Edwin Heathcote

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words Edwin Heathcote

A new book wants to do for design what Blink did for instinct: make it sexy to corporate drones. No thanks.

Nudge, Blink, Snoop, Sway, The Drunkard’s Walk and the Tipping Point. Sounds like the end to an uncomfortable night out(lier). Now we can add Glimmer. A proof copy of the latest single-word solution arrived the other day. Warren Berger’s Glimmer (to be published by Penguin in October) is a dim attempt to package the idea of design as a panacea, a new theory of everything in the vein of Malcolm “Blink” Gladwell, Steven “Freakonomics” Levitt et al. It comes hot on the heels of a strange paper from the RSA entitled You Know More Than You Think You Do: Design as Resourcefulness and Self-Reliance, another attempt to knock design off its pedestal, smash it open and let its creative juices soak us all. The report refers to “a prevailing political agenda of inclusiveness, personalisation, participation and co-production, in which the autonomy of the professional is incongruous”. Really? Could we apply that to lawyers and bankers too? Both these texts point to a curious and intriguing moment, one which seemingly reacts against the exclusivity of “design art” and against the tedium of another new chair.

Surely, the idea that design could illuminate not just the product but the whole of corporate culture (according to Berger) and the whole of society (according to the RSA’s Emily Campbell and Matthew Taylor) has to be a good thing? Design finally recognised as a powerful tool for improving our culture? I’m not so sure.

What Levitt, Gladwell, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and to some extent my FT colleague Tim Harford (as the Undercover Economist) did so brilliantly was to apply the seemingly dull and unsexy disciplines of economics and statistics to everyday situations. The results were often astonishing. They illuminated a process in which small decisions could have extraordinary, far-reaching consequences: the butterfly effect applied to society. Perhaps the most memorable is Levitt’s slightly shocking assertion that New York’s surprising fall in crime in the 1990s was probably due not to the mayor’s “zero tolerance” policing policy, but to a decision 15 or so years earlier which made contraception and abortion more available to young girls. That in turn led to a decline in the numbers of dysfunctional families, and fewer feral kids to create trouble a few years later. It may not be absolutely provable but it makes an excellent story.

The real success of those books was in their widespread adoption by corporate culture. Big business loves these kind of stories, they provide airport reading and fresh cliches.

The subtitle of Glimmer is “How design can transform your life and maybe even the world”. Above the title appear the words “featuring the ideas of design visionary Bruce Mau”. It would be hard to deliver a sequence of words to wind me up more (unless they featured the words “Eton”, “Progressive” and “Conservative”). This is the kind of book you want to punch. I will quote some chapter headings: “Ask stupid questions”, “Jump fences”, “Make hope visible”, “Work the metaphor”. Jesus.

You can see exactly who the book is aimed at, the executives who need to spice up their Powerpoint presentations with a sliver of sexiness gleaned from design. But there is a reciprocal problem here. Levitt, Gladwell et al humanised seemingly impersonal fields like sociology through the use of interesting stories. They showed how disciplines traditionally regarded as dull could become engaging. That is why they appealed to corporate drones desperate to make their interminable reports feel worthwhile and interesting.

What Berger and the RSA are doing is very different in the impact it will have on design. Design is sexy. Everybody loves it. The acknowledgement of design as something beyond packaging has been hard fought and only recently won. We exist in an age in which Jonathan Ive can be treated as a superstar, where design’s role in the post-industrial West is finally being understood and appreciated. Jasper Morrison can write about “supernormality”, in which the appearance of design disappears. Design is at last being discussed in sophisticated terms and, although it still lacks a large body of theory, it has begun to seep in the public consciousness.

In asserting that everything is design, and that everybody is a potential designer, the focus is lost. Yes, corporate processes can be designed, but that doesn’t mean that the people who redesign them are designers. What both the RSA and the authors of Glimmer are doing is lauding a kind of amateurism. The proposition is that specialist knowledge hampers thinking, that it is better to approach a problem with no preconceptions as that allows you to redefine the parameters and be innovative. But aren’t we moving towards a “knowledge society”? This is fuzzy management-speak idiocy. Sure, design is sexy and everybody wants a piece of it. But we shouldn’t give it away so easily.

Edwin Heathcote is the Financial Times’ architecture critic and a regular icon contributor

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