Profile: Alice Rawsthorn

Published:  October 16, 2013

A design critic with remarkable insight, Alice Rawsthorn emphasises the need for design to engage with human happiness and work with unquestioned excellence, and warns of the serious impacts on our lives when design goes awry. Bonnie Abbott interviewed Rawsthorn ahead of her arrival in Australia (for the Melbourne Festival), with Rawsthorn sharing her unique, engaging knowledge on design within our past and the incredible potential for its future.

From what specific corner did you come to understand design?

I discovered design by accident, when studying art history at Cambridge University in the late 1970s. I was frustrated by the conservatism of the course, but loved the library, which we shared with the architecture faculty. There were wonderful books on art and architecture, and international journals, including the Italian magazine Domus, which was then edited by Alessandro Mendini.

There was no serious discussion about design in Britain at the time, but Mendini had been in the forefront of the Radical Design movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and had since applied its principles to postmodernism. As an editor and a critic, he depicted design as I still believe it should be seen: as an intellectually dynamic, richly contextualised discipline that fuses broader developments in art, architecture, literature, film, fashion, performance, music politics and psychology.

I was so intrigued by Mendini’s vision of design that I began to find out more about it. After Cambridge, I pursued a career in mainstream journalism, mostly with the Financial Times, where I wrote about politics, economics, corporate affairs and worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris. But I maintained my interest in design, reading about design history and seeing museum collections and exhibitions whenever I could. Eventually, I decided to focus on it.

Aimee Mullins wearing fantastical bespoke prosthetic legs in Matthew Barney’s 2002 work Cremaster. Production still photography Chris Winget. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Aimee Mullins wearing fantastical bespoke prosthetic legs in Matthew Barney’s 2002 work Cremaster. Production still photography Chris Winget. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

What do you understand through design?

Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed constantly over the centuries by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its enduring role has been to act as an agent of change, which helps us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage.

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.

During the Industrial Revolution, the design process was deployed as a means of producing huge quantities of objects of similar quality at affordable prices.

As a result, the practice of design was formalised, and we have since thought of design primarily as a commercial tool. I believe that design is now reviving its pre- industrial guise by becoming more fluid and instinctive again, as it is applied to new fields; for example, by addressing social problems and humanitarian crises.

Do you think graphic design has a place in early human history?

Absolutely. There are lots of historic examples of graphic design in my book, Hello World, although few of them would have been recognised as having anything to do with design at the time. Among them are the coats of arms that aristocratic families adopted throughout Europe from the 12th century onwards. They began during the Crusades when advances in metalwork enabled knights to wear suits of armour for protection in battle. As all of the knights looked indistinguishable in their armour, they needed to find a way of differentiating themselves, and took to wearing visual symbols of their family history or the places they came from on breastplates and shields.

Those Medieval armourial 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.

(sm) Bespoke wooden legs

Bespoke wooden legs worn by Aimee Mullins in an Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 1999 women’s wear collection fashion show. Courtesy Aimee Mullins.

Can you give us examples of wonderful graphic design in history, and some of the most terrible pieces?

One of the best things about writing a book is that you can celebrate the things you love and rant about those you don’t, which is why Hello World is filled with examples of good and bad design. Several of the positive examples come from one of the areas of design that most interests me: social design for the greater good.

One is a project initiated by the anti- poverty campaigner Charles Booth in the late 1800s, when he assembled a team of researchers to assess the true level of poverty in London. They began in the poorest area of the city, the East End, by assessing the socioeconomic status of each street, speaking to the residents as well as to local priests, teachers and the police. Having gathered the information, Booth decided to depict it in the form of a map of the area representing each street in a specific colour: black for the poorest, yellow for the richest and so on.

The most important component of Booth’s work was the rigour of the research, but the design decision to colour code each street ensured that the information relayed by the maps could be readily understood by a far wider audience than the few people who would have ploughed through an academic tome stuffed with economic data. As a result, the public outcry was so great that the Government stepped up its efforts to clear London’s slums and to replace them with better quality housing.

Another of my favourite historic graphic design projects is the work of the Isotype Institute in the early and mid 20th century in devising a pictorial language of visual symbols to help people who had difficulty reading and writing to understand important political and economic developments. Istotype was founded in ‘Red Vienna’ during the 1920s by Austrian social scientist Otto Neurath, working with a group of like-minded intellectuals, including the mathematician Marie Reidemeister, who became his wife, and the German illustrator Gerd Arntz. Not only were Isotype’s symbols models of clarity and economy, they helped millions of people to make sense of dramatic changes during a tumultuous period: from the rise of Nazism in central Europe and the 1930s economic depression, to the new political and educational opportunities offered by progressive regimes in post- colonial Africa during the 1950s.

What potentials does design have in everyday life that you feel haven’t been utilised?

One rapidly evolving area of design, which already plays a useful role in daily life, but will become even more important in future, is developing new ways of dealing with what The Economist calls “data deluge” – the torrent of data surging out of increasingly powerful computers at unprecedented speed and scale. The recent server collapses at Google, Apple, YouTube and other companies storing and processing huge quantities of data illustrate the urgency of addressing this problem.

