How design makes us happy

In times of economic or cultural turmoil, look to design for a shot of optimism – Stuart Wood swears by it

As I write, the nation is dragging itself through ‘Blue Monday’. Based on a pseudo-scientific formula that, amongst other factors, includes the weather, level of debt and general motivation, the third Monday of January is awarded the auspicious title of the gloomiest day of the year. The press love it and predictably start the annual debate about the Happy Planet Index: a league table of the happiest (and most unhappy) nations. Currently the UK sits at a rather depressing 74th – just one place behind Slovakia and a whopping 25 places behind Haiti – go figure. What does this, you may be thinking, have to do with design?

In my opinion, a lot. If bad design can makes us unhappy (think most modern cars, excessive packaging on kids’ toys, government forms, pound shops – I could go on but I might depress myself), then surely good design can do the reverse? Objects that are a pleasure to use, hold and interact with not only encourage us to use them more, but also enable us to delight in the experience.

Books that are beautifully designed make us realise that although the publishing industry is in meltdown (not dissimilar to the music industry… Sorry, snap out of it!) the compulsion to engage with a physical object will always be a part of what makes us human. At the Man Booker Prize this year, winner Julian Barnes said of Suzanne Dean’s cover art: “Those of you who’ve seen my book – whatever you may think of its contents – will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

In a world of disposability, I revel in the optimism of that statement and the challenge that we as designers must meet. Design has always been optimistic by nature: a desire to make things look and function better, to encourage positive action or to engender a collective sense of responsibility. In these generally depressing times, design can cheer us up. On occasion, design’s sole intent can be to simply delight us. As frivolous as this might at first appear, I think design – and the industry that feeds it – sometimes makes the mistake in thinking that all ‘good design’ is based on style and substance. In an increasingly visually literate world, sometimes style is substance. The two are not mutually exclusive and something that puts a smile on your face has performed its function.

That said, it seems a rather appropriate time for the Design Museum to hold a retrospective celebrating Terence Conran’s 80th birthday. His strict ethos of ‘modern optimistic design’ seems as relevant now as it did in the austere postwar Britain when he created household furnishings store Habitat.

His optimism and desire for everyone to live a better, richer and more fulfilling life was articulated beautifully by the products he created, the environments they were sold in, and the uncluttered and singular visual identity. As Conran puts it: “I have always believed that if products or buildings or interiors are intelligently designed they will help improve the quality of life of the users.”

As in many times of economic or cultural turmoil, great design has often been at the forefront of a new wave of optimism. And as strange as it may seem, I think that this hypothesis holds water: the broad definition of depression is the inability to focus on the solution and merely focus on the problem. Design, on the other hand, interrogates the problem in order to find solutions.

So when I start to think about Blue Monday and what it means, my mind drifts back to one of the most iconic (and ironic) record sleeves of all time. Released in 1983 – the same year that Margaret Thatcher was re-elected by a landslide – and designed by Peter Saville for New Order, it stands out as a milestone in our cultural landscape and became a flag-carrier for a new approach to design. It was also a folly. Because of the complex nature of the printing and die-cutting, every copy sold lost the band money. Brilliant! Hilarious! But it’s an object that once created will never be found in a charity shop window. Call me old fashioned, but I’m beginning to feel quite optimistic about the future.