Sir John Sorrell CBE: Life of Design

Sir John Sorrell CBE, founder of the London Design Festival and keynote speaker at Shanghai Design Week in 2013, talks to Vantage Shanghai about what makes a city creative.

by Ashley Greenwood (originally published 2013)

Sir-John-Sorrell-credit-John-SwannellSir John Sorrell has devoted his career of over 50 years to the creative industries. When we spoke, for someone who has achieved so much, he was charmingly modest and so full of enthusiasm to tell me about the power of design to change peoples lives.

In 2003, he founded the London Design Festival in order to celebrate and promote London as the design capital of the world, and this year Sir John, who was awarded a Knighthood in 2008 `for services to the Creative Industries’, was invited to speak at Shanghai Design Week 2013, one of over 100 such festivals around the world inspired by his original festival in London.

During the Shanghai World Expo Sir John was special advisor to the British pavilion, which went on to take first prize, and he has now been appointed by the British Prime Minister to serve as a UK business ambassador, championing the UK’s creative industries overseas. Speaking to Vantage, he shares his significant insight into the creative world.



Vantage: What were the main parts of your speech at Shanghai Design Week that you wanted people to take home with them?

Sir John Sorrell: My speech was titled ‘The Age of Creativity’ and I was making the point that I believe we have entered a new age of creativity. The world has moved on from the agricultural revolution and industrial revolution, and I think now also the technological revolution. I think we’re now in something else, about how you use creativity to make the world a better place.
I was basically saying I don’t think it’s coincidental that in the last 10 years one hundred cities have started a version of the London Design Festival. It’s because they are all realising that, whilst they might have strengths in things like manufacturing or life sciences or construction, in the end it’s their creative industries that are going to drive growth because creative industries and design is always at the forefront of development and change and growth. The more creative people are, the more likely it is that we’re going to find the right solutions



Design-Is-EverywhereVantage: So when you say making things better, would you say there is a trend for more ecological design?

Sir John Sorrell: Well, in every way: quality of life. You can then interpret that in all kinds of ways, from the very simplest product design, which works well and makes life better, to a very huge piece of urban development, which if it’s designed brilliantly, it’s going to be sustainable and it’s not going to harm the planet and is in turn going to improve the quality of life for people.

Vantage: So what makes London’s design scene so different?

Sir John Sorrell: Well there are three things. The first is that we have a creative education system that goes back 150 years to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the creation of art schools after that. So it’s deeply embedded. The second thing is, in design, we have the greatest number of different design disciplines being practiced in London. You can count 30 easily, I could go to over 50 different design disciplines, and you get cross-fertilisation. You get the jewellers and the architects both working at different scales, but looking at what each other is doing. The digital designers, the fashion designers, the graphic designers, the engineers… it’s such a melting pot of creative conversation. It’s absolutely unique in the world. The third thing is the international nature of the creative community. People come to London to set up their design shops because they want to part of the most creative community in the world. You put those three things together and it’s very unusual and an amazing place to work.


uk pavillion shanghai expo ashley greenwoodVantage: The former leaders of China, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, both said they wanted China to become a more innovative country. What do you think they could do, to make it more like London, to make it a hot-bed and encourage that innovation in China?
Sir John Sorrell: Well, I’ve also heard people talking about changing the ‘Made in China’ in to ‘Designed in China’, and I’ve seen speeches like that. One of the things I say is that China is one of the great manufacturers of the world, and I think, creating and making, if you can do both you’re very lucky. We would love in the UK to have the manufacturing resources. But I think the creative side of things starts in the education. But I would say that, because I love education and have my own foundation. I think it’s all about education and you have to start very young, so you’ve got to embed a creative education in the system, I don’t think it can wait until university, you have to do it right through. You’ve got to have brilliant programs and the right teachers and tutors.

Vantage: So that suggests it’s not something that China couldn’t change easily, as one has to get right to the core of the issue.
Sir John Sorrell: China is one of the most long-term view nations I’ve ever known. I don’t think it is an unusual thing for China to say we’re going to do something over a long period of time and we’re going to achieve it. So I do think it’s very important to get education system geared up to find the right way to help unlock the creativity that’s in every young person. Everybody is creative.


design shanghaiVantage: On the point of the leaders wanting encourage creativity; they specifically said they wanted to encourage it in the fields of technology and science, but do you think there are other fields of creativity that are equally as important, that they should be looking at as well?
Sir John Sorrell: Well interestingly, if you talk to the UK government, they talk a lot about science and technology too. I think everyone is talking about science and technology, but of course, everything starts with great idea, so you need creative people to create the great ideas. Our designers are looking at what’s happening in science and technology, and using the latest technology and they’re very often the people who create the breakthroughs that are picked up in other areas. Great designers, like Simon Waterfall and Daljit Singh in the UK, are creating things like apps that are then being picked up and used in businesses for all kinds of different activities and applications, and also to culture. Let’s not forget that culture is one of the most important things that creates an identity for a city and which makes people want to work with it. The Monocle Survey on soft power, which put Britain number one, is about a nations power in terms of creative things and innovation, rather than things like the power of weapons and force.


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Vantage: And this soft power is also something that China is very keen to boost…

Sir John Sorrell: Again, I was having conversations about this. It’s about your reputation, it’s about your identity, and people love creative people. If you want a business partner, what you really want is a creative business partner. You don’t want a boring one or someone who doesn’t have any ideas. By that I don’t necessarily mean design companies, but the use of creativity in the way people in business think. You know, Steve Jobs wasn’t a designer. He did quite well. But he made sure he had a great designer sitting along side him, literally in his office next to him, in Johnny Ive.

Vantage: So from the Shanghai Design Week, what were the standout things that really impressed you?
Sir John Sorrell: Well three things. Firstly the quality of the presentations was brilliant in the forum. Secondly, I was struck by some of the work. One area was about sustainability, which I thought was very very good. And I also saw some very good student work, which cheered me up enormously. And the third point is I felt an energy and a buzz that I feel during the London Design Festival. And I know Shanghai has a delegation coming over to the London Design Festival in September, which is very good news, and we’re going to look after and welcome them as our friends from the design community here.

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