A World Without Design?

On the 26 September, as part of the London Design Festival, design consultancy The Partners hosted a panel discussion on the theme of a world without design, tying in with an exhibition on the same theme at their studio. The panellists were designer Paul Priestman of Priestman Goode; Dejan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum and CR editor Patrick Burgoyne. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

On the 26 September, as part of the London Design Festival, design consultancy The Partners hosted a panel discussion on the theme of a world without design, tying in with an exhibition on the same theme at their studio. The panellists were designer Paul Priestman of Priestman Goode; Dejan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum and CR editor Patrick Burgoyne. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

JIM PRIOR: I’m Jim Prior, the managing partner here at The Partners. The idea of undesign came from a sense of frustration that design is very often undervalued. So we tried to create a world where we’ve taken design away: what happens when we don’t have design. I’d like to start with an observation from the world of science and an article from a journal called Neuron in October 2004 which was interested in how the brain responds to design. The article was about a blind taste test between Coca-Cola and Pepsi where 50% chose Pepsi, 50% chose Coca-Cola. When they were shown which one they were choosing, the respondents changed their opinion, so that 75% chose Coca-Cola. The brain of the respondent was magnetically scanned while they were making their choices and the remarkable observation was that when people had a blind taste test the difference in the activity in their brain between Coke and Pepsi was negligible. When people saw a Coke can a different part of their brain was activated with a different kind of signal. Design is a trigger response that can override sensory input and in this case design was more important than taste. I would be intrigued to know the panel’s point of view on the significance of design and whether or not there are any experiences they have had that support this kind of finding?

DEJAN SUDJIC: I wonder if they shouldn’t give another choice in this test between Pepsi and Coke, “none of the above”, given that they are both not actually attractive products. Clearly design is about emotions and designing in a sense of emotional response is a key part of a designer’s repertoire. I suppose because of the roots of modernism and its moral tenure, we’ve spent a long time worrying about the idea of function and the response to functional purposes. Clearly emotions are also a part of this. It’s interesting you call this exhibition, which I really enjoyed, undesign. It’s clearly very designed indeed. Are we doing something which is simply tickling brains or is there something deeper? I don’t know.

PATRICK BURGOYNE: To talk about design’s ability to affect people’s behaviour is, in some ways, to get things the wrong way round. It’s people’s behaviour that should be affecting how we design, That may be a naïve viewpoint but design has a problem in that it is perceived by a large amount of the general public to be about the froth, about styling, about what sits on top, rather than the structural foundations beneath. This idea that designers are engaged in manipulation, rather than in organising information or in producing better things to make the world a better place. Maybe that latter point is somewhat altruistic but without that fundamental basis, I think design suffers.

PAUL PRIESTMAN: With Coca-Cola, sometimes you drink it and it just takes you right back to an experience years ago when you were a little kid and it’s amazing that a product can do this. I think what is actually happening is that it’s the environment around the drink that is taking you there, it’s the ice in the Coca-Cola, it may be the lemon in the Coca-Cola that reminds you of these things. And I think that’s interesting because from my background in the product design, from designing originally little plastic objects, we’re now designing whole environments, whole customer experiences on aeroplanes, trains, cruise ships, that sort of thing. That’s where design and the role that designers like myself are really pushing into, away from designing products in isolation into a real experience.

JP: What are the boundaries of design? Where does it start and stop?

PB: As someone once said, you can’t not communicate. Every decision communicates something about us or our products, our companies or whatever. A civilised world without design is impossible because everything that’s touched by human hand is in some way designed. A world without any kind of human intervention would be a world without civilisation. A world without design would be a world without civilisation. But when I was talking to a few people about the subject of this talk tonight, quite a few of them designers, they said that a world without design “sounds like quite a good idea”. And that underlines design’s problem. The notion that a world without design would be somehow idyllic is awful, and completely inverts what design’s supposed to be about.

JP: What is it about? What are the boundaries of design?

PB: I don’t think there are any boundaries, Anything you experience during your day can come under the remit of design. When I got the tube to work this morning, I was interacting with all kinds of design, when I used my Oyster card, the design of the train itself, all the information systems, the map, everything…

JP: What do you think makes a good designer or even a great designer?

