Alice Rawsthorn has a bone to pick with British design. Not what it used to be–the K2 phonebox, Royal Mail and Double-decker bus–but what it has become. Here she makes a very good case that there is no reason things can’t return to the way they were:
Why have so many British design treasures been so badly neglected?There are some boringly obvious logistical reasons. The “change for change’s sake” syndrome among ambitious executives in an era of ever-decreasing corporate life expectancy makes them feel compelled to meddle with perfectly good designs to make an impact or, better still (in their eyes, at least), to replace them with something new. They then bungle the process of making modifications or choosing replacements by dint of any or all of the following: cowardice, laziness, lack of imagination, delegating decision-making to committees or focus groups (even though the result is bound to be compromised) and plain ineptitude.
None of these problems are limited to public design projects.[…] But their impact is greater when applied to public commissions, because mailboxes, phone booths and the like are so much more visible. Not only are there lots of them, they tend to be big and to be used by many people, not just individuals. If you analyze the design deficiencies of the average cellphone, they are depressingly similar to those of a Royal Mail postbox, but the latter will be seen by millions of people, regardless of whether or not they actually use it, while the phone will seem conspicuous only to its luckless owner.All of this could, of course, be avoided, if the designers, and the people who commission them, were better equipped to do their jobs. Throughout design history, almost every national design coup was initiated by a stellar patron, not just in Britain, but other countries, too. Take Frank Pick, who made London Transport a model of modern design management in the early 1900s. Many of his innovations, like Harry Beck’s 1933 diagrammatic London Underground map and Edward Johnston’s 1916 roundel symbol, are still in use today. Pick oversaw everything, traveling around the network on rare “nights off” to check that it was perfect. Even the Routemaster, which was commissioned after his retirement, owes much to his legacy.
British Design: Not What It Used to Be (New York Times)