use and abuse …


Not that long ago, if someone said that they were a designer, you could take a quick look at the way they were dressed and have a fairly good idea if they were a furniture designer, an interior designer, a product/industrial designer or a graphic designer. Ok sometimes the stereotyping wasn’t reliable but usually pretty accurate.

And, more important, it was relatively easy to understand what they did and how.

Since Christmas I’ve read an article about “designing a personality” for an AI project and the Fast Company on-line design journal had an article about the 18 most important design jobs of the future which included among others Real-time 3-D Designer, Augmented Reality Designer and Human Organ Designer.

Perhaps designer, as a job description, is no more tightly defined than talking about someone being a musician when that covers anything from a busker, to a sessions musician, to an international performer and through to a composer who plays all their work through a computer.

But actually that doesn’t stop me feeling that the words design and designer are now over used and their definitions stretched. 

However, the most depressing newsletter to arrive in the New Year was from the Design Council in the UK offering papers on “insights on how design drives innovation and growth” and about manufacturing “businesses wanting to adopt design principles.” It was the hint of surprise in the first and the implication that it was something that might or might not be achieved in the future in the second that worried me. Surely this is not about design and designers but about failure in strategic management and the problem that senior directors at companies somehow do not appreciate the importance of good design at all levels of their business.

But then why don’t they understand that? The British were at the forefront of industrialisation … in both manufacturing and for marketing. In the 18th century Josiah Wedgwood knew all about technical innovation, quality control in production and about advertising, sales and efficient distribution: he used direct mailing, travelling salesmen, free delivery and illustrated catalogues and much more but at the core of his business was good design.

And of course he was not the first - simply one of the first to work on a truly industrial scale for mass production and become wealthy in the process. French silver workers and silk weavers who moved to England during religious wars of the 1680s understood completely the value of their designs and the importance of quality control although they tended to work for even more exclusive customers than Wedgwood but before them were potters bringing new designs and new techniques from Italy or Spain or the Netherlands to produce everyday wares and earlier still of course the glass workers of Venice established an International trade that depended on integrating technical knowledge and design skills.

Design is a process and not an ingredient. It’s not something that can simply be added to make an item more valuable or that can be left out to make something cheaper … although having said that good design is certainly something that can be compromised to keep unit costs down and profits high. Why do we seem to reduce design and the design process to surface and to appearance? That’s like judging an actor by their make up.

Design is the process of looking at what is needed, thinking about how something is used and how it works, deciding which materials to use and determining how to make something using those materials before launching into production. It is the designer who does that.