28th October 2009 Jonathan Harris

Philippe Starck raving?

I’ve waited before the series is over before thinking about this one. As you may know ‘Design for Life’, a reality show for product designers has run its course on BBC2. If you missed it then there’s a handy section of iPlayer waiting for you right now. The show has been hosted and dominated by the considerable ego and talents of product design legend Philippe Starck. The carrot at the end of the series being a 6 month stint in his Paris studio. To be fair it is a great prize, do well and it could be an incredible springboard to a luminous design career.

Starck2It’s been a fairly warm topic in the design press, I hesitate to say ‘hot’ as by know we’re all media saavy digerati who naturally don’t take anything like that too seriously, perish the thought. Starck’s critics have leapt out of the woodwork. Those who hate his style, his manner, his creations, his commercialism, his philosophy and his mangling of franglais to new heights. They can’t though deny his place in design mythology, like Conran and Rogers he is greater than the sum of his parts. He has the passion, celebrity and the presence to make it strangely compelling. Oh and he delights in an audience to shock and challenge.

Conran is held by Starck as the last torch-holder of an english design aesthetic, it’s a short sited and provocative comment. As soon as you try to find any sort of national style for any country you immediately find your countrymen doing something completely different confounding the hypothesis. Maybe the Swiss, Dutch and Bauhaus was the last truly national style axis?

Those that have complained about their portrayal in the show are short sighted, for those that travail in the creative arts they are shockingly lacking in media smarts. All of the participants are aware that this is the same team that made The Apprentice, so it’s highly likely that their best bits will end up on the floor of the virtual edit suite. There will be a villain, a cute girl, a likeable chap, an oddball and some floaters inbetween. It will be stacked so there’s someone to root for, someone to deride. It’s filling a hour of television so it has to entertain and attract. Did I mention that someone gets the boot each of the 10 weeks, the icing on the reality show cake.

As an example of great british design it had several flaws. The selection process was based on ‘show me an idea’ be it on a fag packet or finely rendered. Very little consideration was given to the ability of the entrants to complete and participate fully in the series. Yes they wanted fresh new talent but they needed some basic skills and disciplines in order to make the most of it.

D4L1

Not all of them could manage time. They couldn’t express themselves clearly in conversation and some presenting skills were woeful. They couldn’t put together a coherent presentation. Most product designers know about materials, they know about manufacturing and green design – those are default settings. Maybe this says less about the programme and more about the state of design education and professional development.

For all the confusion and bluster surrounding the show there are some useful pointers. I hope that non-industry viewers will be a little bit more aware of the design around them and a little better informed about the effort and talent that goes into the creation of everyday objects.

The designers that thrived and survived the longest in the show were those that thought better. Yes they had to present well and with confidence but the ones that prospered usually had a thought out process and conclusion. Their craft skills gave them the elegance but it was their intelligence that really stimulated Philippe. Design by it’s very nature is a thinking process, be it conscious or otherwise. It’s creative problem solving, design – especially industrial design is creativity with a purpose. It needs to work.

Starck3

If you didn’t see it and want to watch with baited breath in iPlayer then stop here. I’m going to give away the ending.

The winner expresses her own thoughts about design in the UK and the whole ‘Design for Life’ experience pretty well.

What I learnt during the experience?

Keep it simple, make the most of every minute, dig deep but place in shallow water, remain true to yourself, help others, short term sacrifice pays off, people are the most important thing, design education needs Rethinking, presentation is everything, UK innovation is suffocated, creativity is undervalued, ask questions, find answers then ask again, we are each connected, full justification is vital, stay calm and sleep on it, see the bigger picture but return to the detail, work smart not hard, nobody will do it for you, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, take risks, talk to others but listen hard…

Ilsa Parry gives a pretty good summary in a paragraph of a 10 week experience. She teaches on the 3D design course in Liverpool and runs her own independent studio. She is clearly her own woman and came with the skills and the attitude to succeed.

The inconsistencies, exaggeration and weirdness in the programme will be water off a duck’s back to most creatives. For some it will provoke thoughts on how they should teach and educate – and that’s excellent. For the non-designers it will confirm that we artisans really are all eccentrics. Hopefully it will also start to give them some inkling that this creative lark isn’t as easy as it seems and plant the seeds of appreciation and respect for what we all try our best at every day.