Why designers should take more risks

Originally published on spiked.

Michael Wolff, the designer who irritated Thatcher and helped rebrand Labour, talks about being creative during a recession.

‘Many designers will probably take more risks in how they drive than in how they design.’ So says Michael Wolff, once partner of world-famous brand agency Wolff Olins and now of Michael Wolff & Company. He is one of a number of Design Pioneers and speakers appearing at a design conference this week in London called The Edge, organised by the Design Business Association.

The aim of the conference is to try to link creativity and risk-taking with success. The event includes a diverse bunch of speakers looking at creativity from various different angles. Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind, will be there, as will Gary Lee, a chef from The Ivy. We will have to wait and see whether a scientist or a chef can inspire a design industry facing difficult challenges in the midst of a recession.

Wolff says the design industry is complacent, and is suffering as a result. He tells me: ‘There is a huge relapse into convention. Being risk-averse is a very comfortable place to be in. If you look around at the results of design, it is very placating – all about pushing the design through, getting the client to pay for it.’

Wolff, for one, could never be accused of complacency. His career has inspired many designers and provoked controversy. He has never been afraid of taking risks himself. He gave the Labour Party its red rose, replacing the red flag and symbolising a shift away from labour movement tradition. When at Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, he was equally famous for attempting to turn British Airways, that flagship of Britishness in the late 1990s, into a multicultural brand resplendent with ethnic tailfin designs. Former PM Margaret Thatcher hated it so much that in 1997 she covered up a model plane with her handkerchief at a Tory Party conference.

Nevertheless there is much to be learned from designers like Wolff, both from his successes and his failures. He thinks the recession is an opportunity not to be shunned. He told me the economic downturn ‘calls for change, a new start, and not reverting to old ways that didn’t work’. It is a time for new challenges. ‘Anything new in life has to be created and any new creation involves risk.’

I also talked to another Design Pioneer attending The Edge conference, Morag Myerscough. The founder of Studio Myerscough during the 1990s crash, she melds an eclectic mix of bold design, collaborating with architects and creating interiors and wayfinding systems for buildings. Like Wolff, Myerscough is equally upbeat about the challenges that lie ahead. ‘Creativity and risk-taking are needed more in a recession because this is usually a time of change.’

But Myerscough is watchful of designers who continue to design what they already know instead of pushing themselves in new directions. She says that above all ‘risk taking is about being prepared to be brave, convincing people that what you know is right because of what you’ve done before’.

This is a refreshing attitude, given the prevailing social climate which is so mistrustful of daring. For Myerscough, experience and intuition play a key role in developing new approaches and ideas. She says that while a designer must listen carefully to what his or her client wants, they must also challenge them with something new. ‘It’s all about how I can make the solution better than what the client originally thought it could be.’

Her willingness to go beyond the brief is a winning formula. She designed bold interiors and signage for her recent collaboration on the Kentish Town Health Centre in London, which won the Building Better Healthcare Awards and was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize.

What sets Myerscough and Wolff apart from some other designers is their self-belief. They are confident enough to take risks and to challenge the status quo. But as Myerscough points out, creativity is not just about having good ideas. It is important to be inventive in all kinds of ways. ‘When I work with restricted budgets then I have to think very carefully how we do things.’ When she was working on The Deptford Project Café, converting a disused railway carriage into a café/bistro, she ended up painting it herself to get the job done. In the end, the project won plaudits from the design world and the press.

Myersough and Wolff are pioneers in how they push boundaries. But as Wolff warned me, the design industry has itself to blame for the wider lack of interest in what it does. ‘I do find myself feeling that the whole profession of design has become a kind of repeat-order service business. Therefore its connection with creativity is rather a thin connection.’

But often the response of designers is to look elsewhere in order to justify why design is important. Being unfairly blamed for causing ‘rampant consumerism’ or environmental waste means many designers can only defend design when it has a broader purpose or meaning.

For example, in response to the all-consuming sustainability agenda, more and more designers argue that holding back should be the focus of design. In her new book, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People, design activist Emily Pilloton argues against designed things: ‘Can we redefine product design so it’s not dependent upon products? Is there a way to deliver an efficient and sustainable solution without relying on the production of a highly engineered, virgin object?’

Similarly Tim Brown, CEO of design agency IDEO, argues in his book, Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, that designers should get involved with redesigning public services, rationalising them around customer needs. For example, Brown argues for preventative healthcare based on people adopting healthier lifestyles that reduce demand on services. Here, design is a long way from making stuff – be it a product or a service – that we can use on our own terms. While these designers are highlighting inequality, they are also keen to prescribe how we must likewise change our behaviour to meet their goals.

When I asked Wolff what he thought the answer was, he suggested that his involvement with the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre was a good example of how design can improve society and the world around us. The centre deals with difficult challenges of personal mobility, the effects of ageing on the population, and the needs of disabled people. Likewise, Myerscough uses the example of work she is doing with The Sorrell Foundation. Its Joinedupdesign For Myplace project is funding the construction of a series of youth centres across the country, collaborating with architects, designers and even the kids who will use the centres.

But I am left thinking that, although Myerscough and Wolff have much to teach others about taking creative risks, they are in danger of sounding like Pilloton and Brown who justify design only because it has a broader social – even political – role to play. In many ways that means holding design back, making it reflect some predetermined political objective, rather than allowing it to be a creative process which, in its essence, also helps to raise people’s standards of living and encapsulate our aspirations. We need people like these Design Pioneers to defend design because of how it can transform our lives. If designers only make excuses for themselves, then we will all miss out.