Sarah Weir is Chief Executive of the Design Council. She was previously Executive Producer at the Roundhouse in London, Chief Executive of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire; and her other past roles include Chief Executive of The Legacy List, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park charity (now called Foundation for Future London), Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy for Olympic Delivery Authority, Executive Director of Arts Council England, and Executive Director of the Almeida Theatre.
She started her career as a broker at Lloyd’s of London and over a 15 year career went from being the office junior to Managing Director, the first woman to hold this position. She has a History of Art degree from Birkbeck College (1993-7), received an OBE for services to the arts in 2011, was given a First Woman Awards for public service in 2013, and is a Fellow of Birkbeck College. Sarah was awarded an honorary doctorate from University of the Arts London for services to design in 2019 and has served on the board of the Alzheimer’s Society since 2013.
Tessa Packard [TP]: In one sentence, how you would you sum up the landscape of design in the UK today?
Sarah Weir [SW]: Landscape is an interesting analogy as it is everywhere, as is design. From the places that we live and the products and services that we use, to the processes and systems which hold together everything we do, design is a part of them. One potential issue is that the best design – the kind that just makes things work – can almost be invisible. So people don’t realise it is design.
[TP]: In your personal opinion, what makes an iconic designer? Do you think it is possible to foretell greatness by a designer’s early work?
[SW]: There are so many different types of design, this is not an easy question to answer. What might make a great service designer may be somewhat different to a great fashion or set designer. However, probably its core is summed up in this quote from Dieter Rams in a speech made in 1976: ‘‘You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people. To use design to impress, to polish things up, to make them chic, is no design at all. This is packaging’’. I think that is at the core of lasting, important design and it is usually apparent early on.
[TP]: With that in mind, what do you look for when selecting designers for the Design Council Spark programme?
[SW]: The class of 2019 have recently been announced, with Deborah Meaden generously running a panel session with all 10 finalists as well as giving out their awards. This year they ranged in age from 19 to 70 and we look for those whose idea comes from a real unmet need to make life better by design, who have an intense curiosity and passion to ask the right questions and then find an answer for the people who have the design challenge, and who have a steely determination to get their idea to market.
[TP]: I found your recent commentary on ‘building beautiful’ very interesting, especially in relation to the distinctive needs of an individual community and its future success. Could you (or would you) argue that the same principles must be applied to retail, specifically the high street, if one is to enable an antidote to the current situation?
[SW]: Yes I think you can argue for those same principles in that you need to start with really listening to people who live near and use (or don’t use) their high streets. That insight, if thoughtfully and thoroughly gathered, gives you everything you need to design what might be a series of different solutions and ways of thinking about the challenge and the different uses which might emerge and work. So growing better rather than just growing bigger – which we can all now see is not working.
[TP]: What designer from the past do you most admire; and by the same token, which living designer do you most respect?
[SW]: For the past I would choose Phyllis Pearsall, the typographer who founded the Geographers A-Z map company and without whom I would have been constantly lost in London for decades. In these days of Google maps, it seems a distant memory that you could not go out without your trusty and dog-eared A-Z.
For now I would say another typographer and widely considered to be the mother of modern day information Margaret Calvert. Along with Jock Kinneir, their redesign of the UK’s entire road sign system in the 1960s, which replaced the chaotic mish-mash of different typefaces and symbols commissioned by various bodies that existed previously was, and still is, so excellent it has hardly been changed almost seventy years on. She also has a splendid handbag with a ‘person at work’ road sign on it. True style.
[TP]: The Design Council is affiliated with a myriad of projects and places, and people and sectors. Is there one area within all this that you personally find most interesting or rewarding to work with?
[SW]: I am fascinated by and curious about all design. Especially that which sits quietly in the background, making a massive difference to peoples lives.
[TP]: What does good design mean to you?
[SW]: The fusion of the values which we showed off to the world in the 1851 Great Exhibition and out of which came the South Kensington museums with the proceeds, including the V&A. These values were art, design, utility. So that mix which, when done expertly, ensures places, products, systems and process all have aesthetic beauty, are well designed and work for those using them.
[TP]: Your career has seen you previously take on roles in the City (Lloyds), explore the world of performing arts (Roundhouse and Almeida Theatre, London), lead the team at a stately home (Waddesdon Manor) and co-ordinate the cultural strategy programme for the Olympic Delivery Authority. What’s the common denominator that leads you to say yes to a certain role or position?
[SW]: The challenge and the thought that I might be able to bring something a bit different in thinking about how to do the job. Looking back on some of them now, for example the Olympics role, it makes me feel quite daunted by it in retrospect. But often in life it is good not to always know how difficult something is going to be. Otherwise you might never do anything.
[TP]: In your opinion, what is the one thing that needs to improve in the design sector?
[SW]: I am going to cheat and include two. The first is for design to be an absolutely central part of educating every child. Design and Technology teaching has plummeted from 430,000 pupils taking it at GSCE in 2000 to just 89,000 in 2019. That affects our entire economy.
The second is for the make up of those working in the design economy, noting that 66% of those with design skills don’t work in design, but in finance, banking, aerospace, transport, construction etc., to be more diverse. 78% of the design economy is male compared to 53% across the whole working economy. And we currently have no statistics for non-binary. We need a broader set of perspectives in designers, to ensure the world is being designed to work for all and not just for some.
[TP]: Your Design Academy students are currently exploring ideas that tackle the ‘Ageing Well’ challenge. Why did you choose this particular theme for exploration and development?
[SW]: Living longer was one of the great successes of the 20th century. Ageing well is the great challenge of the 21st century. Whatever the question, design has an answer and as we were already running a three year Transform Ageing project in the South West of England, this seems a great way to link different areas of our work together for different age groups.
[TP]: If you could change three things in the world what would they be?
[SW]: Shift the power dynamics, which are so deep rooted, to open up an equality of opportunity for more people; make climate action something we just all do, like breathing; and find a cure for dementia.
[TP]: What do you consider to be the greatest design success of the 20th Century, and what do you consider to be the greatest disaster?
[SW]: For a design success I would say fridges and tarmac. Fridges revolutionised people’s lives from the 1930s on, completely changing the lives of most families (and particularly women); and tarmac revolutionised surfaces to use, since being invented in 1903 by the Welsh inventor Edgar Hooley.
There are a myriad of things which have not worked but the extraordinary invention of parkeseine in 1862 by Alexander Parkes (which then quickly turned into plastic by 1907 and has been overused and abused by all of us throughout the twentieth century) is now seen to be a 21st century disaster we now have to find our way out of.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Town
Favourite city? London
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? My partner (who is alive…)
If you could time travel to any era it would be…? The 18th century when men and womens’ lives were more closely intertwined when work and home were often one and before public and private spaces became proscribed differently in the 19th century. I would like to see what we could learn for the 21st century.
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Goat cutlets and honeyed aubergine in a old smugglers inn in Spain. We got totally lost trying to find it, were starving hungry and very fed up by the time we arrived and the meal was so memorable I can taste it now some 10 years on. It was served to us by a women dressed in black. Her mother, or maybe grandmother sat by the fireplace also dressed head to toe in black, wearing an eye patch with a black cat on her lap. It was all very surreal.
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Iphone
Pet hate? People not treating others with respect
Biggest extravagance? Art
Favourite book? Too many to mention
What would your gravestone read? I loved life
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