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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Profession > Emerging Practice 1950-1970
 
PROFESSION – EMERGING PRACTICE 1950-1970

The period from 1950 to 1970 was an important one for designers in Britain. It was a time when the design profession developed its structure and working methods, and started to establish itself as an influential force. The setting up in December 1944 of the Council of Industrial Design had been a major spur to the new generation of post-war designers. They felt that after more than a century of government committees and reports, some real action to improve design standards had at last been taken. However, a conflict quickly emerged between a desire for professional respectability and the need for commercial acumen.

Established to protect the interests of designers, The Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (originally set up in 1930 as the Society of Industrial Artists, now the Chartered Society of Designers), was especially keen to develop design as a legitimate profession. This would require practitioners to hold professional qualifications, such as those awarded to architects by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Designers were also asked to adhere to strict codes of conduct – including a ban on advertising and cold calling, set scales of charges, and bans on free pitching (submitting initial design proposals free of charge in an attempt to win a job).

Unfortunately for the Society these early attempts at regulation were foiled by the nature of the profession. It proved to be impossible to prevent individuals with little or no formal training from practising as designers, and even more difficult to persuade them to join the SIA. The sheer diversity of the profession (design can encompass everything from the production of a parish magazine to the development of entire transport networks) made it almost impossible to regulate. Although the Society had little or no powers of sanction to prevent non-members from practising in any way they pleased, the most significant early design consultancies did support their activities.

To view the current activities of the CSD go to their website at: www.csd.org.uk
 
Design Consultancies

Modelled along the lines of the advertising agency, the design consultancy offers its services to a number of outside clients on a project-by-project basis. Some consultancies enjoy long-term relationships with a small number of clients, both parties benefiting from an acquired understanding of each other’s needs. Other consultancies may work on one-off commissions for a larger number of clients. Apart from larger corporations such as Philips or Sony (who employ in-house design teams), using the services of a consultancy has become the preferred arrangement for most companies. It requires a low level of investment from the client, and the consultancy can remain flexible and independent, taking on a variety of projects, and maintaining a versatile work force to suit the job in hand.

The consultancy model attracted early designers as it offered parity with other more established professions such as architects and lawyers. The Bassett-Gray Group of Artists and Designers was perhaps the first multi-disciplinary consultancy in Britain, becoming the Industrial Design Partnership in 1935, when it extended its activities to embrace product as well as graphic work. American models were also known in Britain, particularly through the London office of Raymond Loewy Associates, established in London in 1936.

In 1943 Misha Black and Milner Gray, both founding partners of the Industrial Design Partnership, set up the Design Research Unit (DRU). Misha Black was a natural publicist and he joined every committee or organisation committed to design, making sure he stood up and said something at any opportunity. Both he and Milner Gray had strong connections with the government, largely through their former work at the Ministry of Information. Much of the DRU’s early work was dependent on the patronage of a paternalistic style of government, keen to rebuild after the war. This was state sponsored design and one of the biggest items on the state’s agenda was public education. The DRU was involved in both the 'Britain Can Make It' and 'Festival of Britain' exhibitions. These events set out to reinforce the dominant design ideology, as well as boosting morale in a nation recovering from war. Participation in these events not only helped Black and Gray to pioneer the development of design as a profession but also helped to establish the DRU as a business.
 
Scale model of the ‘Taxi of the Future’ designed by members of the Design Research Unit, including Milner Gray. Shown in the Designers Look Ahead section of the Britain Can Make It exhibition, 1946. DCA0594 Scale model of the ‘Taxi of the Future’ designed by members of the Design Research Unit, including Milner Gray. Shown in the Designers Look Ahead section of the Britain Can Make It exhibition, 1946.

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Although the influence of inter-war American designers such as Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague was acknowledged in Britain, the American approach to design was markedly different to that taken in Europe. Designers in the USA saw their prime role as generators of commerce. Loewy famously stated that ‘good design is an upward sales curve’. Their job was to promote the sales of new products through styling changes and, in turn, to strengthen the U.S. economy for the benefit of consumers and manufacturers alike. British designers took a different view. The idea of the industrial designer as a stylist was an anathema to the culture of design in post-war Britain and the members of the DRU shared this outlook. For them design was seen as a force for social change and the attitude of manufacturers and the public alike was generally regarded as philistine. It was accepted with regret that on the whole most people preferred ‘ugly objects’. Kenneth Baynes, the principal architect for the practice in its early years, was also heavily influenced by the work of Rudolf Steiner, who believed that architectural forms could influence human beings to such an extent that they would be able to affect behaviour defects such as lying and stealing.

