Alice Rawsthorn: Are The Best Designers Rebels? Design critic Alice Rawsthorn explains why some of the greatest designers tend to be outsiders. She celebrates the innovations of unwitting designers like Florence Nightingale — and Blackbeard.
NPR logo

Are The Best Designers Rebels?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478565215/478709207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Are The Best Designers Rebels?

Are The Best Designers Rebels?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478565215/478709207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So we've talked a lot about design, of course, but what about the designers? Design critic Alice Rawsthorn says there's one thing all great designers have in common - they're rebels.

ALICE RAWSTHORN: Really up until the Industrial Age, that's exactly what most designers were. There were exceptions - architects, for example, polymathic artist figures like Leonardo da Vinci. But most designers were rebels or renegades, sort of designers only by intuition and improvisation.

RAZ: People like...

RAWSTHORN: Eighteenth-century pirates...

RAZ: Pirates?

RAWSTHORN: ...Like Edward Teach, Blackbeard.

RAZ: So why does Alice consider Blackbeard, one of the most brutal pirates of human history, a genius designer? She explained from the TED state.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAWSTHORN: This was the Golden Age of piracy where pirates like Teach were terrorizing the high seas. Colonial trade was flourishing, and piracy was highly profitable. And the smarter pirates like him realized that to maximize their spoils, they needed to attack their enemies so brutally that they would surrender on site - to in other words, they could take the ships without wasting ammunition or incurring casualties.

So Edward Teach redesigned himself as Blackbeard by playing the part of a merciless brute. He wore heavy jackets and big hats to accentuate his height. He grew the bushy black beard that obscured his face. He slung braces of pistols on either shoulder. He even attached matches to the brim of his hat and set them alight so they sizzled menacingly whenever his ship was poised to attack.

Unlike many pirates of that era, he flew a flag that bore the macabre symbols of a human skull and a pair of crossed bones because those motifs had signified death in so many cultures for centuries that their meaning was instantly recognizable, even in the lawless, illetirate world of the high seas. Surrender or you'll suffer. So of course, all his sensible victims surrendered on site.

Put like that, it's easy to see why Edward Teach and his fellow pirates could be seen as pioneers of modern communications design and why their deadly symbol...

(LAUGHTER)

RAWSTHORN: ...There's more - why their deadly symbol of the skull and cross bones was a precursor of today's logos, but of course with a different message.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAWSTHORN: Nobody would've congratulated Blackbeard or any other pirate on being a designer at the time.

(LAUGHTER)

RAWSTHORN: Nor would they have labeled themselves as such. But if you analyze the skull and cross bones and Blackbeard's other design strategies like that, it's clear he was a very, very smart designer indeed.

RAZ: I mean, it makes you realize that image - a self-image is a design concept. I mean, you can apply that to Madonna or to...

RAWSTHORN: Absolutely.

RAZ: ...Kim Kardashian. I mean, who you are and how you protect yourself is designed.

RAWSTHORN: Oh absolutely. And so there are so many ways in which we can signal our own perceptions of our personal identity and also our political ideals and the kind of communities that we wish to align ourselves with or whether we wish to be screamingly eccentric and gloriously idiosyncratic. And of course, we design ourselves to do so. If, say, you have an important job interview and you dress up that little bit more smartly, you're designing yourself for that interview.

RAZ: Yeah.

RAWSTHORN: You're using design strategically whether you realize it or not.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because basically what you're saying is we're all designers. We are all designing who we are every single day.

RAWSTHORN: Absolutely. But I would find it very difficult to believe that anybody could design anything of any worth unless they had a dream, unless they had a vision. And so I do believe that the greatest designers tend to be the biggest dreamers. And also, truly great designers tend to be very engaged with what people want and need.

I think it was Henry Ford who said had he asked people about their transportation needs when he was developing the model T Ford, they would have undoubtedly asked for faster horses because if you ask us, the public, we tend to think of improved versions of the things we've already got, whereas the great lateral leaps in design come from designers imagining things that completely astonish and surprise and yet are very useful to us. And they can execute and deliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAWSTHORN: Design was also used to nobler ends by an equally brilliant and improbable designer, the 19th-century British nurse Florence Nightingale. Her mission was to provide decent health care for everyone.

Now, Nightingale was born into a rather grand, very wealthy British family who were horrified when she volunteered to work in military hospitals during the Crimean War. Once there, she swiftly realized that more patients were dying of infections that they caught there in the filthy fetid wards than they were of battle wounds. So she campaigned for cleaner, lighter area clinics to be designed and built.

Back in Britain, she mounted another campaign, this time for civilian hospitals and insisted that the same design principles were applied to them. The Nightingale ward, as it is called, dominated hospital design for decades to come. And elements of it are still used today.

Greatly as I admire the achievements of professional designers, which have been extraordinary and immense, I also believe that design benefits hugely from the originality, the lateral thinking and the resourcefulness of its rebels and renegades. And we're living at a remarkable moment in design because this is a time when the two camps are coming closer together, and we all stand to benefit. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's design critic Alice Rawsthorn. Her book is called "Hello World: Where Life Meets Design." You can watch a full talk at ted.npr.org.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.