The fame game

Who won the Perrier-Jouët Selfridges Design Prize this year? Don’t know? Well, nobody did. Because the prize, inaugurated, ooh way back in 2001, no longer exists. Even the Selfridges press office had never heard of it. Sic transit gloria mundi. And so, despite other initiatives, British design still lacks its equivalent of the Booker and Turner prizes. It’s not for want of trying

The Perrier-Jouët Selfridges prize came with a cheque for £20,000 and had a heavily publicized shortlist of variously colourful and baffling contestants. It was a blatant attempt to put design on a par with literature and art. The Design Museum has in effect taken over the reins now with its Designer of the Year award.

Now, the Design Council, of all organizations, has confessed that it is concerned designers aren’t ‘recognized’ enough. Prompted apparently by Jonathan Ive’s being awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours List (how famous is that?), the Council in February asked a panel of experts who in design ‘is due for time in the spotlight’ and how they should be recognized.

This is not the same as arguing that the value of design is insufficiently recognized by British industry, which has been the Council’s message since time immemorial, and which receives its latest iteration in the Cox Report published last November. Far from it. This sends practically the opposite message to industry. In its desperate attempt to turn designers into celebrities and pander to the government’s infatuation with the ‘creative industries’, the Council neglects product and process at the expense of personality. This may be forgivable in Hollywood where nobody blames famous actors for lousy films, but here it sends a dangerous signal that design is transient, trivial and disposable. The Design Council in any previous era of its 57 years’ incarnation would be appalled at the cosmic scale of the misjudgement.

Consider for a moment what a world of design people as celebrities might be like. Come on down, Ron and Jasper and Alice, Hilary and James and Neville. How would they fare in the jungle with Ant and Dec? Could they banter amusingly with Graham Norton? How penetrating would be their insights into the national condition on Question Time?

There is a reason why ‘recognition’ is beside the point and why these awards don‘t work. They build on a woeful misunderstanding of what design actually is. Design is complex, collaborative, commercial, and essentially anonymous. This is true for good design, and it’s true, bad designers will be relieved to know, for bad.

Booker Prize-winning novels are written by authors toiling alone with a blank piece of paper. Turner Prizes are won by artists pursuing their individual path. But even the simplest design involves the contribution of others—ergonomists, engineers, printers, manufacturing specialists and so on. These days, it also often demands the participation of psychologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, market researchers, materials scientists, modelmakers and, increasingly, the future users themselves, not only in focus groups and interviews but taking an active role for example participating in scenarios to evaluate prototype designs.

A novel or a work of art is produced by artists to standards they set for themselves for others to admire or ignore. Designs, or as they used to be called, products, are produced for clients to make, market and sell. One is characterized by creative freedom, the other by practical constraints, as the great (but not celebrity) designer Charles Eames appreciated.

But above all, design is essentially anonymous. There is not only no need to know who designed your cooker or your credit card, it is in many cases a distraction to know. It interferes with simply using the object. This may seem hard to take. But designers do gain their reward not in heaven but here on earth. For anonymity is simply the price they pay for ubiquity.

A truly successful design is manufactured in millions. Thousands upon thousands of British homes have lavatories designed by Robin Levien, but how many users of his designs have the faintest idea who he is? And who needs to know? Perhaps the most abundant single design of all is the standard CD case. Chances are you have more of these things in your possession than Biros or paperclips or all the other apocryphal designs of ubiquity. The vast majority of CD cases are produced to an agreed uniform design. They are pressed out in their billions. Once upon a time, it had a designer. I know his name, as it happens. But I’m not telling, or some starry-eyed mandarin who’s been watching too much television will probably give him an award.

He has his award—the ubiquity. That’s his compensation for being, like the rest of us, unknown. Designers’ success is measured in how far they get their designs out there, not in column inches and prime time bons mots. Now, get back to work.

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