PP: Designers have to deliver something that is fit for purpose. If you take whether something works or not out of the equation or how much it costs or how it’s going to be manufactured, to me that’s not design that’s art. I think it’s all to do with designing something that works, it can look beautiful but you must understand how it’s going to be used and whether it fits the purpose. I get very annoyed with preconceived ideas that “I want to do curvy things so this design is going to be curvy” or “I design square things so I’m going to design a square thing” which I think is highly inappropriate. I bet everybody has their own favourite kitchen knife in the drawer and it’s something that works well and gets on with the job and I think that’s the best of design. When people look at things I’ve done and say well that doesn’t look like it’s been designed, that’s the biggest compliment, it just gets on with it and does it.

PB: Not being a designer myself , I can only talk about some of the qualities that I’ve observed in designers that I know. I would guess some of the things which make them who they are would be a certain sense of self worth and belief in their own abilities and perhaps even stubbornness at times. Certainly problem solving is fundamental. But I read something recently where the point was made that design, certainly graphic design, is usually about something else – fashion or pharmaceuticals or whatever. So designers need to be able to understand other people’s problems, and I think part of that as well is that designers need to be very open to the world around them, gaining inspiration from their surroundings. We were talking earlier about the terribly sad news last week that Alan Fletcher had died, and Alan was certainly a great example of that – he was constantly taking things from the world around him, and was never afraid to bring anything that was interesting, no matter how high or low its perceived worth, into his work. I think that the ability to absorb the world around you and reinterpret that in your work is vital.

DS: Alan was a force of nature who had the ability to deal with clients in a very commercial way but also had the spirit to make the kind of self-expression that comes from art in a sense. Graphic design used to be called commercial art, to differentiate it from the real thing allegedly. There’s a strange hierarchy of cultural activities in Britain which leads to a sense that utility is a burden whereas actually utility is in fact the strength of what design is. There’s now a sense that design should also be about posturing or self-expression or other things. And of course the idea that a designer can be critical about what they’re doing is an important one. There is something wrong with a world in which a camera is designed to last eight months or a laptop only last eighteen months. We are accelerating the rate of what we are doing but design does have a role to play. I think it’s a combination of a lot of these things that makes design such an exciting thing.

JP: Would you agree that design is not great at proving its value in the world and if so what you think it could do to help itself?

PB: Well it’s certainly proven in the area of concern of my magazine, which is graphic design, that it’s not very good at all. You only have to look at the national media, the broadcast media, the national press – other than the obituaries of Alan in the last couple of days, which have been great to see, I can’t remember the last time I saw a piece concerning graphic design in the national press…

DS: … The new Conservative logo?…

PB: …except when it’s in a very damning sense – the only time that graphic design appears is with the words “what a waste of money”.

DS: I think you’re being unfair – there was a piece just the other day on the leader page of The Guardian from the head of the National Health Service’s design consultancy talking about design’s value to them.

PB: Compared to other kinds of design, it’s virtually invisible, when in fact it touches everybody’s lives and is all around us, perhaps to a degree far greater than, say, the very expensive chairs that are far more visible in the national media.

JP: Are there examples where design sometimes does us a disservice?

PP: Changing Rooms and programmes like that are sort of doing design a disservice. Design has to deliver something which is practical.

PB: Even if you were to try to do something which was as pared down as possible it still involves design decisions, like to produce some wine which just said the basic kind of, legal information that needs to be known about it, or if it just said red wine then that’s still a brand. There are all sorts of associations and meanings that people are going to pick up on.

DS: The most provocative image, I thought, from the exhibition was the three white flags with just the country names on them which made one think about constructing identities and the fact that flags are designed, they don’t grow out of native soil, but they succeed because we forget that they’ve been designed, and I always have some obsession with the design of money. My family come from Yugoslavia and even before Yugoslavia had fallen to pieces, two of the constituent publics had actually gone and had some new bank notes designed and of course actually they couldn’t look like old Yugoslavia, they had to look new and forward-looking so the Yugoslavians went and did something new and forward-looking, which was rather than putting rosy-cheeked peasants and power stations on them, they had baroque composers and nineteenth century architects. As with all these things there’s a bargain between the manipulator and designer and manipulated, and you can clearly take somebody for a ride but people are very good at picking up the signals, There are some things that can actually accept a level of malfunction because they have a certain charm.

