Making Sense, Making Progress: Design after Covid

Tom Lloyd RDI, founding partner of the London design studio Pearson Lloyd
25 11 21

Tom Lloyd's acceptance speech on taking the helm as Master of the Royal Designers for Industry, November 2021

Firstly, I have been reflecting on my privilege. I am privileged to come from five generations of architects, artists, and makers - from the Arts and Crafts furniture maker Arthur Romney Green and his brother the architect William Curtis Green, to my artist mother Jane and architect father Sam Lloyd. My dad, who was architect to the RSA for many years, redeveloped the RSA vaults in the 1980s. As a 15-year-old, I visited Robin and Lucienne Day’s extraordinary home and studio in Cheyne Walk with dad to review a chair designed by Robin for the vaults and I can vividly remember the chain mail screens, corduroy covered poly-prop dining chairs and drawings scattered across tables. Throughout my life, I have been immersed in a rich vocabulary of thinking and making. I faced none of the barriers to becoming a designer that so many others do, and I know just how lucky I am.

I am privileged too, to be amongst this extraordinary group of people and to be invited to guide the faculty in the coming two years. Thank you for putting your trust in me.
Pearson Lloyd
I have also been reflecting on my own professional career and the 25 years working with Luke Pearson, without whom I would not be here today. When we started out, we were innocents: childlike in our optimism, enthusiasm, and knowledge. Hopefully, we have maintained some of those traits even to this day.
To prepare for this evening, I have been thinking deeply and personally about what it means to be a designer today. Given the challenges that we all face, how can we make sense of the shifting priorities, values and vocabulary of our world and Make progress in our response to the great issues of our time including resource depletion, inequality, and climate breakdown?

Evergreen & Bird
Homo Sapiens play an utterly dominant part in what is now, controversially, known as the Anthropocene Epoch. As with any natural system, humanity’s evolution and development is a constant process of inputs and outputs, action, and reaction, as co-habitants of the natural world. This epoch has been so named because for the first time in the Earth’s history, our actions are putting now unbearable strain on the habitat that we share and that we depend on for life.

As both designers and humans, we are participants in this system, and never more critically than now. These two images are both shocking and sad to me, and so expressive of the challenges that we face today. Why is it that we somehow disconnect our own contribution to this reality through the acquisition of our new kitchens, bicycles and books stored in those containers and the plastic lodged in that bird’s stomach? Hopefully, the blocking of the Suez Canal by the stranded Evergreen may be in future seen as a watershed moment in drawing our attention to the realities of global production and consumption that we have become so accustomed to.

So, I want to talk this evening about change and our role as designers in responding to and leading change in the world.

New York Crisis
Periods of rapid and unexpected change have been witnessed throughout our history. During the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, the city of New York was brought to a near standstill by the by-product of an estimated 200,000 horses living and working in the city. One thousand tonnes of manure were deposited onto the streets every day - rat infested and disease ridden. Horses that died in the street were left to rot where they fell, so that they could be more easily dismembered for removal weeks later. The mayor of the city organised an emergency town planning conference to try to solve the problem, but none was found or proposed.
5th Avenue
However, in a matter of 15 years, the city was transformed by the emergence of the motor vehicle, into a place of cleanliness and modernity. At that moment, Henry Ford, creator of the Model T and its design and engineering had heroic status. These two images of 5th Avenue are only 13 years apart, but one shows only horse drawn carriages and the other only motor vehicles driving down the avenue.

Raymond Loewy
For decades hence, the car was an optimistic and aspirational path to our future, a symbol of progress and freedom.

But as we now know, with great misfortune, the impacts of this once hopeful development have become both harmful and hurtful to us all.
Today, our lived experience is moving in constant waves of change. We are witnessing new ways of doing and new rituals that surprise and challenge our sense of what is right and true.
Covid has upended all our daily lives, and in the process is acting as a trigger of transformation in the world; cities are being reshaped, communication redefined, work reimagined and just perhaps, the pandemic will be a catalyst for more radical system change that nature now demands.

I want to share just a few pieces of our work that on reflection illustrate changes in our process and practice over the last 25 years.
When Luke and I started working together in the late nineties, we were professionally, still wet behind the ears: figuring out how to find a client, how to work with engineers, how to unlock the riddle of a brief, how to add value to the users of our products. But we were enthusiastic, energetic, and hardworking and helped along by our networks, contacts, and friendships.

