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Scrutinising All Things Design With Author & Commentator Max Fraser
by Mona Bavar
"Ask yourself what matters and what is important to you, then pursue it."
~ Max Fraser
“What really matters and how can we shape it together?”, asks Max Fraser when addressing the survival of design weeks during the COVID pandemic. As author of several notable design books, including Design UK and Designers on Design, curator and design commentator, Fraser is an expert on the industry’s evolution, from its creative beginnings to its unfortunate capitalist evolution. He reminds designers of their duty “to scrutinise the practices and agendas of their clients and to serve well-intentioned entrepreneurs and visionaries rather than greedy corporations with an exploitative and extractive agenda”.
DLISH speaks with Fraser about the challenges facing the design industry, the importance of replacing the word ‘sustainable’ for ‘regenerative’ as well as his predictions/dreams for 2021.
Mona Bavar: How did you get into design?
Max Fraser: I had the idea for a book when I was 19 that was a guide featuring the best design shops in the UK. Through a whole string of luck and opportunity, I managed to get a sponsor and publisher allowing me to release the book commercially on my 21st birthday. It was titled DESIGN UK and sold very well! Once you write a book, people think you know what you’re talking about, so I rode the wave and am currently writing my tenth design book.
MB: What would you say are some of the fundamental challenges facing the design world today? UK design scene?
MF: There are multiple challenges and, to my mind, the design industry feels totally lost. Prior to Brexit and Covid-19, the design scene in the UK had become very fragmented between London and the rest (not a problem unique to design!). The cost of education was becoming elitist and so was the cost of living in London. So, for a long time, design has lacked diversity and has been dominated by privileged white people. That said, that group is certainly international and those influences are abundant in London. But they are becoming more and more homogeneous as other ‘vulture’ industries like property development repurpose creativity to suit their agenda of selling more luxury apartments to rich people. The design industry serves them as a way of covering the crippling overheads of London life. In this regard, creativity has a lot more space to breathe in the country’s second-tier cities where the cost of living is more just.
Add the turmoil of Brexit and Covid back into the mix and things are going to get bumpy. Creativity thrives on a bumpy road so my hope is that all of the superfluous production and chat will fall away and design will turn its attention to the things that matter in our world. Design has such power to positively change things but right now we are continuing blithely into oblivion, making stuff no-one really needs and dressing it up with the language of ’sustainability’. We need to slow consumption and turn to fixing our communities, education system and the harmful systems of material extraction that this industry survives off. Of course, this is a privileged statement to make so it is crucial we include everyone in society in this transition to avoid further exacerbating our existing and unforgivable inequalities.
Designer On Design by Max Fraser & Terence Conran
MB: How do you think design can help to bring awareness about some of the most important issues facing us globally: pandemic, economy, environment, etc.?
MF: I don’t think design can bring awareness of these issues on its own - let’s remember that design is a service industry that can bring any good (or bad) idea to fruition. Increasingly, designers have a duty to scrutinise the practices and agendas of their clients and should serve well-intentioned entrepreneurs and visionaries rather than greedy corporations with an exploitative and extractive agenda. Of course graphic design, when paired with strong copywriting, has the ability to communicate to vast audiences and shift attitudes and behavioural patterns but, again, that messaging must be inclusive to all and not just privileged preaching.
MB: What does it mean to be sustainable in design? Do you think designers are doing enough to be responsible or could they be doing more?
MF: I’m not a fan of the word ’sustainable’ as it’s vastly abused and has become a tokenistic term for any old greenwashing agenda. So much of what we’re trying to sustain is unsustainable. Furthermore, the notion of ’sustaining’ implies that we maintain the status quo, neither improving nor making things worse. The word we should be using is ‘regenerative’ whereby we ensure that we’re giving more back than we’re taking away, materially, socially, financially. It is our duty to improve this planet for the future. And, by the way, if that means we stop making something because it’s causing more damage than good, then so be it. We don’t need even a fraction of the stuff this world churns out. How about the design world spends its energies redistributing the excessive stuff it has already created to those who really need it? How about the design industry stops building in obsolescence to its creations and instead builds a culture of repair into that which already exists? How about the design industry only adds something new to the world if it can also support the responsible end-of-life scenario for that mass of material? I could go on...
MB: How do you think the current pandemic will affect the future of design, both in the UK and globally?
MF: I think the pandemic has shifted our understanding of what is important. It highlighted the basic pillars of human need - shelter, health, food security. I’d like to see the design industry focus on servicing these areas of society, rather than worrying about adding another luxury chair to the mix. I’m a big believer that it’s important to slow down in order to gather pace. The cancelling and postponement of the hundreds of trade fairs around the world has also provided a long-overdue pause on the perpetuation of more stuff we don’t really need.
London Design Guide 4th edition written & edited by Max Fraser
MB: Some believe that Europe’s glory days for design is nearing an end and the shift is more towards the Far East. Do you agree? Where would you say most of the new talented designers are coming from?
MF: It may be, who knows. And does it matter? Such a concern highlights our supremacist attitude in the West. The nations/continents that thrive in our new world must be creating something that is relevant and needed for our age, and therefore they deserve it. Certainly the UK seems to be on its own self-destructive path for which the creative industries will suffer. In a strange way I welcome this demise as it’s time for reinvention.
MB: As a result of COVID, there have been some virtual design events this year, starting with Dezeen and most recently Maison & Objet. Do you see this trend will gain momentum, becoming the new 'normal'?
MF: I really hope not. Yes, some interesting content has been created but, a lot of the time, I’ve found these virtual festivals to be distracting and rather dull and have mostly avoided them as they’re often platforms for the privileged class to beat their chests in cyberspace with no recourse. The delivery of this content has become one-way whereas what we need right now are people to come together and talk, form new alliances and communities and drive change forward together.
MB: What are some trends you predict for 2021?
MF: I think less will be consumed and hopefully less will be produced. We will ask ourselves what we need but also what those around us need, extending our hands to those less fortunate in society. Well, that is my dream at least and hopefully not just a trend! In fact, let’s stop talking about trends as they tend to fuel knee-jerk consumption.
MB: Any future projects we can look forward to?
MF: Plenty but I’m not ready to say because I’m going through a shift and it’s all in development!
MB: Any last words/advice for future designers?
MF: Question everything. Really scrutinise the reason for adding something new to the world. If you are just servicing the whims of the rich, question it. If you can’t justify it, don’t do it. If you can, bring others along on your journey. Ask yourself what matters and what is important to you, then pursue it.
Click here to learn more about Max Fraser and his work.
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