Reading List – Design alone can’t save UK plc

[This is the first in a new series of posts from the folks here at Meld Studios.]

Janna sent round this article yesterday – Design alone can’t save UK plc – a cautionary tale of design determinism, arrogance and hubris. In it, author James Woudhuysen delivers a somewhat scathing attack on the arrogance of Design, and designers, looking specifically at the UK, but applicable more broadly.

A lifelong enthusiast for design, I believe that its current pretensions don’t do it any favours…

Woudhuysen takes issue with the pretension that Design is the only creative industry, a view he traces back to the years of the Blair government in Britain (late ’90s), and their implicit message that engineering and science are not creative. And certainly, during this period, British manufacturing (dominated by science and engineering types) was certainly lack-lustre. (It is, in my opinion, overly simplistic to blame the decline in British – and US – manufacturing on a failure of creativity. )

He sees “Design’s current bout of narcissism” as being fuelled by the success of Apple, and the clearly design-centric strategy they pursue. But he also sees some well-deserved optimism:

at the margins, as a differentiator – ‘the difference between customer satisfaction and customer delight’, according to Cridland [John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry] – design can be a profitable exercise.

However, it seems one success implies others that, in the mind of Woudhuysen, are less deserved…

Why can’t boosters of design be satisfied just with that? The answer lies in what Mandelson forgot in his aphorism about rebalancing. Both New Labour and the Lib-Con coalition want not just more plain engineering, but more social engineering, too. As a result, ministers love to talk up service design, especially the design of public services. In these sectors, designers are exploited in ways that try to legitimate government, cut costs and put some clothes on David Cameron’s notoriously vague ‘Big Society’…

…The UK government hopes that, with hip haircuts and Post-It note brainstorms, designers can give its plans credibility. To get people to ‘make informed choices’ around carbon footprints, saving water and community participation, the state flatters design.

This portrayal of Design and designers is illustrative of a credibility problem we have as an industry. The message has not yet gotten through that design is not just how things look, or even that vague cliche ‘easy to use’. Design is more than ‘how it works’, too. At it’s most strategic, Design can inform ‘what it is’.

But the salutary lesson from this portrayal is a reminder that, whatever the endeavour in which designers operate, they tend to succeed best when surrounded by, and working closely with, a diverse group of collaborators – the engineers and scientists. Designers who acknowledge this contribution from their colleagues with humility and respect will achieve much more – will be afforded a much greater opportunity to succeed, than those for whom arrogance and hubris dominate.

Whilst I do not completely agree with the author’s characterisation of Design or designers, the reminder is well-taken, and the caution is well-timed.