All across one wall were designs voted as the most important objects in their lives. Ranging from the humble bicycle to amazing and sophisticated systems like the London Underground, we realised that so many of the best designs the world has ever produced came from our own shores.
And while the Design Museum’s current exhibition (“California: Designing Freedom“) took an excellent look at the influence the USA’s west coast has had on global design, we realised that, without British designers both past and present, these Californian designs may well never have even come into existence.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the greatest designs to ever come out of the United Kingdom, and see how they’ve exerted a powerful influence on the rest of the world.
The ATM machine
Of all the places for a piece of British design as pioneering as the automatic teller machine (or ATM) to have been invented, it just so happened to be in the bath.
Cambridge-educated John Shepherd-Barron came up with the idea when he was relaxing among the bubbles, and when he took the idea to a High Street bank, they loved it and it hit the streets of London in 1967. The first ATM was located in the Enfield area, and it was first used by comedian Reg Varney.
It came with a lot of well-designed features, only some of which would survive the passage of time. Originally you had to insert a piece of paper which could only be acquired from a cashier in order to access your money. Later, the personal identification number (or PIN) became widely used too.
It’s not just the world of screens and buttons that British design can lay claim to, either. Down the decades, Britain has been a true pioneer of top-class fashion designs as well.
The miniskirt – a woman’s garment with a high, above-the-knee hemline – are associated in the mind of many older people with the hedonism and boundary-pushing of 1960s.
The designer of the miniskirt, Mary Quant, was born in Blackheath in London and went on to bring the miniskirt to the people of Britain and around the world.
But Quant was British through and through, as there was no trace of arrogance about her invention. She once even credited the wearers of her clothes with the invention, claiming that they pushed her to do it. She said: “I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.'”
The World Wide Web
Sir Tim Berners-Lee launching the first website – The Telegraph – CREDIT:AP
As with all technology, the web is really just a series of complex and highly specialist designs put together in a way only those with specialist know-how can do.
It was British scientist Tim Berners-Lee who, while working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) in Switzerland, first connected what were known as “hypertext documents” into a system that was available to any computer which wanted to join.
In a mark of the influence this well-designed system has had on the rest of history, the term “hypertext” remains with us today as the first word in the acronym “HTTP” – which stands for “hypertext transfer protocol”. Every time you log on to a website, it’s this British scientist you have to thank.
The Aston Martin
Made famous all across the globe as the chosen vehicle of British spy James Bond, the Aston Martin luxury car brand is an iconic British motoring institution.
Since the firm was launched in London in the early twentieth century, the designers at Aston Martin have long been known for making good use of innovative new features rather than resting on their laurels.
The Aston Martin DB6 of the 1960s, for example, brought optional air conditioning to passengers and power steering to drivers, while it also put comfort at the forefront of its design ethos by raising the roof line a couple of inches and increasing leg room.
As passengers and drivers, what we take for granted today is simply the product of the great British motor car designers of yesteryear!
Ultimately, it’s clear that the impact of simple yet powerful British design both past and present has extended its influence all around the world. From creative worlds like fashion to cutting-edge technological advances, the world has a lot to thank British design and innovation for.