Fitch Founder Speaks Out
Rodney FitchThirty-something years ago, when the world was very different, I founded Fitch; an event that passed unnoticed. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the great US historian JK Galbraith gave a lecture that did not go unnoticed and now, with all due humility, I have borrowed the title of JK’s feature for this talk.
“To my Scottish friends in an affluent but worried society – greetings: you have every reason to be concerned but not downhearted.” Galbraith’s lecture, given 30 years ago, welcomed his fellow Americans to the then novel concept of affluent society. Thirty years on, that same affluence has become commonplace, presenting the design profession with huge opportunities and a completely different landscape in which to do our work and address our respective audiences.
As I sat down to think about this talk at 35,000 feet, somewhere over the China sea, I was reading an essay concerning the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, which concluded that the collapse of that Empire arose from a corruption of its social and cultural fabric and the breakdown of city life. Paradoxically, this collapse was accompanied by an unprecedented design activity in the form of ever more grandiose buildings and interiors, public works and grand private dwellings – sound familiar?
The business of design, like Nero in Rome, is rushing through our society’s arteries – design is everywhere – in our magazines, our TV programmes – everywhere. Design has replaced the dialogue in cinemas. Even something as prosaic as the Lottery becomes each week a design event. Yet it seems to me that much of the argument about the efficacy of design has degenerated into an in-speak owned by privileged designers, and a cottage industry of writers and critics about the efficacy of this or that style, rather than exploring the role of the designer as spiritual leader and raiser-up of popular taste.
The argument, by a reductive process, is about whether the Scottish Parliament building is Scottish enough and overlooks the fact that half a mile away buildings are to be found that would not disgrace a dark night in Chechnya.
If we look around at our collective design activity and its impact for good or bad in the cultural framework in which our national way of life sits and in which Britain Plc has a vested interest, it helps to remind us who our real designers are and draws into sharp focus both the privilege and the obligation of a designer. For our contribution to the creation and the upkeep of social spirits and toward the provision of at least some of the ingredients that make a meaningful and happy life is a virtual calling and a heady and uplifting responsibility.
It is, of course, always a great pleasure to meet, talk and discuss with an audience of designers and those who have an interest in what we do. For isn’t it a great privilege to be a designer? By and large, it pays well, brings us into contact with interesting people and places. Being a designer has an “Emersonian” quality to it, in that, if we bother to try it, it enables us to leave something worthwhile behind, no matter how large or small. This privilege brings with it not only responsibilities but, I also believe, obligations. We owe an obligation to our profession where we have a duty not to be cynical about our work. Restraint and responsibility, rather than self-seeking motivations, will help encourage all those whose activities are touched by our own. And of course to society, which relies upon us. We should honour this trust in us. And trusting in us, society confronts our profession with a problem, not of opportunity, but of us returning this trust, by our empathy and understanding, with the end users of our work, with their real concerns, their aspirations, together with their hopes and fears and expectations of us.
I believe you must know what to design and for whom before you can design well. For design is no longer a private matter between designers and client, let alone between designer and designer. It is a public affair played out on a common stage under very bright lights.
Accordingly, we might just try to condition our work by the dictum of providing, through design, solutions rather than complications. People already live difficult, complicated lives, full of challenge and paradox. It is not our job to make them worse. Indeed, William Morris, at a meeting just such as this 130 years ago, when asked the purpose of design, replied simply “To give hope.”
For all of us in the design profession must acknowledge that our public today is very much more discerning, more demanding, more streetwise and knowledgeable. They are more articulate. They are very design-conscious. They are the ultimate design critics, for design helps to identify choice and choice is the cornerstone of democracy. Yet at the same time they’re insecure and uncertain. They want a sense of stability and reassurance. They want from their designers a sense of place, leadership and ideas. They want genuine solutions to the urban paradox, not more designed-in problems. Increasingly, they will want a return to substance, not style as a design-led substitute.
Surely this debate, this dialogue, not between ourselves but with our consumer, with the end user, is something that the whole of our profession should encourage and enjoy?
Talented British designers are involved in more interesting projects than ever before. They win important projects, awards and accolades all over the world. Increasingly, the talents of our best architects and designers are sought out by overseas clients and our design valuation system is the envy of the world.
This Government has clutched design to its breast and claimed design for its own but notwithstanding Tony Blair’s icy grip Ingenium Britainicus rules. And in this regard we can feel justifiably hopeful and confident for the future.
Furthermore, we can be brazen in our enjoyment of this business. We can be quite unashamed of being successful at it. We should have no inferiority complex about design being “the better and the more noble its purpose”. For us, good and bad design should be measurable, no matter what its purpose. And, above everything else, I believe good design moves towards being so only when it is enjoyed. And nothing can be good that is not enjoyable.