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March 8, 2013 7:28 pm
Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, by Alice Rawsthorn, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 288 pages
“Designing,” wrote the Bauhaus teacher and artist László Moholy-Nagy in 1947, “is not a profession but an attitude.” Alice Rawsthorn’s Hello World is an attempt to justify this bon mot.
She opens with a story about the Chinese king Ying Zheng, who in the third century BC radically increased his army’s efficiency and effectiveness through small changes to their weaponry. It sounds a little like the small improvements to the UK cycling team’s kit and performance made by Matt Parker, which earned him the title “Head of Marginal Gains” and led to a series of stunning Olympic victories last year. Rawsthorn writes that Ying Zheng’s improvements would now be called “design”.
We might think of design in terms of fashion and fonts, gadgets and expensive furniture, and Rawsthorn covers all that. But she is also trying to persuade us that there is more to the subject. Rawsthorn, a former FT writer, brings with her the omnivorous appetite she displayed as director of London’s Design Museum from 2001 to 2006 and which she has continued to indulge as design critic for the International Herald Tribune.
Interestingly, the other good general recent design guide was written by Rawsthorn’s successor at the Design Museum, the former Observer critic Deyan Sudjic. His The Language of Things (2008) was perhaps sharper but also, if I can say this, more “male”. As the title suggests, it was more about things – cars, coins, guns, Meccano-influenced architecture, watches and the flashy products of “design art”, in which design attempted to muscle in on the big money of commercial fine art.
Rawsthorn’s gaze is drawn towards the less easily taxonomised areas of design that have emerged over the past two decades. These include design thinking, social design and critical design, in which design intelligence is applied to areas outside production, such as social services and government processes. She writes about what has become known as “design for the other 90 per cent”, or how designers can transfer their special skills from luxury consumables for the wealthy to life-saving technologies for the economically disenfranchised.
Hello World is not, however, a plea for the recognition of design as a universal solution. Rawsthorn outlines some of the outright failures (notably a wonderfully patronising scheme to gear water pumps in Africa to playground roundabouts and thus employ kiddie power) and some half-successes (the laudably ambitious One Laptop per Child programme, which never realised its aim of supplying millions of computers to children for $100 each, though it did supply a million at $187 each).
The slightly curious title – emblazoned in huge hideous letters on an ironically underwhelming cover by renowned Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom – comes from the message traditionally written into a simple computer program used to teach beginners how to code. It suggests a wide-eyed newness and wonder, which isn’t quite fulfilled.
Hello World is an extremely readable tour of the subject but I would have liked Rawsthorn to devote more time to design’s emerging darker side, which is arguably far more intriguing than tables, chairs, dresses and websites. Contemporary design now encompasses some genuinely unsettling fields, from drones and military robots to insects with electronically hacked brains. Design’s ubiquity has allowed it to become simultaneously prominent and also slightly invisible. The most interesting bits of contemporary design can be those where we don’t know the designers’ names.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
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