Editorial: Designed to last

"Shame you've got a bus stop right outside," was the comment I got when I moved into my first London flat. Ten years later, it was: "Wow, you've got a Routemaster stop right outside!"

That was the year the Routemaster celebrated half a century on the streets of London. It was retired on all but a few tourist routes shortly after that but there's now a competition to design a new Routemaster (see them on p20). The man in the street won't be able to name many bus designs, but all Londoners will instantly recognise the Routemaster. Non-Londoners will better recognise it as the lethal-looking bus with no doors on the back. It was designed before any rules about wheelchair access, before even the invention of the child buggy - and certainly before the era of, as the man on the Clapham omnibus says, ''elf and safety gorn mad'. But that didn't stop the Routemaster becoming a symbol for London and, in short, a design icon.

In this issue we examine some design icons from sports cars (p16) to lemon squeezers (p74). And we explore what makes for good design, because we instinctively know it when we see it but we're not always quite sure why.

Governments used to have to extol the virtues of good design to industry, with campaigns and special agencies to promote it. Industry has now got the message, and that message has gone global.

I recently met with Professor Miles Pennington, head of department at the Royal College of Art's Innovation Design Engineering course. This postgraduate course, run jointly with Imperial College, produces several patents a year and usually a new company or two as well as postgraduates to supply design studios and top manufacturers globally.

Students from all over the world head for the RCA - from the Asia Pacific region, where the imperative is still a good product that you can make and get to market in three months, and from Europe and America, where companies dream of that groundbreaking design that will allow them to leapfrog the competition.

Industrial design is everywhere, Professor Pennington says, but in places like Taiwan it tends to be more of a commodity. In Hannover, I toured the Industrie Forum (iF) product design award exhibition with Dirk Bartelsmeier. He said the entries from the Asia Pacific region are improving every year - but out on the exhibition floor at CeBit you can guess which products were designed where. The products designed in China, for example, look okay, but fewer of their designs impress than those from Europe, America (including South America), Japan or Korea, which more often just seem to have that special certain something that says 'buy me'.

Pennington agrees China's design has steadily improved over the last decade. They can design simple white goods well, for example. But they haven't quite got there with the brand design - what distinguishes a Dualit toaster from the rest, or of course an Apple iPod from any other portable audio player. Read our interview with brandmaster Michael Woolf, on p72.

You can't talk about design for more than a few minutes without the iPod coming up. Our feature on design disasters on p30 features one Apple design because it seems even supposedly cool companies have their off-days. But the company cleaned up yet again at the iF awards, and we meet their top designers on p60. Both Bartelsmeier and Pennington were quick to point out that it's not just the shape, style or functionality that makes Apple churn out design classics - it's about the whole system, with the software, the shop and every other part working elegantly together.

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