While trained as a “proper journalist,” Alice Rawsthorn eventually came to a realization about the craft of design: It can be a wildly powerful conduit to improve human life. And thus she decided to focus the majority of her writerly efforts exploring and expounding upon it.
In the years since, Rawsthorn has become one of design’s chief evangelists, on a mission to bring an understanding of the craft to the masses via her writing not in niche industry publications, but a medley of mainstream outlets.
By documenting how design can make the world a better place, Rawsthorn, perhaps, is doing the same for the world of designers—bringing a light to a craft that remains, for many, in the dark. Here, to coincide with the release of the latest episode of Design Matters, we celebrate her words and her wisdom.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“My mother was an art teacher, so I grew up with the benefit of her teaching skills, including a fantastic impromptu visual education. She was a natural teacher, who turned any situation into a learning exercise for my brother and [me]. On country walks, for example, she’d pick up leaves and ask: ‘What color is it?’ If we said ‘green,’ she’d point out that, if we looked closely, we’d see that pink, purple, red and blue there too …”
“The only job that appealed to me most was journalism, for the foolish reason that it seemed reassuringly like continuing my studies. For all the wrong reasons, I found a career that suits my temperament perfectly.”
“The process of design existed long before a word was invented to describe it. Whenever human beings sought to change their way of life or their surroundings, starting with barricading a prehistoric cave against predators, they acted as designers, but did so instinctively. ‘Accidental’ designers, like those cave dwellers, have continued to apply design intuitively and unknowingly ever since.”
“Medieval armorial bearings were precursors of contemporary corporate identities, like McDonald’s golden arches and the Nike swoosh. So was the macabre symbol of a human skull and pair of crossed bones, which was adopted as a tactical weapon by the pirates in the early 1700s. This was the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ when the pickings were so rich for canny buccaneers like Blackbeard and Black Bart that they ran their ships like businesses. Terrifying their prey into surrendering speedily without wasting ammunition or risking the lives of their crew was a sensible ploy, and flying flags that told their prey just how merciless and brutal they could be was an efficient way of achieving it. That’s why the skull and crossbones is such a brilliant example of communication design.”
“Design is a slippery and elusive phenomenon, which has meant different things at different times. But all truly inspiring design projects have one thing in common: They began with a dream. And the bolder the dream, the greater the design feat that will be required to achieve it. And this is why the greatest designers are almost always the biggest dreamers and rebels and renegades.”
“The industrial revolution professionalised design, but it also curbed and constrained it. Design ended up being seen as a commercial tool, very much a lacky of consumerism steeped in conspicuous consumption. Design has so much potential to play a deeper and more meaningful role in society.”
“Designers, thanks to fairly basic digital tools, can now operate independently to pursue their own objectives. They needn’t wait around for people to employ them.”
“We’re living in such a dark, turbulent, dangerous era—almost dystopian. Economic recession. Environmental crisis. Social dissent. Geopolitical chaos. That’s just for starters. Designers have such a constructive contribution to make at a time when other disciplines, like the social sciences, are acutely aware of the need to find new approaches to the problems in their fields, because their 20th-century way of working is no longer fit for purpose. Design is all about solving problems and helping us to make sense of change in a user-friendly way.”
“Helping us to live more sustainably is among the most important challenges—and exciting opportunities—for designers today. The pressure to ensure that we have no cause for concern in terms of how products were designed, manufactured, tested, shipped, sold and will eventually be disposed of, will continue to intensify—rightly so.”
“Inclusivity is one of the most important elements in any social design project, both in terms of forging cross-disciplinary collaborations between designers and, say, anthropologists, economists, ethnographers and social scientists, and of involving the ‘audience’ in the design process. The designer’s role is the polar opposite to the 20th-century cliché of the creative-control-freak-cum-design-hero.”
“Design is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, whether or not we are aware of it.”
“The word ‘design’ has become so fashionable and is applied so liberally, just like ‘meme’ and ‘curator,’ that, in theory, it could risk being devalued. After all, design has always suffered from muddles and misunderstandings, and if it becomes even fuzzier by being applied so freely, isn’t the confusion about its meaning likely to worsen? Possibly. But I believe it is more important to focus less on the definition of design, and more on its impact.”
“It is hard to think of an activity which wouldn’t benefit from being designed: from planning a journey to wrapping a present to caring for an elderly relative.”
“Design should always be in the service of a better life, but unfortunately, it does not always achieve that objective. We can all think of examples of design projects, even the best intentioned ones, which threaten to make our lives worse rather than better.”
“If you read the media, every day there seems to be another scare story about AI, and the blunt truth is that if artificial intelligence is badly designed, it can cause huge problems and a massive amount of damage. Whereas, if it’s supplied intelligently and sensitively, it could help us in all sorts of different ways. Designers will be absolutely critical in finding positive and beneficial applications and also steering us away from the potential dangers of these technologies.”
“No one could deny the chair’s importance in 20th-century design history. But, like lots of design nuts, I find it deeply irritating that public perceptions of design should be dominated by a handful of badly designed, overpriced pieces of furniture.”
