Heroes and Legends: discussing iconic design at The Jackal Design Sessions, with Oris

Last night’s reader event started a conversation about design icons, form vs function and the creative process of a designer

Last night The Jackal’s Editor-in-Chief Robin Swithinbank sat down with Samuel Wilkinson, industrial designer, and Timothy Barber, The Jackal’s Editor-at-Large, to talk all things design at Oris Pop-Up, London, the watch brand’s new space on Mayfair’s South Molton Street.

Samuel, who won the prestigious D&AD Black Pencil award for his Plumen 001 light bulb design, brought inside expertise to the table on the subject of iconic design and designing for a commercial audience. Timothy, a long time watch and design critic, brought a different perspective from his experience of critiquing the field. What makes an iconic design, form vs function and the creative process of a designer were all up for discussion, making for a fascinating evening in the stylish surroundings of the Oris Pop-Up, London.

Join us at our next Design Session on Tuesday 12 June, when we’ll be joined by eyewear designer Tom Davies and curator of the V&A’s The Future Starts Now exhibition, Rory Hyde. Sign up here.

Robin Swithinbank: What makes a design iconic?

Samuel Wilkinson: Having something that is iconic is different to an iconic design. You can come up with an iconic design that’s bold and evocative, and that has distinct appeal. But iconic design stands the test of time. It resonates with people more than just the object itself. Take the Mini or the red London bus: immediately you have an imprint of them in your mind because they’re so iconic. Iconic design is something that resonates further than just what it is. The iPod and iPhone are so simple, but they’re revolutionary in their simplicity, and that gave them their iconic status.

RS: How long does it take for a design to become iconic? Or is that a ridiculous question?

Timothy Barber: History is what makes something iconic. Part of it is luck, of being in the right place at the right time. The Google homepage, for instance, is one of the simplest designs imaginable, but what makes it great is how bad Yahoo and AltaVista and the other pages that were around at the time were. They came up with the Google homepage because they didn’t know HTML very well. It does its job very well by not flinging lots of stuff at you. 

Samuel Wilkinson’s Plumen 001 light bulb design

SW: I think capturing the moment is a big part of it. For example, we didn’t know whether we liked the lightbulb we designed or not when we put it out. But luckily the government was going through a process of pushing low energy lighting and this, along with our reimagining of a lightbulb, came together to make it more than it is. But you can make your own luck by understanding trends, and that’s part of what a designer does. You have to look into the future and try to capture any unique moments you can foresee.

RS: You didn’t like your lightbulb when you first put it out?

SW: I don’t like most things because I’m a perfectionist, and every time I look at the design I’m working on I’m looking at the faults. It’s only when I get to be at peace with a design that I think it’s okay. Now I can enjoy it, but back then it was a labour of love.

TB: I suppose you’ll know something’s iconic when you see it being copied by other people. With the lightbulb, the iconic one is the one that set the style in the first place, and it was born of that moment.

RS: Samuel, talk us through your creative process as a designer.

SW: While I’m very open to ideas, generally I have quite a distinct view on the objects I’m creating. The thing that I find difficult is not compromising on the journey from conception to production. You can design the most amazing concept, but then when it comes to production its purity and idealism can be compromised. Somewhere in the process the concept gets diluted, and it’s a worse product because of it. The hardest thing is to keep believing that your original concept is the right thing to do, and not compromise too much on your vision. But also, at the end of the day, you can’t design a product that’s not going to sell.


Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph Limited Edition

RS: Would you say your approach is quite commercial, then?

SW: It depends what it is. I’ve done a public sculpture in Shoreditch, as well as more commercial things. But with both approaches, in the end people just look at it as a single item, they don’t see all the technical details that you worked really hard on. Whatever I design, in the end it needs to have a calmness, an immediacy and hopefully, when someone spends time with it, they’ll start to understand the technicality of it and the level of detail.

TB: One of the problems with things that are badly designed is that you can feel where marketing teams, spreadsheets, other ambitions have got in the way of an object being as good as it can be, and they have drained the character and the use and the style out of it. It’s easy to come up with bad design, and slightly more nebulous to come up with good design.


Oris Big Crown Pointer Date

RS: Bauhaus’s iconic mantra was ‘form follows function’. How important is this notion in the world of design?

TB: If we say that good design is about making the world work well and work beautifully, it’s really important. But it shouldn’t be the be all and end all, because you have to be able to enjoy form for form’s sake as well. We don’t have to be as ascetic about things as the Bauhaus movement can sometimes be as interpreted as. We should enjoy the things around us. But I suppose if you’re designing something it’s a good starting point.

SW: If you’re working with a client you’ve got to understand their context. With the Plumen lightbulb, we were doing low energy lighting and reusing the same technology but making it beautiful. Other bulbs were very staid and looked like they’d been designed by an engineer. Very cold and functional. We tried to make you look at the lightbulb and make you appreciate it. The function of it is to be beautiful, that’s part of it.

The next edition of The Design Sessions is Tuesday 12 June. Sign up here.