Definition of 'design' at heart of problem in naming the best

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The Independent Online

The Ford Transit is a classic of modern British design: like "Hoover", "Transit" is used generically. Even Mercedes-Benz and Fiat vans are known as Transits.

The Ford Transit is a classic of modern British design: like "Hoover", "Transit" is used generically. Even Mercedes-Benz and Fiat vans are known as Transits.

The Transit van is affordable, functional and profitable. Alas, few millennium products qualify against such stern, but straightforward, measures. Yet the Transit is not included in the Design Council's cabinet of curios. Design is the planning of man-made things. Architecture and art are subdivisions of it, but recently the concept has been struggling, philosophically, to keep up with an e-world where successful businesses do not actually make anything.

Design may never recover from the contortions imposed by Margaret Thatcher. "Design" was offered to stricken British industry rather as an outboard motor would be offered to a drifting raft. Yet manufacturing industry was being mercilessly run-down since, the theory went, the crude stuff of making things had no place in a mature economy.

The Design Council, the patron of millennium products, is not always successful in coping with this confused intellectual inheritance. Looking at the list, it almost seems that anybody still manufacturing anything qualifies for inclusion. The strain in the "millennium products" concept is tangible. It is hard to find a Design Council official who can offer a credible definition of "design" in an economy that has largely given up mass-producing any consumer products other than vehicles (and, of course, they are all American and German-owned).

But the Design Council plods on with a narrowly nationalistic interpretation of design. At the same time, it confuses invention, innovation and ingenuity: a luminous fishnet may be a boon to nocturnal fishermen, but unless it has any cultural value or any aesthetic quality it cannot be "design". I

Nor is a profit-sharing scheme for Ghanaian cocoa farmers "design". Similarly, Viagra may be a boon to those on a nocturnal quest for hardware, but to call a pharmaceutical innovation "design" is to stretch definitions beyond intelligent limits.

Millennium products were a well-meaning initiative: British in the way the hovercraft was British. Two thousand products was the target - 1,012 was the result and that figure included a postage stamp (invented 1840) and the Teletubbies. So very odd to have ignored the Transit.

The author is former creative director for the Millennium Dome.

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