“As a design critic, it’s my job to decide whether things are well designed and, if so, why. Because they’re environmentally sound? Ethical? Innovative? Emotionally expressive? All good reasons, sure, but sometimes we’re drawn to things simply because they give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, which is harder to explain.”
“There are a lots of things I miss about the late, great graphic designer Alan Fletcher, but the thing I miss the most is arguing with him about design. Some of our most enjoyable arguments involved how to explain design to the 99 percent of the population that Alan pityingly described as ‘civilians’—in other words, those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be designers.”
“As a writer, I find design endlessly fascinating, because it is richly contextualized and constantly changing, forcing me to continually reassess my understanding of it.”
“It is impossible to ever learn enough about design.” The TRANSCRIPT
Debbie Millman: Design is an ever-changing amorphous entity. In recent decades, designers have been moving beyond a strictly commercial role into social, political and environmental ventures. Alice Rawsthorn has been there to chronicle and to champion the growth of the field. She's been a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and a design columnist in the New York Times where she kept a close eye on how the world has changed design and how designers have changed the world. Her latest book is titled Design as an Attitude. She joins me to talk about it and her career as a preeminent design critic.
Alice Rawsthorn, welcome to Design Matters.
Alice: Hello, Debbie.
Debbie: Alice, I understand that when you were a teenager, you spent your lunch breaks at school, practicing dance steps to British soul music in the cloak room. Any particular favorite tune?
Alice: It wasn't such British soul music, it was northern soul music. I'm from Northern England and northern soul is a huge phenomenon in the 70s. So when on the rare occasions we went to clubs, most of the time it was like as a village hall disco, we would do northern soul dancing. And so it was all American music and some Jamaican that was imported into Britain.
Debbie: And what kind of dancing?
Alice: Well, it's sort of formation dancing, super athletic. It's all about sort of stamina on the dance floor. So dancing for hours on end, they'd be northern soul all nighters, which now it is, I mean, now it's incredibly chic in British pop culture, but at the time it was just something that working class kids in Northern England did.
Debbie: And you were born in Manchester, is that correct?
Alice: I was.
Debbie: And Your father was a mechanical engineer who owned his own companies?
Alice: No, he ran companies for other people.
Debbie: Oh, he ran companies for other people? Okay. Well you said that he directly influenced your love of design.
Alice: Well, actually both my parents did. My mom was a teacher, she was an art teacher and dad was incredibly practical, he could do electronics, install central heating. He built their first car from bits of scrap so just one of those naturally and genius, resourceful, super pragmatic people. And Mom came from working class families who have very little money, super creative, made everything. So she loved gardening, sewing, she was constantly making stuff to sell at craft fairs. Sort of, I grew up with this notion that making things was a natural, sensible thing to do and also instinctively I think I learned to sort of pay attention about how things sorted into your life, how you felt about them.
And mom was a brilliant teacher I mean, it's a tragedy she gave it up to bring up her own children because so many other kids could have benefited from her. If you would say walking the dog, she'd pick up a leaf and say what color's this? And my brother and I would say green, you know, all leaves are green. She'd say, no, look more carefully and point out all the colors. So just by doing little things like that, she really made us look at things and made us very confident in our visual judgments, which certainly in the British education system was very unusual.
Debbie: I read that she gave you absolute confidence in your visual judgment.
Alice: I think she taught me how to trust my instincts visually and not to feel guilty in the way that most British intellectuals do about reveling in the visual. I mean, an artist friend David Bachelor always says the British are never taught how to look and it's absolutely true. And say without my mom I would have been a much more typical super academic British kid who may have had little or no interest in the visual aspects of life.
Debbie: When I read that quote about your mom, I was wondering how she was able to instill that absolute confidence because so few people really have that shorty at being really clear about what they see are capable of doing?
Alice: I'm not sure I really saw it or see it as confidence. It was more, I mean, certainty in a weird way is a better word but that sounds ridiculous because you should never be certain about anything. It would be a very boring way to live. I think it's just that she really opened me up to the sensual pleasure of the visual and also other sort of haptic aspects of life and didn't make me feel guilty about it. I never felt it was a waste of time or that it was silly and superficial. And that was very much the prevailing attitude in Britain at the time. So for me as a teenager that translated into an obsessive interest in pop and style culture. So I was obsessed by music, different styles of dancing, clothes and so on. And so I think that was how I expressed it rather than painting, drawing, sculpting, none of which I could do.
Debbie: When you were growing up, I understand that you adored the book, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and the character Jo in particular resonated with you. What did you love most about her, why Jo?
Alice: Well, actually I think all my friends loved Little Women and Jo, it didn't make me unusual, but Jo was a tom boy, first of all, as was I. She was intelligent and was confident in marshaling her intelligence. She was a strong, powerful, confident, obdurate in a positive way female character in an era where there were so few. And so as a role model she was much more appealing than slightly and sip it overly domesticated Meg, sulkies willed Amy and of course poor Beth who died.
Debbie: Fashion wise today you described yourself as a sporty mod and have been known to study and buy pieces from fashion week. Given your keen sense of style and you look magnificent today, I think some people would be surprised to learn that you yourself were a tomboy, although I do understand that you were quite particular about the jeans and T-shirts that you would wear as that young tomboy. What did you favor?
