Go back to article: Rather unspectacular: design choices in National Health Service glasses

A design challenge – NHS hybrids and Regulation 12

The frames styles available under the NHS were very basic and to get a fashionable or stylish design of spectacles patients needed to purchase appliances on the private market. This could be expensive for a fully private frame and lenses. However, there was a compromise available for patients who were willing to pay for an up-grade of their frame and still receive state assistance for the sight-test and lenses. Frames known as NHS hybrids were available on the private market: the dimensions of the eye-rims were such that they could be glazed with regulation lenses but offered the patient a more stylish frame. A fashionable upswept or cats-eye shaped frame, similar to those shown in the Pathe film clip, was produced as a hybrid frame by Vertex Optical. Their trade advert for the Pussy Cat frame from 1960 explicitly states that this fashionable style could be glazed with regulation lenses and offers opticians reassurance: ‘The frame with the upswept look which can be glazed with NHS lenses. If you cannot believe this we can supply you with a stamped 524HJ from which the lenses can be transferred if necessary.’

Figure 9

Black and white print advertisment from 1960 by Vertex Optical showing a woman wearing Pussy Cat upswept spectacles

Example of an NHS hybrid private frame. Vertex (optical) trade advert for Pussy Cat, 1960

The text from this advert suggests that the criteria for designing regulation frames remained an issue a decade after the introduction of frame stamping and trademarks. The issue was raised with the government when representatives of the ophthalmic trade, the Joint Committee of Ophthalmic Opticians, met with officers of the Ministry of Health in 1960. In the minutes of this meeting Mr Giles, a key industry figure (having published the guide to the NHS in 1952) made it clear that the optical trade sought extra guidance over the designs that were acceptable under the scheme. He requested the establishment of a body which would ascertain ‘whether individual frames conform to the National Health Service shape’. The reply from the ministerial representative suggested that the Standing Ophthalmic Advisory Committee fulfilled this purpose, yet it was clear that confusion remained.

Figure 10

Colour photograph of a pair of hybrid Candida frame NHS spectacles

Example of an NHS hybrid frame (Candida) produced by Michael Birch (Designs) Ltd

Three years later, in 1963, frame manufacturer Michael Birch (Designs) Ltd tested the boundaries of the committee’s definition of what was acceptable for NHS patterns and also raised the issue of what constituted ‘fashion’. Michael Birch was known for producing fashionable Supra frames for the private market and he attempted to introduce slight variation to the NHS patterns with a design called Candida. This frame had an inner shape that could be glazed with regulation NHS lenses but the outer rim was of more fashionable style.[48] Birch’s Candida frame was not a Supra but used variation in the colour of plastic to give the appearance of these popular private frames. He believed the frame conformed to Regulation 12 describing NHS patterns but was initially refused a licence to produce the style (Optician, 1964). Frames of two colours were not allowed into the range – and this frame was two-tone. This unique case went to court as Birch appealed against the Ministry of Health’s refusal to grant a licence. The point of conflict had been the eye-shape and also the process of ministerial approval. Following lengthy evidence the appeal was upheld and the Minister was ordered to grant a certificate. Birch had managed to push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

The Birch frame had caused controversy as it was felt to be too stylish. The government was clear in its insistence that NHS frames should not be affected by fashion and trends. In internal documents from the Standing Ophthalmic Advisory Committee it is made clear that this was a factor under discussion. The elimination of styling aspects was an active deterrent and a deliberate attempt to limit the number of applicants for state aid. When a journalist investigated the lack of change in the NHS frames over a 22-year period both the government and the entire trade were criticised. In the February 1970 issue of Focus, the magazine of the Consumer Council, opticians were criticised for not demanding changes in the NHS range due to their own self-interest in selling more expensive private styles. Also that ‘opticians seem happy to promote the snobbery which regards Health Service as functional but second best’ (Optician, 1970). The report also found that the government seemed ‘surprised’ that the issue of poor design was raised, and that ‘they disliked the word fashion being used in connection with NHS frames, preferring the term “specifications”’ (Optician, 1970).

Fashion was seen as a powerful and threatening factor to the system of regulation frames. So much so that terminology relating to design principles was rejected. A frame was an appliance of a certain specification, referred to only by a reference code number.[49] The prerequisite for a state schedule frame was cost-effectiveness. When questioned about the limited designs offered by manufacturers Ministry of Health representatives in 1970 replied that, ‘manufacturers limited the scope of the 524 because they said they could not produce a better frame for the price they were paid’ (Optician, 1970). They did not acknowledge that the visual appearance of the 524 had not changed over 12 year and design had stagnated. Manufacturers also noticed the effect of the NHS terms of service on ophthalmic technology and frame design in Britain. W E Hardy, of the Federation of Manufacturing Opticians and editor of the Optician, stated the importance of design and that:

British ophthalmic manufacturers were among the first to appreciate the true significance of styled frames [but] their NHS commitments exerted a breaking effect on the designing and producing of novel spectacle frames. (Hardy, 1970)

The rejection of fashion and styling worked for the benefit of government financiers but to the detriment of patients and the optical trade.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170703/008