I'm not a celebrity...get me out of here!

Paul Woodward
2016-10-14 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, I'm not a celebrity....get me out of here!

I recently wrote about my ‘disappointment’ that the world of design was not how I had envisioned it as an aspiring young designer many years ago. The world of drinking Perrier and espressos while undertaking a creative meeting around a walnut burr boardroom table couldn’t be further from reality  but rather than simply disappoint, this caused me to question the very nature of the ‘design world’ we promote in the classroom.

I have no doubt the walls of your classroom have pictures of the usual poster boys and girls; Ives, Dyson, Hadid, Arad, Starck, Foster etc. Some of you may even go off at a tangent and add in Rams, Gray, Bruer, Le Corbusier et al but how many have got posters up of Douglas Engelbart, Gunpei Yokoi, Willis Carrier, Martin Cooper or Tomislav Uzelac?

No, me neither but try getting through a day without a device that was designed or inspired by them. Perhaps their ‘products’ will sound more familiar: the computer mouse, the Game boy, air conditioning, the mobile phone and the MP3 player. Now, that’s more like it; a list of everyday items we can’t somehow live without, especially on hot days, and don’t underestimate the influence of the Game boy on handheld and portable gaming next time you fire up Candy Crush on the tube for a quick game.

These are just a few of the designers and inventors responsible for items that we use every single day. They identified a need or a gap in the market and created products which have become part of our everyday lives yet how many of us know their names or background stories and what exactly is it that defines a celebrity designer?

Celebrity is defined as ‘fame and public attention in the media’ but it’s not just applicable to design of course. Almost every industry has its well known celebrities from motor racing to baking, authors to actors and even farmers and interior decorators. What makes one stand out from their peers is often a combination of looks, personality and that thing once called the ‘X- Factor’ before it became synonymous with a TV talent(less) show. It’s not always talent.

So, back to the world of design and why certain designers achieve that ‘celebrity’ status. Did Jonny Ive design the famous Macintosh computer, iPhone or iPod? I know he was responsible for the look of some of the later devices but how many did he actually create? Very few I imagine and there are still those who would say that Steve Jobs designed the Mac…when in fact it was a team of less ‘camera friendly’ techs including Steve Wosniak. Did Dyson invent the vacuum cleaner, or the cyclone? No he harnessed the force of nature from one and put it into a device invented in 1901 removing the need for dust bags in the process. Did Marcel Bruer really champion the cantilevered steel tube chair and therefore become the poster boy of the Bauhaus…or was it the lesser known Mart Stam? I will let you guess who was awarded the European patent.

I am not detracting from the accomplishments of these designers which, in Dyson’s case, are perhaps a better case study for business? I am however pointing out that for every Robert De Niro there is a hard working and talented young actor working shifts as a waiter to make ends meet between jobs. Talent does not always equate to financial or career success and conversely the clothes you are wearing now are no doubt comfortable, practical and attractive while not necessarily designed by a celebrity. Whether these designers are inventors, innovators, stylists or all of the above I will leave for another blog but there are hard working designers out there making products you need, rely on or enjoy without you ever knowing their names.

So, instead of setting another assignment on these already pervasive designers, what about a real challenge to identify the names behind products that are essential to us and perhaps say a little thank you to them for making our lives a little better. Perhaps you could make a list of everyday items we rely upon and find out the story behind them. As a warm up why not try this to challenge the preconceptions of today’s ‘yoof’:

1. Who invented the computer? (Clue: it wasn’t Apple)

2. Who invented the smartphone? (Hmmm: it wasn’t Apple)

3. Who invented the smart watch? (Again: it wasn’t Apple)

4. Who invented the tablet computer? (Surprise: it wasn’t Apple)

5. Who invented the ‘iPod’? (Technically: it wasn’t Apple)

For the record, I do appreciate the difference between design and invention but humour me. For those who realise Apple don’t dominate the world of design or simply want to discover the real heroes behind everyday design, try these:

1. Who designed this year’s best selling family car in the UK?

2. Who invented the first nylon bristle toothbrush?

3. Who invented the Pot Noodle?

4. Who invented Gore Tex?

5. Who invented knock down furniture?

6. Who designed the logo for Google?

Again, invention and design should be seen as part of the same process as an idea still needs to be realised in a form that can be distributed as a product. More on this in a future blog but for now please do consider the world of design that exists behind the glossy veneer of the celebrity and make it your goal to educate students that, as satisfying and rewarding a career as design can be, not everyone will be the next Rylan…and that’s probably a good thing. Which reminds me, I must find out who invented fake tan and teeth whitening.



Paul taught Design and Technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty as well as teaching Art, ICT, Photography and Media Studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

His Subject Genius blog was shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.