Alice: Well, I was very particular about jeans and T-shirts and also so skinny that they would just sort of fall off me-
Debbie: Poor you.
Alice: Far too short. But I think actually I don't think it should be surprising because I think being a tomboy is very much about personal identity and that's really what an obsessive interest in clothes is all about. Whether it's communicating your mood, your gender politics, your gender preferences, whatever. Any other aspects of your personal identity, clothes have always been a critically important way of doing that and also a hugely enjoyable one. And so I was in my late teens and early twenties so university in the punk era and in those days, certainly in Britain, you couldn't buy really cool clothes. They just sort of didn't exist. So you would have to make or customize your own.
So we'd go to what we call jumble sales, I think they're yard sales in the states or thrift shops and buy raggedy Mohair sweaters and make them even more raggedy and so on. So I still am absurdly for my age, ridiculously still obsessively interested in fashion. And it's something that gives me huge enjoyment. You know, just as, I wouldn't ever eat anything that I didn't think I was going to enjoy, I never wear anything that didn't feel right. So for me, it's all part of a particular outlook on life.
Debbie: While you were growing up, your family was constantly moving and you attended, I believe, six schools?
Debbie: Why were you on the move so often and what kind of impact did that have on you?
Alice: Well, my dad, he was constantly getting jobs to run ever larger engineering companies. So it was really his career and his ambitions. So I think every four years in my childhood, we'd move 200 miles, which I don't think is much of a distance in the states, but you know, that's halfway up the country in Great Britain. And so, you know, you'd arrive in a new playground, you wouldn't know anyone all over again. You'd have to make friends and sort of establish yourself from scratch. So I think it made me quite a socially confident person because I knew from a very early age that I could do that. So I never had a terror of sort of leaving and rebuilding and reinventing simply because I'd had to do it so often.
And it also meant that I was exposed to lots of different cultures, different accents, different language, different dance steps, different takes on music and fashion, all the things that teenagers in particular really care about in different parts of the country. So I think it was probably that that gave me yet another obsessive interest in coding of different types, whether its visual codes, behavioral codes, because if you arrive as the new kid in the playground, you've got to learn and pretty quickly if you're going to make friends.
Debbie: I read an interesting quote that I wanted to ask you about. You said that if you ever feel glum about aging, you watch the television Showgirls and remember how hard it was to be a young woman and I was wondering what was particularly hard, was it just the sort of usual teenage angst or something more specific?
Alice: I think politicly, I mean, I was a girl in the '60s, I was a teenager in the '70s and a young professional woman in the '80s now, thankfully, time's up. But it was horrible being a young woman then.
Debbie: I think probably very close to the same age because those are the same decades that I went through at those ages.
Alice: You know, there were very few role models for you. You saw very few adult women whose lives you thought we're bearable, you were patronized and marginalized constantly, it was horribly unpleasant. I mean, particularly if you were ambitious and really wanted sort of to achieve something in your life and lead a worthwhile life, you had very little evidence that that was going to be possible. So I mean, I was lucky as well you, and that we grew up in a generation where sort of first and second wave feminists had really blazed a trail smash through the glass ceiling and so on. So we did have opportunities, but you really felt you had to struggle for them. I mean, for example, I went to Cambridge University, which is the elite university in Britain. Only 10% of my year were women because there was so few places for women there in what was traditionally for centuries been all male colleges.
And so in a way it's great training for adult life because you knew you could never make a mistake, you know, you would never be forgiven for errors that a comparable man could make. And you knew you would have to work really, really hard and strive in order to achieve what you wanted.
Debbie: And you get used to struggling.
Alice: Yeah, exactly and also not complaining about it because that was pointless too. That said, I think it's way more fun being a woman. So I'm very happy.
Debbie: I agree. Absolutely. When did you start writing and what kind of writing did you first do?
Alice: I always loved reading and writing and I was what we call in Britain a bookworm. So I was always as a kid buried in a book and I loved writing stories and telling stories at school. And actually one of the sort of strategies I had when I'd arrive at these new schools was I would write plays, which I would direct, produce and occasionally star in as well because even if I was feeling particularly ego maniacal, but basically most people who weren't nice to me they didn't get good parts.
Debbie: Wow. Now I did that too but only for my family, only with my siblings. I never had the confidence to do it with classmates. That's brilliant. I wish they'd know.
Alice: So actually I've always loved writing and when it came to sort of choosing a career at university and I initially wanted to be an experimental filmmaker, but then I realize that I did need to get a job to pay off my student debts. Being a journalist seemed very comfortably like being a student, you know, it's researching, interpreting, writing, synthesizing information. And so for absolutely the wrong rather casual reason, I ended up in what for me has been a fantastic career.
Debbie: But you studied art history, you don't have a journalism degree, is that correct?
Alice: No, I actually studied, at Cambridge you do a two part degree. So I did law part one thinking I'd be what was then called a civil rights lawyer, it would now be called a human rights lawyer. And then realizing I really didn't want to be a lawyer at all. And so I did art and architectural history part two and then went into journalism. But I think in Britain there were fewer vocational degrees more now, but there were few then. So it was this very sort of old fashioned thinking that if he was sort of highly trained intellectually, then you could really apply yourself to anything.
