“Hello World” is the test message that pops up on to screens when programmers have successfully executed a given project. It’s also the title of Alice Rawsthorn’s new book, which presents a sweeping survey of design’s role in contemporary culture, and the ways in which mankind has sought to improve its daily existence. The shop-talk term also refers to what happens when the design process ends, and its usage and dissemination to the wider public begins.
The range of topic, and the task of pinning down the ever-elusive discipline of design is ambitious, but Rawsthorn’s plain-spoken confidence meets the difficulties of conducting that discussion head-on. Rawsthorn has been the weekly design columnist of the International Herald Tribune for over six years and is a former Director of the Design Museum in London. She draws upon her strength as a storyteller to tackle the challenge with accessible, clear prose, common analogies, and amusing anecdotes. Although Hello World is designed by Dutch superstar Irma Boom — best known for her conceptual and sculptural approach to print media, and “fat books” in particular — the text itself is notably and refreshingly free of any design world esoterics.
Broad-stroke headers for a majority of the chapters (“What is good design?”; “Why design is not – and should never be confused with – art”) read like provocations or prefaces to caustic manifestos; epigraphs from the canon of design pedagogy – everyone from Reyner Banham, to Victor Papanek, László Moholy-Nagy, Steve Jobs, and Bruno Munari – set the tone of each section with critical perspectives. Yet Rawsthorn’s elucidation of her examples, from prosthetic limbs to infographics, corporate identities, public transit wayfinding, and smartphones, never fully culminates with a central, incisive argument. At times, her observations can be lucid to the point of facile.
There are a few moments when Rawsthorn seems particularly exercised (the stock colouring of Post-It notepads is described as “uriniferous” at least twice); she also airs critical observations that get brushed under the rug all too often (perhaps because well-considered design commentary from non-practitioners is a fledgling genre?). Rawsthorn criticises the lack of diversity in the design profession; she advocates for higher integrity in the use, origin and afterlife of materials; her even-handed depiction of social design places as much emphasis on the long-term effects of a project, as it does on its philanthropic intentions. Rawsthorn is one of the few full-time, internationally read design critics, but readers, especially professional designers, may look elsewhere for fine-combed takedowns or assessments; Hello World aims to introduce questions rather than provide strong arguments or actionable solutions.
Rawsthorn’s arsenal of knowledge could be best described as that of a specialised generalist, or general specialist. But one need only flip through the back matter to confirm the wide-ranging extent of her research: the annotated bibliography and acknowledgments comprise nearly a quarter of the whole book. Still, the book is not a comprehensive historical account, nor does it pretend to be. In providing a map of contexts and precedents with which to consider design, Rawsthorn provides a much-needed resource for deeper enquiry. At its best, Hello World is an invitation and encouragement to the 99 percent to engage in the conversation of where design is headed, beyond the check-out aisle, and in the foreseeable future.
Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, by Alice Rawsthorn,