What design can learn from Jimmy Reid

On 16 September I gave a keynote address to the Create Debate event at Glasgow School of Art. The title of my talk was Design as an affirmation of values and its is available here to download. Create Debate was a showcase for postgraduate students at GSA, but the audience also included students from elsewhere (including DJCAD Dundee), design professionals, and others from local government and health services. Organised by Sarah Drummond, the event centred towards the end on the question of whether it was time for evolution or revolution in design. I go unequivocally for the latter.

The central argument in my talk was that design is driven by values and, as such, is an inherently political act. Given the nature of the crisis we are now facing then it is necessary to define with speed and clarity what the values are that the progressive design community should champion. While some at the event cautioned us not to ditch capitalism, I rather fear that it is capitalism that has ditched us already. We appear to be seeking security in the idea that “everything is basically OK” – just shave 25% of public expenditure and it will be back to the good old days of spend, spend, spend. I rather think we are deluding ourselves. As I said at the event, so too does Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman who only today wrote: “Future historians will marvel at the austerity madness that gripped policy elites in the spring of 2010.”

The task facing us all – clearly not just in design – is to rebuild from the bottom up a vision of how we want our political economy to serve us – as in us the people. We do this by understanding the current crisis, and looking back into our history for those values that champion, express and pursue our humanity. In Danger and Opportunity: crisis and the new social economy, Robin Murray argues that the early years of the 21st century are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social economy. His analysis of the economic crisis is readable and extremely useful for those of us working in the broad area of social design. Once we start our understanding of the crisis, then how do we move out of it? Charles Leadbeater poses this question: “Where might we turn for inspiration for a comprehensive programme for radical change on the scale required to match the crisis we are in?” His answer is perhaps surprising: “A good start would be with a bunch of men in southern England, in April 1649, led by Gerrard Winstanley who started digging common land to create a self-governing, cooperative and productive community as the basis for the new social order.” In his book Digging for the Future, Charles Leadbeater draws insightful parallels between the 17th century Levellers and Diggers, and the 21st century social entrepreneurs, environmental innovators, open source hackers and grass roots campaigns. I agree wholly with Charles Leadbeater that we need to look back to move forward.

This was a timely invitation to speak in Glasgow, following the sad death of Jimmy Reid this August. This Glaswegian trade unionist was one of the leaders of perhaps the most inspiring and successful campaigns waged by the labour movement in living memory. The work-in of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the early 1970s inspired many throughout the world, including myself as a teenager far away in the south of England. But as important as the struggle itself, was Jimmy Reid’s articulation of those values that it sought to further. His address to the University of Glasgow in 1972 was hailed by the New York Times as comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they put an edited version of his speech on their front page. I encourage you to read it.

In Design as an affirmation of values, I focus on his speech and draw out some lessons for those of us working in design today. There are lessons about values, and about the importance of creativity. But perhaps the greatest lesson we can draw from this great man is the need for us to explain our position in clear ways to people out there. Design as a force for positive social transformation will be taken seriously when we engage with the public, with politicians and policy makers in ways they can clearly understand. We need new approaches and tactics for reaching out. And we need them soon.


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