Rawsthorn shows how ‘design thinking’ (in David Kelly’s phrase) can help us to analyse problems, find solutions and persuade others to adopt them. She persuasively argues that design is not just high-end styling, but also includes aspects of psychology, sociology, communication and politics.
Josiah Wedgwood was engaging in design thinking when he brought together kiln technology, aesthetics, logistics and marketing to create and sell his eponymous ceramics. But so are the street traders and itinerant technicians of present-day Beijing when they customise their battered tricycles to suit their individual needs.
I don’t agree with everything Rawsthorn posits in this book, but that is partly what makes it an engaging read. She equates good design with moral integrity, which I find slightly problematic. Weapons, for instance, though intended to wound or kill, can be both aesthetically beautiful and technically efficient. I think they can be called ‘good’ from the point of view of design even if one might call them ‘bad’ from an ethical perspective. It seems to me we need to treat moral virtue and design quality as two separate issues – without denying the importance of either.
One the other hand, when Rawsthorn states that design and art can never be the same thing – because the former always has a function whereas the latter doesn’t necessarily have one – I don’t agree with her either. I tend to think that even ‘fine’ art fulfills all sorts of functions, it is just that they are slightly more abstract or intangible than those of design. Moreover, we live in an age when art and design seem to be increasingly resembling each other, and to her credit Rawsthorn describes some fascinating examples of that tendency.
But I am fully in agreement with the author about the list of qualities she thinks design and designers need in order to break free from the limitations of elitism and preciousness that have become associated with this profession. Rawsthorn argues that design needs more openness and empathy and that it needs to combine boldness with humility. It strikes me that those virtues are equally relevant to the museums and heritage sector.