Autumn 1994

Time for debate

Letter from Kevin McCullagh and Nico Macdonald in Eye 14


At a time when the thinking section of the design community still seems far from resolving its identity crisis, it was refreshing to read what hopefully represents the initiation of a rigorous and fruitful debate on the position of design in the 1990s (‘There is such a thing as society’). This mood of self-questioning reached its zenith at the ‘Design Renaissance’ conference last year in Glasgow, when the international great and good came together, showed lots of slides and asked some big questions. Few, however, attempted to answer them.

The last decade has seen designers working all hours to pay the rent. Meanwhile, theorising has been left to ex-Marxist intellectuals. But the time is ripe for well-informed designers to take the initiative. Not only is Andrew Howard’s call for a reassessment of the foundations of design long overdue, but his clear-headed critique draws to an unfashionably coherent conclusion.

He wisely returns to the fundamentals, beginning by exploding the myth of the individual creative genius, and arguing that designers need to become more aware of the influence of society, culture and technology on their decision making. While sharing his desire for intellectual independence, we must be cautious not to make the common mistake of over-estimating the power of design. Is it not degrading the concept of oppression to call Toscani’s Benetton advertisements ‘oppressive’? And what does Howard mean by ‘cultural democracy’? Surely political democracy is a prerequisite for this concept. At a time when censorship and authoritarianism are on the rise (look no further than the British Criminal Justice Bill) and when the public is more distanced from the political process than at any other time this century (the ‘democratic deficit’), discussions of ‘enlightening’ and ‘empowering’ design seem premature. Let the debate roll and let’s establish our self-respect, but we need to be sure of our foundations before we start to build on them.

To this end we have established the Design Agenda to investigate the relationship between design and society. We recently held a debate entitled ‘Do designers need design history?’ And we are planning research to reassess the myths and prejudices surrounding post-war Japanese design, and aim to publish our findings in August 1995 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Kevin McCullagh, Design Agenda, London
Nico Macdonald, Design Agenda, London

First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4 1994


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