introspection and doubt?

Through the summer there have been a number of articles posted on the internet that appear to question the relevance of design and to criticise the direction in which some designers and some manufacturers are moving. What makes these articles significant is that they came from inside ... from designers ... and not from critics in the press.

I’m not sure if this soul searching indicates a loss of faith or if it is simply that designers are feeling pressure from the ongoing economic uncertainty and are expressing their concerns about the future. Whatever the reasons, debate is a good way to combat complacency and a way to assess if the training of designers and the day-to-day work of design professionals, in the most general way, is moving in the right direction.

There is obviously some concern that designers are being driven too much by commercial considerations - presumably a concern about balance. So, to put it crudely in terms of carts before horses, are designers producing good designs that they then sell or are the accountants demanding a conveyor belt of new designs to maintain the sale’s figures and market share of a company? 

Back in April the English designer Jasper Morrison described the design fair in Milan as the Salone del Marketing. There were over 2,000 exhibitors in Milan this year and obviously their primary aim was to promote and sell the latest products so this seemed justified but in an interview with Dan Howarth, published by Dezeen, he backtracked slightly. However, he did expand on another interesting concern about the growing influence of social media where there is an insatiable hunger for new images …“The danger is the sort of superficial approach to designing, that the products are more about looks than about works … the end result will be that people perceive design as something rather superficial and communicative rather than functional. It's more about saying who you are, more fashion-y and less real.”

An article by John Paolini for Fast Company discussed the interesting problem that if you overuse terms like ‘brand ‘ or ‘design’ then it “saps their meaning.” 

He pointed out that “The words ‘brand’ and ‘design’ have been drastically overused and convoluted, rendered meaningless to the point where a new generation of people questions their fundamental value. And many of the people doing the questioning are at the forefront of creating new products and experiences, people in roles where ten years ago brand and design would have been viewed as vital assets. Have we lost the original spirit of the terms and the distinction between them?”

He was talking specifically about the marketing industry but the concerns are equally applicable to other sectors of the design professions. 

Paolini himself talks about design being discussed in the media as if it is a “lifestyle asset.”

Alan Cooper, talking specifically about design for digital media, made an interesting point that, in his opinion, companies are tempted to set up in-house design teams but then they loose the valuable contribution of an outsider’s perspective that comes from commissioning work from an independent design studio. Clearly, design studios have a vested interest in promoting the gains to be made from employing a design studio, although the counter argument should be that an in-house design team can create consistency and allow for an important element of evolution for the products of a company … as, for instance, with the work by Dieter Rams for Braun. If Apple have proved anything over the last decade or so, it is that brand loyalty when it is combined with high-quality design overrides customers concerns about product cost or value. It would be interesting to hear a company like Bolia or Design House Stockholm discuss brand recognition when there is a rapid turn around of designers employed. 

John Mathers, chief executive of the Design Council in the UK, tried to take the debate back to reassess our definition of what design is by suggesting that it is creativity with a specific end. His observations were published first in the RSA Journal and were then summarised on line.

Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers” - a definition he acknowledges was suggested by the Cox Review of Creativity in Business from 2005. 

Mathers discussed the very real problem of getting policy makers to address the economic value of design and pointed to a serious reduction in the numbers studying creative subjects at school in England and the reduction of funding for design in further education. The conclusion here has to be that although politicians appreciate the clear economic benefits to a country from a thriving design and manufacturing sector they do not address how talent has to be nurtured, sustained and reinvigorated through ongoing investment in education.

It was interesting to see in his piece that John Mathers returned to the fundamental issue of defining the role of a designer. He sees design primarily as a way to solve problems and that a focus on resolving those problems for the designer is to understand form and function which are “arguably the core” of the design process.

He went on to say that “There is, of course, something of a popular stereotype associating design largely or even solely with style. However, given the long pedigree of, say, instructional design, it is not particularly radical to observe that, while aesthetic appeal is vitally important in many design contexts, it is not, in fact, an essential or defining element. What we might venture, at least to give us a working definition, is that design arranges largely physical elements to fulfil some specific function (which may include or even primarily be style)”.

In a post published in the last few days Lucas Verweij, again in an interview with Dezeen, goes further and discusses what he describes as an identity crisis for designers.

There is a lot of confusion about what design actually is. Some say it is the process of applied creativity, a creative mentality. Others say it is intrinsically material or craft-based, and has to have a firm relation to industrial production. Yet others plea that design at its core is an entrepreneurial approach.

There's an inherent tension in the reality of design as a profession – a challenging combination of management and creative skills. The management part can be scripted with reliability, but creativity is by definition an unpredictable and unscientific activity.


Note: Verweij is the husband of Hella Jongerius so see the post on our “obsession with the new.”