Is Design Selling Out on Its Ideals? (1987)

Feature by Tim Kirby

David King in 1987. Photograph: Klaus Kalde

During the last war, Abram Games, in the middle of his brilliant series of posters for the War Office, made an announcement to fellow designer F.H.K. Henrion. “After the war,” he said, “I’m only going to do posters for causes I believe in.” Henrion, who relates the anecdote, replied: “If you can make a living that way, fine. But why shout about it. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Today, Games’s resolution sounds poignant and naïve, and Henrion’s caution well-placed. Back in civvy street after the war, Games was soon producing posters for the Times, Guinness and London Transport, as well as for the non-commercial causes he had in mind. At the time, however, his outburst was understandable. As Henrion points out, the war was a special period for design: “Only a fool could call it a golden age, but it was a time when your work was a matter of life and death.”

Both Games and Henrion were members of the Artists’ International Association, a politically broad-based alliance of artists and designers set up in 1934 and standing for the “unity of artists against Fascism, war and the suppression of culture”. During the war, AIA members used their specialised skills to boost the war effort, and many former members like Henrion and Misha Black were active subsequently during the Festival of Britain. “The Festival was a statement of intent,” says Henrion. “It showed what life could be like, and the role that design played in the building of a better future was to be central.”

The ideas of the AIA and the Festival seem a long way from the concerns at the forefront of contemporary design: the USM [Unlisted Securities Market], the DBG [Design Business Group] and a government initiative called bluntly “Design for Profit”. The contrast says a lot about how far design has come since the war, but in what direction has it been travelling?”

This year, unless Mrs Thatcher has an uncharacteristic failure of nerve, the country will go to the polls in the most important election since the war. The electoral choices have seldom been so at odds: endorsement of eight years of Thatcherism, support for a Labour Party committed to a non-nuclear Britain, or the green light for an Alliance set on proportional representation. 

Designers are likely to be confronted with some additional choices in 1987. The spectacular and rapid rise of the designer as media star, City slicker and saviour of industry and commerce has brought into question assumptions about what being a designer means. Does the spirit of the Festival of Britain still prevail, or do designers need to define a new place for themselves in a society that has fundamentally and radically changed? 

There are questions, too, about design’s political affiliations. The fact that the rise of the designer has coincided with eight years of consensus-busting Thatcherism is a source of some discomfort to designers on the Left. Things are made all the more uncomfortable by Thatcher’s public championing of design. After years of crying in the wilderness, it is a cruel irony for some that the arm that ushers your industry through the doors of No. 10 should be so true blue. 

The Government makes no bones about what it expects design to deliver: “Design for Profit” sums it up. It’s a slogan that would not look out of place above the portals of some of the larger consultancies which have become locked into the stock market. With hungry shareholders to feed, it’s probably the best maxim you can have. 

But some designers, particularly those who have not hitched their fortunes to a stock market quote, are starting to feel that a preoccupation with profits has overshadowed the social ideas from which design draws much of its strength, purpose and originality. 

Minale Tattersfield’s Brian Tattersfield says: “I’ve felt increasingly at odds with the way things have been going for the past couple of years. I’ve always believed that design should be radical, that people become designers because they are dissatisfied with the things around them. 

“I was taught that the point of being a designer was to create a better environment for people to live in. If you were good at that, commercial success followed. I’m not sure when, but we seem to have stopped talking about that.”

At the time of the DBG launch last year, Henrion wrote a much-publicised letter in which he restated the belief that design has an obligation to “make a contribution, however small in scale, towards creating a better world”. This concept, the letter went on to say, need never be raised with clients but would be “ever present in the dialogue between a designer and his professional conscience”.

The problem, as Henrion points out, is that the days of the individual designer are more or less over: “Today,” he says, “it’s either smaller or larger groups. And if you have a large group, who then is the conscience of that group?”

The conscience of Fitch and Co. speaks loudly and confidently through Rodney Fitch, and he is adamant that idealism is alive and well and active at the 250-strong, publicly quoted consultancy. What is striking about Fitch’s idealism, however, is how well it chimes with the cherished beliefs of Thatcherism. This is one consultancy, at least, which has found its niche in her brave new world. 

