Features

Interview with Alice Rawsthorn

April 5, 2012

As a weekly columnist for the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, Alice Rawsthorn is arguably one of the world’s most influential design critics. In the lead up to her presentation at designEX 2012, we talk with Rawsthorn about her definition of good design and the challenges ahead for its practice.

You’re a very successful design critic in the popular press, and you were also director of the Design Museum in London for five years. Over that time there was a huge growth in attendance and the museum’s profile, so I think it’s fair to say you’ve got the knack of effectively communicating the value of design to the public. Is there a particular secret, you think, to mass communication when it comes to design?
I think it’s something I’m learning about all the time. I’m not a designer but I passionately believe that design has the potential to build a better world and enhance the quality of everyone’s lives. For me, it’s very important to try and raise awareness of design and its potential to a general audience, so that’s what I’ve been very much focused on doing.

There was an article on Design Observer recently by Julie Lasky about the architectural criticism of Ada Louise Huxtable in The New York Times. She essentially argued that the role of a good critic is to inform and explain design to the citizenry, so they can become more informed and thus become, in and of themselves, ‘citizen critics’.
I absolutely agree with her assessment of Ada Louise Huxtable, who’s a wonderful writer, and up until very recently was still writing for The New York Review of Books. But I also absolutely believe there’s a role for more esoteric criticism that is very much for professional fellow critics, that raises the level of discourse within design itself. I personally happen to have chosen a different approach but I think that reflects my background and my skill set [as a journalist]; it doesn’t mean that my approach is any more important than any other.

So putting aside good criticism, what do you think defines good design?
Obviously, what is and isn’t good design has preoccupied designers, design critics and commentators for many decades, and I think what’s interesting about it is how our perceptions of good design have changed over the years. But if you look at what are absolutely non-negotiable qualities of any good design project, number one, it’s got to work, it’s got to fulfill its function. Increasingly, it has also got to be easy to use, and this is obviously a huge challenge with digital technology and these very small, multifunctional, very, very powerful objects.
A huge and very positive change in perceptions in recent years is what you could call ‘the guilt factor’, which equates to ethical and environmental responsibility. If we have the slightest reason to feel guilty about any aspect of the way that something has been designed, developed, made, sold, shipped, or will eventually be disposed of, it can’t be deemed to be good design, and that’s a huge challenge that companies such as Apple are now grappling with.
I think all the other factors are negotiable; it’s very fashionable to sneer at styling and design, but there is nothing wrong with things being beautiful or sensual or pleasurable or alluring in some way, providing they’re also functional and responsible.

Your columns have recently begun to question where the parameters of design as a practice lie; they’re not just questioning what makes for good design, but also questioning what makes for design, really. I think the design professions generally are struggling with that notion, particularly in the face of issues like sustainability. Apple’s Jonathan Ive is an excellent example of a designer who draws on the best traditions of mid-century industrial design to create these very, very beautiful objects. They’re incredibly well designed in terms of both their form and their function, but as consumer electronics they’re also designed with a very deliberate built-in obsolescence. Is it fair to judge the design of Jonathan Ive on the basis of sustainability, when he’s operating in a particular business model that requires the object he’s designing be obsolescent within a year or two?
Well, I think that you have to look at Apple in general, because obviously the design team is an enormously important part of a wider effort. Apple has been criticised by Greenpeace and other environmental groups in the past, less for built-in obsolescence and more for where its batteries are made and the more directly potentially damaging aspects of its operation – as have, it must be said, all its competitors.
The environmental and ethical discussion is a massive challenge for companies such as Apple. As you rightly say, their design prestige – and Apple is undeniably the alpha design brand of our time, certainly for industrial design – has been very much posited on the 20th century values of functionality, visual aesthetics and ease of use, an area where it very much took the lead. Given that Apple, in the wake of Steve Jobs’ tragic death, has to reinvent itself, I will be very, very surprised if taking a more dynamic stance in terms of ethics and environmentalism isn’t a direction in which it goes.

Jonathan Ive’s obsession with mid-century designers such as Dieter Rams also points to something else you’ve been commenting on recently, which is this trend towards nostalgia. As you’ve pointed out, there’s a long history of nostalgia in design, the Arts and Crafts movement being a particularly good example, whereby this craving for traditional, craft-based design was a direct reaction to, as you put it, the “satanic conditions” of England’s factories at the time; a reaction, in part, to the industrial age. If nostalgia is a reaction to fear or anxiety, what do you think designers might be afraid of now?
I don’t think nostalgia is solely driven by fear and anxiety. That is one driver of nostalgia, but another is desire. Apple’s admiration for Braun’s design aesthetic under Dieter Rams is a very positive example of being nostalgic, because there’s something you admire and love that gives you great pleasure and you want to share it. Unfortunately, there is much not only for designers to be afraid of now, but people in general. There are a lot of problems that have to be addressed, but again, they are opportunities for designers.
One of the themes of Hello World, the book I’ve been working on, is really to look at how society’s expectations of design are changing. For centuries, up until the industrial revolution, design was very much a case of necessity as the mother of invention. The great design initiatives were always driven by need, and they tended to be initiated instinctively because the phenomenon of design had yet to be recognised. 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. The new breed of social designers who are applying design thinking and the design process to reinvent critical areas of social services, such as caring for the elderly, or the humanitarian designers who are working on reconstruction programs, they’re all applying design in a much broader, but also deeper way. I think that because they are proving design’s worth in that context, society is going to be willing to work with designers in a more imaginative way too, and by doing so, designers will have the opportunity to tackle these huge complex problems that are plaguing us all.

www.alicerawsthorn.com

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