Debbie: I believe it was reading Domus magazine that gave you a sense about how design should be written about. Is that true?
Alice: Yeah, that was really my first exposure to a sort of formal discipline called design. It was something that my parents are practiced in this very improvisational, instinctive, resourceful way. I mean, mum would have happily been described as being creative. My Dad would have probably biffed me if I suggested he was such thing. But he was incredibly creative. I mean, hugely skilled and talented. But there was no discourse about design in Britain in the 1970s. But when I read art history, the course was really fuddy-duddy and traditional. So not particularly interesting but the artistry library at Cambridge was phenomenal. So I spent most of my time there reading and they had a subscription to Domus magazine, which was then edited by Alexandra Mendini. And he wrote about design as I have always thought of it since as this incredibly intellectually dynamics subject that was absolutely immersed in the sort of intersection of other disciplines. So films, psychology, politics, fashion, pop culture and so on. All the things I was completely obsessed by at the time.
So that was how I was introduced to design and how I thought about it ever since. I think without that, had I been interested in design at all which, would have been less likely, it would have been much more of a struggle to see it like that. So I'm hugely grateful to him.
Debbie: After graduating from Cambridge, you were part of the graduate trainee Journalism Program at the Thompson Organization and then got a job as an editor of the British and World Magazine Campaign. What did you make of the profession when you began working in it?
Alice: Well, I was on the Times graduate training scheme cause of the Thomson Organization that own the Times. And then I went to Campaign, which was very sort of contemporary and dynamic and lively and go ahead. And then in 1985 I went to the Financial Times. So that was my big break. I mean, in Britain it was all about getting a job on what were called national daily newspapers. And I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. So I really had to work for the Financial Times because it was the only paper in Britain that had sort of large number of foreign correspondence in lots of different places. It would have been much tougher elsewhere. And it was an overwhelmingly male profession, but then the corridors of power were overwhelmingly male. So that didn't really come as a shock.
And you did realize early on that as a woman you couldn't make any mistakes, you were judged very differently. I mean, I remember one senior editor at the FT telling myself and a close friend that Lucy Kellaway, who went on to become a business columnist for them, that we were the first women the FT had employed on the same basis as men. In other words, we had good degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, you know, we'd had a couple of years of journalistic experience and instead of appointing us in some specialist role, we were sort of going into the main stream of career development at the FT along with men of our generation.
So the idea that this was unusual was really preposterous, but it was a paternalistic rather than a misogynistic organization. And you really did have a sense that if you worked hard and did well, which meant, you know, going in every weekend to sort of, you do your job on weekdays and then you knew you had to do something extra to really stand out and shine. But I mean, for me it was never a question as to whether I was going to do that and I always knew it would be worth it.
Debbie: How did you move from working as a foreign correspondent to working primarily as a writer about design?
Alice: Well, I worked for the Financial Times for nearly 20 years and so I wrote about politics, economics, corporate affairs. I was a foreign correspondent in Paris. Then I wrote about the creative industries, which I was really the only person on the paper who was obsessed by those subjects. I kind of been in longterm training with all the indie music magazines and style magazines, I've been reading for all those years. So creative industries, then we're economically exploding and just starting to be taken seriously in terms of investments. So they needed someone to cover them. So it was actually sensible of them to deploy me and it was great fun for me. But after nearly 20 years of general journalism, I decided I did want to focus on something I was really passionate about and I chose design because I was passionate about it.
I'd been introduced to it by Domus at Cambridge, I then read as much about it as I could. And actually there was quite a sophisticated design culture in France when I was a foreign correspondent there in the early '90s, Centre Pompidou had to fantastic design collection and particularly as a foreign correspondent, you're really sort of thrown into the deep end on a daily basis and expected to come to grips with a massive development, whether it's economic, political, cultural, whatever, analyze it and then describe the important implications of it and so on to the readers. So I was used to doing that in lots of different sectors and areas of life. And I've always felt that, that not knowingly and strategically, but instinctively has been my approach to design writing. I kind of treat it like being a foreign correspondent all over again and I love the variety of having to immerse yourself in different fields because obviously design engages with everything. So if you're writing about it, you have to be prepared to do that.
Debbie: You became the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times in 2000, were you the first architecture and design critic for the paper?
Alice: No, the FT hadn't had a design critic before, but had, had a architect critic for many decades.
Debbie: But no design, you were the first?
Debbie: The first and then obviously the first woman. Quite a break through?
Alice: I've never actually thought about it. Well, no, actually the FT thought I was crazy to stop being on what was called the main paper and to want to reinvent myself as a cultural critic. So actually it was probably much tougher to become a first woman foreign correspondent than, which is absolutely core to FT coverage. They'd always tended to be a bit more maverick in appointing cultural critics.
Debbie: Now you say that you felt that design at that time was incredibly misunderstood. In what way?
Alice: Well, in the same way it is now and that it's routinely stereotyped as a styling discipline, you know, something that produces snazzy sneakers, overpriced hoodies, blinged up cell phones and is all about surface appearance rather than substance.
Debbie: So how would you describe the discipline of the design?
