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So I enjoyed the Design: ego or conscience? talk with the RCA Design Products students, organised by Sebastian Bergne for Gareth Williams' s critical platform. Michael Marriott, my interlocutor in this Monday afternoon event and a leading protagonist of beautiful but modest utility in design, presented the contrasting attitudes of Alec Issigionis and Karim Rashid; the latter very much more prominent in persona than in the fashionably-styled and rather forgettable objects he designs, the former probably no less of a show-off but way, way much more of a designer when you consider what the Mini had to be, and was.

So I enjoyed the Design: ego or conscience? talk with the RCA Design Products students, organised by Sebastian Bergne for Gareth Williams' s critical platform. Michael Marriott, my interlocutor in this Monday afternoon event and a leading protagonist of beautiful but modest utility in design, presented the contrasting attitudes of Alec Issigionis and Karim Rashid; the latter very much more prominent in persona than in the fashionably-styled and rather forgettable objects he designs, the former probably no less of a show-off but way, way much more of a designer when you consider what the Mini had to be, and was.

The students did seem to crave a moral compass. While on the one hand, these pluralistic times declare that you can be any kind of designer you want; on the other hand, climate change, massive consumerism and critical self-respect all make it unacceptable to be the handmaidens of consumerism and neophilia that designers were 25 years ago.

I talked about how the holy principles that I learned at design school were overturned by the elevated importance of storytelling in our times.  I heard recently about 17-year old trying to get into an Ivy League university being told that what he needed was a personal “narrative arc”. Look at how branding has become imperative – a big story, a big effort to create narrative coherence and shape. At my "schools" Pentagram and Yale (less so, because things were already changing), designers strove for coherence but it wasn’t literary, or narrative, unless you were an illustrator. In fact a literary idea wasn’t an idea at all, for the strict formalist. When I worked for the graphic designer John McConnell at Pentagram he explicitly rejected ideas that he described as “literary” rather than formal. I had come late to design, via literary criticism in fact, and was quite puzzled by this. When I later met Paul Rand (father of all graphic designers) in the early 90s I asked him what the difference was. He pointed to a vase of daffodils on the table and said a literary idea would be that they represent Spring. The true designer just sees them as yellow and having a certain shape.

My, how times have changed. The buoyant art market of the last ten years has encouraged designers to express psychological drama in mechanically-reproducible objects, to exploit design as a language packed with reference and symbolism, to cleave the conventional unions of form and function for semiotic thrill. Gareth Williams’s V&A exhibition Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design was a fine document – and perhaps, in view of the now deflated market – epitaph of the “design-art” decade. It was full of talking products, limited editions of furniture and luxurious interior appointings, rich in hand-craft, surface decoration and visual reference, in three brazenly romantic settings: the Forest Glade, the Enchanted Castle and Heaven and Hell. I admired the show and many of its exhibits, but the subjective immodesty was the opposite of what I had been taught as a designer; ego and conscience all re-mixed for a culture that prizes storytelling above all.

I left the students with two pleas. One: to consider how, rather than taking problems away, design could help people to solve problems for themselves.  This might range from designing a product whose inner functioning is legible and repairable to applying what they know about form and function to any number of social enterprises. I would not rule out some storytelling as a device. Secondly, to think about teaching in school. D&T teachers are frequently isolated from the proliferating and exciting uses of design in our world; while design tutors tell me teaching is simply not considered an aspiration by undergraduates today. Still, three students raised their hands when I asked if anyone had considered teaching as a career. Out of about forty, not bad.

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