Is it a British thing or is the whole world becoming obsessed with lists of the best? For many years now, magazines have filled their pages with occasional lists of the 100 best movies, or albums, or album covers. More recently, TV has got in on the act, with endless marathons devoted to viewers' favourite this and that. The search for ever more subjects to list and rank and acclaim has led to a seemingly limitless array of subdivisions. So, in recent months, we've seen such amusements as the 100 greatest protest songs - a sure sign of the times - and the 100 greatest rock band front men. Coming soon: the 100 most devoted, previously unsung roadies.
Now, even the intellectual heavyweights have decided to join in. Prospect magazine - the British equivalent of Harper's or Atlantic Monthly - is celebrating its 100th issue by publishing a list of the 100 top British public intellectuals. The pantheon includes a couple of writers, activist and journalist George Monbiot and political philosopher John Gray, whose books are recommended by Design Observer, and a fair smattering of intellectuals well known outside Britain, such as novelist Martin Amis, firebrand journalist Christopher Hitchens (who lives and works in the US) and literary critics Terry Eagleton and George Steiner. Prospect acknowledges that those on the list are not necessarily the cleverest or most rigorous thinkers. "Rather, the emphasis must lie on a sliding scale between their 'public' and 'intellectual' roles."
Some have inevitably questioned why a serious publication should be dabbling in such parlour games and the list's oversights have drawn comment - for instance, it features only 12 women. Perhaps it does no more than confirm what we knew anyway, but visual culture is barely represented at all. Architect Richard Rogers and architecture critic Charles Jencks make the cut (it's not necessary to be British, only to make a significant impact in the country), as does conceptual artist and professor, Michael Craig-Martin. Brian Eno, who has worked as a video artist as well as a musician and producer, is one of the list's most inspired inclusions. Apart from that, art, film and - yes, you saw it coming - design are overlooked, while the policy advisers and social and political theorists who contribute many of Prospect's essays have a field day. Not a single area of British design endeavour has apparently produced a figure of sufficient stature to make it into the final 100. Even the most obvious candidate, ubiquitous design critic Stephen Bayley, fails to make the grade.
Would the result have been significantly different if the exercise had been carried out by an American publication? Probably not, when it comes to design, though perhaps the American equivalents of scholarly visual culture writers such as Peter Wollen, Marina Warner and Judith Williamson (all absent from Prospect's line-up) might have fared a little better.
The list is best taken, perhaps, as a useful reminder of the gap that continues to exist between designers' glowing self-image as vital shapers of the contemporary visual landscape and the reality of their position, or rather their lack of position, in the social and political debates that influence matters of public policy. The overriding challenge for designers and those committed to design's possibilities is to establish connections outside design. In September/October 2003, Step magazine published an article by Ric Grefe, executive director of the AIGA, arguing that "design is at a defining moment". "We may only be taken seriously if we can demonstrate our relevance to society's concerns with conviction," he noted, before going on to set out three areas - the economy, culture and the environment - where visual communication could act as a clarifying force.
All of this was as a prelude to the AIGA's last national conference. How we love our conferences! But while these talking shops do serve a crucial role, don't these conversations between fellow professionals too often tend to stop right there, endlessly restating what we already know to make ourselves feel better, instead of focusing efforts on taking the message into the public sphere? This is, of course, a vastly more challenging task. If Prospect or some other magazine were to produce another list of public intellectuals in five years' time and there were even two or three figures from the design world on the list it would be a sign that these connections were at last starting to be forged.