Alice: Well, for me, I mean obviously design as a complex and elusive discipline, that's meant many different things, different times and in different contexts, but I believe it's always had one elemental role and that's as an agent of change that can help us to interpret changes of any type, whether they're social, economic, political, cultural, technological, scientific, ecological, to ensure that they affect us positively rather than negatively.
Debbie: While working at the Financial Times, you fostered a connection with the museum where you served as a trustee. Then in 2001 you became the museum's director. What was it like going from journalism to the realm of an art institution?
Alice: Well, it was very interestingly I learnt so many different skills. I mean, now I spend a lot of my time doing pro bono work in the arts. So I chair the board of trustees of two art galleries, Chisenhale Gallery in London, the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. I've been on the board of the Arts Council, which is the main national funding body, Chad Michael Clark Company, which is a dance group. And I'm on various other government advisory boards and committees. And so a lot of the skills I learned at the design museum where I also learned a lot more about design and met some amazing people, but a lot of those skills, suddenly the logistical and strategic skills, I've since used in my pro bono work, which is a hugely important part of my life and I enjoy immensely.
Debbie: In 2006, you left and became the first design critic for the International Herald Tribune since renamed the New York Times international edition. Did any part of you want to go back to being what you dubbed quote proper journalist?
Alice: No, absolutely not. Actually before I left the Design Museum, a friends Stefano Tonchi who was then the editor of T magazine at the New York Times, he'd just taken over and he wanted to make it more serious, had asked me to write an occasional column on design, which I was happy to do. So as soon as I left he said, “Oh, I'm going to see the International Herald Tribune, which had just been acquired by the New York Times in Paris next week. I'm going to tell them to hire you as their design critic.” And I thought, Oh, lovely, Stefano, I'll never hear anything about this again. And then eight days later he calls and says they want you on the Euro star tomorrow. So I mean, I was incredibly lucky because I was the first design critic. I could really sort of make up the rules from the start. And it was an absolutely fantastic experience.
The Herald Tribune was a great paper to work for. One of the things I'd really loved about the Financial Times was that it was internationalizing during the period I was there so that was a big challenge to wrestle with. And so to sort of go back to that, I fell really exciting and all the senior editor said, you know, we've never covered design, we individually don't know anything about it, but we feel that we ought to. And so they gave me a lot of freedom to write about it as I wished, which was very exciting.
Debbie: In 2008, you wrote what is one of the best explanations of design that I think I've ever read. In it, one can see how designs arguably greatest strength, its ubiquity within and across so many fields and applications can also be perhaps its greatest weakness as it pertains to preventing people from fully understanding it. So my question is this, what is the key to getting people to understand design and why do you think it is important that they do?
Alice: Well, it's important that they do cause we ignore design at our peril. I mean you cannot disengage from design. In every aspect of everything we do, every single day we are interacting with design and the quality of design, whether it's of an interior, a software system, a digital device or whatever, the quality of its design will affect us. It will affect our sense of wellbeing, whether we can fulfill our ambitions or not or fail miserably, how confident and empowered we feel or otherwise. And so given that it exerts so much power in our lives and we can't ignore it, the better we understand it, the better off we're likely to be. And so I think once you explain that to people with practical examples of good and bad design, successful and unsuccessful actually, because design is such an immersive and grind elements in our lives, they actually understand it quite quickly.
Debbie: What are some good or bad examples that you could point to?
Alice: Oh Gosh. I mean, the thing is if something is intelligently and sensitively designed, it can bring delight, efficiency, empowerment, confidence, I mean all those extraordinary things. Bad design does absolutely the opposite, it can be damaging or downright dangerous and destructive. So if you think of, say a signage system, you know that's a pretty ubiquitous example of design. But of course if you look back historically, many of the great modernist design endeavors were in signage. So say you think of the London Underground, it's a labyrinthine subterranean network of people who are basically rushing around, very worried they're going to miss that trains, not sure where they're going to go. If it wasn't for the signage, we'd all be lost in the network. That exactly the same applies to other artificial environments like airports. You know, how would you find your gate without signs?
Whereas if you have a well designed signage system, you don't get lost. But actually you tend not to notice it because the signs will be clear and legible. They will be positioned in exactly the right places because the designer will have anticipated when you're going to sort of be about to lose confidence in the course that you're walking in and when you're going to need the reassurance that you're going in the right direction or to be pointed in a different direction. And so the quality of design of that signage system basically determines whether or not you get lost, whether you feel hassled, irritated, confused, worried, panic stricken or confident, efficient and powerful.
Debbie: How do you see the delineation between functionality and taste?
Alice: I'm not sure I see a delineation between them. I mean, functionality is absolutely essential to every aspect of design. Whether it's a humanitarian design program to provide emergency shelter for asylum seekers who've just landed on the island of Lesbos in Greece or whether it's a cell phone. Whatever other qualities that those projects have, if they don't fulfill their respective functions efficiently, they cannot be considered to be good design. And taste is an entirely subjective issue. I mean, yours and my taste, whether it's in color, how something feels to the top, it's shape will be completely different. We may be naturally drawn to the same things for very different reasons. And obviously societally, occasionally there's a sort of coalescence around different tropes of taste, whether it's certain forms, certain colors, certain scales and so on, but tastes remains and intensely subjective issue and one that some people relate to entirely instinctively and others in a much more systematic and analytical way.
