A design for life: why making HS2 run seamlessly is much more important than pretty-looking trains

My Week 

Before this week, if you’d asked me what constituted “good design”, I would probably have said our Dyson handheld vacuum or the Fiat 500 that I use to nip in and out of town, which is so small I can always find a parking space. 

What I would not have said would be the ticketing system on trains or paying money into a bank. But, said David Kester, whom I met on Monday, get them right and they certainly constitute smart design. 

For nine years, Kester ran the Design Council. He’s now working closely with Design Thinkers Academy holding workshops and seminars for designers. Kester is also closely involved with the design brief for the HS2 high-speed rail network. 

We need to think about design as more than the look, feel and usefulness of a particular product, he said. It was about entire systems, how things work together and fit into the environment. So on HS2, yes the comfort of the seats on the trains is important, but so is the way the new network relates to the rest of the country, whether it links with other forms of transport, if it provides a fast service from A to B. It would be pointless, he said, having a sleek new train line, only to find there were queues at barriers – everything had to click.

Kester is an evangelist for design being taught on the national curriculum. It is already, but often in a half-hearted manner as a “non-core” subject, and usually joined with technology to form D&T. Pupils are taught about materials, handling machinery, and encouraged to make something to take home to their parents, and that’s about it. What they don’t get is the bigger picture. 

Let Vaizey get down to business

Kester is one of those who pushed hard for the creative industries, something at which, despite the inertia in our educational system, we Brits excel. This message was highlighted again on Wednesday at a 10 Downing Street reception hosted by the creative industries minister, Ed Vaizey. 

That is part of Vaizey’s title. He’s also minister for culture, communications and digital industries. Part of our collective old-fashioned approach to these new-fangled activities is surely illustrated by the fact that Vaizey straddles two Whitehall departments. He’s minister of state at Culture, Media and Sport, and at Business, Innovation and Skills. If we’re serious about trying to beat our international rivals, then I would submit he should be with the latter, and entirely devoted to boosting enterprise and start-ups in creative and digital. 

From Shakespeare to Bowie

Vaizey was giving his backing to Creative Entrepreneurs, a new website and “nationwide movement” aimed at inspiring the next generation of creatives, to help them set up their own businesses. It’s got the support of Anya Hindmarch, the handbag designer, Zaha Hadid, the architect, Jamal Edwards, creator of youth channel SB TV, and Rohan Silva, founder of Second Home and former policy advisor to No 10. 

We lead the world in creative industries, an umbrella phrase for fashion, advertising, architecture, design, film, TV, publishing, music and art. Together they account for 5 per cent of the UK economy, or almost £80bn annually, and 6 per cent of the job market. 

The driving force behind Creative Entrepreneurs is ex-Time Warner managing-director, Carolyn Dailey. Said Dailey: “We watch the latest Bond film, listen to Ed Sheeran, hope for Downton Abbey-the-movie or buy an Anya Hindmarch bag on Net-a-Porter. Or equally we sit on a London bus brought to life by Thomas Heatherwick or wander past the dizzying array of contemporary architectural icons across London.” And we take it all for granted.

We don’t realise that all of these and more make us a world-beater. From time to time we’re brought up to speed with a start as to just how good we are. At the Oscars, fashion shows, Brits, Glastonbury, Proms, literary and architectural competitions we realise we can compete, and more. Sadly, too, it takes a death to tell us. David Bowie was not just a rock icon. He had a sharp commercial brain to match – one that could and did exploit the zeitgeist. 

As Dailey said: “From Shakespeare to Bowie and beyond, we’ve been in the business of creative blockbusters for hundreds of years – it’s time to recognise it. Let’s finally wake up to our own global powerhouse.”

The boys’ club in the Alps

I want to start a movement of my own. It will be called “NAD & Proud” – Not At Davos and glad I’m not. 

Everyone I know who goes on the annual junket to the Swiss resort – they pronounce it “Dav-ose”, by the way – insists on justifying ad nauseam why it matters so much and how hard they “work” while they’re there. The FT reported “the world’s elite will convene in Davos…”

Really? That would be a “world’s elite” that coughs up $27,000 for a ticket. It’s a “world’s elite” that’s 2,500 strong, according to the publicity; and includes 1,074 chairmen or chief executives, 40 world leaders, 14 Nobel laureates and 4 Grammy winners (Bono, Will.i.am, Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Gabriel). What’s not in the “world’s elite”, apart from poor people, other chairmen and CEOs, remaining world leaders, Nobel prize holders and Grammy victors (presumably the Oscars don’t count), are women. The latter make up around 50 per cent (49.6 per cent to be precise) of the global population, yet in the “world’s elite” gathered at Davos this week they accounted for just 18 per cent.

A relatable arch-villain

It’s a “world’s elite” with strange values. Many of them trekked up a mountain to the Schatzalp restaurant to have free tucker, courtesy of Barclays. Then they beetled back down to go to drinks with SkyBridge Capital, the private equity firm. 

In the Piano Bar, SkyBridge had laid on Oscar-winner (but not a Grammy so he doesn’t count for elite membership, seemingly) Kevin Spacey. 

The actor duly sang “In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning”, after Frank Sinatra, and reprised his part as Frank Underwood, the plotting arch-villain in House of Cards – presumably somebody that some of those present among the “world’s elite” had no trouble relating to. 

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