Alice Rawsthorn reflects on a life destined for design writing—and what’s at the heart of her quest to reveal the raw power of the craft to the world at large. 

Wheat Field

Alice Rawsthorn

WRITER / CRITIC

2018

DESIGN / DESIGN AS AN ATTITUDE / HELLO WORLD / IRMA BOOM / SEHAT KAHANI / CAMBRIDGE / DOMUS / CAMPAIGN / FINANCIAL TIMES / INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE / NEW YORK TIMES / DESIGN MUSEUM / LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY / PAOLA ANTONELLI / INSTAGRAM / DIETER RAMS / MANCHESTER / NIKE / LITTLE WOMEN / LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

While trained as a “proper journalist,” Alice Rawsthorn eventually came to a realization about the craft of design: It can be a wildly powerful conduit to improve human life. And thus she decided to focus the majority of her writerly efforts exploring and expounding upon it.

In the years since, Rawsthorn has become one of design’s chief evangelists, on a mission to bring an understanding of the craft to the masses via her writing not in niche industry publications, but a medley of mainstream outlets.

By documenting how design can make the world a better place, Rawsthorn, perhaps, is doing the same for the world of designers—bringing a light to a craft that remains, for many, in the dark. Here, to coincide with the release of the latest episode of Design Matters, we celebrate her words and her wisdom.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“My mother was an art teacher, so I grew up with the benefit of her teaching skills, including a fantastic impromptu visual education. She was a natural teacher, who turned any situation into a learning exercise for my brother and [me]. On country walks, for example, she’d pick up leaves and ask: ‘What color is it?’ If we said ‘green,’ she’d point out that, if we looked closely, we’d see that pink, purple, red and blue there too …”

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“The only job that appealed to me most was journalism, for the foolish reason that it seemed reassuringly like continuing my studies. For all the wrong reasons, I found a career that suits my temperament perfectly.”

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“The process of design existed long before a word was invented to describe it. Whenever human beings sought to change their way of life or their surroundings, starting with barricading a prehistoric cave against predators, they acted as designers, but did so instinctively. ‘Accidental’ designers, like those cave dwellers, have continued to apply design intuitively and unknowingly ever since.”

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“Medieval armorial bearings were precursors of contemporary corporate identities, like McDonald’s golden arches and the Nike swoosh. So was the macabre symbol of a human skull and pair of crossed bones, which was adopted as a tactical weapon by the pirates in the early 1700s. This was the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ when the pickings were so rich for canny buccaneers like Blackbeard and Black Bart that they ran their ships like businesses. Terrifying their prey into surrendering speedily without wasting ammunition or risking the lives of their crew was a sensible ploy, and flying flags that told their prey just how merciless and brutal they could be was an efficient way of achieving it. That’s why the skull and crossbones is such a brilliant example of communication design.”

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“Design is a slippery and elusive phenomenon, which has meant different things at different times. But all truly inspiring design projects have one thing in common: They began with a dream. And the bolder the dream, the greater the design feat that will be required to achieve it. And this is why the greatest designers are almost always the biggest dreamers and rebels and renegades.”

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“The industrial revolution professionalised design, but it also curbed and constrained it. Design ended up being seen as a commercial tool, very much a lacky of consumerism steeped in conspicuous consumption. Design has so much potential to play a deeper and more meaningful role in society.”

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“Designers, thanks to fairly basic digital tools, can now operate independently to pursue their own objectives. They needn’t wait around for people to employ them.”

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“We’re living in such a dark, turbulent, dangerous era—almost dystopian. Economic recession. Environmental crisis. Social dissent. Geopolitical chaos. That’s just for starters. Designers have such a constructive contribution to make at a time when other disciplines, like the social sciences, are acutely aware of the need to find new approaches to the problems in their fields, because their 20th-century way of working is no longer fit for purpose. Design is all about solving problems and helping us to make sense of change in a user-friendly way.”

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“Helping us to live more sustainably is among the most important challenges—and exciting opportunities—for designers today. The pressure to ensure that we have no cause for concern in terms of how products were designed, manufactured, tested, shipped, sold and will eventually be disposed of, will continue to intensify—rightly so.”

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“Inclusivity is one of the most important elements in any social design project, both in terms of  forging cross-disciplinary collaborations between designers and, say, anthropologists, economists, ethnographers and social scientists, and of involving the ‘audience’ in the design process. The designer’s role is the polar opposite to the 20th-century cliché of the creative-control-freak-cum-design-hero.”

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“Design is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, whether or not we are aware of it.”

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“The word ‘design’ has become so fashionable and is applied so liberally, just like ‘meme’ and ‘curator,’ that, in theory, it could risk being devalued. After all, design has always suffered from muddles and misunderstandings, and if it becomes even fuzzier by being applied so freely, isn’t the confusion about its meaning likely to worsen? Possibly. But I believe it is more important to focus less on the definition of design, and more on its impact.”

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“It is hard to think of an activity which wouldn’t benefit from being designed: from planning a journey to wrapping a present to caring for an elderly relative.”

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“Design should always be in the service of a better life, but unfortunately, it does not always achieve that objective. We can all think of examples of design projects, even the best intentioned ones, which threaten to make our lives worse rather than better.”

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“If you read the media, every day there seems to be another scare story about AI, and the blunt truth is that if artificial intelligence is badly designed, it can cause huge problems and a massive amount of damage. Whereas, if it’s supplied intelligently and sensitively, it could help us in all sorts of different ways. Designers will be absolutely critical in finding positive and beneficial applications and also steering us away from the potential dangers of these technologies.”

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“No one could deny the chair’s importance in 20th-century design history. But, like lots of design nuts, I find it deeply irritating that public perceptions of design should be dominated by a handful of badly designed, overpriced pieces of furniture.”

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“As a design critic, it’s my job to decide whether things are well designed and, if so, why. Because they’re environmentally sound? Ethical? Innovative? Emotionally expressive? All good reasons, sure, but sometimes we’re drawn to things simply because they give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, which is harder to explain.”

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“There are a lots of things I miss about the late, great graphic designer Alan Fletcher, but the thing I miss the most is arguing with him about design. Some of our most enjoyable arguments involved how to explain design to the 99 percent of the population that Alan pityingly described as ‘civilians’—in other words, those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be designers.”

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“As a writer, I find design endlessly fascinating, because it is richly contextualized and constantly changing, forcing me to continually reassess my understanding of it.”

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“It is impossible to ever learn enough about design.”
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman