Best British Design

Introduction to the Best British Design

Britain has a notable track record in design and is held in high regard around the world for design leadership and creativity. Combining the influences of both tradition and modernity, British designers have successfully invented many of the technologies and objects currently in use in the 21st century.

Britain was a pioneer of industrial design and technology in the industrial revolution, developing the steam engine and mechanizing industry, manufacturing, agriculture and transport. The major stimulus for the more recent significant wave of design and its social and economic effects was the Second World War. Britain’s cities and homes were literally transformed in the process of re-building with the drive to improve living conditions and make better homes for the people. The Festival of Britain in 1951 catalysed both designers and the public to contemplate what might be possible, and the new generation followed through with revolutions in fashion, shopping and contemporary interior design. With the swinging 60s came the grandfather of modern design, Terence Conran’s Habitat store, new minimalist fashion design and the technically innovative and beautiful Mini and the E-type Jaguar cars.

British design has developed in close proximity to the process of making or crafting, and this may still be its strength. Arthur Price cutlery and Wedgwood ceramic tableware were both British designed and crafted. The survival of these old companies through periods of exceptional economic and social change and competitive global challenges have sometimes involved expanding their manufacturing processes to facilities abroad or even outsourcing them to other companies under arrangements to ensure quality control and standards. Ultimately the appeal of these products are in the quality of design and materials which enables them to keep pace with evolving markets and is also testament to the on-going appetite for British design around the world.


Attribution:   Wedgwood

So what is great design? A very good question! Perhaps one best answered by William Morris whose design values encapsulated in the Arts & Crafts movement from the second half of the 19th century were measured and modest. Showiness does not come into it. Though his followers feared machine production, believing that hand crafted objects were superior, the Morris legacy still acknowledged today is the relationship between design and quality of life. The power of mass production when applied to good design is responsible for many of the examples of British Design we have selected to feature on

Some of the universally recognised design classics have become synonymous with Britishness around the world. The red phone box, the Routemaster bus and the Union flag are design symbols in their own right. We have dedicated a category on this website to British Symbols. Ironically it was the union flag that became a subversive design symbol for the anarchic fashion and music scene of the 1970s and then became popular in mainstream culture with the manifestations of Cool Britannia in the 1990s.

What distinguishes the designs we feature here is their heritage as British design icons, their inventiveness and their leadership in their markets, whether niche or mass. Some of these product designs are re-developments of perennial favourites riding on a resurgence of popularity, such as the Cambridge Satchel, re-launched off the back of the successful Harry Potter books, and with appeal to the new millennial markets. At the other end of the spectrum are the companies founded centuries ago as small family businesses using craftsmen’s skills. Hat makers and jewellers, leather workers and shoe makers who design and create high quality products.

British brands occupy a large niche in the motoring industry and amongst our featured designs are luxury motorcars, sports cars, lightweight sports cars and mass production models. Most of these, like Morgan Motor Company have a heritage that goes back to the earliest motoring history and have successfully navigated the changing trends and tastes of motor car design by understanding what makes their customers tick. The car industry has been through a period of tumultuous change and some manufacturers have fallen into receivership only to be rescued by new foreign owners. Nevertheless the designs that made them famous in the first place continue to be invested in with the marques such as Rolls Royce Motors and Bentley being held in such high esteem.

Morgan Motor Company

Attribution:   Stuart Allen, Pixabay, CC0 1.0

With a history built on ground-breaking engineering, aviation and exploration, BAE systems dominates these sectors today and is one of the world's biggest companies. Its heritage includes massive and world leading manufacturing projects from Concorde to battle cruisers and submarines as well as the commercial development of radio and has therefore played a fundamental part in the work of Britain’s armed forces. With BAE Systems supplying critical avionics products to more than 100 commercial and military customers around the world and with Rolls Royce supplying more than 13,000 engines currently in service to the jet industry (most recently powering the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 aircraft in 2016), millions of people around the world rely upon these companies’ industrial designs every year.

Though traditional British manufacturing output has fallen from a third in the 1950s to only 11% of the GDP today it punches well above its weight in inventiveness. A Japanese study by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry of national inventiveness showed that Britain had produced 55% of the world’s significant inventions, which is completely out of proportion compared to the size of the country. Though Britain may not have been especially good at commercialising them in the past, it is such design innovation that is the driving force of successful British companies today. Whether that is in familiar domestic products and appliances such as those made by Dyson, or public transportation coachbuilders such as the fleets made by Wrightbus or the more exclusive luxury motor boats made by yachtmaker Sunseeker. These are the companies that are best exploiting the national trait for inventiveness and innovation for which the British should be known.

As for the future of British design, our designers are in demand from foreign companies and British art and design schools remain a magnet to foreign students. With this globalisation of British design, arguably its design qualities are not necessarily recognisably British any more. Nevertheless the British tradition of inventiveness, ambition and pushing the boundaries of possibility remain in tact.

'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.' - William Morris

Please browse our gallery of selected great British Design above for inspiration, and click on each of the images to find more useful information and links to help you find out about each one.