The design for the reverse side of the UK’s new pound coin was revealed this week. The Chancellor, George Osbourne, described it as “brilliant” which it patently is not. It’s predictable and uninspiring; a lazy idea of a rose, thistle, leek and shamrock held in a bouquet by a crown. Had the intention been to illustrate that Britain is a traditionally-minded, forced yet incompatible union held together only by the archaic principle of monarchy, then it might be held up as a resounding success. But, in fact, the brief that was issued when the public design competition was launched was to celebrate a modern, vibrant Britain in the 21st Century. I simply cannot see any way in which it achieves that. It is a banal and ineffective solution that deserves heavy criticism from the media and the public and should inspire conversations about wasted money, lost opportunities, and the inadequacies of the decision-makers involved.
Yet those conversations are unlikely to take place. There are two main reasons for that. The first is that the original drawing was produced not by a well-remunerated corporation but by a 15-year-old school student. A similar thing happened in the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics when a 9-year-old’s crude drawing of a high jumper won a public competition to design the reverse of the 50p coin (take note kids, there’s a good fame and money-making pattern emerging here). I happen to believe that the 2012 coin carried with it a stronger intrinsic statement about the thing it was supposed to represent – the underlying qualities of hope, potential and enthusiastic participation that the Olympics brings out in us all – but it was nonetheless still a rubbish bit of art. Yet knowing the work has been produced by a child changes our appreciation of it, causing us to soften our stare and celebrate rather than criticise flaws. Both cases show us the importance of a good emotional back-story and how the value we place on design is heavily dependent upon factors that go well beyond the physical and aesthetic qualities of the piece. I still don’t think that excuses the fact that the £1 coin is a lame execution of a lame idea but at least it mitigates it a bit.
The second reason the coin design will pass relatively smoothly into the public’s perceptual pocket is that too few people actually care about, or truly understand, the potential of good design. For most people, the design of the reverse of a coin is an irrelevance. Of course it’s the purchasing power of a pound that matters most, not what it looks like – I am certainly not disputing that – but that doesn’t mean that a more adventurous, well-crafted design wouldn’t have some value. I’m using the coin here as a synecdoche for the design of things in general so when I say that it communicates the wrong things about Britain – or at least, none of the right things – I am highlighting the bigger problem of our willingness to accept inadequate design and/or our failure to demand more from it. There is a broad lack of appreciation in society, business and government as to just how powerful great design can be in shaping the nature and quality of the understanding and dialogue that takes place in our world, and that is something that I’d like to see addressed.
There are, of course, some great examples of how outstanding design has made a significant difference in the world. Apple, now the world’s most valuable company, was built on that principle. Its willingness to innovate with new styles and forms, its relentless attention to detail and highest standards of craft are central to its success. Tesla is proving that the way to encourage fundamental shifts in behaviour – in their case, the switch to electric vehicles – is not through the negative language of preaching or imposing penalties but through producing a better designed product that everyone wants to buy. There’s no doubt in my mind that the tide is starting to turn in favour of making great design an essential component of better business and a better society. But it remains the case that such approaches are the exception rather than the rule. There was an opportunity this week to put great design literally and symbolically in the hands of the British public, in the form of the new pound coin. The opportunity was missed.
First published on The Huffington Post, 25 March 2015