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Book Club

Design As An Attitude
In Conversation with Alice Rawsthorn

Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.

The name Alice Rawsthorn will be familiar to many. An award-winning design critic and author, Alice is perhaps best known for long-running columns in The New York Times and Frieze magazine. More recently Alice co-founded Design Emergency with Paola Antonelli, a project aiming to investigate design’s role in helping us to build a better future.

Just as Alice and Paola turned to each other and their audience during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us sought solace in books, journals and magazines. One such book was Alice’s 2018 release, Design As An Attitude – a firm favourite here at NHO. As such, for the launch of Book Club we couldn’t think of a better guest.

Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna was delighted to speak with Alice – here is their conversation.

Photography courtesy of Michael Leckie.

NHK: Alice, thank you for making the time to speak with us. In the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown Design As An Attitude kept our team company. We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to delve a little further. We note your career has traversed journalism and design, so in many ways writing Design As An Attitude seems almost inevitable. Can you tell us how the project came to fruition?

AR: I’d been thinking of writing a book on what I believe are the defining issues in contemporary design for some time. When I was commissioned to write a bi-monthly design column for Frieze, the art magazine, in 2014, the then-editor-in-chief, Jennifer Higgie, suggested that I could consider publishing the columns in a book. I decided to do this from the outset, so I planned and wrote the columns as chapters with each one analysing a key issue such as design’s relationship to art and craft, its gender politics and the dearth of diversity in design. When it came to writing the book, I revised and expanded the columns and wrote new texts as additional chapters. Spending so long writing and rewriting the texts helped me to focus on each of the issues and to refine my thinking about them.

NHK: It’s been wonderful to revisit your Frieze columns, many of which are still accessible online for those playing catch up. Your work broadly, and of course within Design As An Attitude, draws from an impressive sum of research across history, politics, technology, culture and diversity. What do you hope to achieve by broadening the understanding of design?

AR: I believe that design is one of our most powerful tools to help to ensure that changes of any type – social, political, economic, cultural, scientific, technological, ecological or whatever – are interpreted in ways that will affect us positively, rather than negatively. Sadly, I also believe that design is chronically undervalued, misinterpreted and misunderstood, largely because it is still stereotyped as a styling or PR tool, which is concerned with surface appearance not substance and executed under instruction from someone else. Unless public and political perceptions of design change radically, we will never derive the full benefit of its role as an agent of change. That’s why I hope, in a small way, to raise awareness of design’s true potential and to broaden and deepen public understanding of it.

“Unless public and political perceptions of design change radically, we will never derive the full benefit of its role as an agent of change.” – Alice Rawsthorn

NHK: One could argue that in some instances a narrow focus on beauty and aesthetics can undermine the value of design. In fact, we spend much of our time combating the notion that design is merely aesthetic. However, we’re curious to know what role you see for aesthetics in the design conversation?

AR: There is nothing wrong with valuing the aesthetics of design, if – and it’s a big if – doing so does not risk obscuring other, arguably more important aspects of it. When it comes to defining “good design”, there are only two non-negotiable qualities – usefulness and integrity. Any design project lacking either of them cannot be regarded as having been well designed. Other qualities, like aesthetic beauty and innovation, can be compelling and enjoyable, but they aren’t essential. Though it is worth remembering that, historically, assessments of the sensual merits of a design project tended to focus on how it looked, now it is equally likely to include other factors, such as how it feels to the touch, its scent and its atmospheric qualities.

NHK: Reframing the evaluation of design in that manner is incredibly helpful. We, too believe pragmatic considerations should run in parallel with aesthetics. Looking to the future, how do you hope design culture will evolve? And as advocates for the value of design, what can we do to assist?

AR: I hope that design will continue to prove its worth as a powerful agent of change that can help us to address complex and challenges from the deepening climate emergency and refugee crisis, to systemic racism and the collapse of social justice. But I also believe that design culture needs to change in order to realise this by becoming: more empathic and compassionate; more generous and open to collaborations with specialists from other disciplines; and by accepting that as designers and their work become increasingly ambitious, the consequences of failure will escalate. Critically, design culture also needs to become more diverse and inclusive. If you believe in design’s power to build a better world, it stands to reason that we will need the best possible designers to do so, and we won’t get them unless they represent every area of society: every gender; every heritage; every geography; and every demographic.

NHK: Design has the capacity to lead and influence in this manner – a true challenge and opportunity for our age. Of course continuing to read, discuss and communicate is so important in embracing diverse perspectives and instigating change. So now that we’ve finished reading Design as an Attitude, can you share your favourite design related books or publications and what we might find on your reading list?

AR: Gladly. Much of my favourite writing on design is in The New Yorker and The Economist. I also enjoy The Economist’s weekly Cover Story e-newsletter, which is written by the editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes on the process of designing the cover of the latest issue. As well as deconstructing the design decisions taken to produce the cover, she describes the concepts that were discarded along the way and explains the rationale for abandoning them. It is a fascinating analysis of a practical design process. Some recent books on design that I’ve enjoyed are: Siliva Benedito’s Atmospheres Anatomies: On Design, Weather and Sensation, a brilliant analysis of the experiential impact of architecture and landscape on us; and Richard Thompson Ford’s Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History on the political symbolism of dress as a form of self-expression and social control. I’m also I’m looking forward to the publication later this year of the new edition of Irma Boom’s The Architecture of the Book, which will include her descriptions of all the books she has designed since the publication of the second edition in 2014.

NHK: Thank you, Alice. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Design As An Attitude is published by JRP and available for purchase here.

“When it comes to defining ‘good design’, there are only two non-negotiable qualities – usefulness and integrity.” – Alice Rawsthorn