In our very first year in 1997, we designed a mobile work caddy for the furniture brand Knoll. The product addressed the very earliest transition to what was then called ‘hot desking’ to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the emergence of the laptop. Homer, as it was named, was developed in a matter of six months, and launched with great pride - we were delighted. The design made the most of the network of small factories across northern Italy that work together daily in the service of the furniture industry. What we knew at the time and accepted without challenge was that we used just about every material and technology available to us. MDF, fabricated steel, extruded and turned aluminium, extruded PVC, and moulded nylon. We worked tirelessly to conceal all fixings from the user, with no sense of disassembly, repair, or the recycling of materials - it was a true product of its time.
Ten years later in 2007, the studio was commissioned to design new street furniture and wayfinding for the city of Bath. With a requested lifespan of 40 years, we developed a response that includes zero refinishing, easy repair, and complete circularity of production. Sand cast bronze frames and arm rests are designed to polish with age. Hardwood slats, which can be machined by any wood shop, are bolted into place with visible fixings and naturally weather over time. A few weeks ago, I visited the city for the first time in a decade and was delighted to see how things are going, with polished bronze and sun-bleached slats. The council now intends to permanently embed procurement of the product in their streetscape design process.
In 2018, a new Danish start-up called Takt commissioned the studio to design a self-assembly timber stacking chair. Takt are committed to developing affordable, sustainable, high quality timber furniture, purchased online and assembled at home. Flat pack postage reduces transport carbon expenditure by 80%. All parts can be replaced by the owner on an individual basis to allow for repair and reuse. Takt publishes the embodied carbon for every part of the production and distribution process for full transparency. The chair is quiet and classical, but the system that surrounds it is utterly new and responsive to the challenges of today.
Finally, just two weeks ago, we launched our latest range of products designed in collaboration with our longterm Austrian partner Bene and London 3D print start-up Batch Works. The collection is made from a single material, 3D printed in London and other distributed hubs in Europe, using locally sourced 100% recycled postconsumer waste bioplastic, such as corn starch.

Printed to order as single parts, the collection, BFRIENDS, eliminates the need for hard tooling, warehousing, assembly, long distance freight and all fossil fuel-based materials. The system is in place for customers to return their products directly to the producer to be reground and reprinted at the end of their life.

From Homer in 1997 to BFRIENDS in 2021, the processes and systems surrounding these designs could not be more different and tell some of the story behind the changes taking place in design for manufacture in that time. Discussions around why and how we make appropriately are now part of every working day. The models of production, distribution, ownership, and consumption are all in flux.

By the way, that is not to say we are perfect. Sectors, products, and industries that we continue to work in are filled with compromises, inefficiencies, and practices that we need to change, but I honestly believe that design can take a leadership role in the transition to a more balanced and equitable system.
Coinciding with COP26, the brilliant Design for Planet Conference at the V&A Dundee and the launch of the Design Museum’s Future Observatory marks new elements of design thinking and exploration in our future. Alongside these initiatives and the RSA’s Regenerative Futures workstream, where does the RDI Faculty sit and to what purpose?

Through the concept of ‘sustained excellence,’ the mark of an RDI by inference reflects a long-term dedication to practice as a benchmark of quality. However, in the context of rapid change, perhaps the relevance of past practice should not be the only signifier of excellence. To fully acknowledge both the challenges that we face and the response to those challenges, how can the faculty engage with emerging practices and practitioners that today may be in their infancy? As a faculty, I believe we need to establish more fruitful links to the future of our practice as well as the past. How too, can we act in ways to diversify our intake, expand our reach, and better reflect and represent the world we aim to serve?

I have also been thinking about the concept of value. Through the history of design, a common narrative has existed around the theme of ’added value.’ Perhaps most readily associated with designers such as Raymond Loewy, Honorary RDI, in the mid-20th century, the value that design brought to a product related to making manufactured things more desirable, more efficient, more sellable, and of course, more profitable. We now understand the impact of unfettered consumption that this has played its part in and need to re-evaluate our contribution to the physical world that we inhabit.
The very building blocks of our relationship with the built environment and the vocabulary of design is being rewritten as we speak.

From novelty to longevity
From linear to circular
From extractive to regenerative
From exclusive to inclusive
From owned to shared
From designed to co-designed
From human-centred to nature-centred

Each one of these polarities raises questions and challenges for our own practice and in turn is rebuilding the vocabulary of design and manufacturing.

Could it be that while the role of design today remains to add value, it is simply that the value proposition needs to be re-defined and re-ordered? Design is a flexible craft. Amongst many things, we are researchers, opportunists, optimists, and entrepreneurs, makers, thinkers, tinkerers, communicators and above all synthesisers. We are good at managing complexity. The brief is being rewritten and it is up to all of us to respond.

The design industry, just in the UK, consists of 200,000 businesses, 95% of which contain under ten people. So, alongside the giants of industry and consultancy, we are mostly a tribe of micro-businesses, with countless relationships and countless ways of making a difference. It may be that marginal gains in these small organisations will perhaps be more meaningful than any single idea in solving our present and futures challenges.

The practice of design is as much as anything else about how we respond to the world – social, cultural, and political – so as our world changes, so our responses need to change.
RDIs 2021
I want to finish with a snapshot of the work of the new RDI and Honorary RDIs that we welcomed into the faculty tonight. From systems to ecosystems, from understanding to communicating, from growing to making, they represent the extraordinary breadth of what design now is and how it can contribute to a better world.

I hope we can continue to reflect and celebrate the power of design, and advocate for its relevance and the positive contribution to our collective futures that I know it can make and I look forward to representing you as Master, to further explore the role all of us as Royal Designers for Industry can have in inspiring and nurturing designers of the future.