“Everything you do has to be better than it was yesterday” -Kenneth Grange
Kenneth Grange spoke at the V&A on Tuesday the 8th of May as a part of the British Design Series – as a Scandinavian into design, and a planner worried about the lack of importance that brands that are not Apple place on design today, I was there to hear him out.
Kenneth Grange started his career by working at the Festival of Britain in 1951 doing display design for the homes and gardens and the sports pavillions. Since then he has worked on iconic designs from London black taxis and parking meters to lighters and trains for big brands like Kodak, Kenwood and British Rail. “I got through a lot of junk”, he says. Design Studio Pentagram that Kenneth set up in London was known as a one stop shop – from graphics and architecture to product design. Although Kenneth says only one client ever bought all three.”London is not Copenhagen in terms of design,” but to my pleasure he says we have a lot to learn from the Scandinavians. “I love Wallander. That show was the first ever to show all modern interiors on TV.”
At the V&A Kenneth starts off by discussing the 2012 Olympics branding calling the logo confusing and vulgar. Comparing the branding and the design of the 1948 Games with that of 2012, it makes you wonder what happened to the five rings? Now there is branding for everything you do – we have created brands for brands, he says. Aren’t the Olympics enough of a brand?
In the 1970s Kenneth designed the Intercity 125 trains for British Rail. Those were the “Golden years” of design when everyone still shared a simplified attitude to graphics. State owned institutes were still spending money on design. “I was asked to make a decoration for a model for a new train, but I started to make other models in secret to make a case for a new design for the train. When I then showed them to the board they thought “that smartass there has got a better idea” – and I got the job.” Kenneth still loves his trains;
“My chest pumps up when I see that train.” He says he has been lucky as budget cuts have kept his trains in service for longer than expected.
Kodak, Kenwood and loudspeakers clients were real patrons of design, Kenneth says. Now there are less patrons. Actually, I can only think of one example today – Apple, I could not quote others, he continues. Kenneth shares his thoughts about how companies used to believe in design and they made a living out of it. They used design to meet commercial consortiums, design was a part of their strenght as a business. Modern designers are much more commerially minded and move towards marketing, Kenneth says. He has always been like that as well: “I’m a commercial animal, I like the idea of things being successful.” “I like to actually make something and make money and give employment.”
There was a time when less was more. Today more is less – we make so many versions of the same thing, he says. Designs and new models are churned out much faster these days. Every tech brand has a new model and a new style coming out at least every 6 months – it is difficult to be consistent or really establish any competitive standpoint in terms of design on such a short timespan. Kenneth shares a story about how he designed a new iron in the late 60s that hadn’t been redesigned since the 30s – his 60s iron went on to live for the next 15 years. That wouldn’t be possible today, he says.
I was lucky to get to work with Kodak for a long time and I took on the obligations of the firm. Kenneth says he now feels extremely bad for Kodak. There was a real story of affluence available to these large companies – they could sell anything they made, Kenneth says. And he says Kodak founded it all extremely well. “We were all generous towards each other and I bet Apple now is the same. We behaved uncommonly well.” “My role in branding was to make the products more attractive and desirable. I had no option but to make them better, make the work better, make the usage a bigger pleasure.”
The importance of design is a big topic at the moment, Forbes recently published an article on the subject calling present day the “Era of Design” and arguing that as design has been democratized, people have grown to expect great design and become more in tune to it. The article is a call to action for companies to understand the importance of design. Here here I say!
“You see, expecting great design is no longer the preserve of a picky design-obsessed urban elite—that aesthetically sensitive clique who‘d never dare leave the house without their Philippe Starck eyewear and turtleneck sweaters and buy only the right kind of Scandinavian furniture. Instead, there’s a new, mass expectation of good design: that products and services will be better thought through, simplified, made more intuitive, elegant and more enjoyable to use.” Whether it is due to Apple, or Ikea, or the internet and the likes on Pintrest, design is becoming a bog standard, not a luxury. But as Kenneth Grange says, is design really something that lives in the heart of companies today? “What is certain is that the design bar has been raised and design-oriented businesses are winning,” Forbes writes. When will the others catch on?
Even the UK Government Digital Service has released its 7 principles on design on a website attempting to break the usual design standards of messy and difficult to navigate Government websites. Now if only the Government followed these principles all around.
- Start with needs
- Do less
- Design with data
- Do the hard work to make it simple
- Iterate. Then iterate again.
- Build for inclusion
- Understand context
- Build digital services, not websites
- Be consistent, not uniform
- Make things open: it makes things better
Kenneth Grange, cheeky man who tells a story about putting a fake version of his famous parking meter (“There are only 3 of the meters left in the whole world and the only one we were allowed to borrow was in such bad condition”) into the Design Museum exhibition on his work last year; “I only told the curator the day the exhibition closed,” says he still feels obligated towards every damn thing he’s ever made. “We live in the culture of bettering, the culture of not having a choice. Everything you do has to be better than it was yesterday,” he finishes off by urging people to redesign the handle of the Arga cooker. “You can’t even hold the damn thing.”