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Chasing the elusive connection between 'good' and 'design'

These days we are bombarded with exhortations about the power of good design. Top-level talks find it high up on the agenda. Bottom-level talks cling to it as the last refuge of the scoundrel (now that use of the word 'sustainability' has been banned).Good design, it seems, can make everything OK, from the planning application right through to the Stirling Prize. It can even make you rich on the way.

And why not? Lord Falconer recently announced on behalf of New Labour: 'As a government, we believe that good design, properly executed, will save money in the long run.'But it would be less than fair not to highlight the worrying use of qualifiers here - 'properly executed' and 'in the long run' - as well as the absence of any reference to a more famous politician's one liner: 'In the long run we are all dead.'

Clearly, in the popular and political view, 'good design' is right up there with football and chicken nuggets, except for the fact that everything depends on being able to recognise it when you see it.

This, you would imagine from its bulging hamper of advantages, would be pretty easy to do but, surprisingly, it is not.

In fact, the more you hang out with designer folk, the more forcibly you are struck by the fact that they almost never use the phrase 'good design'at all.Anyone sauntering into the studio and commenting: 'That's a good design Jim, ' to one of the grey faces behind a monitor, would be asking for a liberal application of epoxy adhesive to his chair.

And the same is true of the leaders of the design professions.

Lord Rogers is a good example. As we all know, he is a world famous architect and currently chief adviser to the mayor of London on architecture and urbanism. Note there is no mention of 'good design' in his title. Nor does there appear to be any more mention of it in his dayto-day critical vocabulary. At last week's episode of the public inquiry into the Heron Tower he described the project as a 'high quality landmark building' of 'bold but elegant design' and 'quite masterful', but not once did he call it 'good design'.

Now it may be that, like one or two other discreet commentators, he secretly thinks that 110 Bishopsgate is a project punching over its weight, but if he does, whence his reluctance to seek the shelter of the government's own beacon term of approval? After all, 'good design' is a term the masses understand and only the cognoscenti avoid. As indeed, according to their summary proofs of evidence, did all three of the speakers for the Greater London Authority at the Heron public inquiry.

The answer to this minor question is to be found in the myriad subtleties of language and the way that it serves to protect elites from unwanted incursions by the masses.As everybody actually involved in the process of design already knows, the phrase 'good design' is the opposite to a technical term, it is a two-word betrayal of credulous amateurism.

Nor is this avoidance of the term solely an English prejudice.Generations of watchers of the Australian soap Neighbours have guffawed over Gaby and her 'good designs' - the plural makes things even worse - while in America the most recent collectors' edition of Architectural Digest, the Vogue of architectural magazines, goes through extraordinary verbal contortions - 'seminal creating moment', 'an eye to beat all', 'visual feast' and even 'glamour' - in order to avoid corrupting the strictly business term 'design' with any such value judgment as 'good', 'bad' or 'indifferent'.

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