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Registered designs as a history of design

  • Matthew Turner (a1)


Since 1839 a million or more designs have been lodged with the British Patent Office. Millions more have been registered in other jurisdictions, for example, in America (from 1842), India (from 1881), and Japan (from 1910). Registered designs are not confined to ‘Good Design’ (according to Modernist Western criteria) but neither do they provide a comprehensive record of design innovation: whether designs from a given country are or are not registered abroad may be less a measure of the country’s design activity, more an indication either of the refusal by an Imperial power to recognise indigenous design as ‘original’, or of whether it is advantageous to a developing country to respect international copyright. Nonetheless, registered designs, which are documented in great detail and may be accompanied by precise visual representations, constitute one of the most extensive series of primary source materials and statistics for an objective, world history of design. The fact that they have been overlooked by design historians can be partially explained by ignorance of their existence or whereabouts, and difficulties of access, but also reflects a limited, Eurocentric approach to design and its history.



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1. See, for example, Dilnot, Clive, “The State of Design History”, Design Issues vol.1 no.1, Spring 1984 ; Forty, Adrian, Objects of Desire, New York: Pantheon, 1986 ; Heskett, John, “Industrial Design” in Clark, Hazel, (ed.), Design History - A Student’s Guide, London: Penguin, 1984 ; Jervis, Simon, The Penguin Dictionary of Design (Introduction), London: 1984 ; Walker, John A., Design History and the History of Design, London: Pluto, 1989 .

2. Designs are the ‘poor relation’ of Trade Marks and Patents, and information about them is correspondingly meagre. In the preparation of this article I am indebted to Mr Steve Van Dulken, Curator, British Library Science Reference and Information Service, for advice and encouragement. Accessible legal studies of Designs include: Morris, Ian and Quest, Barry, Design, London, 1987 (esp. 2.4 1-3 on “eye-appeal”); MacQueen, H., Copyright, Competition and Industrial Design; Myrants, G., The Protection of Industrial Designs; and for America, U.S. Dept. of Commerce , Design Patents, Office of Technology Assessment, 1983; the British Patent Office’s Introducing Design Registration, gives the relevant current legislation.

3. Reports of the Comptroller-General of Patents, Design and Trade Marks, London: HMSO, 1966.

4. Examples from Official Journal of The Patent Office (OJ), London.

5. Although the Science Reference and Information Service includes many early registers of design (some, like those for Japan are housed separately), it is primarily intended for academic and legal research into current intellectual property; nevertheless, in the past four years only one request had been made to view Japanese Designs. The Patent Office houses the Registered Designs themselves, together with Representation Sheets (and Statements of Novelty for more rscent Designs) from 1960. Designs from 1839 to 1960 are collected in the Public Record Office.

6. A trademark may be in the form of a name, a device, or a ‘logo’. It might therefore consist of a tartan pattern material of which a skirt is made, similarly it might consist of red, white and blue lines running along a plastic hose, and in certain circumstances (e.g. a pharmaceutical capsule) of the whole surface area of the goods. Trademark rights are therefore not restricted to brand names, but have a substantial overlap with Design.

7. The date at which the modern concept of design entered a particular society may be determined by checking editions of dictionaries or school curricula — but registered designs provide more reliable, and in the case of India and China, much earlier instances.

8. This point has been made explicitly by Michael Pendleton, a former Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Hong Kong, in ‘Discouraging Local Innovation and Design Expertise in Hong Kong — Colonial Intellectual Property Law’, in Ghose, Rajeshwari (ed.) Design and Development in South and Southeast Asia, Hong Kong University Press (forthcoming).

9. The value of ‘originality’ in design is thus its market value: in the 1970s ‘Smurfs’ were more valuable commercial information than ‘Hello Kitty’; a decade later a claim to the ‘originality’ of the Japanese design could be equally lucrative. In the same way, Japan appeared to have no significant design history until the 1970s, when it acquired a whole century of original design development, at least to Western eyes.

10. See my “De-colonialising Asia’s Design History” in Kulturelle Identitat und Design (Internationales Forum für Gestaltung, Ulm), Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1990, p.67-83. See also my “Early Modern Hong Kong Design”, Design Issues vol. VI no.1, Fall 1989, for a discussion on the relationship between the ideology of the OECD and the regional limits of design history to OECD countries.

11. While the slighting references to the relative ‘isolation’ of the Iberian peninsula in the 1936 edition of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement were amended in subsequent editions, few historians considered post-Gaudi design until the post-Franco-Salazar era. Even Gert Selle’s Design-Geschichte in Deutschland (Koln, 1987) treats DDR design only in a polemical fashion in a final discussion of the ‘Postmoderne’.

12. Times, 23.4.91. Mr. Ratner gave the example of a pair of earrings costing less than the price of a prawn sandwich in Marks and Spencers (but which would not last as long); such designs are almost always registered, and make up the bulk of the registers.

13. The Public Records Office has produced a useful Information Sheet (No.42) Designs and Trade Marks: Registers and Representations (1985) to assist researchers in following up early designs. However, until all 20th century Designs out of copyright are released by the Designs Registry and catalogued by the PRO, their usefulness will be limited.

14. For example, A. J. Coulson’s Bibliography of Design in Britain (1979) merely mentions that Designs differ from Patents, which are the subject of a substantial section of the bibliography.

15. For a discussion of the relative merits of design protection see: White, T. A. Blanco, Patents for Inventions and the protection of Industrial Designs, 4th ed., London, 1974 . Since then important changes in the law have taken place, to which the Patent Office’s What is Intellectual Property (1990) offers a basic guide, including the temporary edition Introducing Design Protection.

Registered designs as a history of design

  • Matthew Turner (a1)


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