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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 1 (June-July, 1949)

The Industrial Design Profession in Great Britain

page 8

The Industrial Design Profession in Great Britain

The Editor wishes to state that these reports of lectures given by Mr. Milner Gray are necessarily shortened. While every effort has been made to represent what Mr. Milner Gray said as faithfully as possible, the process of condensing brings with it a measure of distortion, as everyone knows who has suffered at the hands of the newspaper reporters. We owe Mr. Milner Gray a debt of gratitude for his generosity in allowing the Editor the loan of his verbatim notes.

This profession is so new that I must confine myself to definitions.

In Britain industrial design has been the subject of discussion since the appointment in 1836—before the Great Exhibition in 1851—of Mr. Ewart's Commitee on Arts and Manufactures. All shades of opinion from widely differing sources have so confused the terms used, including “design” and “designer” that it is necessary to define them. This practice has led to the invention of a number of terms to clarify a meaning: terms such as “streamlining,” “product styling,” “design engineering,” “technological design.” In the U.S.A., the term “product development” is used. In Great Britain the Society of Industrial Artists has been working to establish accepted meanings for the basic and technical terms in common use.

“Design” may refer to the visual aesthetics of painting and decoration or to the solution of the purely mechanical problems of engineering, such as the planning of a tool or mould. In industrial design the term implies the solution of problems of both appearance and function.

Industry may be served by designers in two ways: in the making of its products; in the selling of them. The first is concerned with problems of production; the second with those of distribution; the one with industry, the other with commerce. “Industrial design” is now accepted as a description of design for manufacture; “commercial design” as the equivalent definition of design for selling.

Scope of the Designer

Considering the wide diversity of articles which are mass produced, one may well ask whether design can only be considered in relation to one industry, or are there common characteristics? The designer is not only an artist but a man of science and of business, concerned with facts and figures, involved equally in the problems of production and in those of selling. He is as interested in the researches of the metallurgist and chemist as in those of the industrial psychologist. He is concerned not only with how things are made but with marketable commodities—goods with a human appeal over and above their functional value.

This is the designer's first responsibility, to hold a watching brief for the user of what we so glibly call consumer goods. We tend to lose touch with ourselves as ordinary men and women: this is true no less of the manufacturer or his production engineer than of the rest of us. It is easy enough when your job involves economizing in the production costs of a teapot or a toaster, to forget about effecting economies in the housewife's time or temper. It is the designer's responsibility to keep the common touch. In addition, the designer needs to increase his store not only of knowledge but of wisdom, acquiring a sense of tolerance which will enable him to get on with other people. Industrial design is a team job and the designer must learn to work as a member of the team—with the production manager and engineer on the one hand and the cost accountant and sales manager on the other.

Abuse of the Designer

Between 1918 and 1939 American industry produced a new kind of designer—the independent stylist. The team suggests superficial treatment and an imperfect integration of design with production. It has given place to the term “design consultant.”

The consultant designer, then, is one who designs for more than one industry and who therefore practises in a consultative capacity. In America today, he is well established and in Great Britain the number is growing.

But American industry which has done so much to establish the industrial design profession, is responsible for some of its worst excesses. The constant re-styling of goods has been used as an artificial stimulus to sales, developing beyond reason and against the interests of the consumer. The practice of styling for obsolescence, so noticeable in the motor-car industry, is one which the industrial designer must regard with a wary eye.

Selection of Designer

Design in Great Britain has developed from within industry by the use of designers employed by and specializing in a particular field of manufacture. In those industries where the actual craft has played a large part—textiles, pottery, glass,
With apologies to Punch

With apologies to Punch

page 9
Steel office furniture for Roneo, Ltd., and sideboard in two contrasting woods designed by Frederick Gibberd, F.R.I.B.A., A.M.P.T.I., F.S.I.A. Photos reproduced by courtesy of the Council of Industrial Design

Steel office furniture for Roneo, Ltd., and sideboard in two contrasting woods designed by Frederick Gibberd, F.R.I.B.A., A.M.P.T.I., F.S.I.A.
Photos reproduced by courtesy of the Council of Industrial Design

boots and shoes, saddlery and leather goods—these specialist designers have a long tradition of good design. But it is generally accepted that the standard of design in a wide range of pre-war British goods was poorer than it need have been. This low standard is owing to the way designers have been recruited.

Great Britain was the first to develop machine production on a national scale and industries grew up as aggregations of small units. Their products were copies of the hand-made articles which preceded the machine, perhaps modified by the works foreman. Later, designers were selected from existing staff, being usually young persons with an aptitude for drawing. This practice persists today. As a result, while the designer may have some technical knowledge, he has practically no culture or knowledge of conditions outside his usual environment. It is no matter for surprise that his average work is that of a copyist and adaptor, imitating the products of competitors or transcribing the ideas of manager and sales staff. But as the status of the industrial designer becomes more firmly established the trend is for more manufacturers to follow the example of the enlightened few.

How may the qualified designer be identified?

No perfected system of training has yet been established whereby a student may qualify for practice as an industrial designer, although much time is being given both by educational authorities and practising designers to this pre-requisite for successful practice.

Courses in general industrial design are held at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Art in London, and specialist courses are held in various industrial centres. But no diploma is yet given which is recognized both by industry and the profession.

Designers now practising have graduated from many sources of learning both academic and otherwise, but they have gained their proficiency in the hard school of experience. Schools of art, architecture, and engineering have each provided recruits, while others have served their apprenticeship in industry itself or in the offices of practising designers.

Official Bodies

In 1936 the Royal Society of Arts singled out a limited number of designers of high eminence and bestowed on them a diploma carrying the right to use the affix R.D.I. (Royal Designer for Industry). This is often called “the blue ribbon” of the profession…

The most complete as well as the most selective action taken to organize the profession has been that of the Society of Industrial Artists founded in 1930 and reconstituted in 1944.

The principal object of this Society is to establish for designers a status comparable with that of the architect and the engineer. In addition to a code of professional conduct, it issues schedules of average fees, conditions of contract, and regulations governing the conduct of open and limited competitions. Only recently has the Society begun to be accepted as an authoritative body.

On reconstitution in 1944 the Society disbanded membership and re-recruited with the imposition of rigid qualitative tests for membership. Its members were divided into three comparative grades — Licentiates, Members, and Fellows.

A newer body, the Council of Industrial Design, has importance as the symbol of official recognition of the part design can play in overseas trade and improving the amenities of national life. It was set up in 1944 by the Board of Trade and is financed by the Government. Its purpose is to improve design in British industry and by publicity to increase public awareness of the elements of design. It offers manufacturers and designers an advisory service for promoting good design and information on new materials and new processes. It provides a list of designers.

Responsibility of the Designer

Industrial design is an essential part of a standard of quality enabling the best use to be made of available techniques and suitable material. Good design ca only come through full and equal co-operation. The designer's responsibility rests on his ability to help to produce goods which satisfy the people's needs at a price they can afford.