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Design for living - or living by design?

Updated Friday 19th February 2010

Leslie Budd suggests that design is something Britain forgot to do well

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The play, Design for Living, written by Noel Coward in 1932, revolves around three characters: a painter, an interior designer and an art dealer. There is no particular denouement but the play is an observation on the nature of relationships and fame. It could act as a metaphor of our times as we design our professional and personal existences and live by our material, social and psychological designs.

Design is generic and particular; from a quasi-scientific but religious explanation of existence - intelligent design - to the ‘M’ or ‘U’ form of organisational design; to the configuration of an MP3 player.

In his masterly opus, Theory of Design in the First Machine Age, the architectural writer, Reyner Banham, criticised Walter Gropius of the famous Bauhaus School for his claims that his designs had more to do with economy than aesthetics.

This cuts to the constant tension in the symbiotic relationship between form and function. The reputation for safe function over form has started to unravel the reputation of a global car maker as more and more models are recalled because of design faults.

Design has manifold meanings but a simple definition is the application of creativity in action. It is apparent that creativity is central to the human condition and design to all economic activities.

In the lead up to the financial crisis, one would have thought that the long history, tradition and reputation of British design had been destroyed as the service economy finally triumphed over manufacturing.

Architect at work [Image: Thinkstock] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Thinkstock
Architect at work

It took the swallow of late summer of 2007, to correct this single but oft repeated error of omission and hubris.

It flew in the face of the legacy of, inter alia, the Arts and Crafts movement; the genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the modernist ubiquity of Issigoni’s Mini car. Given this weight of history what has luck got to do with design or, for that matter, with occupational and business opportunities?

Happenchance surrounds any new design, product or application. The attrition rate for new drugs is very large. A new fashion collection can be critically successful but unless it reaches the high street, it’s commercial success will be limited. The pantheon of brilliant British inventions and design that have not been commercially successful is huge – and perhaps heartbreaking. A failure of ambition or will, or the lack a coherent public policy aimed at exploiting this creativity feature strongly as explanations. The counter-argument is the record of British architects whose signature designs adorn the global stage.

The heroic individual transforming the design or business world is a figment of the imaginings of our culture, whilst the cult of the personality appears to remain a global phenomenon. Market size, power and accommodating public policy; position, prestige and patronage are the prosaic stuff of the realising business and occupational chances.

But in any complex system and complex organisation, the bottom line is that it is the application of expertise and teamwork that delivers results, whether it designing and producing banknotes and passports; tailored shirts; and, interior designs.

Tina Turner sang “what has love got to do with it?” as we are designed for living and transform our world by living by design, what has luck got to do with it?

Leslie Budd was responding to The Bottom Line, week ending 20th February 2010

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