A paean to designers
“When you decode the world with design intent in mind, it becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better. And that’s essentially the definition of design: making life better and providing joy.”
Roman Mars, 99% Invisible
99% Invisible is a podcast about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about – the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world”, hosted by the uber-cool Roman Mars (even his name is cool). If you’ve never listened to it, then grab your headphones and do yourself a favour… just as soon as you’ve finished reading this post.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I was introduced to the concept of design, as a callow youth of ten or eleven, over lunch in the garden of a country pub. There was a big blue glass ashtray on the table, with brewery branding emblazoned in gold around the rim. (The very one that’s in the picture. I searched “blue glass Courage ashtray” in Google Images, and there it was. Yours for £6 on ebay. If I was the sentimental type, I’d snap it up.)
The picture doesn’t really do it justice. It was big and blue and gold and shiny. I loved it, and I said so.
My mum’s “friend”, Alistair, told me that there was a designer somewhere out there, whose heart would sing to hear such praise for his work. (And yes, he said “his”. It was the seventies). I asked Alistair what he meant, and he explained that everything man-made (again, I know) is made to look the way it does by design. More specifically, by designers. The glass I was drinking from, the crisp packet, the table, our clothes – it all starts with a designer. Every day, he went on, a huge, mostly invisible army of such people brings our world into being, right down to the tiniest detail.
I was amazed… for about eight seconds. Then I had to run away from a wasp.
The predictable segue would be that the conversation left an indelible impression on me, and I grew up to be a famous designer. In fact, I became a writer. But the conversation did stay with me.
As a writer, I live and work pretty much entirely in the mind, playing with ideas that I hope to implant in the minds of others. My work has effect in the real world only through the agency of the reader. Writing can be simultaneously powerful and pointless, depending on who’s paying attention.
Designers, on the other hand, live and work in the real world. Hell, they create the real world. Every day, the designer goes about the sisyphean task of making real things look and work better than they did before. Their work is inextricably bound up with our experience of the world, profoundly affecting all of our lives every minute of every day, whether we notice it or not. It’s a huge responsibility, a dangerous job, requiring creativity and practicality in equal measure: head in the clouds, feet on the ground.
All of which, I think, makes them quite special.
The designer’s status in society has been on an upward curve for the last thirty or forty years. There’s a burgeoning class of celebrity designers, and design is recognised as an important frontline in the effort to establish a more sustainable way of life.
But I suspect that the population at large still doesn’t really fully grasp the extent to which this invisible army fundamentally shapes our lives. If they did, there would be more statues of designers in our city squares. And they’d probably be more interesting statues to boot. Of course, there might also be the occasional lynching – bad design can really ruin your day. But let’s not dwell on that.
Instead, as Roman Mars so eloquently suggests, let’s take a moment to pause, reflect and celebrate the astonishing talent, pragmatism and hard work of the people who spend their days making life better and providing joy.