepting responsibility for the outcome—good or bad. Often those outcomes will have already been set, long before any joined-up thinking will have taken place.  

It’s about time that we stood up for design for its own sake. That means, refusing the temping invitation to mediate other problems best left to others. That leaves us to do what we are good at: rethinking the world, free from political constraints. That way we’ll all benefit.