Dean of Art, Design and Music at Kingston University, UK, Sparke has pioneered the development of design history with her books, Design in Context, Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century, and As Long as it’s Pink, changing the way design history has been thought about and taught.

In this interview for Curve Denise Whitehouse and Penny Sparke revisit the forum topic of Design Innovation and the National Economy.

You indicated in your talk at the forum that governments are increasingly looking to the creative industries as traditional manufacturing is shrinking.

Close to home the government of Victoria has launched a ‘Design Initiative’ in the hope of building stronger links between design and industry. The British government has been promoting creative industries as the way forward as we witnessed this year when the British Design Council’s blockbuster Great Expectations toured Australia.

The work in the exhibition, which ranged from medical products and consumer items to software, graphics, video and film, seemed to stretch beyond what we conventionally think of as design. Would you agree?

Yes, the creative industries are very alive in Britain with support coming from government, media and bodies such as the British Design Council. For Britain, the creative industries cover a wide spectrum – from music to drama to publishing but design is strongly implicated within it, from fashion to advertising to architecture.

Product design is included but as our manufacturing is so depleted it is the service rather than the export of the end results that brings money into the country.

Britain also is at the forefront in developing the ‘interdisciplinary’ designer whose skills are an important component of the new ICT industries and in the creation of the new media ‘entertainment’ leisure related industries which are currently so important to the economy.

At Kingston University, for example, more and more students are interested in bringing together areas such as animation and music, fashion and performance, etc, as they can see that the future lies in these overlapping disciplines wherein the highest level of innovation is possible.

Do you think the creative industries are the answer? Are they symptomatic of the changing nature of design including product design?

Their strongest implications are probably for graphic designers who are responding quickly to the challenges offered by technology and interdisciplinarity. I think product designers also have much to learn in this new context. They are working, increasingly, in a global context but they are still important communicators of local values.

I think they can learn from the new graphic designers how to move across design disciplines, be more flexible, and understand that we are all operating in a culture in which meanings and identities are being designed rather than ‘things’.

Also product designers need to see themselves as creators of popular values rather than as perpetrators of ‘good taste’ in this new context. I think it is very exciting but it needs a dramatic change in the mentality of those product designers who still hark after the Bauhaus.

Why is it important to become creators of popular values as opposed to perpetrators of good taste? 

Design is by its very nature multi-faceted, but above all its primary function is cultural, that is to provide groups of people with identities, whether local or global.

I believe that today designers need to become more attuned to popular culture because we need a carefully designed material culture around us to help us define ourselves as consumers and as inhabitants of a world in which technology has run ahead of culture.

One of design’s roles is to help our cultural values catch up and ensure that we can interface with the complex technologies, which are the stuff of contemporary popular culture.

Are you arguing that design innovation must grow from cultural rather than economic needs? 

I think design innovation can only grow from cultural needs as design is a cultural phenomenon at heart before it becomes technological and economic.

When we look back at history that is the key lesson. For instance, let’s go back to the mid 19th century and to the Great Exhibition of 1851 when competition with France caused Britain to feel the need to show its designed goods to the rest of the world.

At that time the highest level of decoration conformed to the ‘best design’. This created a backlash in the form of the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris which had an ethical rather than a national or economic agenda at its heart but which resulted, nonetheless, in establishing a high reputation, in cultural terms, for Great Britain.

This is important because if design is thought of as a cultural phenomenon first and foremost it can benefit a country financially in the longer term.

This, I think, is because the function of design is to give goods, products and services a distinctiveness and a value that cannot be equated directly with financial gain. Once a reputation for cultural distinction is established, national economic benefits can flow directly from that.

The same thing can be said of post World War II Scandinavian design whose international appeal was based in its ideological commitment to a modern design rooted in craft and democracy.

Similarly post war Italy’s success lay in its deep understanding of the cultural role of design and its potential to transform Italy from a fascist regime into a democratic country over night.

While the USA might have offered the model and the finance for companies such as Olivetti and Fiat to modernise their production methods and bring design into the equation, I would argue that it was the Italian manufacturers’, and designers’, deep understanding of their indigenous craft based manufacturing with its long tradition of linking architecture, furniture and product, that brought international success.

And of course Japan’s success since the 1980s in developing global roles for design within mass markets was based on its understanding of the links between design and lifestyle.

You mentioned in your talk that Italy had no design education in the strict sense of the term. What do you think of government initiated agendas to build and reform design education?

Education reform is the very best way, in today’s situation, to ensure that graduating students have the creative and flexible skills needed to make design part of the new economy and the new culture we are all part of. Designers could very easily lead the way taking the place of technologists and economists.

But there needs to be follow through so that for example when new courses are introduced into the secondary sector there are trained teachers for them.

What of design history? How can it contribute to the growth of the design industries and their expansion into the nexus of the creative industries and popular culture?

Working first at Brighton Polytechnic and later at the Royal College of the Art I helped develop the first undergraduate and postgraduate Design History degrees in Britain.

The RCA recently celebrated the 21st birthday of its Design History MA with the V&A Museum with an exhibition that showed where our graduates, who had backgrounds in a range of disciplines including the social sciences, were working today.

What was exciting was the wide range of creative professions they had entered; not just museums and galleries but also media, journalism, film and television production with one graduate for example instigating the popular TV show Changing Rooms.

So design history is producing a new set of creative professionals.

As for the place of design history in design education, I believe it is a crucial subject as not only does it allow design students and designers to understand the context in which they operate, it also develops people with complimentary skills and understanding who can work with designers, giving them a voice and a public visibility which is essential.

No one person can do every thing so a division of labour is necessary. Design historians, in my opinion, can play a key role in translating the often unarticulated ideas of designers and ensuring that their creativity is understood.

What was exciting about the forum at the Melbourne Museum was that design historians and educators came together with professional designers.

Finally, this was your first trip to Australia, what surprises did it bring? 

Well, I thought it was very exciting, full of energy and optimism and much more overtly ‘modern’ in outlook than anywhere else I have visited.

There was more sophistication of design ideas than perhaps I expected and a strong confidence about Australia’s place in the larger world. I would love to come back and see more!  

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