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Paul Thompson Traces Design from Public Spaces to Social Value

175 Years of Design at the RCA

The first interview from the Royal College of Art’s 175th anniversary series focuses on design and public service. Here, Rector of the Royal College of Art Paul Thompson tells Gina Lovett how public service has been at the heart of design at the Royal College of Art since its inception, and how this has uniquely placed the College as a pioneer of internationally recognised human-centred and inclusive design.

TwoTone Phone for Older People
TwoTone Phone for Older People, Tomek Rygalik
How influenced was design in the College's early days by its public-sector funding base? How did students develop as a result?

The College was set up to help raise design standards in the manufacturing industry, so it had a very strong public commercial purpose. It was there to help boost British order books at a time when Bavarian and French housewares and manufactures were seen to be stealing a march on the UK.

It is quite extraordinary to think that in 1837 people felt training in design was a national responsibility and from this came the first publicly funded design school. As a result, there’s always a need to demonstrate contact with industry and the public realm in general. If you are in receipt of public funding, there is always that public responsibility.

In the early days – work done with Richard Redgrave, for example, on the post box or the Duke of Wellington’s funeral carriage – the student’s role was ancillary to the professor, helping him on the constructional or decorative details of commissions. Unlike today, there was little questioning of deep social purpose or interpretation of the brief.

How did design students transition from this ancillary role to a deeper questioning?

The creation of the welfare state was a real turning point for design and urban planners. There was a sense of national cohesion and pulling together, and the complexity of what planners and politicians were trying to achieve really demanded an active and involved design role. Suddenly, you had to have someone who was taking the brief apart and questioning it, to deliver on what the social goals of these policies were. If you think about the New Towns Act which led to the creation of Stevenage or Harlow, there was a striving for some pretty complex social goals. To deliver, you had to get architects and designers to probe into the brief to find out what the goals were.

Later, figures like [Hugh] Casson or [later, Misha] Black started to talk about the role of designers being a social agent and being a force for social good, not simply designing a product for a commercial goal. There was a growing sense that design could be a force for social change.

The 1976 landmark symposium 'Design for Need' at the College took the idea of design for public service in a new direction. What was this and why was it so radical?

The symposium was organised by [professor of industrial design] Frank Height and Professor Christopher Cornford, head of the new Department of General Studies. Both were very much taken with the social purpose behind design that Misha Black had advocated. They rejected ‘the design, styling, or promotion of products that were a superfluous pampering of the already over-provided’. Such statements, from the time, conveyed an anti-consumption message. It was pretty strong stuff. The guest speaker, Victor Papanek, had had such an impact on design. His writing was contrary to many of the things the RCA had been told it should be doing.

I think the College was able to deliver something so bold because by the 1970s it had its own charter, autonomy and probably had a freer environment in which to be able to make those kinds of comments.

Has the influence of this symposium endured?

It really was a turning point for design, full stop. Victor Papanek must be one of the most influential figures on twentieth-century design and the way it is taught. There were a number of different strands that started moving in this direction. You can really see it from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, which from 1991, was propagating that message at a time when people weren’t thinking about ageing population or how world demographics are changing. It was a very new message for designers. It still is.

What is the economic model for inclusive and design for social good? What is its future at a time when politics is shifting from public- to private-sector funding?

There’s a clear market for older consumers to be using smartphones, for example. You just need to look at companies like BlackBerry that work so frequently with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. The economic model for this whole research area is quite clear. Governments are going to need to do something about people living longer. Social policy hasn’t yet caught up with the fact that people will have to work longer because of pension deficits. There is an economic imperative for the public sector to take these issues really seriously and think about how, for instance, we might design workplaces so they’re able to accommodate people beyond the age of 65, whether it’s to do with lighting or seating.

Government still has a core responsibility to deal with such issues. Obama has been pretty clear about instances where the state does have a role and, in such cases, nobody will be able to turn to the private sector to deliver certain key imperatives that have economic as well as social value.

Research funding will be increasingly through a mixed economy route. There are going to be more companies commissioning the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, for example. Projects will be funded by corporations, as well as research councils. At the moment, grants from research councils tend to be larger, but I suspect that will change.

Will the drive for such design (because it is more easily accountable) eclipse more playful forms?

That sort of playful design will always be there – in the Milan Furniture Fair or the galleries. It’s more design art, which has a different purpose. It’s a shame they don’t align more frequently, but if you look at the RCA’s own School of Design, it goes from the very speculative and conceptual to extremely functional commercial service design. What’s incredible are the moments of interchange between these. Think about students like Katie Gaudion, who started off designing Textiles but then moved on to explore the sensory tactile properties of textiles. She’s now in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design as a research associate working with an industrial designer, devising interior design standards in homes for people with autism. That’s such a fantastic RCA story. 

What is it about the teaching or environment at the RCA that pushes this?

I think it’s the village atmosphere. It’s a community, so it’s easier to look over someone’s shoulders and see them doing something different. But also, the students we recruit are the sorts of students who make connections. These are people with antennae always looking to make connections in all sorts of ways. That characterises everyone from Fine Art photography students like Greta Alfaro through to a textile designer like Katie, or a vehicle designer like Niels van Roij. There’s a very distinctive RCA student mindset that is interdisciplinary. It’s also the intensity of the teaching, asking students to unpack the brief. The RCA is a bastion of critical design. It’s a very deeply embedded approach. Students here take a much more systemic view of the problem. It’s not about finding the quick and easy solution. And that goes way back to Misha Black and Frank Height.

What's the future for design at the College? 

It’s been great to see the HHCD become much more embedded across the College. These things take time within an academic institution. It now has the support and attention of all of the schools, because it’s such a successful research centre internationally. The fact that it’s going to take PhD candidate students this year is another mark of its success. I’d like to see SustainRCA do the same. My hope is that in ten years we will be having this conversation and saying how SustainRCA succeeded in replicating the structural model of the HHCD, with research associates, PhD candidates and major long-term research projects across the social and corporate sectors.

Smart people recognise that the jobs of the future will be green collar jobs and that a good way to boost a stagnating economy is through new green businesses and technologies. It’s trying to make the economic case for sustainability as a wealth creator as well as a planet saver. The appointment of Alex de Rijke [as dean of the School of Architecture, starting in January] will help the College hugely in this area. He is very prominent in the architecture/sustainability field. 


Read the other interviews in our series:

"It is quite extraordinary to think that in 1837 people felt training in design was a national responsibility and from this came the first publicly funded design school." Paul Thompson

Rector

"Think about students like Katie Gaudion, who started off designing Textiles but then moved on to explore the sensory tactile properties of textiles. She’s now in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design as a research associate working with an industrial designer, devising interior design standards in homes for people with autism. That’s such a fantastic RCA story. " Paul Thompson

Rector