Exhibition Review – California: Designing Freedom at the Design Museum, London

California: Designing Freedom, as the title suggests, is an exhibition about things designed in California and how they create freedom. And there are many of those. Some won’t surprise you, but others certainly will.

We are all using things designed in California on a daily basis without even thinking about it. We are also enjoying personal freedoms originating in California without even knowing.

That’s what you’ll probably feel when you visit California: Designing Freedom at the Design Museum in London.

London Design Museum - California:Designing Freedom - the entrance to the exhibition
London Design Museum – California:Designing Freedom – the entrance to the exhibition

The exhibition makes a clever link that I never considered before, between current day Silicon Valley and the hippie movement of the 60s.

Both represent values of freedom in their own way and the display includes an impressive selection of items to demonstrate that.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, each exploring a theme related to freedom.

Say What You Want

The first theme – Say What You Want –  brings examples of political activism and protest through graphic design and new media.

Black Panthers posters and feminist newspapers from the 70s are on display, showing the power of graphic design with clear bold images in delivering a strong message.

One of the most impressive items is the original, hand made pride flag designed for the 1978 San Francisco Pride Parade. It had more colours than the current one, and they all stood to symbolise values and concepts, like sunlight, life and harmony.

London Design Museum - original rainbow pride flag
The original rainbow pride flag

See What You Want

The second theme – See What You Want – is about “opening the door to alternative realities”, be it through computer games, Hollywood or LSD.

The surprising connection between LSD and graphic design is revealed in a display of blotter paper samples from the 70s. Above it there’s a cool selection of psychedelic posters from the 60s.

Another interesting part of this section is a collection of technological tools that allow us to document our lives in video, like Google Glass, GoPro and others, under the somewhat disturbing title “The Leisure Surveillance Society”.

Go Where You Want

From there you move on to the third section – Go Where You Want. It looks at how we move around from different angles.

Some of the more interesting items in this section are the Google Street View trekker and the first self driving car.

Moving around with phones in our pockets is also explored here. A display of the original smartphone prototypes (and a strange reminder that the iPhone is only 10 years old….), as well as Kindle, iPod, Apple watch, Palm Pilot and more versions of small, portable computers going back to as early as 1981!

Make What You Want

The next section is dedicated to makers and their history. Make What You Want puts DIY in a historical context. It tells the story of the democratising of manufacturing tools and the rise of DIY and maker culture, tracing its origins to the late 60s and the hippie movement.

More aspects of this culture are desktop publishing, which we tend to take for granted these days, but it was quite revolutionary back in the 80s.

The cool display of how skateboards evolved since 1951 attracted a lot of attention from visitors. 

The evolution of skateboards the Design Museum
The evolution of skateboards

Join Who You Want

The final section is called Join Who You Want and it looks at tools of community and collaboration. It includes many interesting examples of different types of communities, some of which were completely new to me, alongside the very familiar Facebook “like” symbol as a means of connecting people.

I was particularly interested to learn about the Woman’s Building Centre, a non profit created to counter the systematic exclusion of women from museums and galleries in the US.

Towards the exit, you’ll face what is probably the most effective means of communication these days, spread over an entire wall 🙂


I spent just over two hours at this exhibition, and could have spent even longer. There is so much to take in and the display is wonderfully detailed. I have only mentioned some of the highlights and personal favourites here in these post, to give you a taste of it. 

I’d like to thank the Design Museum for the invitation to visit. All opinions are mine.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.