London's new Design Museum shows how design can change the world

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As it reopens with new scale and ambition in west London, the Design Museum gives people a chance to reappraise the role design plays in making the world work better. Nils Leonard, Wayne Hemingway, Anya Hindmarch, Deyan Sudjic, John Hegarty and Nic Roope reflect on the power of design.

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‘Design lasts and it is time the world paid attention’
Nils Leonard - outgoing chairman and executive creative director at Grey London

This isn’t just about the unveiling of our nation’s true cathedral to design but a study of the relationship the UK has with design as a whole. Despite "consciously designed" products we love such as the iPhone and Sonos making their way into every corner of our lives, our relationship with design in the UK is gentle – harmless, almost. To most, it is a starch-white-collared and even whiter-faced industry of silent rules and tradition. We all know design, but none of us love it. This is a problem because, in a world full of challenge and change, we have never been more in need of what design and great designers can make happen. 

Design is optimism. It believes in the human race at its best. And the most powerful design is redesign: change. Design is a key part of the UK’s £84bn creative industry that most of the population don’t know we have. It is in our blood and our DNA, and we boast some of the finest design minds on the planet. But more than just a powerful national industry, it is a way out of the world as it is. As individuals, we can redesign our standing. Design is action. And the UK can redesign its place in the world.

The museum at its best must remind the UK that design is powerful. Dangerous and provocative, that great design can question tradition and move us all forward. Design believes in the good in all of us and, in an age when many seek to comment on and, at worst, control culture, design creates culture.

For the ad world, an industry in a messy divorce with the real world, design philosophy is more relevant than ever. Design learned long ago what advertising still hasn’t: that people ignore design that ignores people. Values long associated with design – simplicity, wit, honesty, utility – may offer an inspiring alternative to being skipped with a click into a YouTube landfill. 

No-one skips design. In a world where the best ads no longer look like ads, we’ve seen ideas such as the white Pencil-winning "Clever Buoy", Droga5’s "Help, I want to save a life" and Volvo’s "LifePaint" succeed where traditional campaigns couldn’t.

So while admittedly quiet, the design world retains an admirable nobility – it matters. Many creatives and intellectuals seem to believe that action, protest and riot are ugly and somehow inelegant but, unlike echoing social media rants and empty manifestos, design actually changes things. Fixes things. Improves things. In a temporary and disposable world, design lasts and it is time the world paid attention because design is a good news story. With 580,000 people currently working in the field, design is the ninth biggest employer in the country. 

Change your mind about design. This weekend, burn a polo neck and stomp on some tortoiseshell spectacles. Visit the Design Museum and let it poke you in the eye. Go and get drunk in the bar there and debate the Designs of the Year. Fall in love with a design icon but, even better, learn to hate one. Set a Pantone 032-colored fire in the minds of your children and raise the next Heatherwick or, if you’re really cool, Saville.

We have more designers than soldiers in the UK. To arms.

The museum that never closes
Mark Eaves - founder of Gravity Road

This image of the new museum only exists because of great design. First there’s the magnificent copper-covered roof that opens like a geometric flower (a hyperbolic paraboloid structure, as I was told by people who know these things!).

It’s the core remaining aspect of the old Commonwealth Institute and that it’s now blooming again is to be celebrated. But there’s other, more hidden, design in this image. This is the first time there’s been a dedicated aerial shot of this roof. Previously, your best view was a grainy shot from Google Earth (itself a great piece of design).

Flying a helicopter over Holland Park at this height has always been a no-no, and there’s no nearby building that offers a vantage point. So it’s thanks to drone technology that we’re finally able to capture this iconic roof in all its glory.

Less "shot on iPhone", more shot-on-Canon-5D-carried-by-DJI-S1000-Octocopter-Plus. Groundbreaking aviation design fuelling creative potential. It’s just one more example of design, often hidden from the eye, making the world work better. And that’s the point. For every iMac, a Post-it note. For every catwalk dress, a safety pin. For every Jaguar E-Type, a traffic light, a road sign, a cat’s eye.

