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June 14, 2005

Authorship and design

An argument about authorship has once again overshadowed discussion of what matters about design. No sooner had Design Council director Hilary Cottam won the 2005 Design Museum Designer of the Year award, than an article by Deyan Sudjic in The Observer reported that an architect is furious about the award, and that a head teacher has described it as "a victory of spin over substance". It's a great shame if people close to the story are upset, because the award to Cottam signals a shift away from the obsession with celebrity and authorship that so often renders discussion of design tedious. As director of the experimental RED team at the Design Council, Cottam has been working to redefine the role of design in daily life, starting with health and citizenship. Her work, which is always collaborative, involves the use of design to re-engineer the ways schools, prisons and public institutions - and the people who use them - relate to each other. The Design Museum's award website includes this prominent statement from Cottam: "All the projects are developed by a team which includes designers, other professionals from a range of disciplines, front-line workers and members of the public who, with me, are challenged through the design process to abandon their initial preconceptions and co-create something new and beautiful that works".

Posted by John Thackara at June 14, 2005 04:13 PM


It's a good illustration of authorship dragging debate about design down (I enjoyed these sections in In the Bubble, by the way). But surely the awarding of the prize to this single name, Hilary Cottam, is also guilty of it? I like the political motivation behind the award to broaden perception of "what design is", but Hilary Cottam's work is so entirely team-based (especially since she is fundamentally a civil servant) that it seems redundant to name just her.

Posted by: Alex at June 14, 2005 01:22 PM

Designers & design teams create & realize "things". To call Hilary Cottam a "designer" is wholly inappropriate & to give here the prize for “Designer of the Year” completely bizarre.

As I understand it "what Cottam did was to kick-start the project, and introduce investors" but it was architect Philip Morgan & his team, of de Rijke, Marsh and Morgan who actual designed, developed & controlled the project during its construction. It is completely unjust that Cottam has received the prize for “Designer of the Year” based on the submission of this project.

Today all to often politicians, administrators, bureaucrats, advisers & managers like to think of themselves being "creative & imaginative", attempting to gain credit for the hard work of others. While they may be involved in a variety of aspects for any given project such as fund raising, program definition, team selection & conceptual “think tanking”, it is not they who “design”, they merely define the contextual framework for within which a designer works.

The process of design, especially in the construction of a building, is an extremely complicated & non lineal process dependant on a number of interconnecting factors, where the input of a variety of specialists is essential to make a well designed building or object. However not all would take credit for being the called "designers". The designer is the sole professional capable of moulding all the various concerns that arise during the design process, from conceptual idea to budget restraints, into a single coherent form that is technically & financially possible.

Perhaps next year the Design Museum's Awards Committee should reconsider the name for its award maybe “Administrator of the Year” or “Consultant of the Year” would be more appropriate.

James Cornock (architect)

Posted by: James Cornock at June 22, 2005 11:07 AM

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