The Design of Trust, Past and Present: A dialogue between ‘design for trust’ in contemporary design practice and the fire insurance industry in England 1680–1914

Miranda Clow

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

Miranda Clow: The Design of Trust, Past and Present: A dialogue between ‘design for trust’ in contemporary design practice and the fire insurance industry in England 1680–1914

ABSTRACT

What does trust look like? How can it be designed? These are questions that today’s designers face, particularly in the digital world. This thesis lends these challenges a historical context. To do so, it examines the print culture of the fire insurance industry in Britain in three historical periods. It argues that print was the tangible material that was designed to build trust for this intangible industry. Scholarship has identified the relationship between print culture, trust and credibility. My contribution is to make a detailed analysis of how one financial service made its commercial print effective, and how this can be attributed to design. 
In this thesis, past and present work in dialogue. Part I reviews the ways in which contemporary design practice has engaged with the concept of trust, in four case studies: Airbnb, Projects by If, a publication by the UCL Urban Laboratory and a project by Service Design students at the Royal College of Art. This survey informs my approach to the historical material. Part II analyses the printed and part-printed documents produced by the Insurance Office (Nicholas Barbon’s Fire Office) between 1680 and 1700, the Sun Fire Office between c. 1800 and c. 1820, and the Sun Insurance Office between c. 1894 and 1914. This part shows how these graphic objects elicited trust. The printed page communicated qualities such as security and afforded the format of the fire policy. It also shaped the work of the people involved in these companies – directors, agents and firemen. The final part of the thesis shows how news print assisted the fire insurance industry in the building and maintaining of trust, at the same time as being a channel which on occasion challenged this message. A multitude of printed matter was designed to dispel the uncertainty upon which fire insurance rested. But the same channels made fraud and distrust both possible and visible. 
By studying the graphic objects of fire insurance in dialogue with contemporary design issues, I test the philosophical and sociological discussions of trust against the material approach of designers. This thesis deepens the study of ephemera and everyday graphic design. It expands the boundaries of design in Britain since 1680, and builds a bridge to practice today.