British Design: Not What It Used to Be
LONDON — Strikes. Disappearing letters. Shuttered post offices. Irritatingly long queues and suspicious smells in the survivors. There are (sadly) lots of reasons for the British to indulge in the popular national pastime of grumbling about the Royal Mail this summer.
The appearance last week of a new series of Royal Mail stamps to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the postbox should have struck a cheerier tone. Even the grouchiest grumblers agree that old-fashioned mailboxes are among the most popular symbols of Britain, and share many characteristics of the country’s other design icons.
One is that they come in a rousing shade of red, like the K2 telephone kiosk and Routemaster double-decker bus. Another is that they have the gutsy, no-nonsense engineering aesthetic of the K2, Routemaster and other national design gems, including the Concorde and Spitfire fighter jet. (The French tend to favor elegant icons, like the delicate Art Nouveau ironwork of the Paris subway and those dainty blue and white enamel street signs, but the pretension-phobic British prefer theirs to look pragmatic.) And like so many other jewels of Britain’s design heritage, the postbox is not what it used to be.
In fairness to the Royal Mail (not that I feel like doing it any favors in light of its other recent offenses), the design standards of mailboxes have not plunged quite as precipitously as those of phone booths and buses. The latest designs are unforgivably mediocre, but are neither as ugly as the shabby vandal-magnets that now pass for telephone kiosks, nor as dysfunctional as the lethally long “bendy buses,” which were imported to Britain from Germany to become objects of national hatred, alongside tax inspectors, bonus-grabbing bankers and expense-fiddling politicians. Why have so many British design treasures been so badly neglected?
There are some boringly obvious logistical reasons. The “change for change’s sake” syndrome among ambitious executives in an era of ever-decreasing corporate life expectancy makes them feel compelled to meddle with perfectly good designs to make an impact or, better still (in their eyes, at least), to replace them with something new. They then bungle the process of making modifications or choosing replacements by dint of any or all of the following: cowardice, laziness, lack of imagination, delegating decision-making to committees or focus groups (even though the result is bound to be compromised) and plain ineptitude.
None of these problems are limited to public design projects. They are routine corporate crimes that bedevil every area of design, and explain why we end up with other disasters, like inoperable cellphones, illegible instruction manuals, neurotically overstyled espresso machines and landfill sites bloated with indestructible, non-biodegradable rubbish. But their impact is greater when applied to public commissions, because mailboxes, phone booths and the like are so much more visible. Not only are there lots of them, they tend to be big and to be used by many people, not just individuals. If you analyze the design deficiencies of the average cellphone, they are depressingly similar to those of a Royal Mail postbox, but the latter will be seen by millions of people, regardless of whether or not they actually use it, while the phone will seem conspicuous only to its luckless owner.
All of this could, of course, be avoided, if the designers, and the people who commission them, were better equipped to do their jobs. Throughout design history, almost every national design coup was initiated by a stellar patron, not just in Britain, but other countries, too. Take Frank Pick, who made London Transport a model of modern design management in the early 1900s. Many of his innovations, like Harry Beck’s 1933 diagrammatic London Underground map and Edward Johnston’s 1916 roundel symbol, are still in use today. Pick oversaw everything, traveling around the network on rare “nights off” to check that it was perfect. Even the Routemaster, which was commissioned after his retirement, owes much to his legacy.
None of the people currently running London Transport come close to matching Pick’s dynamism, nor do their peers at the Royal Mail or British Telecom, and they tend to choose designers of their own mettle (or lack of it).
There is another problem, which is specific to public projects. An essential quality of a national design gem is that it reflects the country’s culture. The neo-classical dome of the K2 telephone kiosk symbolized Britain’s attachment to tradition and ambivalence toward modernity in the 1920s, just as the Routemaster’s can-do style captured the determination of the postwar era.
It was easier for designers to accomplish this then than it is today, when Britain’s national identity seems so much more complex, diverse and contradictory than it did in the 1920s and 1940s. Those eras had their complexities, too, but there was less inclination to recognize them, and it is simpler for designers to articulate a clearly defined message, than ambiguity.
This goes some way to explaining why so few new design jewels have emerged, although the shortcomings of the current postboxes, phone booths and most other flops are down to bad design, rather than doomed attempts to reflect the confusion of modern life. The achingly embarrassing London 2012 Olympics logo succeeds in doing that, but is also ugly and inappropriate.
And success is possible, as Matthew Dent proved with his designs for Britain’s new coins, which were introduced last year by the Royal Mint. The backs of the 50-, 20-, 10-, 5- and 2-pence and 1-penny coins bear fragments of the 14th-century Shield of the Royal arms. When those coins are placed together the shield appears intact, as it does on the back of the £1 coin. By fracturing an emblem of British history and reunifying it, Mr. Dent created a sensitive and appealing symbol of contemporary Britain, which has proved so popular that the Royal Mint has run short of coins, because people are keeping, rather than spending, them.