Exhibition: The future is 'Blue Peter' models

Designing in the Digital Age V&A, London
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The Independent Culture
Being given the chance to design your own toothbrush on a computer is hardly up there with extreme sports for providing an adrenalin rush. But in 1989 this was the Design Museum's opening gambit in attempting to explain the power of computer-aided design (CAD). Free rein over filament length, head angle, handle style; it was heady stuff.

A decade later, the V&A is using a fridge, a phone and a vacuum cleaner to attract thrill seekers. "Designing in the Digital Age" aims to show how CAD technology has transformed the way products are designed and produced. Out with the sketch and pencil, in with the screen and mouse. Except the three objects on display demonstrate quite the opposite.

Zanussi's OZ fridge, Dyson's latest cyclonic cleaner and BT's Synergy cordless phone certainly look the part. Their curvaceous, organic forms and spacey lines suggest that they could have only emerged from a computer chrysalis, with Tefal-headed boffins as midwives, when in fact they represent a way of working that has not changed markedly for half a century.

These objects are the result of "reverse engineering". Designers sketch and make models of the end-product and then computers scan their assemblage to form supremely accurate two- and three-dimensional drawings on screen from which engineers can actually make the things. Which means that the Dyson cleaner, for example, started life as the endearingly Blue Peter- like cardboard and sticky-tape models on display.

Of course, it is not as simple as that. CAD is used at every stage to refine and explore the product, and the use of CAD makes the complex curvy surfaces a hell of a lot easier to get your head around as a designer. CAD linked to computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM) also makes these products cheaper and quicker to produce. The new BT phone took only 14 months from conception to production with drawings sent down the telephone line to a manufacturer in China. But drawings on the wall demonstrate that designers still sketch modifications to their computer printouts in pencil.

This exhibition is trying to show the process of what is now possible, but given this it is still a curiously static display of drawings and models. Yes, there are computer screens where you can press a few buttons and give a three-dimensional image a twirl, but it hardly counts as hands- on - you can't shape anything yourself.

It is left to the organic futuristic shapes of fridge, phone and vacuum cleaner to intimate that they are the product of a computer's digital dreams, whereas in many ways they represent a nostalgia for the bulbous forms of the early space race as represented in Fifties and Sixties comic- strips. Repackaged for the touchy-feely 1990s, these retro images have spread from clubland to fashion, advertising and design: cartoon space babes are advertising Coca-Cola and VW have updated their Beetle. Excitement about the digital age - actually working with computers - has engendered this passion for the plastic form and space imagery, but CAD remains a tool and the products which emerge are only as future-thinking as a design-er's grey matter will allow. BT's Synergy phone says a great deal less about the future than the pod-like Ericofon designed by Ralph Lysell in 1941. Things will get really exciting when computers throw up shapes we haven't yet conceived of. It is starting to happen, but you won't find the evidence at the V&A.

This exhibition is, according to the V&A, their "first step towards addressing the question of collecting 'virtually'." They need to make a giant leap curatorially if they are going to engage information-age short attention spans.

'Design in the Digital Age': V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8500) to 3 January 2000