Book review: Hello World: Where Design Meets Life by Alice Rawsthorn

WHEN we talk about design, most of us mean how a thing looks, but as Alice Rawsthorn explains, that’s a mere fraction of the picture.

Hello World: Where Design Meets Life

by Alice Rawsthorn

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Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £20

“It is thanks to the process of analysis, visualisation, planning and execution, which we call design, that breakthroughs in scientific research are translated into products.”

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Rawsthorn is the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. She’s a past chair of the British Council’s Design Advisory Group and a past member of the Design Council. Not only does she know her subject inside and out – the vast notes and references section bears testament to that – but she has the gift of writing about esoteric ideas in a straightforward, accessible and engaging manner.

Her new book, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, explores the changing influence of design in our lives. Design, she tells us, existed long before we coined a word for it. At the same time, our understanding of design – more than mere style, but not synonymous with art – has undergone often dramatic fluctuations. It’s her hope that this book will defuse those misconceptions, while underscoring the role design must play in helping to solve – or at least ameliorate – plagues of the modern age that include sustainability and climate change, transportation, and even cleaning up outer space.

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Going back to the dawn of time, when cavemen made cups from their hands to capture water, Rawsthorn pulls us through the years and across the continents, describing such critical developments as the importance of standardisation to the rise of factories during the industrial revolution. At all times, she personalises the history, offering insights about men such as Josiah Wedgwood, whose manufacturing practices “became the template for what we now recognise as the industrial design process.”

Rawsthorn examines the much-blurred divide between design as “good business” (in the words of IBM president Thomas Watson), and design as art. She asks: “Why should the work of an artist automatically be deemed to have greater cultural value than a designer’s?” Ultimately, she gives the last word to the renowned furniture designer Charles Eames, who, “when asked if design was ‘an expression of art’, said: ‘I would rather say that it is an expression of purpose. It may (if it is good enough) later be judged as art.’”

Some of the most enjoyable parts of Hello World are the insider stories. We learn how Greenpeace got its name, why the map of the London Tube barely resembles the above-ground geography, and why, for instance, the symbol of an apple is so potent that it is able to serve for both Mac computers and Anne Summers sex shops, without a trace of confusion for the general public. We even find out that William Playfair, the Scottish political economist, invented the first known bar chart. One of the least satisfying aspects of the book – and the most ironic – is that it’s so ugly. Miniscule margins make it dense, and you’ll need a strong magnifier should you wish to explore the footnotes or bibliography. This is all the more surprising because the designer is Irma Boom, one of the most innovative talents in the business.

“Design is often at its most seductive and most convincing when introducing us to the new,” writes Rawsthorn. But where does design go from here? There is, she writes, no shortage of challenges for designers to wrestle with for decades to come. The way we design has changed – as indeed has the entire world – thanks to computers, but ultimately, she concludes, “In essence, design will remain the same: still an agent of change… But if it is to realise its true potential, it needs to evolve.” Among other things, she argues in her summation, design needs increased openness, greater compassion, and increased diplomacy. It needs to be both bolder and humbler. It’s a tall order, but one of the virtues of Rawsthorn’s enlightening book, with its many, varied anecdotes illustrating the ingeniousness of our species, is that reform seems entirely within the realms of possibility.