Well, Alice Rawsthorn summed up the state we're in with the practised clarity we would expect from one of today's foremost design journalists. It went something like this: while the modern movement led us to associate design with tangible things, design is increasingly about immateriality - software, systems and design-thinking. I know for a fact that at least one civil servant pricked up his ears upon listening to the Today programme's feature on the London Design Festival last weekend.
At Experimenta Rawsthorn's Open Talk was, similarly, conceived with mind-cleansing logic. She asked her three guest speakers to name 1. the most unfairly neglected figure or phenomenon from the history of design, and 2. & 3. the two most pressing themes for the future. Her own contenders were 1. Muriel Cooper, 2. de-materialisation (neither the economic nor the paranormal version but the one best signified by the i-Phone with its myriad functions and apps) and 3. design for the other 90%. Joseph Grima followed up elegantly with 1. Soviet architecture, 2. land-grabbing and 3. supermayors. Ben Fry's contribution was fascinating, though less strictly adhering to form. His 1., Mark Lombardi, the savant data-draftsman, was the main feature from whom we drew conclusions by a combination of our own inference and a sprinkling of pregnant insights from Fry: "the risk is that the designer becomes saturated by the beauty of an image before he fully understands the data contained in it". The architect Lindy Roy did herself no favours by not simply following Rawsthorn's instructions, but it was fun, up to a point, to conjecture what on earth she meant about making deep history tangible.
Back to the Today programme: when Alice made the lamentable point that the better-funded Stanford Eindhoven are seizing the intellectual baton, rather than our own universities, her co-respondent Sir John Sorrell weighed in with an irrefutable fact in the UK's favour: that international designers of all stripes - from the intellectual to the artisan to the brand consultant and the jobbing photoshopper - continue to set up business here in London.
I was immediately reminded of an observation that stimulated a seminar we're holding next month about the "subject" of D&T in schools. The RSA has strong traditions in education. Ten years ago we established a new curriculum for secondary schools called Opening Minds, which has now been adopted by close to 300 schools. It’s not about learning discrete subjects and skills in the traditional sense – 35 minute-units of geography and maths and soft double-periods of art or PE. It’s a multidisciplinary, project based curriculum that pursues five areas of competence which are all about readiness for life – encouraging young people to believe themselves capable of action in the face of shifting circumstances and problems, a fast-changing world. We’re looking hard at how design – or Design & Technology as it is currently framed – serves this purpose. By looking at it as a subject, for example, alongside other subjects: geography, science and art.
Design’s an interesting one here, because isn’t really a subject in the sense of History, with a body of content to be transferred; nor is it properly a skill like literacy and numeracy. We think the fact that design is well understood as a professional activity perhaps limits its understanding in the curriculum – as though you learn design in order to become a designer rather than to become educated.
John Sorrell's point resonates with this. Whatever the intellectual strivings of research universities and design's intellectuals, will design always be better understood as the practice of commercial art?