JP: In the sense that design is becoming more sophisticated, more prevalent, more present in our lives, it is becoming increasingly hard to find distinct ownable territories for differentiation either at an idea level or executional, and as such, I would be interested in what you guys would see as being an opportunity and agenda for design to grow, develop and evolve in a way that can succeed in differentiating things.

PP: I travel quite a bit and one thing that really annoys me is that you could be at the other side of the world and you don’t know where you are, there is no form of identity, there’s no sense of where you are. Look at the bendy buses that we now have in London – it’s such a shame because London has such a fantastic history of designing its own vehicles, the Routemaster or the London taxi have become iconic and really loved. But because of the procurement of vehicles now we just get a European thing which is totally inappropriate for London streets when we should be designing our own vehicles. I find that immensely frustrating, There’s a danger that everything is going to become the same – just chrome and glass. It’s the responsibility of designers to really think about this. In London there are some fantastic references; Portland stone, the underground, those lovely blood red ceramic tiles on the Northern Line. There are things that you can reference and do in a modern way, in a practical way and then solve all the problems with, say, disability access. The system is just churning out this modernist sort of look, which has become a bit of an international thing.

PB: I think that changes in the way global manufacturing businesses are organised has made any attempt at differentiation more difficult for the designer. If you look, say, at cars they’re sharing so many components that different brands are practically the same car. So then it is very difficult for designers particularly to operate in any kind of territory that isn’t on a very superficial level.

DS: I actually spent Sunday afternoon with Tom Dixon at Earls Court at 100% Design where he convinced me that the bendy bus should be put in the room 101 bin and I actually defended it on the basis that “Tom, you’ve never been on a bendy bus” and I had checked out with my daughter beforehand what she thinks of the bendy bus and actually she said “when I see a bendy bus coming at night it’s great because you know it’s going to be free and there are going to be lots of seats on it”.

JP: Long live the bendy bus… let’s take some questions from the floor…

Audience: Patrick, you seem to be of the opinion that the average person has a less than optimum level of trust when it comes to design. How do you think we redress that balance?

PB: It’s partly a question of perception, and it’s partly that there isn’t a lot of coverage or talk about things which designers have done very well. But there’s a responsibility on designers to produce something that serves its purpose well so that perceptions can be shifted by people’s experience of actually using the things themselves as well as reading about them. Also though, it is tied in with the whole debate about No Logo and consumerism and so on and in some ways designers and people in advertising are a convenient punch-bag for a lot of frustrations that people feel, they’re an easy target to lay the blame on.

Audience: I went to a talk a couple of years ago and Wally Olins said really you can’t do anything unless the client wants something done: what makes for a good relationship with a client?

PB: Having long term relationships helps enormously. Brand managers or marketing managers change their job every 18 months, so as soon as you start to go in one way, someone new comes in who wants to take things down another road. It takes a long time on both sides to develop trust and understanding and that’s something that doesn’t exist very much any more.

DS: I’m a client sometimes and I tend to choose people I work with a lot, who I don’t have to talk to very much, it’s a non-verbal communication where people just get it. In the same way that celebrity has transformed the idea of what a designer is, there is also the idea of a client which is something of an abstraction and the client is actually a complicated individual and you need to understand what makes them work.

Audience: It seems to me that the debate is all about design and that design is the realm of designers and in fact that’s just rubbish, in today’s world everybody is a designer. Designers need to think about what they can do that is over and above that which ordinary people can do now.

PB: I agree: designers have to get used to this idea of giving up control over what they do. Rather than creating some kind of artefact, you are perhaps setting up some kind of machine which people feed things into and different things come out. Designers freak out about the idea that people can change their work and I guess they’ll just have to get used to it.

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