Review: Books: DESIGN: Practical thinking, from bone china to artificial limbs: Hello World: Where Design Meets Life Alice Rawsthorn Hamish Hamilton pounds 20, pp288
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Design, as Alice Rawsthorn points out, can mean a great many things. You can have designs on someone, as in making them an object of intrigue. You can design a corporate strategy, a gene, software, a lifestyle, a skyscraper, a menu, a razor. A designer can be a flouncy stylist of clothes or interiors, or someone in a laboratory coat, or, if you are a creationist, God.
So writing about design, if it is not to be impossibly broad, has to narrow the field somehow. Rawsthorn describes design as conceiving and implementing change in a particular way. The examples of "designer" that she mentions include such unorthodox examples as the 18th-century pirates who devised the skull-and-crossbones as a form of corporate identity, but are weighted towards more widely recognised examples such as the industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames, and Saul Bass, creator of memorable title sequences for Hitchcock and James Bond films.
She dwells on "Alpha companies" such as Wedgwood in the 18th century, the 19th-century chairmaker Thonet, the electronics company Braun and, above all, Apple. What these businesses have in common is their use of design to respond to technical innovation, and make it valuable, accessible and meaningful to their customers. Towards the end of the book she talks about people who address needs in developing countries, and are as much social entrepreneurs as conventional designers. These include Sanga Moses, who devised the means for Ugandan farmers to convert agricultural waste into fuel and fertiliser.
In general she favours the idea that good design is not about adding ornamental fripperies but about using ingenuity and technique to make people's lives better. With, hopefully, a bit of visual elegance thrown in. She has a beneficent view of design, and expects it to do good. She agonises over whether the devastatingly effective AK-47 gun can be considered "good design" and concludes that, as a killing machine, it cannot.
This is a view that William Morris would recognise, or Walter Gropius, or the Design Council. It is basically right, but has limitations, a certain innocence, suggesting as it does a world of sweet reason which we don't inhabit. It deals lightly with moral complexity - should we love Apple, for example, for the lusciousness of its touchscreens, or fear it for the imperial hunger to command its market and own users' information As Roland Barthes pointed out long ago, a designed object such as a car can have multiple and contradictory meanings. Rawsthorn nods to Barthes, but doesn't follow his leads.
Much of Hello World reads like a primer, trotting through the well-known themes and stories - the Bauhaus, the Crystal Palace, the London underground map. It does this with clarity and sanity, but can be dutiful and teacherly in tone. It gets more interesting when the subjects are less predictable - there is an excursion into dog breeding, and a good passage on Aimee Mullins. She is a model, athlete and double amputee who has worked with designers to improve vastly what were once abysmal prostheses. Here Rawsthorn shows a more playful and eclectic, but still purposeful, spirit, which she also showed when she was director of the Design Museum.
There is more sense of direction when she gets on to the "other" (poorer) 90% on whom, she says, designers spend too little of their time. Addressing their needs tends to require more complex means - economic and political intelligence, for example - than the simple making of objects. She also sees this more strategic attitude, generally, as an increasingly important part of designers' work.
This is probably true, though it's a tad unfortunate that the "other 90%" only get about 10% of the book. You feel that there is the beginning of something interesting here, a polemic that might have powered the rest. But it only begins at the end.
To buy Hello World for pounds 16 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6847 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Amputee Aimee Mullins, who worked with designers to improve prostheses. Getty
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