The lyrics are a critique of working class culture. The band's bass player/lyricist Nicky Wire explained the song's meaning in an interview with Q
magazine April 2011: "It was originally a two-page poem. One side was called A Pure Motive and the other A Design For Life. The song was inspired by what I perceived as the middle classes trying to hijack working-class culture. That was typified by Blur's 'Girls and Boys
,' the greyhound image on their Parklife
cover. It was me saying, 'This is the truth. GET IT.'"
The line, "Libraries gave us power" came from the wall of Newport Library in Wales.
In 1995, Manic guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared. He may have committed suicide, but his body was never recovered and some people claim they have seen him since. The band carried on without him - this was the first song bass player Nicky Wire wrote after Richey disappeared.
Vocalist James Dean Bradfield recalled writing the song's instrumentation to Q magazine: "I remember being given the lyrics by Nick (Wire). We had come to a total standstill since Richey (Edwards) had disappeared. There was a long period of shock where we couldn't do a thing, I just really needed something to occupy me. Deep down, I wanted to know what it was like to write a song as a three-piece. That was the most daunting task facing as at that point - how would it work? I remember being incredibly nervous when the first proper set of Nick's lyrics arrived five months after Richey disappeared. I didn't actually start writing anything for a few days after they came, which is strange for me as I usually start pretty much the second I've torn open the envelope."
He continued: "I remember atomising the lyrics. It felt like there was a thread running through of anger and what I thought at the time was sarcasm. I think it was one of the quickest tunes I've ever written - it came fully formed in just 10 minutes. Up to that point, we were genuinely in limbo. By the time I called Nick, I was pretty sure I was onto something brilliant."
Wire added: "James called me up saying, It's Ennio Morricone, R.E.M. and Phil Spector."
This song is sometimes interpreted as a lament, but Nicky Wire considers it an empowering song. "It's almost heroic, in the sense that whatever is thrown at the working classes by the upper classes, we will always come through," he told Dazed & Confused. "That's what the lyric is about: we always come back with something better."
James Dean Bradfield revealed to the NME that the band nearly split after Richey Edwards disappeared in 1995, adding that the remaining Manics technically weren't together for six months that year. Explaining how they came back together, he recalled: "I was living in London and [Nicky] sent me some lyrics in the post. Two [sets] arrived; one was called 'Pure Motive' and one was called 'A Design For Life.' They both had a hint of violence and reaffirmation about them, what working class attitudes should have. And then I atomized the two sets of lyrics and wrote some music to it, which came really easily. I rang him up and said, 'I found the song that will give us reason to exist as a band!'"
Speaking with the BBC, Bradfield described "A Design For Life" as a "Trojan horse Manics" tune - using a catchy radio-friendly sound to smuggle in a political message.