The word design and its connotations, are particularly problematic in that they do not speak effectively to the politicians of Australia.

The failure of the word design to register as practical and useful marks it as an unstable – and in recent times – a threatening sign. Design might even find itself put in the same paddock as words such as community, public, unions, windmills, culture, leaners etc. by politicians. This raises the question: What is design?

The answer to this question depends on the audience to a great degree, as design is not a fixed sign. Some might imagine design as a vessel tossed about on a sea of signifiers, only anchored more securely by the addition of pronouns such as graphic, interior, web, etc.  For others design could be seen as a promiscuous sign; cozying up to various disciplines, respectable or flighty, depending upon where and when the designer sees its opportunities for a relationship (with architects or real estate agents, for example). Yet, in the act of coupling with other descriptors, design risks losing its significance as an active, transformative and collective sign with real tasks to perform.

What follows are ideas about how design continues to play a significant role in the history of Europe, whilst Australia has continued its reliance on the primary industries, especially on the export of raw materials. It would appear that many Australian politicians still fail to recognise that their fixation with primary produce is currently one of the most disturbing issues facing Australia. So can we analyse this problem by looking at the role of design in our national narratives?

Not so very long after arriving in Australia and taking up a position as a lecturer in the design department of the Queensland College of Art, I found myself on a committee that called itself the Queensland Aesthetics Forum (QAF). The Chair of which was Mr. Michael Bryce AM AE who is now widely known as the husband of our former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO.  However, there are many who also recognise Michael Bryce for his work as an architect, graphic designer and tireless advocate for the important role that design can play in our lives.

During the early 1990s, when the meetings of the Queensland Aesthetics Forum were being held, Australia had an ever-growing stockpile of wool, but it seemed that the debates about the wool crisis never recognised the role that designers might play in developing secondary manufacturing industries for the fleeces. After the QAF meetings, Michael and I started to discuss the issue of what might be done with the stockpiles apart from building bigger sheds. Both of us had similar views about the potential to add value to this important primary industry.

As a relative newcomer to Australia, it seemed obvious to consider the ways in which the stockpiles might be transmogrified into other products. We also thought it was important that designers were engaged in the process of research and development of ideas that could create new products and jobs. This would not only assist the wool-growers, but might also assist hitherto unimagined manufacturers. Michael and I agreed that it would be a good idea to seek some kind of interest from the State and/or Federal Government agencies.

Michael was already well known for his contributions to design issues, whereas I was a relatively new migrant to Australia from the UK. It made good sense when he took it upon himself to look into ways of seeking support. We were both optimistic that we would find funding for research into the serious financial benefits that might be made through creating new productive industries that drew down from the wool piles. Well connected and respected though Michael was, he did not find it easy to find support for designers to work on solutions to the ever-increasing stockpiles. The political will to fund designers seemed to stop short of real financial commitment.

 …I asked myself why Australia seemed to continue relying on primary produce as its main industrial export

While Michael continued to pursue the funding possibilities I asked myself why Australia seemed to continue relying on primary produce as its main industrial export. Whilst researching this, I read the biographies of the state and federal elected representatives. This revealed that, at that time, many elected politicians had come from a family with a rural background. Primary industries, was the key determining characteristic of the politicians’ family histories, and for many it still is today. There are some political biographies, however, that seem particularly ‘Australian’. For example, the Federal Member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch, listed his previous jobs as railway porter, insurance clerk, real estate salesman, fitter and turner in mining, grazier and crocodile farmer. The other biographies I viewed suggested that prior careers in legal practices and the trade union movement were becoming more common.

This initial research suggested that few elected members had any family connections to wealth generated from secondary manufacturing. This would help explain – at least in part – why politicians would have little knowledge of and confidence in, designers as being capable of generating change in the economies of the wool trade. There was no real recognition of the influence of innovative design in the governance of Australia. However, there were a few rather quaint design innovations that were recognised as good ideas in the early development of Australia’s (white) history.

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas and although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” – Donald Horne, The lucky country: Australia in the sixties.

One such piece of ‘domestic design’ that kept coming up with a jaunty smile and a wink, was the Hills Hoist. Nice though this contribution to industrial design is, the rotating washing line hardly rates as a major Australian export. Neither does the esky or the wine cask, both of which are continually referred to as some of Australia’s best known inventions. A washing line for the wife was good, but it was the primary industries that brought home the bacon.

There appears to be a consensus that Australia is good at inventing all manner of things (such as Wi-Fi and the cochlear implant) but poor at capitalising on good ideas. It is commonly thought that we let our inventions go overseas to be developed into a profitable product. A brief (white) story of Australia could be narrated as a country that had grown its wealth from the land.

Primary resources were seen in terms of what could be chopped down, then what could be grazed and after that, what could be harvested. From 1871 to the 1970’s sheep were Australia’s major source of income, hence the term Living on the sheep’s back, was no frivolous aside. However, during the 19th century, what could be dug up from the ground also became significant. Gold and iron ore became of real importance to Australia in the19th and 20th century. Now in the 21st century, coal and gas are arguably the most important (and contentious) primary industries.

The European settlers of Terra Australis effectively saw lots of free land; the declaration of Terra Nullius meant that the land was seen as being there for appropriating by the white settlers. The settlers, with varying degrees of disrespect for the Indigenous peoples, took what they could to make a living. Innovations came from making do with what was at hand. Ideas came in from the paddock and were predominantly related to the improvement in the production, processing, storing and exporting of the primary products, but not the transformation of raw materials into well designed, value-added products. To understand this schism between European historical developments and developments in Australia, it is worth journeying back in time to a pre-industrial Europe, when design worked its way into many aspects of life.

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