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What should we expect from the new Design Museum?

By Lynda Relph-Knight | Consulting design editor

February 6, 2015 | 4 min read

We have some idea what the new Design Museum will look like when it opens its doors next year. John Pawson’s familiar architectural sketches give a glimpse of the £80m transformation of the Commonwealth Institute in West London. But, with the creative sector in a state of flux, how will its curators define design and communicate it to new generations of visitors?

Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic was giving little away to an audience at Pentagram on Tuesday evening. He spoke of temporary exhibitions to fill a space three times that of the current museum in London Docklands and said pieces from the museum’s collection would be housed on the top floor. But what themes will be addressed and how collection items will be selected for public view remains under wraps.

We can expect Sudjic’s penchant for designers ‘who ask questions rather than just answer them’ to prevail though. He cites designers like Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby and the host of free-thinking graduates they have spawned at the Royal College of Art as creatives who continue to ask questions and help redirect our approach to design, throwing bio-design into an already heady mix.

The hackneyed phrase ‘problem-solving’ is no longer the sole motivation of innovative design at its best. Nor is it purely about objects, even in the public eye. Sudjic reckons Apple creative head Jonathan Ive could be one of the last of the generation of designers that make objects, however beautiful or functional they are. Now it is as much about the design of systems, customer engagement and the levels of interaction and even co-creation savvy users have come to expect.

It is becoming harder to draw the neat lines the media and museum curators tend to apply between creative disciplines. Digital is, or should be, at one with graphic design, interiors with brand messaging and so on, and advertising through interactive channels of social media is an increasingly essential ingredient for brands. The change has been swift, driven partly by technology, but hungrily adopted by newer generations of consumers and often now led by clients. Those who fail to integrate ahead of the curve are falling by the wayside – take traditional publishing houses and some retailers, notably the more established supermarket chains.

Designers of all disciplines are meanwhile striving to adapt through growth, acquisition or collaboration, with varying success. Future-facing groups like Studio XO that integrate digital design with fashion and product designers like Moritz Waldemeyer who create intelligent objects are moving in from the fringe. Meanwhile, long-standing branding groups are often struggling to introduce design for new platforms into their offers.

So if the challenge is there for creative practitioners to keep ahead, it will certainly face Sudjic and his team, geared as museums are towards recording and archiving. But the move to Kensington offers a rare opportunity not just to capture the best of what’s out there, but to lead the charge towards real innovation.

Whatever approach they take though, we can be assured the Design Museum will keep its head up. Sudjic is haunted by the rapid erosion of the vision of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s first director Henry Cole for the V&A to embody the spirit of the previous year’s Great Exhibition when it opened in 1852. The V&A soon defaulted to became a repository for the decorative arts – a position more recent directors have set to change with some success. Sudjic is confident that the new Design Museum will not suffer that fate.

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. She tweets @RelphKnight

Design Museum visualisations by Alex Morris

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