“The driving emotion of our company has always been to work in the public arena – that was one reason for becoming a public company,” says Fitch. “We talk to the public as equal to equal, and it’s a public that is sophisticated, visually aware and that knows what’s good for it. Old-fashioned Fabian ideas like ‘we know what’s best for the working man’ are anathema to me. Designers should be accountable to clients and to the public for the work that they do.”

Fitch adds that the coincidental rise of Thatcherism and of design is, in fact, no coincidence at all. Both were born from the demands of a new kind of consensus – the share-dealing, home-owning democracy that Thatcher courts is the public for whom Fitch designs. 

“Society has been getting progressively richer under successive governments,” says Fitch. “People have more discretionary income, the role of women has become more important, society has opened up in every way. One of the outcroppings of these changes is a greater awareness of design. Because this government is more in touch with what people want, it has recognised this and has given more support to design than any previous government.”

For designers affiliated to the Left, gloom over the new role of design as window-dressing for Thatcherite society is exacerbated by disgust with the political climate that Fitch finds so congenial. Ken Garland, a designer and a socialist (though not, he insists, a socialist designer), has watched the design boom with mixed feelings: “It’s good to see designers being given responsibilities that ten years ago would have been unthinkable, but I think people like Rodney Fitch may have a tiger by the tail. He’s a superb designer, but he’s surrounded by tough salesmen, the sort who’ll reach for the FT rather than the latest design magazine. And I’m worried for him and for the designers who work for him.”

Garland is exasperated by the sentiments which he says underlie “Design for Profit”: “The problem is that design is then seen as a slave to marketing. To work effectively it should be in an uneasy truce with it. What Thatcher fails to realise is that people need more than just another reason to buy another product.”

One of the Left’s most celebrated designers, David King, admits to “keeping his head down” during the years of Thatcher’s ascendancy. His posters for the Anti-Nazi League in 1978–80 still pack a punch. But, says King, designers on the Left are faced with different problems in the late 1980s. “The Anti-Nazi League posters worked because the message was important, the design was right and because the audience was responsive. Today, everyone on the Left is disillusioned.”

“The problem in terms of designing for the Left is that all the stylistic influences seem to be coming from Western capitalist sources. The sort of designer socialism the Labour Party now espouses suffers from this confusion.”

King adds that if he were back at the beginning of his career, he’d think twice about working as a designer: “I think I’d probably go in the opposite direction, towards painting, making things.”

Garland, too, feels that the further triumphs of Thatcherism could lead him to renounce the designer’s public role in favour of more private occupations. “When you’re under a regime you hate, your weapons are irony, satire and lampoon. These weapons are not available to designers – how can you design ironically? If she gets back in again, I can see myself taking up a more private activity like writing.”

For David Davies, director of David Davies Associates, politics are a “cynical game”. He adds that most of the designers in his 60-strong company, all of whom are younger than 30-year-old Davies, are politically neutral. For him, the main problem ahead lies in finding ways to expand without becoming a design factory. One solution is diversification into areas like retailing and video production. 

“It’s a question of getting the balance right,” says Davies. “We’re a commercial enterprise and we have to pay the bills, and as a director of the business I sometimes feel impatience when our teams spend so much time getting things as good as possible. 

“But as a designer, I also believe that good work has to have integrity and if that means going over budget sometimes, it’s worth it. Good designers always try to create something new and unusual. The trick is to create an environment where that ideal is encouraged.”

That is the danger that some see in the new ideal of populist design expounded by the likes of Fitch and Co.: design produced in consultation with the consumer could prove to be conservative and stick-in-the-mud (the “community architecture” of Rod Hackney is subject to similar criticism in architectural circles). Few designers believe they have the right to dictate to the public, but fewer still would be happy working in an industry where innovation is stifled by considerations of what the market will bear. Anything that smacks of intellectual elitism is as unfashionable these days as appeals to compassion, but the desire to give the public more than what it wants remains a mainspring of creativity. 

Tattersfield believes that the pressure for a return to some of design’s more ambitious – even arrogant – ideals could come from the clients themselves. “For years I’ve been shouting for industry to take more notice of design, and just as it does, designers start behaving like businessmen. But already I think there may be a swing back. I get the impression that clients are coming to us because we still behave like designers.”

Originally published as a cover story (coverline: “Has Design Sacrificed Its Ideals?”) in Direction, March 1987, pp. 16–17. The portrait of King above is from the article, which is republished here with permission of Tim Kirby