Great design never stops – you just don’t always notice it. That’s why this is the museum that never closes. And now it’s open. 

Wayne Hemingway - designer

What can design and design thinking teach the world of advertising and communications?

Most designers I have met have a genuine desire to make the world a better place and are not driven by personal wealth, and their daily work is a vocation.

My favorite piece of design is…

There are not too many inanimate or non-foodstuffs that I couldn’t live without but the bicycle is a brilliant piece of simplicity that massively improves life. I am also still in awe of the "magic" (it is magic, isn’t it?) that happens when a needle of a record player (that has hooked up to some wooden boxes ) is placed on a circular disc of vinyl.

My favorite designer is… 

Gerardine Hemingway – 37 years a designer and just gets better and better. Always stayed out of the public eye, refuses to do interviews, never "plays the game" or schmoozes. From massive housing estates to uniforms for national utilities to regeneration and interior products, her legacy is amazing.

Does the UK have a ‘design culture’?

How could it not have when it’s part of the second-biggest driver of the UK economy and the fastest-growing export sector?

‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a designer.’ Discuss.

It’s a new phenomenon and why not? When I grew up, the word design wouldn’t have been used in my background. The idea that there was a career in design was unheard of in my family. While there is still a way to go in terms of it being totally available as a career to all, and the government needs to understand the importance of design in the school curriculum, great strides have been made. I asked my grown-up children about this (they are 30, 29, 26 and 19) and the younger ones said that a career in design has definitely become more talked about.

The problem with design is…

Too many people still think design is about color and shape – "Brown is the new black, daaahling". That is "styling" and the concept of "design is about improving things that matter in life" (our mantra at HemingwayDesign for the past few decades) is not widely understood.

I wish I had designed…

The cat flap. Genius. Cats get in and out. Burglars get their head stuck.

Anya Hindmarch - fashion designer

Does the UK have a ‘design culture’?

Yes, it is part of our DNA. Partly due to the very forward-thinking design education we have here but also partly because it is recognised as a great contributor to the economy and therefore taken seriously. Also, if there is good momentum, it inspires a pipeline, replicating and influencing virally. One leads to three and so on.

The world is in a weird place. Can design help?

Oh, yes. Design solves so many problems. The opening show at the Design Museum, Fear and Love, sums this up so well. Design used to be about making a functional toaster better-looking. Now design is necessarily preoccupied with how things perform, function, how efficient they are and how they transform lives and how and where we live. Good design affects relationships, communities, the environment. The focus has shifted to reflect the wonderfully weird world we inhabit.

The problem with design is…

When it doesn’t work. Function over form.

I wish I had designed

The Bic biro.

Deyan Sudjic - director, Design Museum

My favorite designer is…

That is an impossible question, with no right answer. And it also begs the question: what is a designer? If you ask who designed the corkscrew or the paper clip, there is no ready answer, because we are usually too lazy to understand the tortuous process that sees an apparently simple solution take shape through so many small steps.

There are so many different kinds of designer. There are the William Morris types, a revolutionary socialist wallpaper designer, and there are strutting peacocks of the type defined by Raymond Loewy, who reconstructed his studio in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, featured on the cover of Time as the man who streamlined the sales curve and was constantly being photographed with one of his art deco steam locomotives.

I admire the people who work anonymously to find ways to purify water in remote parts of the world and deliver medicine to places that have no reliable road access. I am equally enthusiastic about Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, who devised the Frankfurt kitchen, fought fascism and celebrated her 100th birthday waltzing with Austria’s chancellor in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Dieter Rams and Jean Prouvé, Ron Arad and Sam Hecht, the Bouroullec brothers and Shiro Kuramata. 

Pin me down and I might mention the name of Ettore Sottsass, because I knew him, because I wrote his biography, because he was always ready to remind us that design is as much about asking questions as it is about answering them. 

Sir John Hegarty - founder, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and The Garage

My favorite piece of design is…

The Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It breaks all the rules of how a museum should be. It’s round – it doesn’t have flat walls! It challenges you to think creatively before you’ve even stepped over its threshold and has stood the test of time brilliantly. It gives me a buzz just looking at it.

