Remembering John Heskett

Clive Dilnot blogs about his friend, the design historian John Heskett, and assesses Heskett’s contribution to the field of design history.

I first met John Heskett (1937-2014) around 1980 when he instrumental in getting me my first respectable job in the University sector. It marked the beginning of a friendship that spanned three continents and was to last more than thirty years, until his untimely death two years ago.

John was both one of the first serious historians of design in Britain, and then, after 1989, with his move out of the UK, one of the first economists of design. The re-publication of some of his work, first in the recently published A John Heskett Reader: Design History Economics, which brings together more than thirty papers, articles and extracts from Heskett’s work, representing the full range of his interests, and, second, of his important work on design and economic thought, Design and Creation of Value (forthcoming, Feb 2017) marks the chance to re-assess Heskett’s contributions to both fields.

Before John’s death I had been encouraging him to thinking about re-publish some of his work and bringing out especially the unpublished seminar on economics. After his death it seemed natural to take on this project, in part as a memorial to him (and now also, sadly, to his widow, Pamela Heskett, who passed away this summer just as the Reader was published).

But this was by no means only a personal interest. Heskett is doubly interesting to my field, which is the project of thinking and understanding design. He is at once a historian of design, dealing predominantly with the history of design in the industrial period (though in the yet unpublished ms. Craft, Commerce and Industry: A Global History of Design, he considers making as a global practice across human history) but he is also an economist of design, asking how economics thinks the creation of value, and whether and how (or, indeed, if at all) economics considers design in this process.

Typically, Heskett thought about neither of these big questions in the usual way. For the first he asks about how we should understand design, not only from a practitioner’s viewpoint, but from that of those who use and engage with things. How do we write histories, Heskett asks, that are adequate to the work that humble designed things, especially industrial products, do? And how do we write histories of these things that do not descend into the antiques trade, or imitate art history? How do we write histories that are adequate to the realities of industrial life?

For the second, Heskett takes on the some of the major schools of economic theory – Neo-Classicism, the Austrian School, Veblen and consumption, New Growth Theory, List and National Economics – but he asks not only how design can be understood from the perspective of economics, but also how design can offer a critical viewpoint on economics, how it might provide a means to create a critical perspective on the often-flawed understanding of value creation as economics and economic thinking models it.

The exploration of these questions in these ways alone makes the publication of Heskett’s work worthwhile. But he also offers a third challenge for today. John Heskett was a consummately pragmatic, “common-sense” writer; a pedagogic author; a man interested in explicating, with maximum clarity and accessibility, even the most difficult issues.

This is seen most evidently in the chapters on economic thought in Design and the Creation of Value. They were written for graduate students in design without any prior understanding of economics and are small masterpieces of rendering complexity accessible to a non-specialist audience. But the wider premise holds true across all of his writing. The question arises as to what extent this approach to design understanding is “historical” in the sense of belonging to the past; and to what extent, on the contrary, it issues some challenges to current thinking and writing in design.

Photo credit: Sofia Sallons
Photo credit: Sofia Sallons

The publication of these two books, and the hoped-for future publication of Craft, Commerce and Industry’, offers readers in these fields a chance to at once to look backward and forward in design thinking; to re-cover some work from the past, but also to consider in what ways this work might offer both challenges (but also some road maps) for ways of going forward.

 

 

A John Heskett Reader: Design, History, Economics is out now!

Visit: www.johnheskett.com to learn more about John, his life, and his work

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