Alice Rawsthorn
975,248 views • 11:44

Design is a slippery and elusive phenomenon, which has meant different things at different times. But all truly inspiring design projects have one thing in common: they began with a dream. And the bolder the dream, the greater the design feat that will be required to achieve it. And this is why the greatest designers are almost always the biggest dreamers and rebels and renegades.

This has been the case throughout history, all the way back to the year 300 BC, when a 13-year-old became the king of a remote, very poor and very small Asian country. He dreamt of acquiring land, riches and power through military conquest. And his design skills — improbable though it sounds — would be essential in enabling him to do so.

At the time, all weapons were made by hand to different specifications. So if an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, they wouldn't necessarily be able to fire another archer's arrows from their bow. This of course meant that they would be less effective in combat and very vulnerable, too. Ying solved this problem by insisting that all bows and arrows were designed identically, so they were interchangeable. And he did the same for daggers, axes, spears, shields and every other form of weaponry. His formidably equipped army won batter after battle, and within 15 years, his tiny kingdom had succeeded in conquering all its larger, richer, more powerful neighbors, to found the mighty Chinese Empire.

Now, no one, of course, would have thought of describing Ying Zheng as a designer at the time — why would they? And yet he used design unknowingly and instinctively but with tremendous ingenuity to achieve his ends. And so did another equally improbable, accidental designer, who was also not above using violence to get what he wanted. This was Edward Teach, better known as the British pirate, Blackbeard.

This was the golden age of piracy, where pirates like Teach were terrorizing the high seas. Colonial trade was flourishing, and piracy was highly profitable. And the smarter pirates like him realized that to maximize their spoils, they needed to attack their enemies so brutally that they would surrender on sight. So in other words, they could take the ships without wasting ammunition, or incurring casualties.

So Edward Teach redesigned himself as Blackbeard by playing the part of a merciless brute. He wore heavy jackets and big hats to accentuate his height. He grew the bushy black beard that obscured his face. He slung braces of pistols on either shoulder. He even attached matches to the brim of his hat and set them alight, so they sizzled menacingly whenever his ship was poised to attack. And like many pirates of that era, he flew a flag that bore the macabre symbols of a human skull and a pair of crossed bones, because those motifs had signified death in so many cultures for centuries, that their meaning was instantly recognizable, even in the lawless, illiterate world of the high seas: surrender or you'll suffer. So of course, all his sensible victims surrendered on sight.

Put like that, it's easy to see why Edward Teach and his fellow pirates could be seen as pioneers of modern communications design, and why their deadly symbol —


there's more — why their deadly symbol of the skull and crossbones was a precursor of today's logos, rather like the big red letters standing behind me, but of course with a different message.


Yet design was also used to nobler ends by an equally brilliant and equally improbable designer, the 19th-century British nurse, Florence Nightingale. Her mission was to provide decent healthcare for everyone. Nightingale was born into a rather grand, very wealthy British family, who were horrified when she volunteered to work in military hospitals during the Crimean War. Once there, she swiftly realized that more patients were dying of infections that they caught there, in the filthy, fetid wards, than they were of battle wounds. So she campaigned for cleaner, lighter, airier clinics to be designed and built.

Back in Britain, she mounted another campaign, this time for civilian hospitals, and insisted that the same design principles were applied to them. The Nightingale ward, as it is called, dominated hospital design for decades to come, and elements of it are still used today. But by then, design was seen as a tool of the Industrial Age. It was formalized and professionalized, but it was restricted to specific roles and generally applied in pursuit of commercial goals rather than being used intuitively, as Florence Nightingale, Blackbeard and Ying Zheng had done.

By the 20th century, this commercial ethos was so powerful, that any designers who deviated from it risked being seen as cranks or subversives.

Now among them is one of my great design heroes, the brilliant László Moholy-Nagy. He was the Hungarian artist and designer whose experiments with the impact of technology on daily life were so powerful that they still influence the design of the digital images we see on our phone and computer screens. He radicalized the Bauhaus Design School in 1920s Germany, and yet some of his former colleagues shunned him when he struggled to open a new Bauhaus in Chicago years later. Moholy's ideas were as bold and incisive as ever, but his approach to design was too experimental, as was his insistence on seeing it, as he put it, as an attitude, not a profession to be in tune with the times.

And sadly, the same applied to another design maverick: Richard Buckminster Fuller. He was yet another brilliant design visionary and design activist, who was completely committed to designing a sustainable society in such a forward-thinking way that he started talking about the importance of environmentalism in design in the 1920s. Now he, despite his efforts, was routinely mocked as a crank by many in the design establishment, and admittedly, some of his experiments failed, like the flying car that never got off the ground. And yet, the geodesic dome, his design formula to build an emergency shelter from scraps of wood, metal, plastic, bits of tree, old blankets, plastic sheeting — just about anything that's available at the time — is one of the greatest feats of humanitarian design, and has provided sorely needed refuge to many, many people in desperate circumstances ever since.

Now, it was the courage and verve of radical designers like Bucky and Moholy that drew me to design. I began my career as a news journalist and foreign correspondent. I wrote about politics, economics and corporate affairs, and I could have chosen to specialize in any of those fields. But I picked design, because I believe it's one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to improve our quality of life.

Thank you, fellow TED design buffs.


And greatly as I admire the achievements of professional designers, which have been extraordinary and immense, I also believe that design benefits hugely from the originality, the lateral thinking and the resourcefulness of its rebels and renegades. And we're living at a remarkable moment in design, because this is a time when the two camps are coming closer together. Because even very basic advances in digital technology have enabled them to operate increasingly independently, in or out of a commercial context, to pursue ever more ambitious and eclectic objectives.

So in theory, basic platforms like crowdfunding, cloud computing, social media are giving greater freedom to professional designers and giving more resources for the improvisational ones, and hopefully, a more receptive response to their ideas.

Now, some of my favorite examples of this are in Africa, where a new generation of designers are developing incredible Internet of Things technologies to fulfill Florence Nightingale's dream of improving healthcare in countries where more people now have access to cell phones than to clean, running water.

And among them is Arthur Zang. He's a young, Cameroonian design engineer who has a adapted a tablet computer into the Cardiopad, a mobile heart-monitoring device. It can be used to monitor the hearts of patients in remote, rural areas. The data is then sent on a cellular network to well-equipped hospitals hundreds of miles away for analysis. And if any problems are spotted by the specialists there, a suitable course of treatment is recommended. And this of course saves many patients from making long, arduous, expensive and often pointless journeys to those hospitals, and makes it much, much likelier that their hearts will actually be checked.

Arthur Zang started working on the Cardiopad eight years ago, in his final year at university. But he failed to persuade any conventional sources to give him investment to get the project off the ground. He posted the idea on Facebook, where a Cameroonian government official saw it and managed to secure a government grant for him. He's now developing not only the Cardiopad, but other mobile medical devices to treat different conditions.

And he isn't alone, because there are many other inspiring and enterprising designers who are also pursuing extraordinary projects of their own. And I'm going to finish by looking at just a few of them. One is Peek Vision. This is a group of doctors and designers in Kenya, who've developed an Internet of Things technology of their own, as a portable eye examination kit. Then there's Gabriel Maher, who is developing a new design language to enable us to articulate the subtleties of our changing gender identities, without recourse to traditional stereotypes.

All of these designers and many more are pursuing their dreams, by the making the most of their newfound freedom, with the discipline of professional designers and the resourcefulness of rebels and renegades. And we all stand to benefit.

Thank you.