(Un)defining Great British Design

What does Great British Design look and feel like? What sets it apart, what makes it unique and recognisable?

The answer is not as straightforward as it (arguably) would be for other countries. For example, if we were discussing Japanese design, we would probably be talking about its sense of balance, harmony and purity. With Germany, the adjectives we’d use would be clean, stripped back and functional.

Let’s be clear, trying to label a country’s design style and aesthetic is a thorny endeavour that risks being as unhelpful and crude as a national stereotype. However, it is a lens that helps to capture the unique value and meaning that a country’s social, cultural and economic history have ascribed to design and creativity, and how this might evolve in the future.

Design has long been at the heart of Britain’s DNA and approach to problem-solving: for example, in 1944, in the middle of World War II, Churchill’s government turned to design to rebuild, innovate and instigate growth in a time of crisis, by establishing the Council for Industrial Design. Today, the Design Council continues to advise the government on how to make better processes, better products, better places, better performance and better lives for us all.

So here we have part one of the answer: the belief that design is a tool to solve real human challenges, to make a tangible, positive difference to people’s everyday lives is one of the traits of British design.

But there is more to this: for years, Britain has been a true cultural melting pot and meeting point for new and different ways of thinking, working and creating. In many ways, London epitomises this: to quote Mayor Sadiq Khan it is “one of the most creative, diverse and international cities in the world” and is arguably the global creative centre for fine art, furniture and product design, as well as architecture, digital, advertising and, of course, branding.

And therein lies the rest of our answer: Great British Design is less about a specific style or a distinctive aesthetic, and more about a mindset. What the UK does and has always brought to the table is a little eccentric, madcap creative thinking and approach, pulling from a unique pool of influences and a rich, multicultural heritage to find new solutions to everyday problems, creating products that make life simpler and more enjoyable. It is this matchless environment that has brought us the creative genius of designers like Robin Day, Ron Arad, Dame Zaha Hadid and, more recently, Thomas Heatherwick, Barber & Osgerby and Paul Cocksedge

This naturally means that the resulting aesthetic is undefinable. British brands can and should continue to use this to their advantage, not limited by legacy, preconceptions or definitions.

With the dark clouds of Brexit on the horizon, and its associated closed, limiting discourse, our real hope is that creativity can continue to be the lifeblood of the UK, and that British Design can thrive, grow and evolve, staying curious and open.

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