Why does design matter? Because we ignore it at our peril. Design is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, which influences the outcome of almost everything we do, often without our being aware that it has done so.
If the voters of Palm Beach County, Florida had not been so baffled by the design of their ballot cards in the 2000 US presidential elections, Al Gore may well have become the 43rd President of the United States, rather than George W. Bush. If signage systems were better designed, we would find our way quickly and easily from place to place without ever feeling bewildered. The same applies to the design of the operating software of our phones. And if the world’s computer makers could be persuaded to design responsible ways of disposing of their products, landfill sites would no longer be bloated with their charred, toxic remains.
Design can empower or disempower us in most other aspects of our lives. When deployed wisely, it can bring us pleasure, choice, strength, beauty, comfort, decency, sensitivity, integrity, prosperity, diversity and so much more. But if its power is abused, the outcome can be wasteful, confusing, humiliating, scary, enraging, even dangerous.
Yet despite its power, design is frequently treated as if it didn’t matter by being trivialised and misinterpreted. It is routinely confused with styling, and with expensive, uncomfortable chairs, gas guzzling cars, or silly shoes. It is typecast as a ploy to trick us into buying things of questionable value, which we will soon tire of. And all too often it is seen as an indulgence for spoilt consumers in developed economies, rather than as a means of helping the disadvantaged escape from poverty.
If we are to make the most of design’s strengths, and avoid its dangers, we need to use it intelligently, not least because none of us can avoid being affected by it. Design is a ubiquitous element of our world with immense power to determine how we feel, what we do and how we look.
We are able to decide whether or not to engage with many other aspects of daily life: art, literature, theatre, cinema, fashion, sport or music. To some of us, they are irresistible sources of pleasure, while others may find them irredeemably dull. Thankfully, we are free to choose the degree to which we will be exposed to each of them. A lot? A little? Not at all? But we cannot escape design, however much we might wish to. All we can do is to try to determine whether its impact on us will be positive or negative, and to do so successfully, we need to understand it, the more thoroughly the better.
Alice Rawsthorn is the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. Her weekly Design column – published every Monday – is syndicated to other media worldwide. Alice is a trustee of Arts Council England and of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and is chair of the board of trustees of the Chisenhale Gallery. Her forthcoming book, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (Hamish Hamilton, March 2013), addresses the changing role of design in our lives. www.alicerawsthorn.com
Join us on Wednesday 24th July for more from Alice Rawsthorn when she talks with design curator Beatrice Galilee on why design matters. For more information and for tickets, please click here.