Tony Chambers asks: what is a designer?

Tony Chambers asks: what is a designer?

Almost five decades ago, the cabinetmaker, designer, poet, educator and political dissident Norman Potter set out to write What is a designer, a definitive guide for students and teachers of all design disciplines. Noted for the lack of question mark in its title, his book advanced a radical vision of what design should be – an activity rather than an end result, a verb rather than a noun. Lofty ideas were followed with down-to-earth advice, all presented in an accessible format. What is a designer became a staple of creative training, especially during my time at London’s Central School of Art and Design, studying graphic design and typography. It made an instant impact on me, and has been a constant source of inspiration ever since.

In the past months, I have found myself revisiting Potter’s book as we at Wallpaper* gear up for our inaugural Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore. Alongside two of our sister titles, Time and Fortune, we have put together a conference like no other. One that brings together the world’s top creative minds with the world’s best business brains with a proposition that today, the world’s most innovative operations, from Fortune 500 giants to disruptive start-ups, must embrace design as a key component of corporate strategy.


Currently, for the most part, business executives and designers still speak different languages. At many Fortune 500 firms, the principles of design thinking aren’t well understood. And too often designers view large firms with suspicion and chafe at executives’ constant carping about measurable results and ROI. The global conference scene does little to bridge this cultural divide. There are innumerable opportunities for designers to talk to other designers, and still more for business executives to talk to other business executives – the dreaded echo chamber!

Brainstorm Design seeks to fill this void and open a dialogue between those two tribes, exploring the nexus of business and design in the far-reaching manner the subject deserves. We’re bringing together design stars that already shine brightly in the Wallpaper* world – among them Thomas Heatherwick, Patricia Urquiola, Tom Dixon, Paola Antonelli, Ole Scheeren, Beatrix Ong and Daan Roosegaarde – together with trailblazers of the sharing economy such as Joe Gebbia of Airbnb and Miguel McKelvey of WeWork, and captains of the bluest of blue chips such as IBM, PepsiCo and Johnson & Johnson. They are joined by champions of design for social good (among them Parley for the Oceans’ Cyrill Gutsch and author John Cary), the CEOs of Singapore’s Changi Airport and Denmark’s Design Centre, and leaders of design education from the likes of RISD and Stanford.

To give a taste of the conference’s breadth and ambition, we asked one of our speakers, and one of the most authoritative voices in our industry, Alice Rawsthorn, to consider the expanding role of design in this issue. As she writes on page 137, ‘it is an agent of change that can be used to interpret changes of any type – social, political, cultural, economic, scientific, environmental, technological or personal – to help ensure that they will affect us positively’. In the same way Norman Potter established the relevance of design to the world of the 1960s, Brainstorm Design will stake out design’s claim to being a dominant force in the 21st century. In Singapore we’ll be hearing from and listening to all sides, all tribes. Welcome to the anti-echo chamber.

Tony Chambers, Brand & Content Director

As originally featured in the April 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*229)