Designers have already developed a partial solution in ‘data visualisation’, the dynamic, constantly updated digital imagery, which is produced by computer software designed specifically to crunch through dense data and to make sense of it. An example is Processing, a programming language developed several years ago by the US software designers Ben Fry and Casey Reas, which has produced some of the most compelling data visualisations.

Data visualisation has already made great progress and is now used regularly by media organisations like The New York Times and the BBC. It is also an intriguing and ingenious contemporary reworking of design’s traditional role as an agent of change in identifying a problem and applying new forms of technology to find effective solutions. It will be fascinating to see how it develops in future.

Stratigraphic porcelain – Antwerp design studio Unfold’s experiments with 3D printing technology. Courtesy Unfold. Photo Kristof Vrancken

Stratigraphic porcelain – Antwerp design studio Unfold’s experiments with 3D printing technology. Courtesy Unfold. Photo Kristof Vrancken

How important is the collection, archiving and public display of graphic design?

Graphic design is fortunate in having a dynamic and vigorous culture of debate. Many of the most thoughtful and provocative books on design have been about graphics: an excellent recent example from Australia being Characters, in which the Melbourne-based designer Stephen Banham (see page 31) traces the history of the city through its signage. Similarly, some of the most interesting design blogs either specialise in graphics or are rooted in the field, like Design Observer.

Historically, the leading museums of design, like MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris, MAK in Vienna and the V&A in London, have tended to focus on product design, particularly on furniture, rather than graphics, in terms of both exhibitions and their collections. If these museums have included graphics in their collections, they have often concentrated on poster design, which is a wonderful discipline with a rich history, but only part of the picture.

Thankfully, this is changing, largely thanks to the influence of Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA, who is incontestably the most influential design curator of our time. Paola has a dynamic and eclectic vision of design, which has informed her exhibitions, like Design and the Elastic Mind and Talk to Me, in which she has explored the impact of advances in science and technology on every area of design, including graphics.

She has also radicalised MoMA’s collection policy with regard to graphics, by extending it from posters to typography, film title sequences, corporate identities, visual symbols like the @ and so on.

Other museums have followed Paola’s lead at MoMA with heartening results. One of the most important recent graphic design acquisitions by museums was the addition of major works from the archive of the late 20th century American designer Robert Brownjohn to both MoMA and the V&A’s collection. I doubt that either acquisition would have happened 10 years ago, or even five years ago.

Cheering though it is to see graphics being accorded greater importance by major museums like MoMA and the V&A, the work of specialist graphic museums, libraries and archives is very valuable too, not least as they are wonderful places to visit. The graphic design archives at the John Rylands Library in Manchester and St Bride’s in London are sensational, and one of my favourite museums anywhere in the world is the fantastic Museum Plantin-Moretus, the 16th century home and workshop of the Flemish printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus in Antwerp.

What is your direct experience of the design process, for an example: putting together your book, Hello World?

I’m not a designer, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is to have the opportunity to collaborate with remarkably gifted designers. Among them is the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom, who designed my book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. I have followed Irma’s career for many years and have huge admiration for her work, so was delighted when she agreed to design it.

Irma isn’t the type of designer you should brief, for the obvious reason that she is bound to think of something far more compelling and sophisticated than you ever could. I sent her the text and left her to do what she wanted with it. We had no idea what she’d come up with, and were thrilled by the result, which somehow succeeds in being original, intriguing and a perfect reflection of the text.

To take the cover as an example. Irma based it on the book’s title, Hello World, which is both a homage to the test program that every software designer uses after developing a new programming language (in a tribute to Dennis Ritchie, the programmer who devised it in the early 1970s), and an allusion to design’s role as an agent of change in identifying practical applications for developments in science, technology, politics and so on. The cover consists of the words Hello and World printed vertically in a blown-up version of one of the early Monospace fonts that Dennis Ritchie would have worked with in the 1970s. The size of the letters is so exaggerated that you can see the chunky pixels at the ends. It is brilliantly simple, wholly appropriate and so visually striking that even if you didn’t know the story behind the title, you would still think it looked great and want to own the book.

Rawsthorn published Hello World earlier this year.

Rawsthorn published Hello World earlier this year.

Irma’s design is equally ingenious and nuanced inside the book, particularly in her choice of typeface for the text, which was inspired by a description of the difference between Helvetica and Arial in Chapter Three. She was also great fun to work with.

We were friends when the project began, and (I hope she’d agree that) we’d become even closer friends by the time it ended. Also, I still feel excited by her design, even after seeing it for the umpteenth time.


Catch Alice Rawsthorn’s talk Hello World: Where Design Meets Life at the RMIT Design Hub, Wednesday 23 Oct at 6:30pm, as part of the 2013 Melbourne Festival program.

One Response

  1. What a fascinating read! Thank you, I’ll be sure to tell my blog followers about this article and Alice Rawsthorn’s talk when I get into Melbourne next week. I bet it’s going to be very eye opening!

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