Debbie: As I was doing my research on your work, I found a quote that reminded me of a very recent situation that I witnessed. So you stated like a lot of design nuts, I find it deeply irritating that public perceptions of design should be dominated by a handful of badly designed, overpriced pieces of furniture. And I recently saw the Dieter Rams documentary that Gary Hustwit created and in that film there's a scene where Dieter Rams is walking through a display of various types of modern furniture and remarking on a number of pieces, what he likes, what he doesn't like and then the camera pans very slowly up to a set of droog drawers, the drawers that are sort of all deconstructed and then held together by a big sort of almost like duct tape belt. And he talked about how much he loathed that piece of furniture and that how it was a complete abomination.
I was crest fallen Alice, because I own that piece of furniture. I couldn't believe that this center piece of my living room was now being completely demolished by Dieter Rams. And I wanted to know what you thought of that.
Alice: Well, it's very characteristic of Dieter Rams. He obviously was an incredible designer and also an incredible brain. I mean, I remember when I was driving him around London and he just fired me with questions about the politics of the city, particularly the politics of traffic management systems, which he was completely obsessed by and he's a highly intelligent, highly articulate man.
Debbie: I thought I was too.
Alice: With a very focused and specific worldview, but the fact that he thought, it's Tejo Remy, I think who designed the chest of drawers, the fact that he thought it was an abomination does not necessarily mean that the rest of the world should.
Debbie: But I ... So that gets me back to how do you help people understand what is good design if they don't have the education or if they're not privy to the way in which good design decisions are made? I was so struck by the way you talked about the need for good design in our culture and the need and the prerequisite that we start our problem solving through the lens of design when so few people really understand the purpose of design.
Alice: Well, actually all I'm sure that, I think that's problematic. I mean, in theory it ought to be, but I think that actually most people instinctively understand whether they think something is well designed or not, whether they warm to it, whether it's useful to them, whether they feel guilty about it in terms of its environmental or ethical implications. And they may not articulate it quite like that, but I think that if design was more readily taught in schools and elementary schools, high schools and so on, I think we would produce a much more sort of design literate generation of citizens. But I not sure that, that's essential in order for people to exercise intelligent design judgments when I do believe that the better informed people are about design, the more nuanced that choices are likely to be. But I believe that everyone makes design decisions, complex, subtle design decisions all the time. They don't necessarily interpret those decisions in that way.
Debbie: In 2014, you published a book titled Hello World, you collaborated with one of the greatest book designers in the world, Irma Boom. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Alice: Well, it was absolutely wonderful. I mean, I have adored Irma's books and admired them hugely for many years. And I had a wonderful editor for Hello World Simon Prosser and when we were discussing the plans for the book, he said, “Oh, who's the greatest living book designer?” And I said, “No contest, Irma Boom.” And he said, “Okay, well in that case she's got to design it.” And I realized then how privileged I was to be working with Simon because I couldn't imagine any other publisher or editor being so determined and so ambitious in terms of the design quality of the book.
So by that time I knew Irma quite well, so I contacted her and it was just wonderful to spend even more time with Irma when I was in Amsterdam. And also, you know, we would both tend to work crazy hours and over the weekend and so on. So we just sort of sort everything out between us and by the time Haymish Hamilton, the publishers that come back to work on Monday morning, everything was set. So it was nice being in a girl tag team with her, but we had no idea how she was getting to design the book and what it was going to look like. And I feel if you work with a designer like Irma, then you shouldn't have any preconceptions. And the cover that she produced was so brilliant and so unexpected but interestingly completely polarized saying.
I mean, because I've always written about design for general readership journalistically, I've tried to do the same thing with my books. And so I do the rounds of the literary festivals, the Festival of Ideas as well as specialists design events to talk about them in Britain. And so when I spoke at literary festivals, a perennial question, every single festival would come from someone who hated the design of the book. They thought it was ugly, awkward and so on and I mean I never said this because it would have been rude, but I just didn't care. I thought it was brilliant.
Debbie: I think it's magnificent. I think it's in the Pantheon of one of her greatest designed books. Talk about the title. How did you come up with Hello World?
Alice: Well, I actually couldn't think what to call the book for a very long time and Simon and I bounced around lots of ideas, but none of them were right. So we thought of sort of, you know, holding titles. I think it was on design, I think Simon wanted. And I was actually here in New York, I was doing a talk at MoMA with Paola Antonelli and she started talking about the Hello World program, which was one of the first test programs for all software developed by Dennis M. Ritchie, the brilliant software designer. And because it was a test program, he wanted to make it as simple as possible.
So he decided that all it would do was spell out hello comma world and that when those words appeared, then the programmer would know that the program had worked and this was going to be exhibited in Design and the Elastic Mind, which is one of the many brilliant exhibitions that Paola has curated at MoMA. And she was talking about it and I felt as though light bulbs and sort of sparks turn on and off all around my head because I suddenly thought that is the title. It's exactly what design does. And luckily Simon agreed so that was the title.
