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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Towards a Participatory Consumer Democracy: Britain, 1937-1987

The idea that ‘modern markets’ need ‘confident consumers’ has been at the heart of New Labour policy. But this is not the new discovery it is often presumed to be. The Council of Industrial Design set up in 1944 embodied just such a recognition, and gave primacy to the role of consumers in driving up standards in the sphere of product design. This research scrutinised this previous episode of state involvement in consumer education, which has remained largely unrepresented in historical accounts and has therefore not informed the development of current policy in this area.

This project ran to September 2005

image illustrating findings

view this project's findings summary sheet [pdf]

Project team
Lesley Whitworth
Terry Gourvish

Dr. Lesley Whitworth
Design History Research Centre
University of Brighton
Grand Parade
Brighton BN2 0JY

+44 (0)1273 643 304

Publications include:

Whitworth L., ‘Anticipating Affluence: Skill, Judgement and the Problems of Aesthetic Tutelage’, in Black L. and Pemberton H.(eds), An Affluent Society? Britain’s Post-War ‘Golden Age’ Revisited (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).

Whitworth L., ‘Inscribing Design on the Nation: The Creators of the British Council of Industrial Design’, Business and Economic History On-Line, Vol. 3, 2005 (

Whitworth L., ‘The Housewives Committee of the Council of Industrial Design: A Short-lived Experiment in Domestic Reconnoitring’, in Darling E. and Whitworth L. (eds), Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870–1940 (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


The 1999 publication of the white paper Modern Markets: Confident Consumers confirmed the British government's concern with issues of consumption. In his Foreword, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry asserted that in putting consumers centre stage the government had recognised "for the first time that confident, demanding consumers are good for business". However this is historically inaccurate. The creation of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) in 1944 was, in part, a response to just such a recognition. This research will scrutinise this previous episode of state involvement in consumer education which has remained largely unrepresented in historical accounts and has therefore not informed the development of current policy in this area. Against a present-day background of rising consumer unrest and dissatisfaction, indeed the arguable diminution of an appetite to consume, the moment is right for a re-appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of these earlier engagements between consumers and a government-sanctioned ethos of consumption. The final phase of the work will seek practical applications for the insights derived from historical research, in conjunction with bodies currently involved in consumer education.

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This research will examine one particular source of knowledge and one particular model of consumption available to British consumers in the post-war period. Faced with an economic imperative to stimulate Britain's manufacturing industry and export potential once hostilities ceased, one of the Board of Trade's responses was to create a Council of Industrial Design intended to stimulate a new concern for the standard of design evident in its output. State sponsorship underpinned the new body and early policy statements spoke to the social significance with which its task was also invested. The Council embarked on a programme of activities intended to draw its distinct and potentially competing constituencies of interest (industry, education, public, retail) into a shared process conceptualised as having benefits at national, local and individual levels. This programme was intended to achieve no less than the transformation of British manufacturing industry; the creation of an internationally recognisable standard in British products; plus the sympathetic alignment of design training, retailing standards and the consuming appetites of the British buying public. It is on the last two of these that the present study will focus.

The Council's longstanding engagement with retailers arguably represents its most overt attempt to mould national buying habits and encourage more 'rational' patterns of consumption. The Council continued to offer training, organise events, publish texts, approve products and actively engage with the retail sector and consumers over subsequent decades. Despite changes in government and in government rhetoric, the Council of Industrial Design won continuing support, periodically re-inventing itself the better to serve current needs. The present Design Council has played a highly visible role in mediating and constituting New Labour's message to the British voting public about the vibrancy and utility of this country's internationally recognised design expertise.

The Council utilised the independent social and later consumer research agency Mass Observation, founded in 1937, to evaluate the effectiveness of some of its policies. One of the agency's founders had developed fruitful connections with the design community in the pre-war and war years. As with the CoID, the inception of this organisation was bold, timely and apposite. Especially during their formative periods each sought to sharpen the British public's critical perception: wartime privations and an emerging consensus for greater social justice added impetus to their endeavours. A secondary theme of the research will therefore be the shifting identity and business practice of Mass-Observation, especially seen through the aspect of its work with the Council.

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  • How genuine was the government's concern with consumer needs, and how embedded was that concern in the legislation that brought the Council into existence in 1944?
  • Did the government-sponsored body offer effective leadership, and what were its perceived weaknesses?
  • What assumptions were made about consumer behaviour and in what ways did consumers confound these expectations?
  • Why, despite state funding and a clear mandate to educate the consumer, did the CoID lose ground, leaving scope for the subsequent formation of, e.g., the Consumers' Association in 1957 and the National Consumer Council in 1975.
  • What can the government body currently charged with engagement at the cutting-edge of design promotion, learn from its own largely neglected history?
  • Does past experience suggest, that a model of consumer empowerment can be effectively generated through buying habits, to provide a strong driver to British manufacturing and service industries, which will be of overall benefit to the country's economic and social well-being?

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This project will be grounded in archival research. Material relating to the Design Council is now lodged at the University of Brighton and earlier civil service standards of record keeping have generated a dense and multi-layered body of documentation. This impressive and relatively unknown collection will allow the tracking of Council initiatives through, for example, committee minutes, office file-keeping, a defining body of photographic evidence, as well as personal notes and correspondence. Outputs such as Annual Reports, the journal Design, and the Council's staff magazine will allow an analysis of different 'in-house' representations of these campaigns, while meticulously kept press cuttings from local and national papers will offer an alternative journalistic viewpoint. This data will be contextualised through reference to material held elsewhere. Records survive for many of the stores with whom the Council built relationships and these add considerably to the opportunity to develop a highly nuanced account of these engagements. Board of Trade material at the Public Record Office will also offer critical insights into the Council's perceived success or otherwise in delivering its message. No parallel spine of administrative documents exists within the Mass Observation Archive, rather the excavation of relevant papers from separate project files will assist in an overdue assessment of Mass-Observation's changing fortunes. A body of personal testimony will also be gathered from former Council staff and their counterparts in the retail industry to contest or amplify document-based findings.

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The findings generated by this research will not be classed as 'institutional history'. Rather the activities of both organisations studied will act as a lens through which a deeper understanding of consumer behaviour in the second half of the twentieth century may be attained. From the pivotal perspective of the retailer, it will be possible to map the transition in consumer behaviour, both individual and familial, through growing prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, and the economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. In so doing it will add to the critical mass of contemporary British history and offer an account that is sensitive to issues of consumption, gender, spatial experience, and the tactile qualities of our material culture as well as broader social and economic factors, business practice and retail management.

The co-applicants believe that historically-derived insights will be applicable to present-day policy-making. Working relationships predicated on good information exchange will be developed with key bodies having responsibilities in the area of consumer education. Interaction with them will happen later in the project's time-frame when the transferable findings from the research are being directed towards ongoing policy-making objectives. This will be facilitated through attendance at forums, briefing sessions, workshops and presentations. In particular, a seminar will be held under the auspices of the Business History Unit at the London School of Economics, which will bring together academic and non-academic parties working in this area.

Research findings will be presented through conference papers, journal and newspaper articles, reports and digests



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