Alice Rawsthorn: The Design Critic on Journalism, Florence Nightingale, and Her Mom

Alice Rawsthorn
Photo of Alice Rawsthorn by Michael Leckie

Alice Rawsthorn’s deep understanding and passion for design is evident and contagious—since 1980, Rawsthorn has worked in journalism, first as a news reporter and foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, and then as design critic of the International New York Times. As digitization has made journalism “faster, more flexible, and increasingly international,” Rawsthorn has adapted with ease, noting, “Experiencing those changes has been thrilling, not least as they have enabled specialist writers like me to redefine our roles by combining books, documentaries, public speaking, advocacy, social media and so on with traditional journalism.”

Based in London, Rawsthorn has been on the radar of AWT staff since the publication of her critically acclaimed book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, which explores design’s impact on our lives: past, present and future. An in-demand lecturer who is slated to speak at TED 2016, Alice took time from her busy schedule to discuss female practitioners of design throughout history, the place of print publications in a screen-friendly world, and the integral her mother played in instilling a strong sense of visual judgment in her.

Do you think print has an enduring place in a world where the written word is increasingly digitized? You’ve discussed your love of the Penguin Paperback and how it changed your world and we’re curious if anything has come close to that for you.

I’m sure print will endure, but probably in the fetishistic form of expensively produced books, just as vinyl records still play a role, albeit a modest one, in music.

As for whether anything could mean as much to me personally as Penguin paperbacks, I’m not sure they could, for the simple reason that I discovered Penguin Classics and Modern Classics in my teens, and those books became an integral part of my education. My life would have been very different without them. It is unlikely that anything else could be quite as enlightening and empowering to me now that I’m older and less impressionable. Though I am absolutely convinced that the same texts are equally liberating to contemporary teenagers whether they are reading them on Kindles, apps, iBooks or whatever. It’s their message that makes them so powerful, not the medium.

What’s driven the growing interest in the work of female designers by historians and curators?

Sadly, the chief catalyst is that there are so many of them whose work merit reassessment. Most writers and curators have a fondness for making discoveries, and, sadly, design history is packed with gifted women who have been unjustly ignored.

What designers should every AWT reader know about?

There is a very long list, but one of them is undoubtedly the pioneering US software designer Muriel Cooper. She began her career as a traditional graphic designer and produced some extraordinary books for the MIT Press in the 1960s and early 1970s. Among them were the first edition of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas and File Under Architecture by one of my favorite architecture critics, the late Herbert Muschamp. In 1967, Cooper wandered into a computer class at MIT by mistake, and, although she didn’t understand much of what she heard, she recognized how important digital imagery would become and determined to ensure that it was designed as clearly and engagingly as the finest printed graphics. In 1972, she founded the Visual Language Workshop at MIT with a colleague Ron MacNeil. As well as conducting her own experiments into the design of digital imagery, Cooper was a significant influence on her students, who included John Maeda, Lisa Strausfeld and other pioneers of software design.

… thanks to my mum I grew up with an instinctive love of visual culture, and confidence in my visual judgment.

How did your mother instill a sense of confidence in your visual judgment?

My mother was an art teacher, so I grew up with the benefit of her teaching skills, including a fantastic impromptu visual education. She was a natural teacher, who turned any situation into a learning exercise for my brother and I. On country walks, for example, she’d pick up leaves and ask: “What color is it?” If we said “green” she’d point out that, if we looked closely, we’d see that pink, purple, red and blue there too. I was naturally academic, so I was steered away from art at school, but thanks to my mum I grew up with an instinctive love of visual culture, and confidence in my visual judgment. An artist friend David Bachelor believes that one of the problems of British education is that: “We aren’t taught how to look.” Thanks to my mum, I was, and I have had so much pleasure because of it.

You’ve stated that women have practiced design throughout history, albeit largely in the unconscious roles of “accidental designers.” Were there female figures in your life that occupied that role?

“Accidental design” isn’t confined to women. Many men have executed extraordinary design feats, intuitively and unknowingly, throughout history too, starting with the prehistoric men and women who designed and built walls from stones found nearby to barricade their caves against predators.

One of my favorite examples of a brilliant female “accidental designer” is Florence Nightingale, the 19th-century British nurse who modernized health care. To her wealthy family’s horror, she volunteered as an army nurse during the Crimean War and soon realized that more patients were dying from infections caught in filthy military hospitals than from battle wounds. Nightingale campaigned to ensure that lighter, cleaner, airier clinics were built to replace them. Back in Britain, after the war, she campaigned for new hospitals there too and applied the same principles to the design of the wards. The Nightingale Ward, as it was called, has defined hospital design ever since. Nightingale was also a pioneer of information design. During her health care campaigns, she devised ingenious ways of presenting statistics in pie charts and other graphic devices to explain complex information clearly and to make her case as persuasively as possible.

Alice Rawsthorn writes about design in the International New York Times, which syndicates her columns worldwide. She is also a columnist for Frieze magazine and the author of the critically acclaimed book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, which explores design’s impact on our lives: past, present, and future. Based in London, Alice is chair of trustees of Chisenhale Gallery and the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company, as well as a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery. She was awarded an OBE in 2014 for services to design and the arts.