Debbie: And it is really one of the iconic book covers of our time I believe. You also write about Irma Boom, in you're brilliant new Book Design as an Attitude. The title is a quote from the book Vision in Motion by one of your heroes, László Moholy-Nagy. What motivated you to use that quote as the title of the book?
Alice: Because I mean, he's the most brilliant sort of description of design that encompasses what's positive about design and also some of the negative factors that have impeded and constrained it and stereotypes it for so long. So he actually wrote in Vision in Motion, Designing is an attitude, not a profession. So obviously he was Hungarian, English was a second language. And to use designing you know, it just sounds so quaint to us now. Again, the book was going to be called something completely different. It was going to be a field guide to design and I was giving a talk in Australia and they asked me for a title and I haven't really thought about the content of the talk at that point, but I had been rereading Vision in Motion as part of the research for the book. So I called it Design is an Attitude as I was writing I thought, God, I wish I had called the book that, I immediately emailed the publisher and luckily he agreed to change the title.
Debbie: The book is bright to live through a fantastic array of real world examples. It's really hard to choose just one to talk about. There's the ocean cleanup, the Migrationlab, Talking Hands, Aimee Mullins, the Sehat Kahani, female doctors in Pakistan, Forensic architecture, PeakVision and so much more. It's quite a remarkable range.
Alice: Well, one of the reasons why I love writing about design is it always have a remarkable range and you can never ever stand still. You'll constantly having to reassess your thinking. So I like that sort of agility that it demands. It just makes it much more challenging but also much more fun and enjoyable. And so it's a tribute to design that there's such an incredibly eclectic range of projects to write about and that so many people from often improbable or seemingly improbable fields are engaging with it. So you mentioned Sehat Kahani, that's actually a network of tele-clinics to provide health care for women in Pakistan, which was co founded by two women doctors Sara Khuram and Iffat Zafar, to specifically address the problem that there were too few female doctors in Pakistan to care for the large number of women who would prefer for cultural reasons not to be treated by man.
So they came up with this concept of tele-clinics where the doctors diagnose the patients online through live video links. The patients were accompanied by local nurse, could be thousands of miles away in a little village or a town or a smaller city. And the reason why there are too few female doctors in Pakistan is that even though there are more women studying medicine at University of medical school than men, the problems arise when they graduate because they come under such acute pressure to marry, have children, and stop work that that means they're a faulty few women doctors practicing. So it's an incredibly ingenious, super practical and effective solutions. We're really complex problem and for me, very touching and exciting that these hugely accomplished women doctors are very happy to see it interpreted as a design project.
Debbie: You start the chapter, The Descent of Objects with this quote by Roland Burke. The essence of an object has something to do with the way it turns into trash.
Alice: It is great, isn't it?
Debbie: Great, fantastic. And as somebody who has spent many decades in the design of fast moving consumer goods, it is where most of the work that I've done ends up in the trash. Talk about why the essence of an object has something to do with the way it turns into trash.
Alice: Well, because if we look at the life cycle of a product in the sort of old school, 20th century industrial design stereotype, the focus would tend to be on its development, the shipments, the process of consumption, the process of marketing it and its use, but also its afterlife has to be taken into account as well. And so I think it's wholly irresponsible of designers or manufacturers to develop anything if they don't arrange for it to be responsibly disposed of after the end of its useful working life. And if they don't do that, I think it leads to a sort of moral toxicity that haunts the product. In one of my favorite contemporary design projects is an ongoing design research project by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Studio Formafantasma, it's called Ore Streams and they are brilliant designers, you know, they've designed lights that are mass manufactured by Flos.
They've done a series of politically engaged, highly polemical conceptual design projects, often engaged in the refugee crisis in Europe and the history of migration and its cultural history on the consonant. But all streams look specifically about the colossal often elicit global trade and electronic and digital waste. And so they not only map the shipments and cause it's a really hidden and aromatic trade and also very crooked and criminalistic one. So they track shipments from country to country. They collaborated with other designers, manufacturers, recyclers, scientists, politicians, even Interpol to assess the social, political and economic impact of the trade. And also have made practical suggestions of the way that the design of digital devices can be amended to make them easier to recycle responsibly. And currently, I think fewer than a third of all the digital devices church when the European Union every year responsibly recycled so that shows you the scale of the problem. Most of the others end up toxic hellhole landfill sites.
Debbie: You've detailed how design was originally something utilize to better people's lives, such as cave dwellers, barricading themselves off from predators. During the industrial revolution, design was given a name and directed towards commercial ends. In Hello World, you write about how design was returning to its roots and now at the end of the chapter of Choices, Choices, Choices in Design as an Attitude, you write about how some designers are still working in traditional ways, but others are redefining their roles to help people make their own design decisions rather than those people making decisions on our behalf. Mostly because making the right decisions will be more important than ever. And you post a question I'd like to ask you, if more and more people engage with design, where will this leave designers?
Alice: Well, one place that it will leave designers is that increasingly the roles will be around helping those people to engage with design and intelligent and constructive way. So we'll be enabling people to engage with design rather than giving them a sort of finished outcome that they have controlled. So I think that will be, it already is a significant shift in design. And you know, there are all sorts of areas of our lives where you have seen the application of control, whether it's the sort of app revolution, which you know, I think it was maybe seven or eight years ago, I mean maybe more where suddenly hundreds of apps were being developed and launched. I mean, often by DIY developers sort of operating from home, which had a profound impact on the way we use digital devices, you know, for better and for worse of course.
