Is he or isn't he (the world's first industrial designer)? - RSA

Is he or isn't he (the world's first industrial designer)?


  • Design
  • Education
  • Social innovation


Yesterday afternoon, at the awards ceremony for Shine at the V&A Sackler Centre, David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council, began a little 3-question quiz by asking "Who was the world's first industrial designer? While my brain auto-prompted "Christopher Dresser", discursive noise-interference stopped my mouth. It depends what you mean by an industrial designer, obviously. Didn't Alice Rawsthorn in Gary Hurstwit's new film Objectified date the birth of industrial design to the rationalisation of armaments by mediaeval Chinese knights? Christopher Dresser, however, was the "right" answer.

He later asked what design was. Mike Ive said "The opposite of accident"; a nice answer, and I anticipated a range of further suggestions. Not so. According to the Design Council, design is the connection between creativity and innovation. Innovation, moreover,  is "getting ideas to market", and the Design Council has a diagram showing you how to do it. Right. I felt generally saddened by the contraction of language's rich ambiguity to this rather dry, pseudo-scientific lexicography, and particularly indignant on behalf of the word innovation that it should be appropriated in the Design Council's merely expedient definition.

Recently, another Design Council person asked me, in conversation about the RSA's Opening Minds secondary school curriculum, whether my colleagues had used "the strategic design process" to develop it. I stared blankly back, for surely there are many?

I do accept that when your communications targets are civil servants and businesspeople, it pays to be straightforward; to give one answer rather than many. The Design Council is justifiably admired around the world for the definition, often numerical, that it gives to design in business and public affairs. But to say innovation is this and "the" strategic design process is that is to lead poor design-innocents into a false sense of security.

Ironically, Kester's middle question ("How old was Christopher Dresser when he started design school?") clearly had a completely  unequivocal answer, but he gave it to someone for being close enough (14; correct answer 13). Maybe the Design Council think all the things I think are clear are fuzzy; the opposite is certainly true.

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