Since Michael Moore broke the mould with films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, we've been living in an era when the documentary movie has entered the mainstream. Even the design world has got involved. A number of feature-length documentaries – from Gary Hustwit's famous Helvetica (opens in new tab), Objectified (opens in new tab) and Urbanized (opens in new tab) trilogy to the more recently kickstarted Design & Thinking (opens in new tab) – all explore design topics by interviewing well known practitioners, delving into their process and telling a story.
On TV, design has made fewer waves, but there have been exceptions. Most notably, from 1998 to 2000 designers Richard Seymour and Dick Powell of Seymourpowell (opens in new tab) were part of a UK TV series on Channel 4 called Better By Design (opens in new tab).
Designing a better world
Each episode the pair would tackle a specific design problem – ranging from designing a more comfortable bra to an easier-to-steer shopping trolley – in a way that would invariably make people's day to day lives better as a result.
Of course, designing a good product is rarely as simple as some might want it to be. Concerns about cost, sustainability and business models can all have an effect on whether the product ever gets made, let alone sells. These types of issue were something Seymour and Powell tackled each week through research, prototyping and testing various designs until the right solution was found.
You can find details of what they came up with on the Better By Design microsite (opens in new tab).
Better By Design only ran for two short seasons, with a total of nine episodes. Unfortunately for such an interesting and informative series it’s now surprisingly difficult to find. UK users can stream the first episode on 4OD (opens in new tab) and there are random episodes on YouTube, although we couldn't possibly encourage you to search for them as they all look like copyright infringement to us.
The Design Council only lists information for the last six episodes of the second series and DVDs are currently 'out of stock', with a promise of a restock in August. Finding a VHS copy of the show is rare even on places like eBay. Even if you’re lucky enough to have got hold of one (and have a machine to play it on) only seven of the nine episodes are available to watch.
The audience is there
With shows like Grand Designs (opens in new tab) showing how architecture and interior design can change homes for the better and How it’s Made (opens in new tab) showing the process of how everyday items are manufactured, it's clear that there's an audience for design-related television programs.
If Better By Design were to return I think that people would embrace it, because as much as I love Sign Painters (opens in new tab), Typeface (opens in new tab) and other documentary movies, they're all one-time experiences which don’t have the time to explore design in the same way a television series could.
This series needs to be brought back, the lost episodes need to be found and most importantly people need to know how everyday products can be made Better By Design. How about it, @channel4 (opens in new tab)?
Christian Harries is a freelance product designer and recent graduate from Ravensbourne. His portfolio can be seen here (opens in new tab).