Q&A with design critic Alice Rawsthorn

Alice Rawsthorn. Photo: Fred Ernst

Design critic, Alice Rawsthorn, believes design is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to empower ourselves and other people by changing the way we live. Last week, Rawsthorn gave the keynote lecture at the event ‘7 Kinds of Happiness: Design and Emotion‘ held in Sydney as part of DesignEX, which explored design’s role with regard to personal happiness and our collective wellbeing.

Below is a Q&A with Rawsthorn in conversation with Joan-Maree Hargreaves.

You are the Design Critic for the International Herald Tribune and you were previously Design Critic of the Financial Times. How has your personal relationship to design changed since you first began in the field?
I became Design Critic of the Financial Times in 2000 having worked on the paper for fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, and writing about corporate affairs, economics and politics. I chose to specialize in design because it was a subject I felt particularly passionate about, which crystallized many of my interests including contemporary culture, technology, science, history and politics. Writing about design has enabled me to deepen my knowledge of the field and I have been lucky to do so at a time when design has changed dramatically with the growth of interest in sustainability, humanitarianism, social issues and conceptualism, the confluence with science and anthropology, and the transformation of the role of the designer.

Can design make us happy?
Intelligent and inspiring design makes me happy whenever I encounter it, which, fortunately, is rather often. Design is a complex and elusive phenomenon, but its elemental role is as an agent of change that helps us to make sense of changes in the world around us – social, political, economic, environmental, cultural, behavioral and so on – and to turn them to our advantage. At its best, design can make us safer, healthier, more efficient, enlightened and productive, giving us a sense of well being, which is an essential element of happiness.

Has design made us unhappy? Is this a correction?
Bad design invariably makes us unhappy.

Designers from ages gone by (Bauhaus, Le Corbusier) have often designed to create a ‘better’ world. Now the likes of designers such as Stefan Sagmeister are preoccupied with the question of happiness. How is the contemporary approach to design and its potential different?
Modernist designers like Le Corbusier’s and those at the Bauhaus were indeed devoted to building a “better world”, but that did not preclude the pursuit of happiness. On the contrary, there was tremendous joy in their work, and its underlying objective was often to liberate people from the constraints imposed by poverty, illness, squalor and drudgery in order to fulfill their potential, which is a prerequisite for happiness. That said, it is true that the rhetoric of the modern movement was steeped in utilitarianism, efficiency, rationalism and function, rather than emotional and sensual qualities. Designers like Stefan exercise the freedom to discuss design in very different terms that acknowledge the importance of emotional factors, such as happiness, but this reflects a broader societal shift, not just a change within design culture.

In all of your extensive years in the design world, what aspect has challenged your happiness most?
One positive change in recent years has been the transformation in public perceptions of design as people outside the design community have become more interested in design and more sophisticated in their understanding of it. Nonetheless, many people still see design in terms of expensive, uncomfortable chairs and shoes with vertiginously high heels. In other words, they confuse design with styling and are unwilling to recognize its arguably more significant and meaningful qualities. Obviously it is part of my responsibility as a design critic to address that but, sadly, there is still a long way to go.

Isn’t happiness a first world problem?
Absolutely not. Happiness is a fundamental human right, not an indulgence for wealthy, educated people living in developed economies.

Why should design answer this question?
Because it can. Design is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to empower ourselves and other people by changing the way we live, and the things that fill our lives, for better, rather than worse.

If happiness can be designed, can sadness also be designed?
Of course. An interesting outcome of the growth of interest in conceptual or critical design is that some designers are experimenting with the dark side of design, and it’s power to disrupt, dishearten and depress us. The British design theorists, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby have argued consistently that designers should explore fragility, neurosis, dread and other negative emotions, which were taboo during the modernist era. And the French designer, Mathieu Lehanneur, has done fascinating work in this field by exploring the irrational, inconsistent emotions that can have far greater effect on us than logic and common sense.

How can we encourage designers to create designs for happiness and still survive in the market?
They are already doing so, not only surviving but thriving. Consider the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, whose products fully functional and conceptually eloquent, yet gloriously sensual in their celebration of colour and tactility. Her objects appeal to our hearts, rather than our heads, both by their aesthetic joyousness and their ability to conjure pleasant memories and allusions. Once her work seemed destined to be experimental, and most of her products were developed as limited editions. Now, she is not only one of Vitra’s most prolific designers, but is advising the company on its colour strategy, as well as designing the interiors of KLM, the Dutch airline’s fleet of aircraft. In the public sector, social design groups like Participle in London have made remarkable progress in redesigning critically important areas of social services such as caring for the elderly and helping disfunctional young people and families in chronic crisis to forge closer links with their local communities. Participle has raised substantial funding for its projects from national and local government and corporate sponsors at a time when social scientists have lost confidence in the conventional solutions to such problems and are willing to experiment with new approaches, including design.

In this the 21st Century, should designers stop designing in the material form?
No, we still need materiality in the objects and spaces we use every day, but we need increasingly sophisticated immaterial products too, whether they come in the form of software programs, computing languages, patterns of behavior or organisational systems. Undoubtedly, the immaterial side of design will become increasingly important in future but, if anything, the escalating power and complexity of digital technology makes it more important than ever for designers to translate it into material forms that can help to make our lives more productive and enjoyable.

Design, why bother?
Because we have no choice. Design is a ubiquitous part of our lives that we have to engage with, whether or not we wish to, or realize that we are doing so. The quality of the design that surrounds us is a decisive influence on whether we feel strong, confident, powerful, receptive, imaginative, knowledgeable, efficient, persuasive and happy, or dull, feeble, threatened, insecure, frightened, inhibited and uninspired. The more aware we are of design, and its power over our lives, the likelier we are to be able to benefit from its strengths, and to circumvent its weaknesses.

If happiness is a question of design, can everything be designed?
Most things. I am sure there are exceptions, but advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology are narrowing the field.

What are some of your predictions about design as a movement in the coming years?
Paola Antonelli, the head of design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, recently said that she sees designers as the “pragmatic intellectuals” of the future, applying their instinctive skills of analysis, problem solving and advocacy to an increasingly eclectic and complex series of social, economic and political issues. I very much hope she is right, though whether she is will depend as much on society’s willingness to experiment with design as a possible solution, as on design’s response.
Whatever the outcome, design is likely to take on new, often more complex and challenging roles, while pursuing the commitment to sustainability, humanitarianism, research and self-expression, and returning to its original guise as an intuitive, often unrecognized phenomenon, free from the burden of professional and commercial constraints.

What has surprised about Sydney and its relationship to design?
I haven’t seen enough of the Sydney design scene yet to answer that questions, but one of the things that has consistently impressed me about design, not just in Sydney, but Australia as a whole, is the commitment to sustainability. I first came here in the mid-1980s, when sustainable design was still considered a “niche” interest in most of Europe and North America, but not here.