Friday, March 10, 2006

By Design 

So the Great British Design Quest vote closes on Sunday 12th March. Three finalists featured on the BBC pages – Concorde, the Spitfire and the London Underground Map.

Personally I backed one of the rejected shortlist contestants – the WorldWideWeb. It is a design that empowers flexibility and creation of new uses. Rather like what a Liberal Democratic society should be like, a process and an empowerment rather than an end. But what to vote for out of the final three?

Concorde was superbly designed to do something we probably didn’t need to do, really. Amongst the disadvantages was that nobody considered the cost when doing the design, it was all focussed on engineering excellence. So I am not backing this even though I have family connections. (The tailplane was designed by a not-too-distant relative of mine).

The Underground Map has to be my favourite finalist as it is not only weirdly beautiful but also an enabler. But it actually does have a problem, just because it is so good. Nothing comparable exists for Buses in London, or even other rail connections. As a non-Londoner visiting the Smoke, the perfection leads me – and I suspect others – to use the Tube and ignore other transport links, even mentally to shut out the existence of parts of London not covered by a tube line. We need others to be stimulated by this design classic not intimidated. A map needed for our Oyster (groan).

The Spitfire is probably going to win because of its Finest Hour associations.

This is despite the possible depressive effect on the vote of the Robert Burns moment provided by the BBC website to illustrate the fact that the best laid plans (or designs) of mice and men gang aft agley. The picture illustrating the finalists in the main BBC news web page story about the competition is one of a Hawker Hurricane not a Spit (the picture on the actual vote page is OK). Younger voters may just not see what the fuss is about.

But it is a strikingly different looking plane as you can see if you get to the correct picture and does illustrate another aspect of design, namely that unexpected things still happen. To the good, the Spit had the unique characteristic of developing a slight warning shudder in the wings just before stalling in a tight turn which actually allowed pilots to push the plane to its limits with confidence because they had warning if they nearly went too far. That was not included in the design brief. But those wonderful rounded wings were once again produced with engineering love and craftsmanship and were much much more difficult to build than (say) the squarer wings of the Hurricane (or come to that of its opponents). So it was much more difficult to build new Spitfires in volume, something of a disadvantage in a war where numbers are shot down. This is abit of adesign disadvantage.

As ever, in design as in politics, nothing and nobody is perfect. As Vladimir Nabukov said somewhere ‘life spills over the edge of every cup’.

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