Are Designers The Enemy Of Design? The Global Conversation.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 6, 2007

Get set for a real treat—a truly global conversation on the future of design that was triggered by my provocative speech at Parsons—Are Designers The Enemy of Design? 50 folks from around the world talk about the issues raised in the speech. Are designers arrogant about design democracy? Are designers ignorant about sustainability?

Most of the 50 pieces are extremely thoughtful. A few are truly stupid. A surprising number deal with the language used to provoke. “Designers Suck” appeared to tick a few people off (as would “Journalists Suck”). My guess that’s a generational thing.

One general theme is to blame business, not design, for all the junk being produced. It’s a point well-taken, of course. Designers work for business people and usually work within given briefs and parameters. Yet I would argue that even within those proscribed business briefs there is enormous room to design better, more sustainable things. Design with different materials, fewer parts, cut costs as well as waste, etc. Design a different process.

Moreover, I would argue that 2006 marked the year that Corporate America tipped green, following Europe by a decade. There is now much more acceptance of sustainability than ever by the business culture. And opportunity for designers.

I thank GK VanPatter at NextD for putting this together. I usually don’t agree with GK. His commentary reminds me of my early grad school days in Ann Arbor when we all hated capitalism and didn’t like money. And by calling the speech and response to it “Beautiful Diversion,” GK doesn’t exactly set up a neutral, objective tone. Regardless, he’s done a great service in advancing the discussion about design. And we get to hear voices from Europe, Australia and the US that are rarely given a platform in a major business publication.

I plan to run one commentary a day and comment on the commentary until we run out of the thread. I don’t know the logic of GK’s listing but I’ll start at the top and move my way down.

Here’s the first:

Sir George Cox | Design Council, United Kingdom

Are designers the enemy of design? I think not, at least not in the past. But that could all be about to change.
We live in a world that is being rapidly reshaped: reshaped by technology, by staggering global economic growth, by changed attitudes in society and by globalisation. As this takes place there is a growing awareness that the lifestyle we have enjoyed in the advanced industrialised nations is unsustainable. Our whole economic infrastructure is predicted on growth, which is fine provided that growth is not inextricably linked in the consumption of energy and raw materials and to the generation of pollution. As nation after nation strives to improve its standard of living, we have to recognise that the world simply cannot support hundreds of millions more enjoying the way of life to which we have always assumed everyone should aspire.
And much of our way of life has been driven by design. I discard clothes, not because they are worn out, but because I don’t want to be seen in them; I dump my PC, my television, my mobile phone and my home entertainment system (contributing to the horrendous lifetime electrical waste demonstrated by the WEEE man) because the latest products make them obsolete; I replace my car, which performs faultlessly, because I’ve fallen victim to the advertising campaign for the new model.
I say this not with a ‘holier than thou’ stance — I’m eagerly awaiting my new car — but to point out that ‘design’ is very much the driver of a way of life that is unsustainable. Moreover, aside from the products themselves, design is also employed in generating a massive amount of waste in the form of packaging. Technology may have miniaturised many things, but tiny packages don’t appeal. Having dutifully re-cycled my bottles, cans, newspapers and organic waste, my sack of rubbish collected for landfill each week is 90% packaging.
The skills of our designers — which I admire and endlessly promote — have to be redeployed progressively to solving the problems of society, not exacerbating them. And that is hugely important because all of those problems, whether connected with healthcare, transportation, education, energy or living environment, can only be solved by imaginatively designed, innovative solutions. Innovation is becoming not just the key to commercial success and economic prosperity, but also the key to the quality of life within society.
The changing world offers a huge challenge to designers, with more scope than ever before. But they have got to become the heroes of that world before they are widely regards as villains. “

I can only heartily agree with Sir George and if you haven’t read his most amazing report—The Cox Report—get to it right away.

Sir George reminds me that the world stage for designers is much broader than business and the role of designers can be much greater than forming form. Whether it is designing a more sustainable laptop or a more friendly hospital experience, design has so much to offer. This is what is being taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago and the d.School at Stanford.

Their approach and their curriculum cuts through the tired old argument that THEY (business, government—the powerful) are bad guys and WE designers are good, moral folk.

What do you think?

Reader Comments

RD (Parsons)

April 6, 2007 6:59 PM

Glen

April 6, 2007 10:40 PM

I agree that there is room for improvement for designers. In fact, I fully support the integration of sustainability as a parameter in the design process. However, it all boils down to this: if a business wants to send out 100,000 super glossy direct mail pieces made from the rarest trees harvested in the Amazon and coated with baby seal oil they are going to find a "designer" that is willing to do it for them. Or they will just design it themselves in PowerPoint.

Remember, we're all designers now, right?

kikus

June 15, 2010 12:08 PM

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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