chris wise engineer

A fine romance: The merger of CABE with the Design Council

This month we should be very happy, for something unexpectedly wonderful has arisen from the bonfire of the quangos. Out of the flames has emerged a new Design Council, now joined by CABE to give us something that no other country has to my knowledge…an integrated design body working across the whole spectrum from cities and buildings, via products, furniture and graphics through digital and communications all the way to health, wellbeing and the development of social policy. It might just be the best thing to happen to design in this country for 60 years, a re-awakening, a renaissance, of its core purpose and something we are rather good at. The old romantic in me even sees something of the Bauhaus about it….architecture, art, environment, fashion, and creativity… under one roof in the pursuit of good design. Add in the business nous and social purpose behind CABE and DC and we have a potent new asset.  Just imagine a PFI hospital, school or railway procured under such a harmonised design ethos.

Much of the work of the Design Council has been invisible to us in the buildings community. As design champion, the DC provides advice, and makes connections. Throw in CABE’s decade in contemporary architecture and you have a heady mix. It hasn’t been perfect….to some critics CABE has been “bureaucratic and patronising”, the DC “invisible”, but now is the time to blend the best of their cultures….inspiring ground-breaking prototype projects and showing how good design practice can feed into social and economic renewal.

Every silver lining has a cloud, which for the tiny new combo is the breadth of its task. At its core, the new organisation has a great name but only about 50 people…..a ratio of about one dedicated individual to every million people in this country. Quite a daunting responsibility. But I believe they will rise to the challenge…as a Design Council trustee I’ve seen it grow from a simple arbiter of taste, now taking on the complex task of putting good design into the minds of those in government and on into the heart of public service and private life. For example, a recent DC highlight is “Design out Bugs”, 10 redesigns of hospital furniture to reduce MRSA infection rates….harnessing some of the best designers and manufacturers in the pursuit of a great community benefit. A new take on an apparently intractable problem became, under the DC’s stewardship, bug-resistant bedside cupboards without any dark crevices, ward chairs with easily removable covers and stay-clean hospital curtains with smooth removable hand grips to stop cross-infection…such deceptively simple ideas that you wonder why no-one thought of them before. Well, the designers might have, long ago, but it took the Design Council to give the Department of Health enough confidence to open the door for designers and their manufacturers to charge through. The upcoming project ‘Reducing Violence & Aggression in A&E’ is another one, officially launched on 26th February and co-designed with paramedics, police, patients and doctors to help solve a long-standing problem which exacts a high human and financial cost every day.

In his autumn review of the Design Council, Martin Temple strongly favoured a big tent mentality….which sounded like a pipe-dream until the coalition’s cuts brought CABE to the table. Whereupon the designers and design-thinkers on Council spoke passionately one after the other in favour of a union….because we all believe the world is complex but design as a universal tool has some of the answers. Design can even prevent my smart-phone from being nicked and help to stop glass injuries in pubs (both recent DC initiatives), it can help my journey on the tube and find us new ways to work. Just maybe, with its hot line to government, the new body can at last change procurement cultures, helping politicians not to be scared of designers any more.  And I think, uniquely, in its broader enabling role it will be a great complement to RIBA, ICE, CIBSE and the established building professions. There is no competition. This is powerful stuff.

I’ve heard some architects say “What has the Design Council ever done for me?”, and others grumbling over their own Design Reviews with CABE. But the laudable aim has always been to improve lives, even if sometimes the beneficiaries don’t quite appreciate it. Design Council…CABE…. familiar names in our cultural landscape.  Now there will be just one, much bigger Council across design, government, business and education including architecture and the built environment. Along the way, some pride may well have to be swallowed, power-bases dismantled, metaphorical and real bridges constructed, but it has to be worth it. So I’d urge you to give the new baby a chance, take an interest and help it if you can. And well played Mr Osborne in your accidental role as midwife.

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