"Product design should do so much more than encourage consumption"

"Product design should do so much more than encourage consumption"

Opinion: in his latest column, Kieran Long argues that product designers should learn from architects and tackle civic issues like surveillance and security rather than "hide in their studios making something lovely."

When was the last time you met a designer whose work is about justice or love, or truth? Universal values, ones that bear on the meaning of our lives, seem to be beyond the creative register of most designers of objects and things. In product design, I'm struck by how small the concerns of its practitioners tend to be.

I began thinking about this while teaching at the Royal College of Art in the Design Products department in 2011/12 with the designer Sofia Lagerkvist from Front Design. Our students were great and we loved working there, but when we set a brief that asked our students to work in north-east London libraries after the riots, there was noticeable resistance. There was a sense of some (not all) students imagining that this was not what they came to the RCA to do, and that it was not what they wanted their careers to be.

The conflict was certainly my fault. I found it difficult to have this conversation with them, because I'd never encountered this line of thinking in many years of teaching in architecture schools. It seemed self evident to me that such a brief was valuable. Architects do actually spend time thinking about a higher meaning for their work beyond the commercial and outside the simple "I like/I don't" like paradigm of individual taste.

For architects, their education (ideally) gives students a sense of certain (yet often very vague) responsibility to the city itself and therefore that the citizen is important.

Architects will almost always speak about their higher role if given the chance: about their responsibility to provide a setting for civic life, to make a place meaningful for people and so on. Our cities might not be better because of it, but the conversation is there.

I'm not saying architects are uniquely civic minded in their work, either. We can think of plenty of works of digital design (games, websites, even interfaces) that take as their themes issues of access, citizenship, or even life or death. Graphic design does, too, through political posters and publications and many practitioners’ interest in the graphic culture of the streets.

In product design, however, sometimes it feels that its most important practitioners just want to be left alone to whittle away in their studios making something lovely, periodically being wheeled out to tell the story of their whittling.

The obvious retort to this is probably that product design is indeed the field most in bed with fast-moving consumer capitalism. The Ron Arads and so on of this world give salesmen new, beautiful and desirable things to sell, and that machine is necessary. Also, the media around design - with its systems of awards and juries and the institutions (like mine) that honour the good and great - are not all that interested in the world of design beyond the decorative. Honourable exceptions include the work of people like Justin McGuirk in the Domus of recent years. In the main, the role models we promote are those engaged with consumer products.

I know many designers whose work articulates our everyday experience in ways that are meaningful, that help us to understand and enjoy our daily lives. It is enough for good design to be things we cherish because they are beautiful, well made, or a pleasure to use, but it seems to me that our daily lives are dominated by barely competent and sometimes downright sinister works of industrial design, and I do not understand why designers don’t spend more time chasing down these opportunities. I mean, I hate the yellow plastic pad that I have to slide my Oyster Card up against when I get on the tube in the morning, and the ugly yellow system of handles and railings on London buses. I hate the incompetent way that cathedrals integrate gift shops into their lobbies and the excessive bulk of the common-or-garden wheelie bin.

More important, though, is whether there are any Dezeen readers whose work involves designing bits of the Ring of Steel terrorist defences around the City of London, or truckproof bollards, crowd-management barriers, riot-police shields, the casings for CCTV cameras, or the plastic spikes that they stick on top of the CCTV cameras to stop birds shitting on them.

The whole infrastructure of security and surveillance that dominates our experience of the city today (to take just one example) has gone untouched by the field of product design in any meaningful way. These are works of design that take justice and trust as their topic, and they make it pretty clear how those in power think of us as citizens.

Architects are often thought of as terrible snobs, but loads of them spend their days thanklessly trying to redesign low-cost housing for grasping, couldn’t-care-less developers or vainly trying to improve the standard of big-shed retail. Perhaps product designers dislike getting their hands dirty.

If the best we can say of a designed object is that they people can either buy it or not buy it, then the piece is nothing. It is worse than nothing, it just exists to make the wheels of a corporation turn, to encourage consumption and so on. Let’s be honest about that. I know that we all depend on this system working, it pays most of our wages etc etc, but let’s not pretend it’s why we get out of bed in the morning. Design could be so much more important than that. I just wonder if designers have the passion and desire to go out and design the things that define our lives as citizens and human beings.

Image of security in London courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kieran Long is Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He presents Restoration Home and the series The £100,000 House for the BBC, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.