Something unexpectedly wonderful has arisen from the bonfire of the quangos. Out of the flames has emerged a new Design Council, now joined by Cabe, to give us something that no other country has to my knowledge: an integrated design body working across the whole spectrum from cities and buildings, via products, furniture and graphics through digital and communications all the way to health, wellbeing and the development of social policy. It might just be the best thing to happen to design in this country for 60 years: a re-awakening - a renaissance - of its core purpose and something we are rather good at.
As a design champion, the design council gives advice and makes connections. Now throw in Cabe’s decade in contemporary architecture and you have a heady mix
The old romantic in me even sees something of the Bauhaus about it: architecture, art, environment, fashion and creativity, a spiritual commitment to the pursuit of good design. Add in the business nous and social purpose behind Cabe and the Design Council and we have a potent new asset. Just imagine a PFI hospital, school or railway procured under such a harmonised design ethos.
Much of the work of the Design Council has been invisible to us in the building community. As a design champion, the Design Council gives advice and makes connections. Now throw in Cabe’s decade in contemporary architecture and you have a heady mix.
Some critics think Cabe has been “bureaucratic and patronising”, while the Design Council is “invisible”, but now is the time to blend the best of their cultures, inspiring groundbreaking prototype projects and showing how good design practice can feed into social and economic renewal.
Every silver lining has a cloud, which for this tiny new combo is the breadth of its task. At its core, the new organisation has a great name but only about 50 people - a ratio of about one dedicated individual to every million people in this country. Quite a daunting responsibility. But I believe they will rise to the challenge. As a Design Council trustee I’ve seen it grow from a simple arbiter of taste to now taking on the complex task of putting good design into the minds of those in government and on into the heart of public service and private life.
For example, a recent Design Council highlight is “design bugs out” - 10 redesigns of hospital furniture to reduce MRSA infection rates, harnessing designers and manufacturers for great community benefit. A new take on an apparently intractable problem became, under the Design Council’s stewardship, bug-resistant bedside cupboards without dark crevices, ward chairs with easily removable covers and stay-clean hospital curtains with smooth removable hand grips to stop cross-infection. Such deceptively simple ideas that you wonder why nobody thought of them before. It took the Design Council to give the Department of Health enough confidence to open the door to designers and their manufacturers. The upcoming project, “reducing violence and aggression in A&E”, is another one, officially launched on 26 February and co-designed with paramedics, police, patients and doctors to help solve a long-standing problem that exacts a high human and financial cost.
Design can even prevent my smartphone from being nicked and help to stop glass injuries in pubs – both recent Design Council initiatives
In his autumn review of the Design Council, Martin Temple strongly favoured a big tent mentality which sounded like a pipe-dream until the coalition’s cuts brought Cabe to the table. Whereupon the designers and design-thinkers spoke passionately one after the other in favour of a union because we all believe the world is complex but design as a universal tool has some of the answers.
Design can even prevent my smartphone from being nicked and help to stop glass injuries in pubs (both recent Design Council initiatives), it can help my journey on the tube and find us new ways to work together. Just maybe, with its hotline to the government, the new body can at last change procurement cultures, persuading politicians not to be scared of designers. And I think, uniquely, in its broader enabling role it will be a great complement to the RIBA, ICE, CIBSE and the established building professions.
I’ve heard some architects say: “What has the Design Council ever done for me?” and others grumbling over their own design reviews with Cabe. The Design Council and Cabe are familiar names in our cultural landscape. Now there will be just one, much bigger, council across design, government, business and education including architecture and the built environment. Along the way, some pride may well have to be swallowed, power bases dismantled and metaphorical and real bridges constructed - but it has to be worth it.
Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering
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