The structural organisation of the practice shared this idealism and reflected the liberal attitudes of the 'informed' middle classes working in the creative industries at this time. The firm adopted a democratic structure and there was no 'boss' who handed out work and told people what to do. Design was seen as the vital missing link between the scientist, artist, engineer and common man. The service of man was acknowledged as the primary overriding objective against which the results were always measured.
 
The Council of Industrial Design
 
Interior of the new Design Centre, 1956. CRD00067 Interior of the new Design Centre, 1956.

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A display of approved fireplaces and wallpaper at the Design Centre, 1956, DCA1697 A display of approved fireplaces and wallpaper at the Design Centre, 1956,

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In spite of this idealistic backdrop, it can now be seen that the design profession as a whole was already moving steadily towards a more pragmatic view of its role. Initially, criticism was levelled at the Council of Industrial Design itself. In 1948, as part of the Council’s campaigning, the Design Index had been set up. The Index was intended to highlight products that complied with the Council's idea of good design, and in 1956 examples began to be displayed in the newly opened Design Centre in Central London. However, the criteria for selection were principally visual, and the aesthetic values that the Council promoted were quickly recognised by some critics as the views of a minority of tastemakers.
 
The Design Index housed at the Design Centre. Visitors were encouraged to view a range of approved products and select the most appropriate for their needs.
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The Design Index housed at the Design Centre. Visitors were encouraged to view a range of approved products and select the most appropriate for their needs.
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DCA3156 & CRD01106 The Design Index housed at the Design Centre. Visitors were encouraged to view a range of approved products and select the most appropriate for their needs.
 
Reyner Banham in an article in the Spectator in 1961, endorsed a growing body of opinion when he dismissed the Design Centre as "H.M. Fashion House". There was wide spread suspicion of the Council’s tendency to approve products on aesthetics alone with no testing of durability or function.

Banham was part of a group of young writers, artists and designers who called themselves The Independent Group. They had begun to question the orthodox views of the design and art establishment in a series of exhibitions and publications. They believed that no one style was right or better than any other, but that styles can co-exist, and that popular cultural forms had the same significance as High Culture. This breakdown of belief in absolute aesthetic value, and the associated cultural hierarchies that it implied, undermined the CoID’s attempts to prescribe good design, and questioned the very basis of their philosophy.

As a consequence of this reappraisal, to describe a product as ‘fashionable’ no longer implied condemnation, as it had a few years before. A general acceptance of expendable products had taken hold by the 1960s, and although this was greeted by theoreticians such as The Independent Group as an expression of design ideology, its cause had a more commercial imperative. With a rapid growth in expendable income, coupled with a general boom in consumption, new products flooded the market place in the late 1950s. The subsequent fierce competition amongst manufacturers encouraged a continual stream of new short-lived product ideas. Young designers were only too happy to embrace this new mix of fashion, design and entertainment and shed the ethical and moral constraints of ‘good design’.

Design became an agent of consumerism and, in an economy based upon free enterprise, the possibility of design remaining a servant of moral or ethical standpoints seemed increasingly remote.
 
Products by Braun AG of Germany displayed in the exhibition 'Europe in the
Design Centre' at the Design Centre, London, 1973. The Braun house style
epitomised the strategy of housing electronic products in cool rectilinear
boxes. CRD01004 Products by Braun AG of Germany displayed in the exhibition 'Europe in the
Design Centre' at the Design Centre, London, 1973. The Braun house style
epitomised the strategy of housing electronic products in cool rectilinear
boxes.

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A display of cardboard children’s furniture and party accessories in the ‘Here Today’ exhibition. CRD01005 A display of cardboard children’s furniture and party accessories in the ‘Here Today’ exhibition.

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‘Pop’ kitchen accessory designed by Paul Clarke, mid sixties. CRD00971 ‘Pop’ kitchen accessory designed by Paul Clarke, mid sixties.

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‘Pop’ mug designed by Paul Clarke, mid sixties. CRD00972 ‘Pop’ mug designed by Paul Clarke, mid sixties.

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To see how these changes in British design industries reflect wider social conditions follow the link to Context – Cultural Revolution 1950-1970. To see how the Design Industry developed in the following decades follow the link to Profession – Flexible Production 1970-1990.
 
Mini Assignment

In spite of strong criticism from a number of quarters since the 1960s, expendable products continue to be produced. Outline the main reasons for this criticism, and produce a list of organisations and writers who are committed to more sustainable forms of design practice.

You should start your research by referring to the following texts:
Brian Edwards, Rough Guide to Sustainability, RIBA Publications, London, 2001
Victor Papanek, The Green Imperative : Ecology And Ethics In Design And Architecture, Thames and Hudson, London, 1995
Nigel Whitely, Design for Society, Reaktion Books, London,1993