Alice Rawsthorn on Scotland's design policy

It’s becoming a persistent question as Scotland’s design sector thrives and evolves: do we need a national design policy? This month, Local Heroes founder Stacey Hunter asks design critic Alice Rawsthorn for her opinion

Feature by Stacey Hunter | 07 Jun 2018

This discussion coincides with Alice Rawsthorn’s role as keynote speaker (alongside award-winning Scottish artist Jacqueline Donachie) at the Architecture Fringe closing lecture where the theme COMMON/SENSES will be explored through design, art and architecture. Rawsthorn is arguably uniquely positioned, as someone who has observed design around the world, to discuss whether nations that have successful design eco-systems can be said to result directly from national design policies. An award-winning design critic and the author of the critically acclaimed books, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life and Design as an Attitude, her weekly design column for The New York Times was syndicated worldwide for over a decade. Speaking on design at important global events including TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Rawsthorn is chair of the boards of trustees at Chisenhale Gallery in London, the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company and The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. She has been awarded an OBE for services to design and the arts.

“National design policies can certainly be very helpful,” she says. “Denmark is a great example of a country that has reinvented its design culture in the last 20 years through a national strategy of investing in cultural and educational initiatives, as well as ambitious practical design projects, such as the world’s most advanced urban cycling system in the Copenhagen Cycle Super Highway. As a result, Denmark has shed its nostalgic image as the home of mid-century modernist furniture design, and is hailed as a pioneer of social, sustainable and humanitarian design, all critically important areas of 21st century design.”

Grassroots organisations like Local Heroes offer a platform for wider public engagement with and understanding or valuing of design. But what does Rawsthorn suggest might happen at strategic level? “Design needs to prove its value as a dynamic, relevant and constructive force in our lives. National governments and city councils can accelerate this process by investing in key resources. Design education is a priority, as is cultural infrastructure to support design, such as museums, galleries and festivals, like the Architecture Fringe. Though it helps if other cultural institutions, such as contemporary art galleries, interrogate design in their programmes too.

"Both Denmark and the Netherlands have benefited from offering grants to individual designers to fund early projects, international exhibitions and books. Practical support can also help. Ensuring a steady supply of affordable studio and work spaces is essential.” The difficulty in defining design and its association with ‘style’ or aesthetics can often be a major barrier when discussing design with enterprise agencies. Does Rawsthorn have any advice?

“Much as I hate to admit it, the majority of people still think of design as a superficial styling tool or a promotional ploy to trick us into splashing out on something we neither need nor want. Design is guilty as charged on both counts, but there is, of course, much, much more to it. I believe that design has one defining role as an agent of change that enables us to make the most of changes of any type – social, political, economic, scientific, cultural, or whatever – and avoid their dangers. Design isn’t a panacea for such problems, but it is a powerful tool to help us to address major challenges such as identifying constructive applications for artificial intelligence and other technologies, tackling the refugee and environmental crises, and redesigning dysfunctional social services.

“Sadly, the stereotyping of design prevents that from happening. If politicians, investors and NGOs see it solely as a source of blingy phones and over-priced trainers, why would it occur to them that it could make a meaningful contribution in other fields?”

'I believe that design has one defining role as an agent of change that enables us to make the most of changes of any type – social, political, economic, scientific, cultural, or whatever – and avoid their dangers' - Alice Rawsthorn

As environmental sustainability asserts its importance many small design studios in Scotland are deciding whether their business should be ‘commercial’ i.e.: profitable or responsible – and wondering if they can really be both. “Absolutely. My new book is called Design as an Attitude as a reference to the new wave of digitally empowered designers, who are using basic tools like crowdfunding platforms and social media, to operate independently and to pursue their social, political and environmental goals, rather than being confined by design’s commercial role during the industrial age. An example is the young Dutch design engineer Boyan Slat who has raised over £30 million in less than four years to try to fulfill his dream of clearing plastic trash from the Pacific in the Ocean Cleanup project. Other designers are combining pro bono work for activist causes they’re passionate about, with entrepreneurial or commercial assignments. Design has become a much more diverse, eclectic and ambitious field.”

What cities or nations can we look to for inspiration to make design one of our country’s key cultural exports? “Arguably the most dynamic global design centre right now is the Dutch city of Eindhoven. When its manufacturing sector contracted in the late 20th century, local politicians took a strategic decision to reinvent Eindhoven as a design hub. The Netherlands has a strong national design culture, and Eindhoven has established itself as the Dutch design city by establishing Design Academy Eindhoven as the world’s leading design school, and launching a hugely popular, culturally ambitious annual design festival in Dutch Design Week. Critically, Eindhoven encourages DAE students to stay in the city after graduation by providing incredibly cheap studios and workshops in disused buildings.

Our tour of modern Scottish design has illustrated that we are increasingly defined by our ability to collaborate, co-produce and create strategic alliances. Should we consider this as a ‘national characteristic? “I hadn’t thought of Scottish design in that context before, but you’re right. Scotland has an incredible design heritage, which, I’m sure, the new V&A Dundee will articulate, and collaboration is a recurrent theme. Think of the communities that have embraced tartan as a form of collective identity, and Scotland’s great tradition of individual design collaborations in Scotland, such as the Adam brothers in the 1700s and, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Macintosh. Then there are the design communities that have emerged in different parts of Scotland by sharing ideas and pooling skills, from Silicon Glen, to the cluster of illustrators around DC Thomson in Dundee. One of my favourite current Scottish design projects is Fi Scott’s Make Works programme, which is an ingenious way of helping designers, artisans and manufacturers to forge collaborations.”

Rawsthorn’s Instagram series famously and engagingly delivers educational design history with perfectly gauged posts. The series began with Scottish design icons like DC Thomson and father of information design William Playfair – does Rawsthorn think Instagram is here to stay? “I started my Instagram as a personal project three years ago, choosing a weekly theme relating to design, such as human rights, recycling or colour, and posting about a different iteration of it each day. My objective is to demonstrate how rich, dynamic and eclectic design is. I’m planning to continue for as long as I enjoy it, but, of course, another platform will emerge sooner or later to challenge Instagram. I hope so. It’s always fun to experiment.”

For tickets to the Architecture Fringe closing lecture on Sat 24 June featuring Alice Rawsthorn and Jacqueline Donachie, visit