So I think there are all sorts of areas where control is already being abdicated, but it does raise important issues about, you know, the level of freedom that people want to have to choose. And also the role that designers have and sort of editing that. I mean, a year ago I visited Nike in Portland, Oregon and I love NIKEiD. So, you know, I waste tons of money by badly customizing the sneakers myself. So I was very interested as to whether they saw it as problematic that, you know, it's still has a swoosh on. And so people self designing, color clashing weird forms, bizarre variable versions on NIKEiD. So how do they stop it being detrimental to the brand because it's not obvious to the naked eye, whether it's the official Nike designed sneaker or a NIKEiD one. And the senior designers said that they do regulation, restrict the Palette. I mean and obviously highly controlled ways. And so even something like that, which is supposedly about self expression, free choice, customization, individuality actually has been designed in quite a rigorous way to protect that swish and its credibility.
Debbie: As I think they would put it the iconic assets of your brand. Alice, you're quite active on Instagram and you've said this about your engagement with it. My aim was to use it to try and convince people to see design as I see it, not as a stereotypical styling device but as this incredibly dynamic agent for change that has the potential to affect our lives and all sorts of different ways. So I really write it for people outside the design community to deliver that message, hopefully in a fun way. So Alice, do you approach writing about design? And curating design in different ways or do you feel like it's sort of all variations on this theme of being able to speak to the world about design in a way that gets them to really understand its power?
Alice: Well, with Instagram I decided that I was going to approach it as a project. So my initial idea was just to post about some interesting aspect of design every day. And so I began by doing that, that was fine but after a few weeks I realized I was actually spending more time deciding on the sequence of projects because I didn't want the sort of juxtaposition between one day and the other, the next one to be too bizarre. And so I was getting completely tangled up in that and wasting a lot of time and I realized it would be much easier to pick a weekly theme and post about seven different design interpretations of that theme. And also that was a much more effective way of communicating the eclecticism of design and the diversity of roles that design can play in our lives in a much more efficient but seemingly cultural and enjoyable way.
Debbie: Alice: my last question is this Design as an Attitude, illuminates the sheer amount of fields that design touches today. That coupled with the professional worlds, belated but thank God some companies got their embrace of the field, has seemingly made it a great time for designers. And I'm wondering if you can tell us a bit more about why we have reason for optimism as it pertains to the discipline today?
Alice: Well, I think if you look at all the fields that now engage with design, it's proof that people are taking design much more seriously and they're readier to see it as an agent of change that can affect our lives in so many different areas and also as a very powerful or potentially powerful force in our lives that they ignore at their peril. And so when I was writing about design in this disguise 15, 10, five years ago, there were always examples to choose, but he was scrambling around to find them. And suddenly doctors like Sarah Khuram and if that's a far would not have so readily described themselves as designers but now we're spoiled for choice.
And I think that there has been this explosion of instinctive ingenuity, in design and also a transformation of the practice and possibilities of design because of very basic, relatively inexpensive, rather boringly familiar digital tools, which have affected many areas of our lives but collectively in design have proved transformational. So they've enable designers to operate independently, to set their own agendas to pursue their own social, political, environmental entrepreneurial objectives. So I'm talking about things like crowd funding that enables designers to fund the development of projects are, an extreme example would be the ocean cleanup array, which aims to clear plastic trash from the oceans.
The Dutch design engineering student who founded that project four years ago, raised over 30 million dollars. So that was lucky from crowd funding, but also grants and donations. So when scientists criticized his plans saying they wouldn't work and environmentalist, said they risk damaging marine life. I'm not saying it didn't match it because those threats may get turned out to be true, but because he'd raised so much money, he wasn't answerable to anyone so he could continue with the project. So this amazingly ambitious, epic design endeavor went live in the Pacific in September. I have no idea whether it's going to work. It's too soon to tell. It's extraordinary that that happened. And when you have social designers redesigning social services and the welfare state, when you see the sort of level of activity of designers in Europe in engaging with the refugee crisis, whether it's providing emergency shelter or developing new ways of helping asylum seekers and migrants engage with their new local communities, I find it hugely inspiring and moving.
So I think that we're living at a time where designers are given the opportunity to experiment in all these different fields. So if this explosion of instinctive design ingenuity, the sort of attitudinal designers I talk about in the book, if it's all pointless, if it doesn't work, then it's going to be much, much, much more difficult for people to execute those projects in future. If it succeeds, it's going to be much easier and I honestly believe that we'll all be better off.
Debbie: I do too. Alice Rawsthorn, thank you so much for illuminating the world about the possibilities of design in and thank you for joining me today in Design Matters.
Alice: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: Alice Rawsthorn's latest book is titled Design as an Attitude. You can find out more about Alice, her articles and her books on her website, Alicerawsthorn.com and you can follow her wonderful Instagram feed @Alice.rawsthorn.
This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters. I'd like to thank you for listening and remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.