Leah Armstrong

Classifying Design

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2013 at 08:25

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Why has design been so resistant to definition? How do other fields define and represent themselves? Does this affect how government understands design? Does this affect how the public understands design? How does the media present design to the public? How do museums and galleries? How does industry exploit its design credentials?

Yesterday evening, while Andy Murray was battling it out on centre court, a parliamentary group on design and innovation met in the Houses of Parliament to debate the above questions on the topic of ‘Classifying Design’. Peter Luff MP chaired the panel- Pete Collard (Curator, Design Museum), Edwin Heathcoate (Financial Times), Max Fraser (London Design Festival) and Anna Scott-Marshall (RIBA).

Presenting some quick initial responses, the panelists each said more or less the same thing: design is not easy to define. Why? Because it’s everything and, as Wang and O’Ilhan (a much quoted source in my PhD thesis) recently argued, everything is hard to define. So, it wasn’t the most hopeful starting point for a discussion.

Things got a bit more interesting when the chair, Peter Luff, backtracked somewhat to ask not how, but ‘Should we define design?’ The panellists mostly thought that we should and their motivation seemed to be driven by the need to secure greater social and economic leverage for design within government. There was a little bit of panic in the room about what would happen, if we didn’t: will design slip even further off the government’s radar? Edwin Heathcoate also presented a more culturally based argument- suggesting that we are currently facing a philistine government who need to be presented with concrete evidence as to the value of design and how it can improve our lives.

For me, the most helpful intervention came from the floor when Mary-Rose Cook, co-founder of the consultancy UsCreates, asked ‘how would classifying design help designers?’. In other words, who are we classifying design for? This allowed everyone in the room to think more clearly about if we were to classify design, what the object would be, and more specifically, who the audience would be. Designers, as one man in the attendance pointed out, know what they are doing, it’s the government that needs to have some more clarity.

With this in mind, the whole discussion started to move in a more practical direction. Rather than an identity building exercise within the design profession, classifying design would be about presenting a role for design to the government, to clear a more direct route into policy.

But who should do the classifying? When chair Peter Luff asked the  simple question of ‘Who represents designers?’,  I didn’t expect there to be such a deathly silence. Representatives of the DBA and the IED were present, but no one could think of any others. (Eventually someone offered that they thought there was a chartered society of designers). There was a great deal of confusion in the room over the Design Council’s remit. Jocelyn Bailey reminded the chair that they don’t represent designers, they promote the practice of design. It was a revealing moment that highlighted the invisibility of of design institutions even within their own industry, never mind outside of it.

A number of members of the audience and the panel then moved on to discuss why designers had been resistant to the idea of classification. “Designers don’t like conformity”, “designers like anarchy”, “the RCA graduate is beyond classification”….etc etc. Many more casual cliches about the image of the British designer were dropped and I wondered why everyone so happily accepts this idea (maybe we have a broadly accepted definition of design there). Part of my PhD will argue that this image of the designer has been historically constructed and sustained in contemporary design through a range of cultural enactments (including the art school, the museum and the media).

Has this identity crisis in design ever been resolved? Max Fraser suggested that design’s propensity to constantly re-invent itself makes the London Design Festival more interesting. Some of the panellists and the audience, surprisingly I thought, harked back to the ‘good old days’ of ‘Cool Britannia’, when the government started to ‘get it right’ on the role of design in cultural diplomacy. I hadn’t heard anyone praise Cool Britannia with a straight face for a long time, so it was interesting.

For me, the discussion came to a more satisfactory conclusion than I hoped for at the outset. There seemed to be a broad agreement about what who would benefit from a better classification of design (us, the public, via the government). And that, it seems to me, is an important step in the right direction.

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  1. It seems odd that four panelists could discuss design without knowing what they were talking about.  Yes, design is about everything.  You may remember that I described design as organisation.  The problem is about how to distinguish good design from bad.  This can be confused by fashion and cultural changes.  I believe that it is possible to discover underlying principles that will encompass primitive and sophisticated art, advanced technology and human craftsmanship.  My own criterion is whether a product such as a kettle would have assumed its shape had it grown naturally rather than being designed.  David Pearson. 

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