My favorite designer is…

Alan Fletcher. Alan founded Fletcher, Forbes, Gill in the early 1960s. This partnership morphed into Pentagram, one of the world’s most influential design companies. Alan’s work is inspirational. He was a designer who understood the importance of ideas and communicated those ideas with wit, style and positivity. If you’re an art director, you should look at Alan’s work. You will be inspired and surprised in its humanity.

Does the UK have a ‘design culture’?

John Ruskin said: "The English look at pictures with their ears." I think he was wrong. The UK has a brilliant design culture. We don’t put it on a pedestal like some other countries but integrate it into our everyday lives. Think of the London red bus, the iconic telephone box, the London black cab, the Mini, the Anglepoise lamp. Then consider the V&A , founded in the middle of the 19th century. And now, of course, the Design Museum – where else should that be but in the UK. And, of course, our Union flag, one of the most recognisable design symbols in the world. A brilliant example of storytelling.

‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a designer.’Discuss.

I never want to grow up. Play is the most constructive pastime a creative person can pursue.

The world is in a weird place. Can design help?

The world is facing all kinds of existential problems. Without design, our future won’t work.

The problem with design is…

People don’t recognise and value its contribution. That’s something the Design Museum intends to alter. 

I wish I had designed…

The pencil. They come in all shapes and sizes, are portable, don’t need batteries or recharging. Used by mathematicians, artists, craftsmen and children. And, when used continually, are full of ideas. As we know, ideas can change the world.

Nic Roope - executive creative director, Poke

What can design and design thinking teach the world of advertising and communications?

Design thinking is really system thinking. Its strength is to corral all the layers and moving parts into a coherent narrative for consumers and users. Making complexity approachable and navigable, attractive and memorable.

Advertising that chooses to live in a self-referential bubble struggles to meet the consumer in the real world, but those who want to cut a path to their prospective customers will do well to carefully and methodically craft that journey. And this process is more a product of rigorous design thinking than shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity, although both are important.

The design world (to massively simplify and caricature for a moment) looks on adland with suspicion due to its recklessness with brands and lack of respect for structure and continuity. Adland looks back on design, wondering when it’s going to grow some cojones and stop acting like such librarians.

The truth is the customer is most excited when these two worlds become one, where products speak and dance as much as they perform their function and when advertising has its oar in a more compelling reality than merely the one it constructs for its own ends. To pull off an Apple or a Red Bull or a Nike, you need design thinking, the umbilical cord that tethers brands to their ultimate lifeblood – the customers who are now living in a connected world, expecting connected things.

My favorite piece of design is…

Duchamp’s Fountain. In most people’s minds, design is a neutralizing, rationalizing force. But it doesn’t have to be. Duchamp’s "design" changed art and society and freed ideas from craft, paving the way for contemporary art. Design can turn a statement into society.

My favorite designer is…

Thomas Heatherwick because he has grasped the opportunity to use design for rich storytelling, writing poetry and provoking much deeper thought and discourse in the world, not just being the fluffer and executor of others’ philosophies and agendas.

Does the UK have a ‘design culture’?

It has a unique design culture and I think if we learn to articulate better where its strengths and nuances lay, it would be stronger still.

‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a designer.’ Discuss.

The role of designer is changing and the need for design is growing. There’s a lifelong career ahead of even a toddler, providing they don’t subscribe entirely to some legacy discipline and instead see the broader challenges the world faces and how design can play a role overcoming them.

The world is in a weird place. Can design help?

That’s our job. Too complex: simplify it. Too weird: make it more comfortable and approachable. Too abusive: design a sustainable, reasonable alternative.

The problem with design is…
The role we give it and the purpose we believe it fulfils. The perception on the outside and inside of the design industry really limits its power.

I wish I had designed…

Concorde, the iPod (and the Walkman), the new London Routemaster, the Tesla Model S, the Eiffel Tower, the Toblerone bar, the High Line, the Bic biro, the Plumen bulb – oh, wait a sec, I did do that one…