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3 March, 2006

Great British design?

BBC 2's 'The Culture Show' is running 'The Great British Design Quest', a three-stage poll to identify the public's favourite British design icon (1900-2006).  The Culture Show and the Design Museum produced an initial shortlist of 25 design icons, which was voted down to ten.  These were discussed on the programme, then further public voting cut the ten to three.  The 'winner' is announced in a fortnight.

It's all on The Culture Show's website, but I don't know whether that'll be archived, so I'll reproduce the shortlist(s) here:

  • Anglepoise Lamp
  • Aston Martin DB5
  • British road signage
  • Dr Martens boot
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner
  • E-Type Jaguar
  • London A-Z
  • Mini skirt
  • Penguin paperback
  • 'Power, Corruption and Lies' (the album cover, not the concepts themselves!)
  • Raleigh Chopper
  • 'Sgt Pepper' album cover
  • Sinclair Calculator
  • 'The Face' magazine
  • Verdana typeface
Plus those which made it into the top ten:And the top three:
  • Concorde
  • Supermarine Spitfire
  • London Underground map
There are a few genuine design icons in there, which both characterise Britain and have influenced global culture, but some are annoyingly metrocentric – is the red London bus really so significant outside that city?

Others are rather odd choices.
The 'Power, Corruption and Lies' album cover? I hadn't even heard of it before the poll!
'Tomb Raider' and 'Grand Theft Auto'? The programme argued that each changed the nature of computer games, which is probably true, but are they really design icons of the last 105 years? Actually, I'd argue that the Lara Croft character is iconic, just not in the same league of influence or ubiquity as others.
Likewise the Verdana typeface (which I didn't even know was British!) – one of the very top design icons of the past century? If a British typeface has to be included, surely Stanley Morison's Times New Roman has had a greater impact, not only in the age of PC word processors.

It's been suggested that there's a fundamental ideological flaw in the list, repeating an argument about the Design Museum itself. Sir Terence Conran founded the Museum to celebrate the manufactured object and the industrial design process. Yet, as James Dyson claimed when he resigned as chairman in 2004, the remit has been hijacked to feature 'merely' decorative design – iconography and style:

By failing to give a lead to the public on the difference between design as styling and design as intelligent problem solving he believes the museum is perhaps neglecting its purpose.
I haven't been able to find the exact reference, but I recently read that the Museum's director, Alice Rawsthorn, has since resigned too, supposedly for leading this contentious shift in emphasis; it was suggested that this Design Quest shortlist was 'the final straw' for the board of trustees.

Incidentally, the Design Museum's own site offers Flash and standard html interfaces – well done – but the 'shop' section of the html side is Flash-only. Well done....

[Update 17/03/06: Concorde won, with the Underground map second and the Spitfire third.]

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