Sir John Sorrell: Design has helped London survive the pandemic - and it will be essential to a better future

·3-min read
<p>A rendering of the installation Forest for Change at Somerset House for the London Design Biennale</p> (EsDevlin Studio)

A rendering of the installation Forest for Change at Somerset House for the London Design Biennale

(EsDevlin Studio)

To battle our way out of the pandemic and its aftermath, we need positive people who are great problem solvers. The good news is that we have lots of them in London, which is home to what’s probably the best community of designers in the world.

Designers spend their lives solving problems: that’s what the job is all about. Through their education and training they focus on solutions, learning creative, critical and practical skills with a rare mixture of intuitive and analytical abilities. Drawn to London because of its reputation as the design capital of the world, they are a significant asset to both the city and the nation. This substantial design force is like an engine room for the UK’s creative industries sector, which is worth over £100 billion a year to the economy.

Great Britain has a long heritage in creativity, design and innovation. The train, the telephone, the television and the worldwide web were all invented here. We have been at the forefront of medical breakthroughs, from Penicillin to Viagra, and most recently, vaccine developments for tackling the Covid-19 crisis.

We have a big advantage in our vast expertise in educating designers across many different design disciplines. This started with the creation of the first ever Government School of Design at Somerset House in 1837, and thrives today with some of the world’s greatest universities of design in London and other cities across the UK. Central Saint Martins (UAL), Kingston University, Ravensbourne University and Royal College of Art are some of the most sought-after design institutions in the world, famous for turning out world leading innovators such as Alexander McQueen, Sir David Adjaye, Anya Hindmarch and Sir Jony Ive.

Sir John Sorrell (John Swannell)
Sir John Sorrell (John Swannell)

During the pandemic, product designers from British manufacturers helped to produce over 14,000 ventilators; fashion designers like Phoebe English turned their attention to practical clothing for doctors and nurses, bringing together the fashion network; architects rapidly formed the NHS Nightingale hospitals, temporary emergency medical centres built at speed; graphic designers created public information campaigns, and system designers realised complex vaccine distribution programmes that have helped London quickly move towards reopening.

Now we need to bring their skills to bear on helping to lift not just London and the UK, but the rest of the world out of the Covid-19 crisis and all the other crises we all face. Health has become top of mind. How can we design our way from illness to wellness? Climate change has not gone away. How can design help save the world? Work environments and ways of working are going through a dramatic transformation which could be beneficial or could trigger serious unemployment. How can we make work work? Changes in society have led to a wave of mental health issues and young people are caught in a disturbing age of anxiety. How can we design new systems for society and ensure good futures for young people? And in such serious times, how can we design fun into people’s lives?

The answers to these questions are vital to everyone, not just here but across the world. Throughout June, the London Design Biennale at Somerset House showcases exhibits from six continents together with a spectacular installation of 400 trees in the central courtyard. The exhibition is themed around the way in which great ideas resonate around the world and change the way people think and behave. I hope it will provoke more ideas and actions as we design our way out of the crisis.

London Design Biennale is from June 1-27; londondesignbiennale.com

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